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How we got here: Turnovers

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It was no secret that there were going to be some growing pains in the evolution of the Notre Dame offense. Brian Kelly was taking a drop-back quarterback with a total of 20 mop-up throws under his belt and putting him into an offensive system that relied on quick throws, quicker data processing, and presenting the threat of both running and passing. And oh, yeah… Crist would also be spending 95-percent of his time in the shotgun.

To call the union of junior quarterback Dayne Crist and Brian Kelly an arranged marriage wouldn’t be far from the truth. Both were stuck with each other, with Kelly having little to no depth behind the departing Jimmy Clausen thanks to the attrition of Weis recruits like Zack Frazer and Demetrius Jones and selective recruiting. There was plenty to like in Crist, a highly touted recruit that ran the football effectively during his prep days, but the Irish offense would hinge on how quickly Crist could learn the new offense, and how quickly his surgically repaired ACL would heal.

Crist took every snap in spring practice, absorbing as much of the offense as he could while the Irish also learned a vastly different way to practice. With a playbook in hand and a collection of skill players, Crist also worked diligently with his receiving corp, establishing a rapport in the offseason to help jump-start the season.

With a ruptured patellar tendon ending his first season as a starter, we can look at Crist’s numbers and compare them to the last few Notre Dame quarterbacks in their first complete season behind center. Crist completed just over 59 percent of his throws for 2033 yards, completing 15 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. Even if we throw out Clausen’s 2007 season, where he ran for his life behind an abysmal offensive line, Crist’s numbers match up well to Jimmy’s 2008 campaign, with Clausen completing nearly 61 percent of his throws for 3172 yards, to go along with 25 touchdown passes and a staggeringly high 17 interceptions. While you’d think Charlie Weis’ vertical offense would show us something different, Clausen’s 7.2 yards per attempt is not that much better than Crist’s 6.9 per throw. Looking further back, even though Brady Quinn played in 11 games as a true freshman, his first sophomore campaign saw him put up numbers remarkable similar to Crist, completing only 54 percent of his throws for 2586 yards with 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Quinn averaged 7.3 yards per attempt, surprising when you think back to the offense that Tyrone Willingham was running at the time.

This isn’t an article about Dayne Crist’s performance compared to Clausen or Quinn, but it does put in context Crist’s performance in his first season playing college football, as well as point out how similar quarterbacking performances help determine overall records, with Clausen and Quinn both ending up a game better than .500, and if Crist would’ve only finished the game against Tulsa, he’d have likely finished at the same place.

If there’s an easy stat that reflects how the 4-5 Irish got to where they are, it’s turnover margin. The Irish rank 82nd in the country in the critical stat, turning the ball over three more times than they’ve taken it away, with 19 turnovers to 16 takeaways.

Even worse, in games the Irish have lost, the ratio is even more pronounced. Notre Dame has turned the ball over 14 times in their five losses, a staggering 2.8 times per loss. Making things even worse, they’ve only managed to force six takeaways in those games, clocking the Irish in at a -1.6 turnover margin during those five losses, the equivalent of the nation’s worst football teams during Irish defeats.

Looking even closer at the Irish turnovers, you’ll see just how catastrophic they were. Against Michigan, the Irish were intercepted three times. With the Irish leading 7-0 and Tommy Rees called into duty with Dayne Crist’s vision blurred, Rees threw a brutal interception to Jonas Mouton. The next play, the Wolverines tied the game 7-7 with a 31-yard touchdown pass. With the Irish driving past midfield thanks to two large runs by Armando Allen, Nate Montana threw a drive-killing interception at the Michigan 37, stopping the Irish in their tracks. While Dayne Crist’s lone interception of the afternoon didn’t end up hurting the Irish, it killed a major momentum swing for the Irish, with Crist making a terrible decision on the first play of a Notre Dame drive and turning the ball over deep in ND territory.

Against the Spartans, it was more of the same. Michael Floyd coughed up the ball just outside the Michigan State redzone, costing the Irish at least three points in the second quarter, with the lead already 7-0 Irish. Crist’s interception on the first play of a drive later that quarter killed the Irish again in Spartan territory and turned into a 94 yard touchdown drive for the Spartans. Crist’s fourth quarter fumbled didn’t lose the game for the Irish, but it killed a potential go-ahead drive close to midfield.

Not to belabor the point, but a Dayne Crist fumble turned into seven points against Stanford. A Crist interception gave the Cardinal 14 points straight from the Irish quarterback’s hands to the wrong team. Against Navy, the Irish could’ve walked into the locker room down only four points, but Crist’s late interception added seven more to the Navy score, and a third quarter pick cemented the Midshipmen’s route. As for the Tulsa game? Well, Rees’ pick six was hardly his fault, but to say that turnovers killed the Irish in that game is an epic understatement.

When looked at cumulatively, the turnovers are maddening for Irish fans, and nearly a blow-by-blow account of what went wrong this season, and why the Irish are looking uphill at a bowl game. But when looking at the last two Notre Dame quarterbacks — two of the best to every play the position for the Irish — Crist’s struggles, especially while experiencing meaningful minutes for the first time and doing so in a new system, begins to make a little bit more sense.

When Brian Kelly talks about the razor thin margin for error this team has offensively, it sounds like coachspeak. But when you look at the games the Irish have lost, that observation looks a lot more insightful. Turning the ball over at critical times, that’s how the Irish got to 4-5.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.