IBG: Life at the half-way point

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With Western Michigan not exactly the sexiest of opponents and the season exactly half-way finished, the guys at We Never Graduate hosted the Irish Blogger Gathering with a fairly meaty selection of questions.

I’ll do my best to answer the bonus question without getting Jack Donaghy calling downstairs for my head.

The Irish have posted back-to-back victories over teams that have
given us fits the past decade to pull back to .500, but when you head to
the message boards on ND Nation, Rivals, etc. all you see is
unrelenting negativity. Some cry Kelly’s in over his head and doomed to
fail, others bitch and moan about the run-to-pass ratio, and many more
say that even though we’ve won the last two there’s no improvement over
last year’s team. What’s your take on the negativity that’s swirling
around the program on the internet? What message would you like to
convey to ND Nation?

Cynicism and negative are hardly anything new for Notre Dame football, and definitely aren’t relegated to the websites mentioned above. (Just take a look at some of the comments around here.) I’m not old enough to remember the early days of Lou or much of anything before, but I’m guessing since Knute Rockne, the Irish fanbase has been filled with a small — but incredibly vocal — group of blowhard windbags.

Here’s a few comments that I feel work for just about every one of “those guys.”

1) College football coaches know more about football than you do… I promise.
2) The techniques you learned back when you played are most likely wrong… I promise.
3) This isn’t the Rockne or Leahy era. It’s a lot harder to win football games now.
4) Installing a new offensive system with an unproven quarterback, three new offensive linemen and without your All-American wide receiver brings some growing pains.
5) For those worried about the run/pass ratio: If you look at the stats — the Irish run more on non-scoring drives than on scoring drives.

All that being said, I don’t blame Irish fans for taking a wait and see approach. We’ve been burned badly by the last two coaches, and there are far too many intelligent people to fall head-over-heels in love again.

When Western Michigan and Tulsa were announced as 2010 opponents last
fall there was a full-throttle meltdown among ND fans that was surpassed
only by The F-Word Incident
in April in terms of sheer outrage. Well, if the opinions expressed
then are the same now the apocalypse has finally arrived and a MAC squad
is about to forever sully our field by stepping foot on it. Have your
thoughts on the Western Michigan/Tulsa games changed since they were
announced? Would you rather ND Stadium sell out and continue the streak
that extends back almost 40 years or see the streak broken so that the
powers-that-be know just how disrespected you feel by the audacity they
showed in scheduling such inferior opponents?

Jack Swarbrick needed to fill a schedule that was left for him, and Tulsa and Western Michigan did the Irish a favor by signing on the dotted line. That said, if you want to get angry, get angry about how front-loaded the schedule is. Six straight games against tough competition is a recipe for disaster, especially when you’re starting a season without an experienced quarterback.

I’d much rather see a game with Tulsa or Western Michigan in the opening two weeks of the season, when teams start to find their identity and players get readjusted to the game. If Notre Dame’s schedule allows them to get back to BCS Bowls consistently, I don’t think Swarbrick and the ND brass will be apologizing for a non-traditional opponent anytime soon.

Most people painted AD Jack Swarbrick as the villain when the Western
Michigan/Tulsa games were made public. Since then he’s made drastic
moves in locking down opponents on future schedules, went through the
process of firing Weis and hiring Kelly, and navigated ND through the
murky waters of conference realignment. Has your personal opinion on
Swarbrick been altered over the past year?

Maybe I’m the only one, but hiring Jack Swarbrick is the best decision Notre Dame athletics has made since they hired Lou Holtz. I wrote a column a few months ago calling Swarbrick the knight in shining armor that saved college football, and after spending a few weekends back on campus and talking to people that are well-connected at the university, they all seem to agree with my theory.

It’s hard for my personal opinion to change much on Swarbrick, just because I’ve had so much respect for the job he’s done since day one.

We’re at the halfway point so it’s a perfect time to step back real
quick and evaluate what’s happened thus far. What have been your two
biggest surprises at this juncture of the season? Choose one positive
and one negative.

My one positive surprise? Call it a tie between David Ruffer and Ian Williams. When a group of us selected the Top 25 players on the Irish roster, nobody put Ruffer on their list. Right now, he’s probably running second place for offensive MVP behind Armando Allen. Add Ian Williams to the list because he’s been an absolutely force at nose guard. Williams made himself a lot of money with the work he’s done this year, and he’s a perfect example of the maturation process of a defensive lineman — and a good reminder why it pays to redshirt big bodies if you can. (Imagine if Williams was coming back for a fifth year?)

My one negative? It’s got to be the two last-second losses. The Irish still have struggled to become closers, something that I’m expecting to see change in the second half of the season. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, there’s nothing that could feel worse than taking a loss in the last minute to both the Wolverines and the Spartans. 

Which player that hasn’t contributed much to this point in the season do you see emerging as a contributor down the stretch?

