Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State


Very rarely can you summarize a football game in one sentence, but head coach Brian Kelly did in his post-game press conference, just minutes after a fake field goal attempt in overtime won the football game for Michigan State 34-31:

“It came down to one play,” Kelly said. “Michigan State executed the play. We did not.”

While many will argue a picture is worth a thousand words, the shocking conclusion to another classic Notre Dame-Michigan State game underscores the things that took place the other 63 minutes on the football field. There will be years to debate the clipping call on Lo Wood at the end of regulation and the expired play-clock before the Spartans pulled their miraculous “Little Giants” fake field goal. Until then, let’s take a look at the five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 34-31 overtime loss to Michigan State in East Lansing.

1. Championship football teams play consistent football. Notre Dame does not.

Dayne Crist completed 60 percent of his passes for 369 yards and four touchdown passes. Those numbers are good enough to win for most football teams, but the Irish’s offensive miscues are what cost Notre Dame the game. In year one of both the Brian Kelly spread offense and the Dayne Crist era, the no-huddle, hurry-up offense is going through phases of boom and bust, capable of looking other-worldly on some drives and incompetent on others. With thirty-three seconds on the clock and Dayne Crist already sailing a pass dangerously high through the secondary, Brian Kelly decided to play for overtime. While a clipping call nullified the great field position the Irish had, Kelly’s decision to play for OT said all that was needed about Notre Dame’s offense. They’re too dangerous to trust right now.

Defensively, the Irish stop the run and cover the pass wonderfully on some series, and on others they look like they’re wearing roller skates. Manti Te’o’s play personified the Irish’s struggles with consistency. Even though he made double-digit tackles for the second consecutive game, Te’o’s missed tackle in the Spartans’ backfield on a screen pass to Le’Veon Bell crushed the Irish, turning a 3rd and long into a touchdown on the very next play. There are moments when the Irish play BCS caliber football. Unfortunately, the moments when they don’t have cost the Irish two football games.

2. Brian Kelly is a riverboat gambler.

Many expected Brian Kelly to coach football games the way he handles himself with the media — measured, politically savvy, and deftly able to steer clear of anything that’d be examined or second-guessed. But on the sidelines, Kelly operates on the other end of the spectrum, playing his gut and taking chances that make him an easy-target for those looking to question his coaching choices. The decision to play for the touchdown at the end of the first half against Michigan was just the first hint that Kelly’s a different man roaming the sidelines than he is in front of a microphone.

Staring at a 4th and 1 with just over six minutes remaining, Kelly opened himself up for ridicule, opting to go for it from the Irish 42-yard line, instead of playing safe and punting the ball away. Dayne Crist didn’t get it — he fumbled the ball off his own blocker as he cut north for first down yardage — and the Spartans recovered, taking over at the Notre Dame 44. The Irish defense picked up the slack and forced a punt, but Kelly’s shown in the first three games of his tenure that he’s willing to take risks that leave him open to questioning.

3. The lack of depth in the secondary is killing the Irish defense.

With Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy still hobbled, the Irish are forced to play Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta as deep-cover safeties. This is not a winning combination for the Irish. While Smith made a nice play on a deep-out, Motta just isn’t the type of guy that is comfortable in open space yet, and the long pass interference call is a perfect example of what can happen when you have an in-the-box strong safety type playing sky coverage over the top.

Darrin Walls and Gary Gray might be the most talented cornerbacking duo the Irish have had since Shane Walton and Vontez Duff, but taking 95-percent of the defensive snaps for an Irish team that has no desire to possess the football is a recipe for disaster. To his credit, Kelly understands the predicament he’s putting his defensive backs in.

“Those kids are warriors. We had three defensive backs that played through some significant injuries,” Kelly said after the game. “We’re so thin back there, with out being able to get Slaughter on the field. That put Blanton in a lot more of the corner position which took a little gas out of his tank. We’re just really thin there. They’re battling. I’m proud of the way they battled, and they were banged up pretty good.”

