Friday notes: Big weekend ahead

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Before we get to football, the Irish basketball team got bounced from their first round game against Old Dominion and fell about three wins shy of my bracket projections. As usual, I pick the Irish to pull through in a big game and then wish I didn’t do it. While many will call this loss an indictment on Mike Brey, it’s worth pointing out that while the Irish couldn’t make the necessary adjustments when ODU switched defensive schemes, its tough to win a game when your All-American leading scorer has a goose egg in the scoring ledger for 95 percent of the game. Either way, congratulations to seniors Luke Harangody, Tory Jackson and Jonathan Peoples, members of the winningest class in Notre Dame basketball history.

On to football…

* With the Irish hosting a premiere Junior Day this weekend, the South Bend Tribune’s Bob Wieneke takes a look at who’s coming, and gets Tom Lemming to break down the talent.

Lemming estimates that 60 players could attend the event, although the
nature of unofficial visits is such that decisions to attend or not can
change on a whim.

What Lemming has seen change positively already
for first-year Irish coach Brian Kelly is ND’s fortunes with the
current juniors – the recruiting class of 2011.

Because the new
staff spent so much time holding together and adding to the class of
senior signed last month, it fell behind with juniors.

“They got
off to a slow start,” he said. “Now it seems like they’re picking up
steam. This recruiting weekend could go a long way in building what
could be an outstanding 2011 class.”

And one of the key pieces of
the equation is building familiarity of the prospects with the campus
and staff. Notre Dame will host another Junior Day on April 24, the day
of the Blue-Gold Game.

“This is the first step. The second step
is to get them (to visit) officially,” Lemming said. “The third step is
to get them to commit.”

As I mentioned earlier in the week, this is an impressive collection of talent on campus, and a large group of the players visiting come from feeder states, while a few elite guys are national recruits. We’ll see how the strategy of owning your key states works and whether or not Kelly and Co. can get a commitment this weekend. (I feel like I should be a political commentator with that last line, and we’re collecting electoral votes…)

* Pete Sampson over at has a nice preview on the running backs, and asked the very good question of what the shift to a passing-prone spread attacked would do to the Irish running backs’ productivity. While Sampson focused on the duo of Armando Allen and Robert Hughes as they enter their senior seasons, he also included some interesting fun facts in his “Number Crunching” section:

* 3.8 — Yards per carry by the Notre Dame ground game last year.
* 4 — Ever Irish tailback had this many stars as a high school recruit
* 5.0 — Yards per carry by the Cincinnati ground game last year.
* 7 — Seasons since a lead Irish back averaged more than five yards per carry.

It’s amazing to me that it’s been seven years since the Irish had a running back average five yards a pop on the ground. It feels like eternity since Julius Jones rumbled for 5.5 yards a carry and 1341 yards in 2003.

* Joe Montana sat down with Fox Sports for an interview and eventually talked about Jimmy Clausen’s professional football prospects. Fast-forward to the two-minute mark if you want to skip some Brett Favre talk:

&lt;a href=&#8221;<a href=";brand=foxsports&#038;from=sp&#038;vid=8758aca8-bb26-4009-aa06-0e6b42e84b02&#038;#8243" rel="nofollow">;brand=foxsports&#038;from=sp&#038;vid=8758aca8-bb26-4009-aa06-0e6b42e84b02&#038;#8243</a>; target=&#8221;_new&#8221; title=&#8221;Montana back under center&#8221;&gt;Video: Montana back under center&lt;/a&gt;

It’s clear that Joe thinks Jimmy’s going to be a good NFL quarterback, but even he wasn’t ready to say that Clausen had leap-frogged Sam Bradford as the first quarterback in the draft, if only because of his prototypical size. Montana’s media-savvy enough not to make waves in an interview like this, so it’s not entirely surprising that he chose not to make waves.

* Speaking of distinguished Notre Dame alumni, Raghib Ismail has a new TV gig:

Former and CFL and NFL wide receiver Raghib “Rocket” Ismail has a new
job as a television announcer for bull riding.

Ismail will serve as a correspondent for some of the Professional
Bull Riders telecasts on American cable channel Versus. He became
interested in the sport when he took part in Ty Murray’s Celebrity
Bull Riding Challenge
on CMT.

Ismail will interview riders about their lives outside of
competition, making his debut during Saturday’s broadcast from Fresno,

After listening to Rocket at the pep rally before the USC game, I’m tempted to give bull riding a chance.

* Stick with us this weekend. If any news breaks out of Junior Day, we’ll have it covered. In the meantime, I’ll be replacing wall paper and painting my bathroom. Fun times!

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.