I expect to see more out of Darius Fleming, who hasn’t been the player that I expected. The CAT linebacker is a position that should thrive in Bob Diaco’s system and while Fleming played a nice game last Saturday, he still disappears too often and struggled mightily against the roll-out boot pass in coverage as well. (Dishonorable mention should probably go to the entire outside linebacker position, who I’m expecting a gigantic second half from.)

Scholarships are running thin and some tough decisions are going to have
to be made this spring when it comes to offering 5th years to current
seniors. If you’re Coach Kelly who do you offer and who is left out in
the cold to make room for the incoming freshman class?  Here’s a link to the 2011 scholarship chart for a list of potential 5th years.

This is a tough question, and I’m going to hold off going too far into detail, only because I don’t want to offend any of the guys that might not be asked back. Here’s a few names that absolutely need to come back without question:

Harrison Smith
Gary Gray
Michael Floyd
Kyle Rudolph

If the Irish can get both these four back on campus for their senior seasons, they’ll probably feel better making the tough decision on guys like Matt Romine, Emeka Nwankwo, and Steve Paskorz. Depth at places like the secondary and defensive end will likely play a role, as will the depth chart along the offensive line.

BONUS: You’ve been challenged to a Tailgate Olympiad by some chaunce from
Southern Cal and you need to assemble a dream team of your fellow Irish
fans to compete in the following events: Flip Cup (four-man
team), Beer Pong, Hamburger Eating Contest (two-man team),
Cornhole/Bags/Whatever You Call It, Individual Race (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you), and
Thunderdome (Editor’s note: It’s bad for you, too). Your captaincy role on this team is Ryder Cup style so you’ll be
monitoring the proceedings rather than actually partaking. Throw some
internet love out to your fellow tailgate All-Stars that have delivered
through the years and let us know who you’d put in each slot to make
sure Troy fell in the parking lot as well as on the field…and while
you’re at it, tell us what three songs you’d be blasting as you rolled
to victory.

I’ve long retired from competitive tailgating, but have plenty of great memories of some Hall of Fame performances back in the college days. I was never a flip cup guy… didn’t see the point. As for throwing ping-pong balls, I’d call on he thunderous right arm of former Irish great Drew Duff. I’ll steer clear of anything called the Thunderdome that didn’t include the 1987 Minnesota Twins, as well as an individual race — that never ends well. But if it comes to a two-man hamburger eating contest, you could do no better than the dynamic duo of former Irish hockey players Connor Dunlop and Brett Henning. These two would steal candy from a baby, as long as it had enough carbs and saturated fats.

As for the three songs — I’ll defer those choices to good friend and former hockey great John Wroblewski, who would pull the plug on my music and put on his iPod anyway…   

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.

 

Five things we learned: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35

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The tombstone for Brian Kelly’s seventh football team in South Bend might read:

Here lies Notre Dame. They found ways to lose.

That might lean dramatic, but the Irish are 1-3, a 38-35 defeat at the hands of Duke the latest boondoggle for a team that’s waking up all the wrong echoes. And Kelly’s program—led by a historically bad defense— is plummeting, a free-fall from what seemed like solid ground entering the season.

But that’s what a perfect storm will do. A horrific defense, a schizophrenic offense, poor leadership and a young roster stepping into every trap laid, every banana peel dropped, especially when the chips are on the table.

A week after getting out-classed by Michigan State, Notre Dame faces a much different monster in the mirror.

“I told our guys we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said postgame. “We’ll have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we are doing it with and how we’re doing it. All of those things.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has infected the entire football team. 

A last-second kneel down was all that kept Duke from crossing 500 yards of offense. But it isn’t enough that the Irish defense is getting decimated by every competent football team that lines up across from them. Their mediocre play has infected the entire team.

That’s what happens when you put pressure on your offense to score every series. That’s what happens when you coach to protect one vulnerability, only to unleash another.

Because it isn’t enough that this defense misses tackles, blows assignments and plays with an alarmingly low IQ. They’ve found a way to infect the offense and the entire coaching philosophy, too.

There’s no need to spend words indicting Brian VanGorder (or Kelly for hiring him) or the position coaches for failing to get the defense in the right position. Kelly made it abundantly clear that any move he makes will likely be postseason, not as some sort of mid-season shuffle.

Because even a back-to-the-basics week did nothing to salvage things. We saw no uptick from working on tackling midweek in mid-September, for preaching the fundamentals; “speed to power” in one ear and out the other, like a Duke player weaving through defenders to daylight.

This defense is toxic and has found a way to derail all three segments of the team, hoisting enough pressure onto DeShone Kizer that it was as much the guys in blue making his afternoon tough as it was David Cutcliffe’s team.

 

Blame coaching all you want, but Brian Kelly is making it clear that he’s holding his players accountable, too. 

Brian Kelly said all the right things about coaching accountability, spitting out the perfunctory cliches—”I’m a 1-3 football coach. We’re all 1-3 football coaches”—through gritted teeth.

