Breaking down the Eagles


My apologies for not getting to a opponent preview this week. I could give you a dozen different excuses, but I’m going with “my dog ate it.” It was a really great one, too. Instead, I offer you two different previews — one from the guys at Rakes of Mallows and the other from the guys at Blue-Gray Sky. I was actually about to email Bill from Eagle in Atlanta, because I’ve been reading his site in my RSS for a few months, but just as I was about to do it, I noticed he had already done a better Q&A with BGS and it’s much easier to link to an article about Boston College than to actually force myself to think about BC.

Ah… BC. The thorn in the side of Irish fans everywhere, even if it weren’t for the 6 straight wins against the Irish. What to make of this team, that is now coached by Magnum PI Frank Spaziani? Going into this season, it was pretty much assumed that the Eagles would be mediocre, having lost their top two defensive tackles, their All-American middle linebacker to cancer, and having no quarterback to speak of. Yet here’s BC, chugging along at 5-2 after trouncing former coach Tom O’Brien’s NC State Wolfpack and all of a sudden looking like a team that could give Notre Dame all it can handle.

What can the Irish expect? Well, let’s take a look at what BC has done this season, and maybe that’ll help us draw some conclusions.

Week One and Two: Cupcakes for everyone!

The Eagles opened up the season with a cakewalk against Northeastern. Putting Northeastern on the schedule makes Western Michigan look like the ’85 Bears. After the 54-0 blanking by BC, Northeastern has gone on to get beaten by at least double digits to Maine, Youngstown State, Villanova (by 49 points!), Holy Cross, and William & Mary. BC would’ve been better served playing their scout team, and the victory did nothing to settle the QB race between Justin Tuggle and former minor-league farmhand Dave Shinskie. Week two brought the Kent State Golden Flashes, which sounds like a bad pharmaceutical commercial joke. The Eagles scored 24 points in the first half, sprinted out to a 34 point lead after three quarters and both Shinskie and Tuggle continued to split time, neither taking the reins on the job.

Week Three: Reality served cold.

It doesn’t get much uglier for the BC offense. They managed only 4 first downs and 54 total yards for the entire game. The Eagles managed one first down the first 43 minutes of the game — and that was by penalty. Tuggle played his way out of a job going 4 for 20 with 3 interceptions, and Boston College looked like a team that ran went for a leisure jog for the first two weeks of the season instead of playing football games. Going on the road into a hostile environment proved fatal.

Week Four and Five: Building confidence

And now we begin to see the pesky nature of the Eagles. After putting nothing together offensively against Clemson, Spaziani goes to the bullpen (I had to) and starts Shinskie. The 25-year-old freshman responds with a great performance, going 18 of 29 for 228 yards and 3 TD passes, and the Eagles hold on for dear life to win an overtime thriller against Wake Forest. 

Shinskie continued his solid play with another nice day against the Florida State Seminoles, and Montel Harris had his coming out party this season with 25 carries for 179 yards including a long touchdown run in the 4th quarter after the Seminoles had charged back to tie the game. It’s tough to say anything negative about a win against Florida State, but for the 2nd week in a row the Eagles let an opponent get back into a game that was in hand (sound familiar, Irish fans?) before pulling it out.

Week Six: Falling off the horse

It’s tough to find any positives about BC’s performance in Blacksburg. The Hokies were up 34-0 at halftime, and once again the Eagle offense looked punchless, managing only two first downs and 28 yards through 3 quarters. Shinkie went 1 for 12 throwing the ball before being pulled for freshman quarterback Mike Marscovetra, and Bud Foster’s V-Tech defense strangled both the running and passing attack of Boston College, only giving up yardage once the game was well in hand in the 4th.

Week Seven: Getting back up

The Jekyll and Hyde nature of the Eagles offense brought good things last week for Boston College as Montel Harris ran for over 100 yards in the first half and a record-breaking 264 for the day. Shinksie played an efficient game, and the passing game got a few big plays as well, racking up 480 total yards of offense and forcing three turnovers.

So where does that get us?

Boston College has played three good/decent teams, and they’ve been dominated by two of them. (I’m calling Wake Forest good, just for the sake of doing it.) Their victory over NC State could look impressive, but taking a closer look at the Wolfpack, you’ll see that they’ve managed to beat Pitt and… well, that’s about it.

Yet here’s what we know about the Irish. They have an ability to play to their opponents level pretty regularly and have managed to make every quarterback they’ve played (with the exception of Colin Kaepernick) look like an All-American. Quite literally. The past five passers Notre Dame has faced put up a QB efficiency rating of 146.30, nearly 10 full points better than Colt McCoy. The 8.5 yards per attempt these QBs are putting up against the woeful Irish passing defense would be good for 13th in the country, meaning we’re much more likely to see the Shinskie that rates 150.49 at home than the Shinskie that has a negative -11 QB rating on the road, even if Notre Dame stadium is 890 miles away from the friendly confines of Chestnut Hill.

What should we expect this week? A relatively easy victory by a Notre Dame football team that’s in a different class than the undermanned Boston College Eagles. Yet we could say that nearly every year, and Notre Dame fans know where that’s gotten them over the past twenty or so years. Still, Jon Tenuta has a great knowledge of both head coach Frank Spaziani and offensive coordinator Gary Tranquill, so you’d hope that the defensive troops would be well-informed on what their opponents are going to do. Still, it’s hard not to think that the Irish will be coming out flat, and if you look at the discussion this week around the net, there’s still a visible hangover from the deflating loss to the Trojans last weekend.

But if the Irish can’t get up for a game against Boston College, who can they get up for? And while we’ve got no idea what kind of team the Eagles have, any time you’ve got a running back that’s putting up numbers like Montel Harris, and a quarterback with full use of his throwing arm, you’ll have to hold your breath and see what happens come Saturday. 

Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.