Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. UConn

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When UConn kicker Dave Teggart’s field goal hooked wide left as time expired, it looked as if the scene was set for a dramatic escape for the Irish and another heart-breaking loss for Randy Edsall’s hard luck Huskies. But the Huskies marched down the field in overtime, and on a critical 3rd and 7, former Notre Dame quarterback Zach Frazer hit wide receiver Kashif Moore for a touchdown in the corner of the end zone, and the Huskies scored first to swing the momentum back in their favor.

Even though the Irish responded with a touchdown of their own, they settled for a field goal to start the second overtime, and gave the Huskies a chance to win with a touchdown. Five plays later, Andre Dixon rumbled off the left side of the fatigued Irish defensive line for a touchdown and the victory, leaving the Notre Dame stunned and a senior class heartbroken in their final game at home for the second time in as many seasons.

Here’s what we learned today:

1) Emotions and heart are an integral part of college football.

Say what you will about recruiting rankings, but today’s game showed that emotions and momentum are just as important as personnel in college football. Even after the Irish jumped out to an early 14-0 lead, it never felt safe, especially with the tidal wave of negativity surrounding the Irish. The tipping point of this game came early in the second quarter, when Sergio Brown inexplicably hit a wide receiver after the pass sailed out of bounds, giving UConn new life. On cue, Jordan Todman darted 43 yards for a touchdown, cutting the lead in half, and changing the complexity of the game.

As we’re seeing in Ann Arbor, once the ball starts rolling it’s tough to get things back in control. With two fanbases as entitled and accustomed to winning as the programs at Michigan and Notre Dame, tradition and past excellence no longer seems like assets, but harbingers of doom. At high profile schools like these, there’s enough pressure put on the players by the swarming national media, but when the grumbling festers and permeates from within the faithful, it’s easy to see why these two proud programs are cracking at the seams, regardless of the head coach.

2) Notre Dame was decimated by the run.

Both Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon ran for over 100 yards, and even with a quarterback that was lost, UConn won the football game.  Todman’s explosive day didn’t end at the line of scrimmage, he also returned a back-breaking kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown that knotted the game at 17. As I mentioned earlier in the week, the Irish’s lack of a veteran front-seven leaves them incredibly susceptible to a hard-nosed running attack, which has many Irish fans already walking the plank with Toby Gerhart and Stanford on deck.

3) Mistakes kill every team… especially the Irish.

No team is impervious to mistakes, and once again the Irish have themselves to blame for this loss. Even worse, Notre Dame has it’s best players to blame. Costly fumbles by two of the Notre Dame’s premiere skill players killed scoring drives. Missed tackles by everyone, even stalwart safety Kyle McCarthy killed the defense. And boneheaded decisions by veteran players like Sergio Brown were enough to cost the Irish the game.

Like I’ve said before, coaches coach and players play. While it’s going to be difficult for Irish players to look at their senior teammates and embattled coaching staff one last time in Notre Dame Stadium, it may be even tougher to look in the mirror.

4) We may have just seen the end of an era.

With a transition probably inevitable, we may have just seen the end of an offensive era at Notre Dame Stadium. It makes little sense for Jimmy Clausen or Golden Tate to stay through a coaching change, and combining that with the attrition along the offensive line, we may have seen the last of the most explosive offense in modern Notre Dame history. 

If that’s the case, let’s just take a moment and reflect upon how incredible this group of skill players are, and try to imagine what it would’ve been like if they could’ve all be healthy at the same time. Whether it was Michael Floyd’s broken collarbone, Jimmy Clausen’s turf toe, Armando Allen’s ankle, or Kyle Rudolph’s shoulder, this unit never had the chance to mold together, and that lack of cohesion showed up in the one area of the field where the offense just wasn’t dynamic: the red zone.

If this is the end, at the very least Charlie Weis disproved the myth that Notre Dame couldn’t run an explosive pro-style offense.

5) Coaching changes won’t solve all the Irish’s problems.

To all the Notre Dame fans so adamant about a coaching change, please realize that a switch won’t solve all the problems.

In fact, there may not be a less desirable job in all of college coaching. If Charlie Weis is fired, Notre Dame will have run its last four coaches out of town. (You can argue five with the situation that surrounded Lou Holtz’s “retirement.”) The terms “good will” and “growing pains” mean nothing to a fan base stuck in the past, and they will expect greatness immediately, as the cupboard is far from bare.

You’ll be installing a new offense with a quarterback sidelined with a torn ACL, and inheriting a defense that’s flopped between a 3-4 and a 4-3, and has failed to stop either the run or pass with any efficiency.

More over, you’ll run into all the roadblocks that the past head coach embraced. Academic standards, demanding alumni, and an administration that wants the glory of the past without sacrificing the aspirations of the future. Your home field advantage will be neutered by four-quadrant branding and over-the-top hospitality, and there’s a very large segment of college football fans and the national media that will immediately be rooting for you to fail.

Notre Dame has made the bold choice before, cutting ties with Tyrone Willingham after three seasons, and opening themselves up to the fair and unfair criticism that comes along with replacing the most high-profile African-American head coach in college football’s most high-profile position.

Now athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president Father Jenkins are saddled with an equally difficult decision, trying to find a coach that’s better suited for a job that the current coach seemingly fits perfectly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.