Tulsa v Notre Dame

Pregame Twelve Pack: Utah edition


After a much needed week off, here comes another Pregame Twelve Pack. Twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play No. 14 Utah.

1. Let’s get it out of the way.  Michael Floyd isn’t talking about the NFL.

Brian Kelly wouldn’t talk about it, and Michael Floyd won’t either, leaving any decision to be made about the NFL until after the season, when Floyd can get some accurate advice on whether or not staying for his senior season is the best thing for him and his family.

When asked about Senior Day and whether or not this would be Floyd’s last game running out of the tunnel, Mike brushed the question off quickly.

“I never think about it. If that comes to a decision that I need to make, then that’s down the road,” Floyd said. “Right now I’m just trying to look for Saturday and get a big W under our shoulders.”

2. How difficult will it be to get that ‘W’ against No. 15 Utah?

Well, for Charlie Weis, a win against a team ranked in the Top 15 was a pretty tough task. Want a good reason why Weis isn’t on the Irish sidelines right now? It’s his record against teams in the AP Top 15: He was 1-11.

A quick recap:

2005: W against #3 Michigan — 17-10
2005: L against #1 USC — 34-31
2005: L against #4 Ohio State — 34-20
2006: L against #11 Michigan — 47-21
2006: L against #3 USC — 44-24
2006: L against #4 LSU — 41-14
2007: L against #14 ranked Penn State — 31-10
2007: L against #4 ranked Boston College — 27-14
2007: L against #13 ranked USC — 38-0
2008: L against #5 ranked USC — 38-3
2009: L against #6 ranked USC — 34-27
2009: L against #8 ranked Pitt – 27-22
Overall: 1-11

The good news for Irish fans? Weis’ lone victory against a top 15 team was in his first attempt. This will be Kelly’s first shot against a Top 15 team.

3. How legit is Utah’s Top 15 ranking?

Back when the Irish were prepping for Stanford, I openly questioned how good Stanford really was. It turns out they were really good, their only loss coming against Oregon, a team they lead at the half but gave up 28 unanswered second half points as the Ducks ran away from the Cardinal.

Anthony Pilcher over at Clashmore Mike did some statistical digging into Utah, and the results seem to tip the scales back towards Notre Dame. Vegas is also keeping the Irish in this game, with the Irish opening as only a four-point underdog, though it now sitting at 5.5 points.

According to Pilcher, Utah has played the 104th best schedule in college football, while Notre Dame’s ranks 4th, part of why the Irish are still predicted to keep this game within a touchdown, even with Tommy Rees making his first start at quarterback.

4. Even in a doomsday situation, don’t expect to see Andrew Hendrix.

While I didn’t write about it, I was a little bit surprised to hear that Andrew Hendrix was going to be inserted into the three-deep QB depth chart with the injury to Dayne Crist. While Hendrix certainly warranted getting some practice reps after Crist went down, I would’ve been shocked if Kelly ever let Hendrix step a foot onto the field with only three games left in the season.

Turns out, if Doomsday presents itself, it won’t be Hendrix captaining the Irish ship, but walk-on quarterback Brian Costello.

“Brian Castello will play this week,” Kelly said before cracking a joke. “Is it Brian Castello? Good. Got that right.”

Castello and Kelly have quite a relationship, with Castello the head of the “Red Army,” the group of back-up quarterbacks responsible for signaling in the plays to the starting quarterback. It was Castello who joked that he was the player on the roster that drew the ire of Kelly more than anybody else, and he’s never even seen the field. (Kelly also approved Castello as the guy on the team you’d most want to do your taxes.)

When will Andrew Hendrix be ready to see the field?

“I would say right now, I can’t see a situation where Andrew would play in the game,” Kelly said. “It would have to be Army, USC.”

By then, I’d be shocked if Kelly didn’t stick with Castello, saving Hendrix the year of eligibility. Still, these weeks in the depth chart will be illuminating for Hendrix, who walked onto campus as the most physically talented, but incredibly raw scholarship quarterback on the roster.

5. Checking in from Ecuador, it’s freshman safety Chris Badger!

The South Bend Tribune‘s Eric Hansen took to his email account to track down Irish freshman Chris Badger, who is roughly 3,000 miles away from South Bend this weekend, working in Ecuador on a 21-month long Mormon Mission.

