Sarkisian weighs in on looming Irish-Trojans showdown

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Buried inside Ivan Maisel’s preview of Saturday’s game was an interesting tidbit from Washington coach, and former Southern Cal offensive coordinator, Steve Sarkisian.

Sarkisian’s Husky squad is the only team to have played both USC and Notre Dame, toppling Southern Cal earlier in the year 16-13 in the final seconds before losing to the Irish in overtime 37-30, giving Sark a rare insight into both of the teams doing battle at Notre Dame Stadium this weekend.

(A quick aside — if you watched Charlie’s press conference yesterday, at the end of the session, Weis took some phone questions from members of the media. One of those calls was from Maisel. If you watch the look on Weis’ face when the call coordinator announces the question is from ESPN’s Ivan Maisel, you see immediately from Charlie’s expression that there is some “history” between the two of them. But that’s another story…)

Sark had some interesting insights into this year’s Irish squad. The first was the atmosphere surrounding this year’s team.

“I would say this: I feel an energy there I haven’t felt since 2005,”
Sarkisian said Tuesday. “On Friday before the game, when we go to
walk-through, people are standing around outside the stadium. The last
time [2007], they weren’t there. For Washington to show up and have
people stand around the stadium, there’s an energy around the team that
hasn’t been there the last couple of years. … That 2005 game, the
energy in that case was unbelievable.”

I think the energy surrounding that game was a testament to both Weis’ team and the team that Sarkisian put together. Many Irish fans probably wanted to see first-hand the Husky squad that toppled Goliath. And as much as Washington and Notre Dame will be inextricably tied together by coach Tyrone Willingham, that shipped has mostly sailed for Notre Dame fans, especially with Willingham’s dismissal from UW after last season.

Yet Sarkisian’s evaluation of personnel is what raised my eyebrow. When asked to compare the two teams, Sark was pretty emphatic on what team had the better talent.

“I don’t know. I kind of thought they would be a physically
better-looking team,” Sarkisian said about the Irish. “We kind of went toe-to-toe with
them and we shouldn’t be able to do that, in reality. It would be
interesting to see if USC’s physical dominance shows up. In my opinion,
it should. That doesn’t mean it does. Our 11 guys and SC’s 11, SC’s are
a lot better.”

Here is where I’d question Sarkisian’s allegiances. Obviously, Washington’s 30 points is pretty compelling evidence that Notre Dame’s defense struggled to contain Locker, running back Chris Polk, and company. Yet Sarkisian is forgetting that his defense didn’t exactly go “toe-to-toe” with the Irish offense.

Clausen and the Irish put up 530 yards of offense, and if it weren’t for some uncharacteristically sloppy red zone play by Jimmy Clausen and crew, would have put a much bigger number than 37 on the scoreboard, weather be damned. (Also consider that Clausen gift-wrapped one of the Huskies touchdowns with the lateral pass/walk-in for 6 points.) The yardage output of the Irish dwarfs the 360 yards USC’s offense managed to put up against the Huskies, although you could argue that defensive coordinator Nick Holt and Sarkisian had some pretty good inside information on the tendencies and game plan of the Trojans.

I can only wonder if it doesn’t serve Sarkisian’s agenda to propose a hypothesis that has his scrappy team “finding a way to win” over the physically superior Trojans. He’s obviously still got ties to Carroll and his coaching staff, and it only makes him look like a better coach for supporting this angle.

But before I’m ready to concede that the Irish will be overwhelmed by the physical dominance of the Trojans, I’m considering the source.

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.



Navy, Notre Dame will display mutual respect with uniforms

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell

The storied and important history of Notre Dame and Navy’s long-running rivalry will be on display this weekend, with the undefeated Midshipmen coming to South Bend this weekend.

On NBCSN, a half-hour documentary presentation will take a closer look, with “Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect” talking about everything from Notre Dame’s 43-year winning streak, to Navy’s revival, triggered by their victory in 2007. The episode will also talk about the rivalries ties to World War II, and how the Navy helped keep Notre Dame alive during wartime.

You can catch it on tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or online in the same viewing window.

On the field, perhaps an even more unique gesture of respect is planned. With Under Armour the apparel partner for both Notre Dame and Navy, both teams will take the field wearing the same cleats, gloves and baselayers. Each team’s coaching staff will also be outfitted in the same sideline gear.

More from Monday’s press release:

For the first time in college football, two opponents take the field with the exact same Under Armour baselayer, gloves and cleats to pay homage to the storied history and brotherhood between their two schools. The baselayer features both Universities’ alma maters on the sleeves and glove palms with the words “respect, honor, tradition” as a reminder of their connection to each other. Both sidelines and coaches also will wear the same sideline gear as a sign of mutual admiration.​

Navy and Notre Dame will meet for the 89th time on Saturday, a rivalry that dates back to 1927. After the Midshipmen won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame hopes to extend their current winning streak to five games on Saturday.

Here’s an early look at some of the gear: