Deciphering what Pitt we'll see


I’ve thought long and hard about this weekend’s game. (A loss like the Navy game will do that to you…) Yet the more I think about Pitt, the more I’m just not sure of what we’ll actually see out there.

I understand that the AP Top 25 has Pitt ranked eighth, the BCS has the Panthers at twelve, and the Coaches’ poll has them at ninth. But honestly, who really knows what kind of team Pitt is?

There are two parts of me thinking about this game, and I figure I’ll just spell them both out:

Part One (aka Pitt doesn’t scare me…):

What’s to respect about Pitt? They’re a poor man’s, Big East equivalent of Iowa, a team that was finally exposed last weekend with a loss to Northwestern. Let’s take a look at the Pitt schedule. A victory over Youngstown State that shouldn’t count. A track meet victory against Buffalo, where this “vaunted” Pitt defense gave up 500 yards to Buffalo, 433 in the air, and capitalized on three lost fumbles. This isn’t last year’s Buffalo either, this is back-down-to-Earth Buffalo.

If you’re looking for a signature victory, could it be Navy? A team that is now such an embarrassing loss that it could cost the Notre Dame coaching staff its job because they turned the ball over twice inside the five-yard line and came away with nothing in four trips to the red zone?

Pitt’s one loss is an eyesore, a 38-31 loss to NC State, that only last week finally won their first ACC conference game with a win over 2-7 Maryland. If we want to talk about an ugly loss, this should qualify as an ugly loss.

While we should all give credit for Pitt winning the games on its schedule, what kind of credit should it be? This part of me is leaning toward the polite golf clap, something akin to sinking a three-footer for par. South Florida is doing it’s annual sink, Pitt needed 21 second half points and a 15 point rally to beat UConn, and they won an “Ehh” Rutgers game, against a team that really hasn’t beaten anyone close to good this season either.

This part of me expects a motivated Notre Dame, playing in front of a national audience, to overwhelm Pitt early and often, coming together in a cathartic experience to avenge last week’s loss and the four-overtime debacle last season at home.

Part Two (aka Oh boy, is ND in trouble…)

When I think about match-ups I like, I don’t think about Pitt.

Front four that can get pressure on a quarterback? That’s Pitt. By the numbers, they’ve got a better pass rush than USC, and I think Paul Duncan kept his game uniform from that week and used it as a turn-style costume for Halloween. If USC provided a long day for the Irish while playing in the sanctity of Notre Dame Stadium, what’s Pitt going to do in front of the largest crowd in school history?

And how about that running game everybody thought would fall apart when Mark May’s favorite, Shady McCoy, left for the NFL. Dion Lewis has rumbled for 1,139 yards already this season and is averaging 5.6 per carry with 12 touchdowns. He’s run for 100+ yards for four straight games and has yet to be held below 79 yards a game, so the Irish’s middle-of-the-pack rush defense doesn’t look like it’ll present many problems.

Think tight ends have hurt the Irish? We haven’t seen anyone like Dorin Dickerson since Anthony McCoy, so Dickerson might as well get his shoes shined and his Sunday best pressed and ready for the postgame media conference. Maybe the uneasy sleep I had this week was because I was seeing Dickerson run wild in the secondary, with Harrison Smith trailing behind him by four or five steps.

And speaking of the Irish’s stout passing defense, Notre Dame has climbed all the way up to 88th, but mostly because they played woeful Washington State and Navy, who only attempted three passes, but still caught the Irish napping for a long touchdown pass. Add in Bill Stull, the fifth-rated passer in college football and deep-threat Jonathan Baldwin, who is averaging 20 yards a catch, and, well — let’s just say I didn’t get a whole lot of confidence in Tenuta’s gang over the past six days.

If this part of me has learned anything, it’s that Notre Dame does it’s very best to play to the level of its competition and hasn’t executed with enough precision to win all the close games, especially in the red zone. Hopped up crowd, fragile team psyche, bad matchup and good opponent… hopefully the jitters won’t effect the team’s live-blogger as well.


Now what do I think is going to happen? I still see a lot of resolve in this Irish team, but they’ve just made so many mistakes that I am done trying to predict what’s going to happen. If anything, I feel like the Irish are due for some good luck, and nothing creates good luck like playing good football.

Up until the Navy game, I thought things were trending up, yet the loss to the Midshipmen put everybody on red alert. Still, I really feel like this Notre Dame team isn’t the same as the disappointing group from last season, and that they’ll figure out a way to win this game.

We’ll find out a lot about this team tomorrow. If they rally around their embattled head coach and win decisively, it could get the Irish back on a roll and finishing the season strong. And if that happens, it could save the man that leads the program.    

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.


Irish suffer first recruiting defection with Donovan Jeter


After five losses, Notre Dame suffered their first consequence of a poor season in recruiting. Donovan Jeter, a four-star defensive lineman, has stepped away from his verbal commitment.

Jeter made the news public on Tuesday, taking to Twitter to send Irish fans into a tailspin.

The sky isn’t quite falling. Jeter called the Irish his top school, likely just getting ahead of the news that he’ll start taking official visits to other schools, something Notre Dame’s recruiting staff has worked well to slow down the past few cycles. Also helping the Irish’s cause is his proximity and connection to fellow Western Pennsylvania prospects David Adams, Kurt Hinish and Josh Lugg.

Still, after making it through last recruiting cycle without a defection, finding a way to win back Jeter is priority No. 1, a versatile defensive lineman who had an elite offer list and picked Notre Dame after basically dismissing them over the summer. The Irish have done it before, getting Stephon Tuitt back in the fold after Georgia Tech sold him on staying home. They won a battle with current defensive coordinator Greg Hudson when he was at Florida State for Aaron Lynch, though Lynch only lasted a season in South Bend.

Usually a decommitment—especially this time of year—isn’t ground for a news story. But as all eyes focus on Brian Kelly and his grasp on the Irish program, this serves as ammo for those looking for cracks in the foundation.


Jeter posted a Tweet that essentially confirmed my speculation. And also should serve as a reminder—DO. NOT. TWEET. AT. RECRUITS.