Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Stanford


The end is here.

Even with the usual heroics from Golden Tate, Jimmy Clausen, and Michael Floyd, a punishing performance by Robert Hughes, and 448 yards of offense, the Irish lose to Stanford. Like many teams before them, the Irish failed to contain Toby Gerhart, who ran for 205 yards on 29 carries for three touchdowns, even adding a touchdown pass of his own.

Even when Jack Swarbrick did his best to refute speculation this evening, reports are coming fast and furious that a decision has already been made on Charlie Weis’ future. ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio reports that Weis has already cleaned out his office and the next few days will be full or rumors, speculation and hearsay, as reporters race to confirm the official ouster of Charlie Weis.

Here’s what we learned tonight:

1) Notre Dame’s defense cost the Irish this season.

When Robert Hughes was stuffed on a 3rd and short, you could feel the game slipping away from the Irish. The second half started to feel like a tennis match between two power servers, and when the Cardinal broke the Irish offense’s serve, it was a foregone conclusion that Stanford was going to score.

You don’t need stats to back up an argument that Notre Dame’s defense was terrible this season. They struggled in every segment of the game, a toxic mix of an inability to get pressure with down linemen and linebackers unable to stuff the run. Notre Dame’s secondary missed David Bruton’s ball-hawking presence, and for all the credit Kyle McCarthy deserved got this season, he’s a poor Cover 2 safety.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Weis’ demise was his inability to recruit front seven players early. The heralded recruiting class of 2006 had zero impact players, and Notre Dame seemed to stockpile tweener defensive ends in hopes that they’d become Justin Tuck. Morrice Richardson, Kerry Neal and Kallen Wade never developed, and players like John Ryan never became more than marginal reserves.

Weis’ inability to find a suitable defensive coordinator will be the number one reason why he loses his job, and his gamble to bring in Jon Tenuta, a well-respected defensive coach was the one that likely cost him the most. It would’ve been interesting to see what this Notre Dame defense would’ve looked like in a 3-4 base, utilizing the plethora of edge-type players that Notre Dame seems to have, and also giving the defense a better chance to hide their blitzes, something the Irish never did very well this season.

2) Golden Tate is a transcendent player.

Tate went for 205 yards tonight, pushing his receiving yards to an even 1,500 for the season on 93 catches. He’s scored 14 touchdowns in the final 8 games. Those are MONSTER numbers. People that fancy themselves technicians are eager to pick on Tate for some inexact routes and a few head scratching decisions, but why can’t we all just appreciate the incredible season that #23 has had? I understand that the Heisman has now become college football’s version of the MVP, but what does a .500 record have to do with a player’s greatness?

Tonight, ESPN’s announcing team was hellbent on recognizing Toby Gerhart as a legitimate Heisman contender, yet never seemed to mention the wide receiver that matched Gerhart’s numbers on the opposite sideline, doing it in a fraction of the touches from a position that’s much harder to make an impact. In a season where no single player stood alone, I’ve got no idea why Golden Tate isn’t getting more respect from the national media, even if it’s for a .500 team. If Notre Dame pulled that game out tonight, what’s the difference between a five loss Stanford squad and a five loss Notre Dame team?

3) Jack Swarbrick will certainly earn his salary this week.

A friend of mine with very good sources heard from two people in positions to know that both Bob Stoops and Brian Kelly were done deals. That two people with connections deep inside Notre Dame’s athletic department had such conflicting news goes to show you that Swarbrick is truly the man pulling the strings in the athletic department.

We can only take Swarbrick at his word that no decision has been made and no coach has been contacted, but I’d be shocked if a new coach isn’t announced within the week if Weis is out as head coach. The differences between Swarbrick and his predecessor Kevin White are startling, and Notre Dame fans should feel good about the man in charge of the university’s athletics.

4) The Irish football program is at a tipping point.

The decisions that will be made in the coming weeks will determine the fate of the Notre Dame football program. If Charlie Weis is fired, Jimmy Clausen is as good as gone. If Clausen goes, Golden Tate likely follows. Even with weapons like Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, and Armando Allen, the Notre Dame program could look vastly different with a new coach roaming the sidelines. Add to that equation that the new coach will be running spring practice without Dayne Crist and no true backup quarterback, and spring installation will likely be limited as well.

Nobody knows for sure the thought process of Clausen or Tate, but they’re two players that are fiercely loyal to Charlie Weis. No player is bigger than a football program, especially one as storied as Notre Dame, but the decisions made off the field in the coming weeks, could greatly determine what happens for the next few seasons.

5) Charlie Weis is a great ambassador for Notre Dame.

Whether he’s the coach of Notre Dame’s football program for another season or another week, Charlie Weis was a true ambassador to the school. As Jack Swarbrick mentioned during his interview with the New York Times, the difference between perception and reality for Weis is stark. No coach has taken a larger beating these past few seasons than Weis, and it’s a puzzling dichotomy that has turned Weis into such a polarizing figure.

Watching ESPN’s GameDay this morning, I was touched by the story of Pete Carroll and young Jake Olson. It’s an uplifting story that shows us how important college football is to many of us, and how important Carroll and the Trojans are to a boy fighting insurmountable odds.

After watching that story, I was immediately reminded of a conversation I had in the press box during the USC game. I chatted with a national reporter that had covered college football for years. Her image of Charlie Weis and Pete Carroll, two coaches that both do incredible work in the community outside of football, was so divergent.

I can’t help but think that Notre Dame needs to do a better job letting people see the true head coach. With a school that so obviously understands branding and tradition, they failed Weis for five seasons, allowing him to be a punching bag in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, and rarely letting people get a glimpse of the great humanitarian that has run the football program the right way.

Just looking at the media relations team that USC has put together around Pete Carroll — whether it’s his official website, the cutting edge Heisman campaigns for Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, or the incredibly visible work Carroll does with “A Better LA” and his other charitable work, USC has created an image that promotes its coach and his beliefs.

While Notre Dame has made great strides in the past few years and the Sports Information department is filled with true professionals, they’ve struggled to fight a very real battle with negativity that’s b
eing waged in the media, on
the recruiting path, and in the collective psyches’ of college football fans. Whether you want to believe it or not, that negativity is a large reason why the football program is on shaky ground.
If Charlie Weis loses his job this week, he surely has these last three seasons of mediocre football to blame. But if Notre Dame ever wants to truly win again, it’ll need to be as proactive protecting and managing its head coach as it is with its heralded tradition. 

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.