Pregame Twelve Pack: Boston College edition

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We’re back for week five of the Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as we head into the Boston College game.

1. Get ready for a larger dose of Bennett Jackson.

Remember that streak burning down the field during the opening Saturday against Purdue? That was Bennett Jackson, covering kickoffs to the tune of four tackles and immediately making his speed and presence felt.

After the kick return game has gone backwards the past few weeks, Kelly is turning to Jackson on the opposite end of the kick team to hopefully bring some energy to a unit lacking much excitement.

“Right now, I think you’ll see Cierre Wood, you’re going to see probably Bennett Jackson, and that rotation will also be pretty fluid,” Brian Kelly confirmed Thursday afternoon. We think Theo is going to help us back there as well. It’s going to be a three-man rotation. I would say right now probably Cierre is going to be our lead guy again.”

Last week’s kick return game was held in check by the excellent placement and strength behind Nate Whitaker’s kicks, but Wood didn’t do anyone any favors by being indecisive with kicks three yards deep in the end zone. While Cierre’s the primary return man, it’ll be exciting to watch Jackson if he’s as fearless on the return side as he is covering kicks.

2. The Chase Rettig era likely begins this weekend.

It’s been the worst kept secret in Boston this week that true freshman Chase Rettig is exchanging his redshirt for a Crimson one and will likely be starting for the first time in his Boston College career.

Kelly and staff dug up some tape of Rettig in high school so they could get a look at him.

“We watched some high school film on him,” Kelly said earlier in the week. “We dug up some high school film, and he’s like the other quarterbacks. He’s tall, he’s got a big arm, he’s got escape-ability. We feel like we don’t have to prepare for a guy that may take off and run the ball 20 times.”

I also dug up some high school dirt on Rettig, and find some common threads that lead back to some familiar names. While Rettig only had scholarship offers from Boston College and Tennessee, it wasn’t for a lack of tutelage — Rettig worked with QB coach Anton Clarkson, the son of self-marketing whiz and personal quarterback tutor Steve Clarkson, who worked with Jimmy Clausen.

Here’s what the younger Clarkson had to say about Rettig when he committed to playing at BC:

“He’s a very smart kid and a hard worker,” Clarkson said. “He will run
through a wall for you and I think he has the strongest arm in the
country. He can easily make all the throws and he’s one of my favorite
kids to work with. He played in an offense last year where he had to run
the ball a lot and that’s not his strength. He’s a drop-back guy who
can gun the ball and he didn’t get to do that enough. I think that’s one
of the reasons he didn’t have a bunch of early offers. But he’s got the
right fit now in Boston.”

I’m sure Rettig’s arm is strong, but I like that the penchant for hyperbole was transferred from father to son.

3. The difference between Kelly’s Irish offense and his Bearcat offense? Try the second quarter.

An astute member of the media pointed out a pretty interesting stat to BK yesterday afternoon, when he noticed that Kelly’s Cincinnati Bearcat offense scored 172 points in the second quarter last year. Right now at the one-quarter mark of the season, the Irish have only 9 points and zero touchdowns in the second quarter. Does Kelly have a reason for the drastic difference? Not really.

“Those numbers, I don’t spend a ton of time on them. But nine points, regardless of whether we scored 100-something or not, that’s not enough points in the second quarter,” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress
offensively. We see some really good signs. I don’t know that it has much to do
with an offense that has been bogged down by a particular player as the overall
understanding of what we’re trying to get done. All 11 guys. It’s not one guy.
This isn’t about the quarterback. This is about 11 guys getting on the same
page from an offensive standpoint.”

4. You want 21 tackles? I’ll show you 21 tackles.

The fine staff over at UND.com took it upon themselves to cut up the video and find all 21 tackles that Manti Te’o made last week against Stanford, not an easy feat when you consider that the coaching staff only had Te’o for 19.

But Al and the team found those two missing tackles, and put together an awesome look at the work Manti did last weekend.

While it’s partially depressing to watch the big-gainers that Stanford put together on the offensive side of the ball, the kill-shot Te’o makes on tackle 13 (get to the 1:50 mark) makes it worth it. That’s the hit of the year so far.

5. Twenty-one tackles? Luke Kuechly sees Te’o’s game and raises him 12.

While Te’o’s 21 tackles is the most in the FBS since 2007, Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly has a pretty impressive stat-run of his own. With 16 tackles against Virginia Tech, Kuechly extended the nation’s longest streak of games with double-digit tackles to 12 games. A Cincinnati native, Brian Kelly tried unsuccessfully to recruit him to the Bearcats.

“Couldn’t even get him to visit Cincinnati,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Couldn’t get a visit out of Luke. He wanted to go, he was looking at Boston College, East Coast schools. Stanford was one of his choices. Great student, great kid. Very, very good football player, which obviously we’ve got to find a way to block him now.”

6. Boston College is playing the disrespect card.

There’s nothing better in a rivalry than when one team starts saying the other team “disrespects” them. Consider that a prerequisite for a true rivalry game. And thanks to tight end Alex Albright, who grew up in the Cincinnati area, we know that the Eagles think the Irish disrespect them.

“The Boston College community feels a little disrespected just because BC is
considered a lesser program. But for me, personally, being from that
area, I’ve been growing up with Notre Dame in my face my entire life,”
the Boston College senior defensive end said Wednesday, three days
before the “Holy War” at Alumni Stadium. “I feel like I know the monster
that’s coming in a lot more ways than people that don’t have experience
with Notre Dame.”

tn1_BC_turf.jpg I think a few Notre Dame fans would probably beg to differ with Albright’s interpretation of what team is disrespectful.

