And in that corner… the UConn Huskies

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It’s tough not to cheer for UConn. After what the school has gone through in the month since Jasper Howard was murdered, the football team has seen games slip from their grasp in every conceivable way possible.

While I’ve tried to watch as much of the Huskies as possible to get ready for this Saturday’s tilt, nobody has seen more UConn football than Russell Blair, a football writer for the school’s Daily Campus. He’s chronicled the football season first-hand and covered the Jasper Howard tragedy as well. I had a chance to exchange emails with Russell the past few days and asked him a few questions that will give us a better clue of what to expect this weekend when the Huskies play their first ever football game at Notre Dame Stadium.

Hope you enjoy…

Inside the Irish: Talking strictly football, how heartbreaking has this season been?
Losing by 2, 2, 3, 4 and 4 points? You’re sitting at 4-5 and you could
just as easily be in the discussion for the Big East title. What is
morale like?

Russell Blair: I don’t think that the fans have given up on the team yet but a loss on
Saturday could cause many fans to lose faith in the season.  A lot of
the local writers picked us to finish 7-5 or 8-4 and that 7-5 mark is a
possibility but we need to get wins over the Irish and USF, two tough
games, to make that happen.  Furthermore, if we fall to 6-6 and Notre
Dame takes the Big East berth in the Gator Bowl we may be fighting for
an at-large bid that might not come.  The hardest thing to deal with is
that it sometimes seems we find ways to lose games that we should be
winning.  The safety in the end zone against UNC, the 81-yard touchdown
with under 40 seconds to go against Rutgers, these are the kind of
inexcusable plays that have cost us games we had a good chance of
winning.  Most people expected UConn to make a bowl this year and if we
don’t make a bowl I think that would be one of the toughest things for
fans and those in the program itself to swallow.

ITI: Let’s talk about the tragedy of Jasper Howard. What has it been like to
be a student at UConn through all of this? We’ve seen how the football
team has tried to battle through this, but how has the student body
reacted?

RB: As terrible a tragedy as the murder of Jasper Howard was I think if
anything, it has brought the student body that much closer together.
 From the candlelight vigils to the way that the students acted at the
first home game following his death against Rutgers I think the
students have bonded together over this common tragedy and have done a
great job reminding the national media that Jasper wasn’t just a
football player but a fellow student as well.  It’s been a month since
the incident and I think most students are well on their way moving on
with their lives but it’s something that nobody here at UConn is ever
going to forget as long as they live.

ITI: Talk a little bit about the quarterback situation. Zach Frazer was the
first quarterback recruit of Charlie Weis. He was a promising get by
head coach Randy Edsall, but hasn’t really lit it up since he got his
chance. What’s the future of the QB position for UConn?

RB: I think Frazer has shown flashes of excellence but he hasn’t really
panned out in the end.  He’s got a cannon for an arm but he often
doesn’t make the best choices as shown by his 7 interceptions to just 4
passing touchdowns.  The QB situation for UConn has been shaky all
season long, Frazer was the starter coming into the season before his
injury and Cody Endres did a fairly good job replacing him and actually
earned the starting job for himself.  Even when Frazer was deemed 100
percent healthy, Endres remained the starter.  Now the shoe is on the
other foot and Endres is out for the year so Frazer got his job back
but maybe not the way he wanted.  I think if Zach has a good
performance over these last three games and leads UConn to a bowl
victory it will be hard to take away the job from him next season.
 However, if his performance continues to be mediocre look for a
three-way competition in the spring between Frazer, Endres and redshirt
freshman Mike Box.

ITI: It looks like the running attack has gotten going and the
Notre Dame defense has done it’s best to make everyone look good. Who
can we expect to torment the Irish will big plays, either on the ground
or in the air?