Newsflash to the Irish secondary: it doesn’t get any easier next week. The best quarterback on Notre Dame’s schedule, Andrew Luck of Stanford, is coming to South Bend.

4. Theo Riddick and Darius Fleming answered the bell.

If the Irish are going to play winning football, they’ll need Theo Riddick on offense and Darius Fleming on defense. For two weeks, neither player did much, failing to make an impact on the field or in the stat ledger. But that all changed today. While the Irish didn’t win, two essential playmakers found their stride, and for the Irish’s sake, it better be here to stay.

With the spotlight on him all week, Theo Riddick stepped up big, catching 10 balls for 128 yards and a touchdown. He was elusive in the open field, turning multiple short passes into big gains.
“He broke out. He’s an exciting player,” Kelly said. “We knew that he was going to be
able to add to our offense, it was just a matter of time. And now he
gives us that third weapon that we had been looking for to balance off Rudolph and Floyd.”

It’ll likely be forgotten because of the fake field goal, but Fleming’s sack in overtime, to go along with his fourth quarter sack, where gigantic plays for an Irish defense that held its ground late. Fleming was one of the only pass-rushers to get consistent pressure on Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, and while it’s in a losing effort, he got pressure from the Cat linebacker position, something critical for a Bob Diaco defense.

5. Different coach, same team.

For those that say the Irish can’t get it done at the end of the ballgame, rewind your DVRs and watch the first half of the football game. The Irish lost to Michigan State not because of a fake field goal, but because they failed to capitalize when they had the other team on the ropes. Two costly red zone turnovers (by two of Notre Dame’s best offensive players) stalled out drives when the Irish needed to get points on the board.

Even though it’s only three games into the Brian Kelly era, the vultures are once again circling the Irish football program. Staring at a home-date against Jim Harbaugh’s high-powered Stanford team, there’s a realistic chance the Irish are looking at a 1-3 record, with games against Boston College and Pitt still ahead. All in all, if you’re looking for negativity, there’s plenty to be found. (Just take a look at the comments around here.) After the game, Kelly said there’s a simply way to combat that.

“This is about belief. What do you believe in, after a loss as difficult
as this, what do you believe in?” Kelly said. “Do you believe in your teammates? Do
you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation? If you
do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to
get better. If you don’t believe, then these are times when you start
to see teams pull apart. It’s all about belief at this point.”

While Kelly used a Van Halen reference earlier this week to talk about how important Mike Elston’s return to the football team is, he’d be better off referencing another 80s hair-band to get his point across this week.

To quote the ubiquitous Journey anthem: “Don’t Stop Believing.”

Notre Dame falls to No. 6 in latest College Football Playoff Poll

Tennessee v Georgia

The College Football Playoff committee was unimpressed with Notre Dame’s 19-16 victory over Boston College. Of the teams that won last Saturday, the Irish were the big loser this week in the polls, sliding from No. 4 to No. 6 this week, even with Ohio State dropping a game.

Notre Dame was jumped by Oklahoma, Iowa and Michigan State in this week’s poll, the new No. 3, 4 and 5 teams. The 10-1 Sooners held on to win 30-29 over TCU while Iowa pulled away from Purdue in the second half to stay undefeated. Michigan State was the big winner of the week, ending Ohio State’s undefeated run in Columbus winning 17-14, with just a game against Penn State left before solidifying their spot in the Big Ten Championship game against the Hawkeyes.

Clemson and Alabama remain in the top two spots, while the Irish are trailed by Baylor, Ohio State, Stanford and Michigan in the Top Ten. Notre Dame’s lone loss is to No. 1 Clemson and they have victories over No. 15 Navy and No. 25 Temple. But the committee looked at the rather unimpressive play of the Irish these past two weeks while also weighing the ranked victories for Oklahoma and Michigan State.

“The Boston College game didn’t add a lot to their resume, but it was more about the performance of Oklahoma and Michigan State that propelled them ahead of Notre Dame,” committee chairman Jeff Long told ESPN. “I think that combination of them not playing well the last couple weeks, combined with those high ranked wins by Michigan State and Oklahoma propelled them up there.”