This Saturday’s game had to be a tough one for Badger to miss, with it being against his home state Utah Utes. But Badger has his life focused on things much larger than a football game.

There’s no TV in the mission; there are no movies. I honestly am leaving the world behind for two years to serve, to do nothing else but to try and make someone else’s life better,” Badger told Hansen. “It’s more rewarding than I can describe.”

While the timing wasn’t perfect, there’s no faulting Badger for taking his mission, though the Irish could’ve used Badger in a secondary that was decimated with injuries this year.

6. Key No. 1 for the Irish this weekend — play better special teams.

Two weeks ago, a punt return touchdown and a blocked extra point returned for two points were the difference between winning and losing against Tulsa. This week, the Irish prepare to face Shaky Smithson, one of the country’s most dangerous returners.

Kelly was asked what the Irish needed to do to limit explosive returns.

“Two things. Number one, they do a great job building a wall for him and allowing him to get to that wall after he makes the first guy miss,” Kelly said. “He makes that first guy miss, they’ve got a very good scheme that allows him to get to that wall. Our guys have to do a great job of corralling him so he doesn’t get to that wall. If that wall gets set, Utah does a very good job. We’ve got to make sure we do a good job of corralling. There are probably going to be some times where we have to decide whether we’re going to kick to him or not. I think we have to consider all those things within the game plan.”

I’ve been harsh on punter Ben Turk, and I put the touchdown return against Tulsa on him, even if there were four Irish defenders in place to make the play. Turk has got to get better with both hang time and direction of his kicks. While he’s improved since the beginning of the season, he’s been far from consistent kicking the football.

7. Brian Smith, we hardly knew thee.

Outside linebacker Brian Smith will be playing his final home game in Notre Dame Stadium. If there’s a guy on the roster that’s polarized fans more than Smith these past four years, I’m not sure who it is.

Smith shot out of the gates during his freshman season, supplying one of the lone bright spots during a terrible 2007 season after being offered a late scholarship by the Weis regime only after the Irish decided to switch to a 3-4 defense. But from there, Smith plateaued, with his work at inside linebacker in the 4-3 during 2009 far from impressive.

But Smith got a fresh start in Kelly and Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, and from day one was inserted as the starting field-side outside linebacker. But he failed to keep the job, bumped for Kerry Neal during fall training camp. But after being relegated to a reserve role, Smith has played some of his best football, filling in admirably in the middle of the defense when Carlo Calabrese couldn’t play against Tulsa.

Thursday afternoon, Brian Kelly illuminated on the changes and maturity he’s seen Smith exhibit, a far cry from the person he observed at the end of last season.

“Maybe this isn’t right to say, but I wasn’t a big Brian Smith fan early on,” Kelly said candidly. “I thought he looked maybe a little too much at what he could do instead of what the team could do. I told him today, if I had anything to do with making the decision on a fifth year, which I certainly don’t, I’d be the first one in line advocating for Brian Smith to come back for another year. I would not have said that early in the year.”

Thanks to early playing time in 2007, Kelly won’t have that option, but Smith has three more games — and hopefully a bowl game as well — to continue that evolution.

8. Dan Wenger could try to return for a sixth year of eligibility.

Forget about a potential fifth year for Brian Smith, injured center Dan Wenger is trying to do something even more rare, successfully receive a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA, after missing two seasons with injuries.

The process is hardly a streamlined one.

“Here’s the specifics on how this moves forward: We cannot even file for a request for a sixth year until the end of the season. So even if that thing is postmarked and all done, we can’t turn it in,” Kelly said.

“First it goes to the Big East, and the Big East has to say no, and then it gets pushed to the NCAA. Essentially, they’re going to turn down a request for a sixth (year) unless there are circumstances that warrant it. And there are only about two or three of them. It has to be something that is extraordinary. This will not meet extraordinary. What it will be, did he lose two seasons of competition due to injury? That’s what it will come down to.”

Got that?

Kelly went through one of the more contentious sixth year battles ever, with former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk losing his plea for a final season with the Bearcats, even though he filed a lawsuit to try and overturn the ruling. Wenger case is much more clear-cut than Mauk’s, with Dan sitting out all of the 2007 season with an injury and missing every game of 2o1o with lingering concussion symptoms. If the doctors clear Wenger to play and he and his family weight the consequences, the Irish would be adding some veteran depth to an offensive line that’ll be graduating only Chris Stewart.