But it didn’t take long for Kelly to make his true feelings clear, taking dead aim at the effort and attitude that his team showed Saturday afternoon, making it clear he’ll be looking for a different type of football player to take the field next week.

“Guys that have fire and grit. We had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. And that was Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw,” Kelly said after some prodding.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward. I don’t care what your resume said, if you’re a five star, if you had 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”

After another week where veterans were just as responsible for futility as any rookies, Kelly made it clear that he’s set to make sweeping changes to the team that’ll take the field next weekend in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

“Every position. All 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position,” Kelly said. “There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. That’s the quarterback all the way down.”

 

Notre Dame needs to find an offensive identity, too. Because DeShone Kizer wasn’t close to good enough to bail them out. 

There’s no applauding the 534 yards of offense the Irish put up. Because when push came to shove, the Irish offense failed to score when they had two final chances to win the football game—a troubling trend that’s beginning to emerge.

The ground game struggled. Behind an offensive line that’s still making too many mistakes, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams were all held below five yards a carry. Only Kizer found an explosive play on the ground, his 23-yarder the only running gain the Irish had over 20 yards.

Kizer put up some empty statistics as well. He was clearly pressing for much of the second half, even after the momentary boost the offense got from the defense after halftime. Kizer’s fourth quarter was one to forget, just 3 of 7 passing for 45 yards, taking a sack, throwing a mindless interception on 3rd-and-20, and short-circuiting any comeback chance with a poor final drive.

Combine that with some head-scratching reads, a handful of missed touch passes and an inexcusable fumble, and it was a difficult afternoon for the Irish’s star quarterback.

“Below standard,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s play.

 

Once again turnovers, special teams and self-inflicted wounds killed the Irish. 

Want to learn how to throw away momentum? Give up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

With Chase Claypool, Julian Okwara and Nick Coleman all blowing tackles, even a serious injury to return man extraordinaire Devon Edwards didn’t stop backup Shaun Wilson from taking one to the house, flipping the game completely on its head when it looked like the Irish could bury Duke early.

Add in Kizer’s fumble, his fourth-quarter interception (and another one he gift-wrapped that was dropped) and Equanimeous St. Brown getting stripped after a big gain, and it’s a formula the Irish know all too well.

“There’s not a lot of things to point out other than the obvious. Three turnovers, all of them impact the game. Sloppy turnovers. A kickoff return for a touchdown,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “And the inability to mount anything consistently throughout the game. Once you feel like you have something going pretty good and then we tend to make a mistake and let teams back in the game.”

That’s certainly what happened Saturday afternoon, with the Irish capable of delivering a knockout punch and instead carrying the Blue Devils off the ropes and right back into the game.

Toss in some of the worst tackling—both attempts and angles—you’ll ever see and you’ve got a recipe for defeat.

 

You need to live and die with the kids. Because this might not be rock bottom. 

Bad news: This could get worse.

Because as Kelly mentioned last week, there are no trades, no waiver wire and no cuts in college football. Sure, you can run Brian VanGorder out of town if you really think that’ll help, but it’s only going to add more instability to a season that’s not close to rock bottom—not with offenses like Syracuse, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Army, Navy and USC on the schedule.

(No disrespect meant to NC State, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get theirs, too.)

The roster that Kelly himself assembled deserves examination. But that’s the group that needs to get this team out of trouble. And it’s tough to say any amount of hard coaching will allow that to happen.

So live and die with the kids.

Donte Vaughn, welcome to the starting lineup. Julian Love, see you there, too.

Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara can’t be any worse at getting off blocks than Andrew Trumbetti—who plays like a two-gap defensive tackle instead of a guy attempting to rush the passer.

Offensively, pass the baton to Equanimeous St. Brown already—he’s clearly the team’s No. 1 receiver. Give Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson reps at the X if Torii Hunter can’t scare teams downfield. And if Tarean Folston can’t find that next gear, Dexter Williams certainly seems willing to show you his.

Notre Dame’s football program is in a dangerous place, and all are responsible.

Because lost somewhere between the fancy new facilities, the social media partnership with Bleacher Report, and the sports-science and nutrition commitments that treat this program better than most NFL outfits, a simple fundamental got lost in the process–and this football team got soft.

We could’ve seen this coming. Kelly hinted at worries during the spring and summer, especially as he openly had questions about this team’s veteran leadership. Those problems were exposed in August, when one senior leader thought it wise to drag four underclassmen with him on a Cheech and Chong adventure, all while exercising his Second Amendment rights, too.

So match a lack of leadership with mediocre effort and a young roster looking for veteran examples and you can bet that Kelly’s postgame comments for the media were a subdued echo of what he said behind closed doors.

“It looks like it’s hard to play, like we’re pulling teeth. We’re playing football for Notre Dame! It looks like it’s work,” Kelly said, almost exacerbated. “Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy.

“We’ve gotta look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s the way we have to go.”

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.