If you listened closely to Long, it’s far from a done deal, especially among the four teams bouncing between No. 3 and No. 6. Long told ESPN’s Rece Davis that multiple “revotes” were called, with quite a bit of discussion before ending the week on the current rank.

With Stanford at No. 9 and Oklahoma State at No. 11, both the Irish and Sooners will have high-profile opponents before ending their season without a conference championship game. Alabama will play in the Iron Bowl this weekend against Auburn before facing Florida in the SEC title game while Clemson will face North Carolina in the ACC title game.

Earlier on Tuesday, Brian Kelly sounded like a coach who knew his team’s fate wasn’t in its control. But Kelly also said he thought his team was worthy of a playoff spot if they beat Stanford, something that now carries some urgency with the Irish showing a perceived slip these past two weeks.

“All we can do is control the way we perform and the way we prepare,” Kelly said. “Our guys clearly understand what they have to do in their preparation and then their performance on Saturday. And that’s it. The rest is up to a committee, and we knew that coming into the season. So we’ll take care of what we can take care of.

What though the odds: Injury-ravaged Irish still on the brink of playoff

Brian Kelly

The loss of KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise is the latest in an injury-plagued season for Notre Dame. Notre Dame’s best defensive back and their game-breaking runner will leave the Irish looking for answers with unproven players as they head to Stanford for a must-win season finale.

Entering the year, Brian Kelly’s sixth team was praised for its talent pool, a group expected to have tremendous depth, built class-to-class via recruiting during Kelly’s time in South Bend. That stockpile has been tested routinely since training camp—maybe even before—as we saw players expected to be key contributors lost from the moment Everett Golson packed his bags for Tallahassee and Greg Bryant never made it to fall camp.

Yet the Irish are still standing. At 10-1 and on the brink of a potential College Football Playoff berth, it’s not hard to call this Brian Kelly’s best coaching job since he arrived in South Bend. This staff’s best laid plans never even had a chance to be implemented. Instead, we’ve watched players young and old galvanize into a group that may suffer from fits of inconsistency, but still manages to win football games.

Entering every season since Kelly has taken over, we’ve polled a group of beat writers and “experts” to determine the Top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster. This season’s group had 11 pollsters, each from a website or publication that spends way too much time studying the Irish roster.

Take a look at the roster attrition the Irish have suffered based on preseason expectations.

  1. Jaylon Smith
  2. Ronnie Stanley
  3. Will Fuller
  4. KeiVarae Russell (lost vs. BC)
  5. Sheldon Day
  6. Tarean Folston (lost vs. Texas)
  7. Cole Luke
  8. Nick Martin
  9. C.J. Prosise (injured vs. Pitt, BC)
  10. Malik Zaire (lost for season vs. Virginia
  11. Jarron Jones (lost for season in preseason camp)
  12. Joe Schmidt
  13. Max Redfield
  14. Isaac Rochell
  15. Steve Elmer
  16. Mike McGlinchey
  17. Corey Robinson
  18. Elijah Shumate
  19. Chris Brown
  20. Nyles Morgan
  21. Quenton Nelson
  22. Matthias Farley
  23. Durham Smythe (lost for season vs. Virginia)
  24. Greg Bryant (lost for season before camp)
  25. Jerry Tillery

Unranked but lost players also included:

  1. Shaun Crawford, DB (lost in preseason camp)
  2. Ishaq Williams, DE (lost after eligibility appeal)
  3. Avery Sebastian, DB (lost against Texas)
  4. Drue Tranquil, DB (lost against Georgia Tech)
  5. Alex Bars, OL (lost against USC)
  6. Equanimeous St. Brown (lost before Pitt)
  7. James Onwualu (lost against Wake Forest)

Every football team loses contributors—and this season felt more harsh than most, with some of college football’s biggest names lost to injury. But a quick look at Notre Dame’s projected depth chart and it’s stunning when you consider the Irish will take on Stanford without seven projected starters and seven more players that would’ve likely been in the two-deep.