RB: The Notre Dame rush defense is giving up over 150 yards per game and
UConn has a strong tandem of backs in Andre Dixon and Jordan Todman.
 Todman actually earned back the top spot on the depth chart this week,
partially due to Dixon getting banged up but Todman has also shown
promise and a newfound ability to run hard between the tackles and not
just around the outside.  Look for Todman to try to exploit the Notre
Dame front seven and with UConn’s sturdy offensive line I wouldn’t be
surprised to see him break off another 100-yard rushing game with maybe
a 20-plus yard run somewhere in there.  As for the passing game, the
Huskies’ 10 touchdowns  this season is already double their total from
last year but give credit to Marcus Easley for that.  Easley has 5 TDs
and has shown the ability to make big plays so he will probably be the
guy the Irish have to look for in the passing game.  He has a touchdown
in each of his last five games and has racked up 80 yards at least in
those five contests and I expect him to find gaps in the Notre Dame
secondary.

ITI: Notre Dame’s season has swooned, and Charlie Weis is now squarely on
the hot seat. Does that take away from the historic nature of this
game? We’ve heard that it’s just another football game, but does coming
to Notre Dame for the first time mean something?

RB: While Notre Dame is nowhere near the powerhouse they were in the late
1980s and early 1990s, this game still does have some sense of
historical implication given that it may be the only time the Huskies
ever travel to South Bend.  Though a series was in the works, albeit
not a true home and home as UConn’s “home” games were at Giants Stadium
and Gillete, those plans have been scrapped and it looks like it’ll be
just a one time deal.  But this won’t be the only big time game for
UConn, signing home and home series with Tennessee and Michigan has
given the Huskies a handful of big time games and while Notre Dame has
a large national following this game will likely not be what it might
have appeared to be when it was initially planned several years ago.
 As for Charlie Weis, the fact that he is fighting for his job and
UConn is fighting for their first win since the loss of Howard only
adds to the emotion of the day.  I expect both teams to leave it all
out on the field and it should be a pretty entertaining football game.

ITI: The Huskies staged a furious rally and nearly caught Cincy. Any
thoughts on the Bearcats and the apple of many Irish fan’s eye, Brian
Kelly?

RB: UConn kept Cincinnati much closer than many people expected, especially
at their own place in Nippert Stadium.  I think that Cincinnati is the
real deal and if they run the table they should have a shot at the BCS
National Championship.  Say what you will about Big East football but I
think that Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even West Virginia to an extent,
have proven that there are always going to be a few good sides that
come out of what many consider to be the weakest of the BCS
conferences.  The fact that there were no Big East teams in the AP Top
25 to begin the season may have made some of the coaches and players
play with a little chip on their shoulder but the conference has
cemented itself as having teams as good, if not better, than those in
the Big 10, Big 12 or SEC.  I think Brian Kelly is a great coach and
the excitement he brings to his team is unparalleled.  Cincinnati is
trying to keep him around and I know he’s not the first choice for the
Irish but if Notre Dame comes calling I think he’ll have a hard time
saying no.  Losing Brian Kelly would be a big blow for the Big East.
 Take West Virginia for example, losing Rich Rodriguez has hurt them
over the past few seasons.

ITI: Prognosis for Saturday’s game?

RB: This is a tough one, earlier this season when both teams had
higher expectations for the season I would have said Notre Dame would
win big.  I still think Notre Dame is going to win, but I think it’ll
be a closer game.  Losing Jasper Howard is going to hurt us in the
secondary, especially against the likes of Michael Floyd and Golden
Tate.  Blidi Wreh-Wilson is a great kid but he’s a redshirt freshman
and he’s got a lot of work to do to get his game to the level that
Howard was playing at.  Not to mention that Clausen has proven himself
to be one of the top quarterbacks in the country.  UConn’s defense,
which has been their anchor the last few seasons, gave up 47 points to
Cincinnati and I think Notre Dame shouldn’t have trouble finding the
endzone.  I really hope the Huskies win, it would be a big time win for
the program, but I just don’t see it happening.

My prediction:  Notre Dame 35, UConn 24 

Special thanks to Russell for the in-depth analysis, and sparing all of us from my attempt at learning the A to Zs of UConn in a week. For more of Russell’s writing, check out his column at the Daily Campus.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.