7. Jonas Gray is doubtful, but the rest of the Irish are healthy.

Talking about injury luck is usually the kiss of death, but through four games the Irish have down fairly well at staying healthy, losing only Steve Paskorz with a significant injury and Dan Wenger to concussion problems. Kelly updated the Irish injury status, which looked iffy with running backs Jonas Gray and Armando Allen, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and defensive end Ethan Johnson all going down with injuries against Stanford.

“Jonas is the only guy right now that is questionable for
Saturday,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Everybody else — we’re better this week going into Tuesday
than we were last week after the Michigan State going into Tuesday.”

While a balky hamstring and a stingy Stanford defense held Kyle Rudolph to one catch for one yard, Kelly confirmed Thursday that Rudolph was better.

“He was better today. I
expect him to be better,” Kelly said. “Couldn’t be worse.”

8. Notre Dame is good business for Boston College.

If Boston College wants to tee-up a sellout crowd, all it needs to do is schedule Notre Dame. The Eagle blog BC Interruption tells us that the Irish have helped Boston College sell out every home game since they started playing Notre Dame in the new Alumni Stadium, a streak that started back in 1994.

Boston College has only sold out Alumni Stadium 31 times since they expanded Alumni Stadium to 44,500 seats, and the Irish are the only team that’s sold it out every time they played.

Here’s the top sellouts:

     Notre Dame — 6 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2003, 2008
     Virginia Tech — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Syracuse — 4 sellouts — 1994, 1996, 2000, 2006
     Miami — 4 sellouts — 1995, 2001, 2003, 2007 

The Holy War is a must-see ticket for Eagles fans. Something that’s obviously pretty rare for Boston College football.

9. It was a students-only affair at the going-away pep rally this week.

There’s nothing that’s lost its allure like the famed Notre Dame pep rallies of the Lou Holtz era. Those JACC centers filled to capacity gave way to social gatherings at the Irish Green, and somewhere along the line the event lost the must-attend allure that pep rallies held a generation ago.

But this week a students-only pep rally was held for the Irish, and 2,300 student packed into Stepan Center to wish the Irish good luck before BC:

“I think that last year’s student-only pep rally was universally
considered the best pep rally of the year, and even the last few years,” Barrick Bollman, the chairman of the pep rally organizing committee told the Observer.

“It’s students-only, so we are free to get as absolutely crazy as we
want and it’s a little more uncensored. It will be like those crazy pep
rallies that people’s parents always talk about,” Bollman said.

What’s crazy is thinking that current students need to ask their friends’ parents about the time when pep rallies were actually crazy.

10. Boston College’s offense might be dreadfully bad.

It’s hard to get too confident if you’re an Irish fan after what happened last week, but consider that Boston College might have an absolutely dreadful offense. (We’ll find out Saturday night.)

Consider: Boston College ranks 92nd in total offense after three games. That’s bad, but when you consider they’ve played the the 109th most difficult schedule in their three games, that’s pretty terrible.

Dave Shinskie got the hook as the starting quarterback after three games because the BC offense has been down right offensive to start the year. He put up mediocre numbers against Weber State, completing only 10 of 20 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. Boston College only mustered 305 total yards against Kent State, relying on 20 second-half points to beat the Golden Flashes 26-13. Against their first FBS opponent, Boston College could only put up 250 yards of offense, throwing for only 180 yards and running for just 70, while turning the ball over three times.

Obviously, we had questions about how good Stanford was after their first three games. It turned out they were plenty good enough to defeat the Irish. We’ll find out how good the Eagles are on Saturday night.

11. When ND and BC play, they don’t just play for one rivalry trophy, they play for two.

If you want a good indicator on the importance of the Irish/Eagles rivalry, consider that there are two rivalry trophies up for grabs. The first is the Frank Leahy Memorial Bowl, which honors the shared history where Leahy led both the Notre Dame and Boston College football programs.

The second trophy is the Ireland Trophy, which is presented to the winning team by the opposition’s student government. Starting in 1994, the trophy — designed in the shape of the country Ireland — honors the rich Irish history that both countries share.

I don’t think anyone will get these mixed up with the Little Brown Jug or Paul Bunyon’s Axe, but it sounds like both prizes would look good on in the trophy case.

12. The Irish need a win, and Brian Kelly is still confident.

Not that you’d expect anything different from a head coach, but Brian Kelly’s confidence has not been shaken by the slow start to the season.

“I’m very confident we’re going to win the football game,” Kelly said. “I think it’s still about our ability to close out games and play turnover-free. That’s been a thing that’s obviously hurt us. But I’m very confident that our team is prepared to win.”

If Kelly and the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to move the football against a stingy Eagles defense, but also control the field position battle. To do that, they’ll absolutely need to get some better punts out of Ben Turk. Special teams coach Mike Elston has diagnosed Turk’s struggles.

“It’s like a baseball player. He’s in a slump,” Elston said. “Before the first game, Ben Turk was punting the best I’ve ever seen him punt.
He was peaking at the right time. His leg was getting back from the fall
camp.

“Now you hit a couple bad punts, you’re in front of 80,000
people, and he’s got to get his confidence back. He has to focus on two
or three things that are going to make him better, and that’s what he’s
done this week. And actually he’s had a really good week.”

Boston College has really struggled to put together long drives, so if the Irish can keep the Eagles in the long field and avoid turnovers, the Notre Dame defense should feast on an inexperienced quarterback playing in a underwhelming offense.
 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.