This isn’t an exercise laid out just to feel sorry or make excuses. Rather it’s just as interesting to look at the ascent of the players asked to step in and contribute.

A season after depth issues sunk Notre Dame’s defense, Kelly’s ability to not just preach, but to practice “Next Man In” proved vital, with 2015 likely to be the reference point for years to come.

DeShone Kizer replaced Malik Zaire, becoming the household name Zaire was set to be after a big game against Texas. Tarean Folston’s season ended after three carries, clearing the way for C.J. Prosise to become a 1,000 yard rusher. The tight end position has been a grab bag, mostly because first-time contributors Chase Hounshell, Nic Weishar and Alizé Jones are learning on the fly.

Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage stepped in for a senior starter and the defensive line didn’t implode. The secondary lost three contributors who would’ve helped Brian VanGorder be multiple on the back end—limitations that have likely frustrated the coaches as much as fans.

Yet the Irish are still standing, walking into Palo Alto battered and bruised, but also hopeful that they’ll find a way to win a football game. It’s an attitude that the Irish have embraced—what though the odds—finding a way to come out victorious in the end.

“That culture exists. It’s strong. These guys love to battle,” Kelly said this weekend. “That’s why I have no hesitations about what they’re going to do against Stanford. They’re going to fight for four quarters and lay it on the field.”

It’s a one-game season. Notre Dame has a chance on Saturday to push their record to 11-1 and make a convincing argument that they should be a part of the four-team playoff. Even if it’s with a team that hardly resembles the one we thought we were going to see this season.



The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

DeShone Kizer, Kevin Kavalec, Harold Landry

Notre Dame beat Boston College 19-16. The game was as ugly as the final score indicates.

Some will say there’s no such thing as a bad win. We’ll find out if that’s true Tuesday evening, when the College Football Playoff Committee—the only arbiter of value—makes their weekly rankings announcement.

Will the Irish inch up the board, considering Ohio State lost to a Michigan State team juggling backup quarterbacks? Will they get jumped by an Iowa team who has made a season of winning unimpressive in close games, or Oklahoma, who needed to stop a two-point conversion to beat a TCU team decimated by injury?

You can’t blame Brian Kelly for not caring. Notre Dame’s head football coach understands it won’t do anything to help.

“The committee is out of my hands. It’s out of our players’ hands,” Kelly said postgame. “All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered. We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered. We’re one of the top four teams after last week. We’ll see where we stand this week. We’ve just got to keep winning games. We’ve got another game against a nationally-ranked team which will give us an opportunity.”

With that, let’s get on with it. It’s a good, bad and ugly that only a mother could love, as we do our best to erase this game from the memory bank and move on to Stanford.



Winning. The Boston College football program’s DNA was formed thanks to pulling off upsets like Saturday night’s. This isn’t a team or a school that’s known for sustained excellence or winning championships. Rather it’s the loud-mouth brawler with a big right hand—the loser of many, many fights, but always the winner of a few really big knockouts, the epitome of fearless muscle with a puncher’s chance.

So if there’s something positive to take from the win, it’s that Notre Dame did everything it could to present a knockout shot and the Eagles still couldn’t land it. Five turnovers. Red zone futility. Horrific mistakes and decisions by players who until that point had been largely responsible for leading the charge.

That’s what made Kelly happiest postgame. A team that found every way possible to step on the landmine stuck together and managed to win. And did so against a team that would’ve made their season by taking the Irish down.

Here’s Kelly from Sunday’s teleconference when asked about his reaction to the victory. Expecting disappointment? Think again:

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my football team, the way they handled themselves, especially, you know, on the offensive side of the ball and the reaction that our defense had.

“Look, we had five turnovers, plus the one kickoff return, six sudden changes and our defense didn’t give up anything. They gave up three points in those sudden changes. That’s the a great mentality to have defensively.