9. It’s brotherly love for Tony and Aaron Alford.

In one of those subplots that’ll surely have Alex Flanagan getting some screen time, Notre Dame wide receivers coach Tony Alford will welcome his brother, Utah running backs coach Aaron Alford, to South Bend this weekend, as their respective teams prepare to do battle.

And Alford’s making his family pick sides, laying down an ultimatum to his mother Gloria.

“My mom flew in. She’s sleeping at the house,” Alford said jokingly. “I told her, ‘Listen, if you don’t pick the right team and cheer for the right team, you can stay somewhere else.’ She can stay in Michigan City. I think that’s where Utah stays. She’s more than welcome to stay there Friday night.”

Joking aside, the relationship that Tony has with his brother Aaron is a strong one, with Tony providing plenty of support for his younger sibling.

“He’s done everything on his own merit. He seems to really enjoy what he’s doing, and I can’t tell you how proud of him I am,” Tony said. “I’m more proud of the young man he’s become, just the type of person he’s become.”

The relationship is an illuminating one, and after listening to Alford talk about his younger sibling, there’s no question why he’s renowned as a recruiter.

10. Key No. 2 for an Irish victory? Tommy Rees controlling the turnovers.

While most people would like to see the Irish establish some kind of running game, if Notre Dame is going to win the football game, they’ll have to do it behind the arm of Tommy Rees. Sure, trusting a true freshman to throw the ball to win the game doesn’t always work (see Tulsa for details), but the difference between this Utah team and some of its predeccesors is its inability to force turnovers.

Utah has only forced 14 turnovers, but when they do, they capitalize on them. For Rees to win the football game, he’ll need to minimize the mistakes, while also taking advantage of a surprisingly susceptible Utes defense against the explosive passing play.

Rees has shown the ability to be accurate on short, precision throws. Utah coach Kyle Whittingham and his defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, in only his second year, will likely have taken notice of that trend, possibly tempting the Irish to throw the ball down the field. If they do, it’ll be up to guys like TJ Jones and Tyler Eifert to work down the seams, if Utah decides to try and double team Michael Floyd.

11. After spurning them in recruiting, Manti Te’o has a chance to terrorize the Utes in person.

With his Mormon background and Hawaiian heritage, Manti Te’o was an early target of Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham, who has stocked his roster full of similar prospects to Te’o. But after initially considering the Utes, Te’o brushed aside the opportunity to play for Whittingham, narrowing down his choices to Notre Dame and USC, before eventually choosing the Irish in a Signing Day upset for the ages.

That didn’t stop Whittingham from singing Te’o’s praises this week:

“He’s a beast in the middle. He is someone  who is playing at a very high level,” Whittingham said.

“We would have loved the opportunity to have him, but he had his five official visits and we weren’t involved. We certainly knew about him and followed him since his sophomore year. There isn’t any team in the country who wouldn’t love to have him. He is just a talented kid, an exceptionally talented kid.”

Te’o’s inclusion in the Bednarik semifinalists is a sign that Manti’s made the leap from good to great this year. What’s even more amazing to consider is the fact that we’ve all seen Te’o miss quite a few tackles and run himself out of his share of plays, indicating a ceiling that has yet to be reached.

Nobody is looking towards next year yet, but with Te’o at one middle linebacker and Carlo Calabrese at the other, the Irish will have their best set of interior linebackers since the Lou Holtz era.

12. Irish fans should hope November 13th is still a magical day at Notre Dame Stadium.

The last time the Irish played on November 13th? Try 1993, when the No. 2 ranked Irish knocked off the No. 1 rated Florida State Seminoles, winning one of the highest-profile college football games ever played.

Jumping out to a 21-7 halftime lead, the Irish held on to beat Charlie Ward and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles, with Shawn Wooden knocking down a Ward pass as time ran out to ensure a victory.

With Lou Holtz in town earlier this week, I’d be shocked if this day in Notre Dame history wasn’t mentioned to a squad that’ll run onto their home field for the last time this season, hoping to win on Senior Day for the first time since 2007.




Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”