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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Army

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NEW YORK — As the Irish started their jog for the Yankee’s dugout after the game, strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo gave defensive coordinator Bob Diaco a very large bear hug. This was one of those jubilant celebratory embraces, the byproduct of both men’s work culminating in another absolutely dominant defensive performance and a 27-3 win for Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

It was Diaco’s defense that won the game for the Irish, stiffening after giving up a 17 play, 78-yard drive on Army’s opening drive that culminated in a field goal and a 3-0 lead for the Black Knights. But Diaco’s troops countered, playing inspired defense and answering any questions posed by the doubters who wondered if Diaco had the chops to stop an option attack that was similar to the one that carved up an Irish defense just 28 days ago.

While Diaco produced the scheme, it was Longo’s work that allowed the Irish to dominate the line of scrimmage and out-physical an undersized team that frankly should have been pushed around. This Irish defense, still missing missing two key cogs on the interior with nose tackle Ian Williams out and Carlo Calabrese incredibly limited, has given up only one touchdown in the last 13 quarters, none in the month of November, and came up with their own score for the first time since Robert Blanton ran back an interception against Purdue in 2008.  Here is the Irish defense that Brian Kelly promised Irish fans that Longo would deliver, a group that would physically win the battles and play better in November than they did in September, something Irish fans haven’t seen in a long time.

With six wins, the Irish have officially qualified for a post-season bowl game, and now head to Los Angeles for an intriguing finale against Lane Kiffin’s USC Trojans. Before we turn the page to Southern Cal, let’s take a look at the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s 27-3 victory.

1. Tommy Rees is the perfect triggerman for Brian Kelly’s offense.

Before the game, Irish quarterbacks Nate Montana, Andrew Hendrix, and Tommy Rees took turns throwing patterns to the Irish receiving corp. Montana spun relaxed spirals that reminded you who his father was. Hendrix looked like the impressive athlete with the quick release that Irish fans drooled over during last season’s recruiting. And Tommy Rees looked like an 18-year-old kid slinging the ball around North Quad with his roommates.

But the pride of Dillon Hall is the perfect fit for Brian Kelly’s spread attack. Since taking over the reins of the offense, Rees has piloted the Irish offense in a way that Dayne Crist couldn’t, and it’s a testament to Rees’ preternatural football IQ, not his physical prowess.

Rees throws a wobbly football with not a particularly strong throwing arm, but he’s quick with his decisions, calm in the pocket, and most often very smart with his reads. Throw out Rees’ interception on the game’s opening drive, and the true freshman played a wonderfully efficient game. He bought time in the pocket, opening up the crossing routes needed to beat Army’s man coverage. He showed touch on deep throws to Tyler Eifert, moving the offense vertically. He even showed savvy when things went wrong, eating the ball on a low snap and taking the occasional negative play instead of compounding the error trying to do too much.

Rees has a week to prepare for the two-headed monster of Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron, and skill and speed at defense that he hasn’t seen yet. But Rees seems truly like a freshman that won’t come unglued steering the Irish offense, even if you question if he’s old enough to legally drive it.

2. Bob Diaco has turned this defense around.

While his largest challenge will come next Saturday, it’s been nine quarters since Bob Diaco and the Irish have given up a touchdown. The last time that’s happened? The 1988 National Championship team. That’s a downright shocking statistic, and if you asked Irish fans if that was possible using personnel that remained largely unchanged from the S.S. Tenuta, they’ve have laughed at you.

But Diaco has turned this defense around stressing the simplicity of the message, and his defense has stopped thinking and started reacting.

After five first downs on their opening drive, Army was only able to get three more for the rest of the ballgame, with the Irish defense holding the Knights offense to less than 100 yards for the remaining three-plus quarters. The defense held Army fullback Jared Hassin to just 23 yards on eight carries and quarterback Trent Steelman to just 24 yards on 14 carries before knocking him out of the game. How dominant was the Irish’s performance stopping the run? Consider that the two longest plays on the ground for Army — a Steelman run of 16 yards and backup quarterback Max Jenkins’ 18-yard scamper — came on broken pass plays, with both quarterbacks forced to run away from a stout pass rush.

After going 1-8 the past two seasons in November, the Irish are 2-0 this month, playing their best football as the season comes to a close.

3. The Irish have guaranteed themselves that the season doesn’t end next Saturday.

It’s still far too difficult to determine where Notre Dame will be playing during bowl season, but the Irish have guaranteed that they’ll be playing somewhere, something that didn’t seem all that possible a few weeks ago when Irish fans wondered how Notre Dame would be able to win two of its final three football games.

(Consider that the Irish might also be facing USC without the services of quarterback Matt Barkley, who was carted off the field after suffering a high ankle sprain.)

Still, while a pre-New Years bowl game was hardly the goal, the Irish getting to the postseason guarantees something far more important: 15 more practices.

“As you continue to develop your program, those 15 practices are very important,” Kelly said after the game. “Now, if I brought that up in the locker room, my players don’t want to hear about 15 more practices. They want to hear about what’s the bowl destination. but as you continue to build and develop your program, those are important, but also getting to a bowl game and continuing to build off of the month of November.”

It’s not hard to see young talent developing before our very eyes as the season progresses and the Irish battle multiple injuries. Fifteen more practices — the equivalent of another spring season — will mean the world to the 2011 Fighting Irish.

4. Brian Kelly understands the importance of stability, depth and development.

Nobody should jump to conclusions after stirring victories over Utah and Army, but if Brian Kelly is going to succeed at Notre Dame, it’s because he understands that three critical facets of playing winning college football are stability, depth and development.

In a calendar year that’s seen incredible upheaval, consider the steady hand that Kelly has used to guide this program. While fans have questioned his gambling mentality and his refusal to change on Saturdays, Kelly and his staff have remained consistent.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said after the game. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

If stability is paramount, Kelly’s ability to develop depth is something that Irish fans should be very happy about. Consider Robby Toma. The proverbial Little Mac of the Irish roster, Toma made four catches for 63 yards, continuing to make big plays in place of injured slot receivers Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Here’s a low-star player, a recruiting afterthought, putting together big games for the Irish, when it’s usually the Irish getting less with more talent than just about every major program in college football.

5. Another neutral site game, another success for Notre Dame.

There are still those that think giving up a home game is stupidity defined, but if tonight’s game in Yankee Stadium proved anything, it’s that these neutral site games are a huge positive for the University of Notre Dame. With thousands of Irish fans invading Manhattan, Notre Dame’s game in Yankee Stadium took on the  same barnstorming feel that helped create the Irish brand to begin with. While ESPN decided to focus its attention on a game being played in one end zone at Wrigley Field, tonight’s event at Yankee Stadium was electric.

“A night like tonight reinforces our goal of continuously bringing memorable, meaningful events to Yankee Stadium and the Bronx throughout the years to come,” Yankees managing partner Hal Steinbrenner said. “We want to thank and commend Notre Dame and Army for their dedication and desire in bringing a historic night of football to Yankee Stadium. We can think of no two finer educational institutions to christen our new home with the great game of football. Their impact on the landscape of our nation — scholastically, athletically and through service — cannot be overstated enough.”

While tonight’s game didn’t amount to much on the football field, the atmosphere surrounding Yankee Stadium reminds everyone that Notre Dame is still the premium brand in college football, and the 50th meeting between Army and the Irish was one to remember.

 

 

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.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

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.