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And in that corner… The Utah Utes

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It’s hard to know what to expect this Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Enter Utah, who a week ago was in contention for the national championship, and ranked fifth in the country. With a true freshman quarterback now manning an offense without it’s All-American tight end and emerging star Theo Riddick, there was little reason for hope if you were an Irish fan.

But then last Saturday happened. While the Irish were home resting, the Utes got exposed on a national stage in the biggest football game of last week, getting drubbed by No. 3 TCU 47-7, in a game that poked plenty of holes in the legitimacy of Kyle Whittingham’s troops.

To get a better feel for Utah, we’re bringing in Sean Reynolds, the proprietor of Block U, the “home to the University of Utah and all its classless fans!” (I’m guessing this self-endorsement was a nod to former BYU quarterback Max Hall.) A Ute fan for most of his life, he’s also got the unfortunate ability to say that he’s been a Notre Dame fan since birth, even holding onto a rare 1993 keepsake t-shirt, “Catholics vs. Mormons.”

I asked the questions and Sean gave the answers:

Inside the Irish: Notre Dame fans know firsthand the feeling that Utah fans felt last Saturday. What do you really know about this Utah football team after nine games?

Sean Reynolds: I think the Utes are a very good team who played a very bad game and the result was their first loss of the season. They’re not at TCU’s level and with how talented and experienced the Frogs are, it shouldn’t be a surprise. With that said, I really don’t think TCU is 40 points better than Utah. That made their loss that much harder to accept. It was an ugly game all around and I think proof that even good teams can be de-pantsed if they don’t bring it every week.

ITI: Obviously, Utah isn’t in the same league as TCU, which isn’t surprising after looking at the youth on offense for the Utes. What type of team walks into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday?

SR: I’m hoping a team that is very focused. Their loss Saturday certainly stung and cast some doubt on this team’s ability. However, they didn’t just luck into eight wins and they have proven over the course of the season they are a good team. They can’t get caught up in how poorly they played Saturday and instead use that as a template of what not to do the remainder of the season.

ITI: Saturday wasn’t Jordan Wynn’s best day at the office. What will he need to do to get the offense back in order?

SR: Jordan Wynn has played an awful lot like a sophomore this year. He’s put together some great games and struggled in others and that inconsistent play has really altered the way the offense succeeds week in and week out. Saturday, they couldn’t get much of anything going and I’m not so sure that was entirely Wynn’s fault. He didn’t play well and that was obvious to anyone that watched the game, but a lot of passes were dropped and that ultimately put the Utes in a hole early.

Wynn also was hindered by play calling, which set to establish a passing game early at the expense of the run — which makes sense, since TCU’s run defense is tops nationally.

This week though, I anticipate Utah won’t rely so much on Wynn’s arm. They’ve still got two good backs in Eddie Wide and Matt Asiata and both should have a better time running against Notre Dame’s 79th-ranked rush defense. If they can establish a ground game early, which they weren’t able to do Saturday, expect Wynn to settle in a bit more and not force up as many bad throws.

ITI: The defense should be ready to tee off on a Notre Dame offense that’s missing its quarterback, running back, tight end, and starting slot receiver. How do you think Utah will try to defend the Irish?

SR: I really wouldn’t be surprised if Utah tested Notre Dame’s young quarterback early. The Irish had produced a pretty effective passing offense up to the injury of Dayne Crist and it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over with so much change under center. The fact the Irish are toward the bottom of the nation in running pretty much tells the story. If you stop their passing game, you stop their offense and probably win the game. So that’s the path I think the Utes will take. Especially since they rank 25th nationally in pass defense.

ITI: The nation isn’t used to seeing a Kyle Whittingham team get beaten like they did on Saturday. What does the Utah fanbase make of the loss? Is it a knock on Whittingham?

SR: The loss was surprising because, like you said, we’re not used to Whittingham getting his clock cleaned like that. But bad losses happen. I don’t think it’s a knock on Whittingham because he’s been on the other side of a blowout many, many times (Sugar Bowl against Alabama for starters). He’s won too many games and done so much for the program for fans to question his coaching.

ITI: Gut feeling on Saturday?

SR: My gut says Utah comes out and plays harder than we’ve probably seen this season. They’re not as bad as TCU made ’em look Saturday and I think they want to prove that to the nation. It was an embarrassing loss and that can’t be the lasting image of our program in 2010. They’ll be fired up and I suspect they’ll win. But they can’t enter this game expecting that Notre Dame is going to lie down and die. The Irish are fighting for bowl eligibility. They’re fighting for respect. They’re fighting to right the ship and a win over Utah would surely add some much needed spark to a listless program. They’re very capable of winning this game and as Utah proved last week, they’re not immune to bad play.

But ultimately, I have too much trust in Kyle Whittingham to believe they’ll overlook the Irish or enter too confident. They were humbled last Saturday and it will show in their performance this weekend.

*****

A special thanks to Sean for the in-depth answers. Check out Block U for more Utah coverage throughout the week.

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.