Conference conversation, continued…


As you’d expect, the conference affiliation talk got everybody riled up, even though the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen accurately points out that it was an “over-reactive rehash of ND’s position on ND’s position.”

A few additional thoughts worth mentioning again:

* I’ve reached out to a few of the more educated Notre Dame fans that I know asking for some context on why people seem to run away and hide when even discussing the fact that Notre Dame might — eventually, depending on the actions of other schools — consider joining a conference in football. I’ve yet to have any one make the definitive argument against joining a conference. (At least one that I thought was definitive.) If you think you can make it, please shoot me an email and I’ll post the best one that I get.

* People talk about the inflexibility that comes with playing in a conference, but I’d argue that the 7-4-1 schedule that Notre Dame is trying to employ is much more rigid than just about any conference affiliation. People also mention the academic fit between the Irish and the Big Ten. Since when has Notre Dame allowed its affiliations on the athletic field dictate its agenda in the classroom? News yesterday that the Irish would have to “court” the Big Ten to join the conference made me chuckle, if only because there’s a zero percent chance that the Irish would come groveling to the powers-that-be in the Big Ten asking for acceptance. The Big Ten needs Notre Dame far more than Notre Dame needs the Big Ten.

* Last week, Brian Fremeau of BCFToys and did an interesting piece on the connectivity of Top 25 teams in college football. Taking data from 1989, Fremeau calculated that 52 games took place between teams ranked in the AP’s final poll, checking in at 8.9 percent, or roughly 1 in 11 games. During the 2009 season, even with the NCAA expanding from 106 to 120 teams, only 39 games were played between teams ranked at the end of the season, dropping to 5.5 percent, or roughly 1 in 19 games. In twenty years, the frequency of high-caliber matchups has dropped nearly 40 percent.

While Brian didn’t base this study as a case for conference affiliation, the perception of conference games being difficult and non-conference games being cakewalks certainly hurts the Irish. Just last summer, talking heads everywhere were criticizing Notre Dame’s schedule, when in reality it turned out to be a respectable 37th in the country, better than Texas, and every single team in the Big Ten except Minnesota.

* John Heisler, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletics director made an interesting observation on the media storm that came from Swarbrick’s comments. Here’s a piece of his Daily Dish.

If you are wondering how sports headlines come about, understand that sometimes it’s almost by accident. Take Tuesday, for example. Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, in New York for a day of events with Notre Dame-connected groups, was visiting with a small group of New York-based sportswriters over coffee that morning at the Barking Dog café on 34th Street. The event was designed as more of a “meet and greet” session for media who don’t make it to South Bend every day. Most of the conversation wasn’t headline news, but Kelly at one point was asked about his thoughts on conference affiliation. Meanwhile, Irish athletics director Jack Swarbrick just happened to stop by the session to listen – and he, too, was hit with the question about conferences. What Swarbrick said wasn’t necessarily new or groundbreaking – but it maybe involved more of a national assessment of the conference landscape than had been voiced. In any event, the nature and context of Swarbrick’s remarks immediately prompted the Associated Press to run a short item, followed by a more in-depth feature later in the day – and the New York Times wrote a full-blown piece that ended up the lead sports story at the top of the page in Wednesday’s print edition.

Can you imagine what the interest will be in Notre Dame football if they finally start playing consistent, winning football?

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”