“And then from an offensive mentality, five turnovers and three in the red zone, I never saw one guy point a finger. I never saw any bickering. Nobody was pointing fingers. All they were doing was we were moving to the next play. They were pulling for each other. It’s just a pleasure to be able to coach this group of guys that just persevere.

“Look, it wasn’t our cleanest game, there’s no question about it. We can’t play this way against Stanford and expect to win the game. But as a coach the satisfying moments are when your team is united, when your team plays together, when there’s no pointing fingers and they just keep playing together. And that’s probably for me the most satisfying thing as a coach when you see that happen and those dynamics come together on the sideline.”

That’s the right kind of attitude to take away from the debacle.


Matthias Farley. I already singled him out in the Five Things, but I might not enjoy a football player on this team more than Matthias Farley. He’s a guy who has gone through the grinder. He’s been thrown into the fire and found his way out—one of the more unlikely captain stories in recent memory, and that’s including the walk-on that joins him at the coin toss.

Farley’s four critical plays on special teams—downing two punts near the goal line, making the tackle on a fake punt and recovering the onside kick—were likely the difference in a game that ended up just a three-point win.

“He was given the game ball,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s been that kind of player for us all year, the onside kick, stopping the fake punt, downing the ball inside at the ten yard line. He plays the game wherever he’s called.

“That’s why he’s a captain. That’s why he’s really the guy on special teams that makes big plays for us, and a valuable member of our football team.”


Chris Brown and Amir CarlisleTwo veteran receivers made big-time plays. Brown’s TD catch was a beauty. Carlisle’s fearlessness across the middle is majorly underrated. Both guys will be missed in 2016.


Fenway Park (the turf, too!): I was very surprised the playing surface was as good as it played on Saturday night. Nightmares from Yankee Stadium lingered in my head, but credit needs to go to the grounds crew at Fenway Park for doing an incredible job.

There were only 36,000+ fans at the game, one of the smallest crowds at a Notre Dame football game in recent history. But from all reports, it was an amazing experience.



Where to begin? (Where to end?)

Do you really want to read this? Because here is a (far from complete) laundry list of guys who made mistakes on Saturday night. (Cobbled mostly from memory, because rewatching any more of the offensive performance will make it difficult for me to sleep at night…)

DeShone Kizer made some bone-headed red zone decisions, was majorly inaccurate with the football, dropped an extra point snap and generally looked like a redshirt freshman for the first-time in his redshirt freshman season. His offensive line wasn’t much better—though Nick Martin jumped on a fumble that prevented another big turnover, the guys in the trenches got whipped in the run game, outside of three nice gainers. You want fumbles? Well we’ve got ’em. C.J. Prosise, come on down! Josh Adams—not by the goal line, young man. Back to CJs, Mr. Sanders did his best Davonte Neal impression, muffing a punt, a kickoff, and technically getting away with a second punt before Kelly put in Will Fuller to catch Boston College’s final kick. The All-American Fuller got in on the act, too. He dropped a crucial third-down conversion that would’ve helped ice the game and then for good measure a deep ball that was a likely touchdown, too. (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other major mistakes, but let’s keep rolling on.)

Defensively, things were better. (Playing Boston College helped.) But still, the Irish once again took a nice performance and through a gigantic smear across the front of it. It came courtesy of a blown zone-read QB keeper—from a quarterback whose only skill is literally running the zone-read keeper—essentially letting the Eagles run their way back into the game. Both Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield bit hard on the run fake, and if I’m putting the blown assignment on anybody, it’s Redfield. (Again.) Joe Schmidt had another free run at a quarterback on a blitz and ran right through it. His teammates cleaned things up, but the fact that Schmidt has two sacks this season—not six—is a little surprising. Cole Luke got lost in coverage, giving up a big gainer to a team less accomplished than Knute Rockne’s with the forward pass. Elijah Shumate got targeted on the game’s final drive, beaten inside on a slant after it looked like he was playing nickel back. And the Irish turned walk-on quarterback John Fadule into Steve Young—though he dropped his head and tried to run over one too many defenders, with Schmidt knocking him into next week. (Worried about something next week? The Irish are getting bludgeoned by QB scrambles.)

Did we talk about the red zone? Do we have to?

After looking like world-beaters against Pitt, the Irish found new ways to mess things up. Kizer’s first-down throw to Alizé Jones was a brain-bender. Can’t do it. The screen pass? Oh boy. It looked great in the Music City Bowl when it beat LSU, but Kizer just can’t throw that ball, not into a wall of guys wearing the wrong jersey. After implementing some slick play-action passing against Pitt near the goal line, the Irish somehow thought it was a good idea to go toe-to-toe in the trenches with B.C. Not sure if that was character building or what, but let’s just say that this team has plenty of character, but not a ton of ability to push around a run-defense like the Eagles—and that was before Adams fumbled.

This might feel like piling on. And it very well could be. But it’s much better to be tough on players in victory than it is after a loss. (For those who say a late season performance like this is unacceptable—go check out how some SEC teams played during their pre-Thanksgiving FCS “Cupcakes.” Then go relax. It’s over and the Irish won.)




Losing C.J. Prosise & KeiVarae Russell. Keeping the focus on next Saturday, not having Prosise is a crippling blow to the offense. While he didn’t look like the same guy we saw through the first two-thirds of the season even before he rolled his ankle, Prosise’s game-breaking speed and dual-threat ability would’ve been huge against a Stanford defense that’s a shadow of the units we’ve seen over the past few years.

Russell’s loss also forces the Irish to do some serious shuffling. While Kevin Hogan doesn’t have the game-breaking receivers he’s had in the past, finding a cornerback who can play in Brian VanGorder’s man-scheme hasn’t proven easy. Now he’ll have to make things work with a trio of guys he hasn’t trusted outside of garbage time.

For Russell, if this is the end—and he sure seems to point to it being the end—it’s a sad finish for him. But we need to tip a cap to the cornerback who showed a lot of fortitude, handling his business back home in Washington before returning to Notre Dame to earn his degree and play a key role for a very good football team.

Was he perfect this year? No. But his confidence was the type of leadership and self-belief that had to infect this team, considering the amount of man-hours lost to injury and the ability to step in and continue winning. He didn’t have a ‘C’ on his jersey, but there might not have been a better leader on this team, especially considering the big, game-defining plays Russell made against USC and Temple.


Here’s what Russell posted along with this photo:

“All I ever wanted to do when coming to Notre Dame was WIN.. As a starter I was apart of 31 games WON out of the 37 I started, so I can say I’m a winner. Sucks to end for me when we are so close! But gotta keep a high head and be the best teammate possible from the sideline. During war some individuals must go down. And still, the motto of the soldiers must remain the same. To my ND bros, #AccomplishTheMission!
#CollegePlayoffs #Top4 #OneMore #TheReturnPT2 #Adversity #NEEDaRing #Thejourney”



KeiVarae Russell breaks tibia, likely lost for year

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 21:  KeiVarae Russell #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on during the first half against the Boston College Eagles at Fenway Park on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Notre Dame will head into the season finale without cornerback KeiVarae Russell. The senior was hurt late in the victory over Boston College, with the postgame diagnosis from Brian Kelly calling the injury a stress fracture.

Upon further inspection, the injury is more severe. Russell had a cast put on his foot last night before traveling back from Boston and will undergo surgery today for a broken tibia, with a rod inserted to help with stability.

The tentative timeline for recovery is six to eight weeks, meaning quite a lot would have to go perfectly for Russell to even have a chance at returning for a playoff or postseason game. In all likelihood, this is a season-ending injury to Russell, who finishes the year tied for second on the defense with 60 tackles, tied for the lead with two interceptions and the team-leader with two forced fumbles.

Russell was expected to declare for the NFL Draft, a senior who’ll graduate this spring. But he’s got another year of eligibility remaining and rehabbing a foot injury won’t be the best way to go into Combine season. Add to that some game tape that’s below the standard set for him, and there are some very persuasive reasons why Russell could be back in South Bend in 2016.