Michael-Floyd

Pregame Twelve Pack: A Trojan finale

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We’re already here. The regular season finale is upon us as the Irish prepare to face off with their nemesis, the USC Trojans. As always, here are twelve fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to play USC at the Coliseum in primetime.

1. After two seasons on the shelf, Michael Floyd makes his debut against the Trojans.

Many Irish fans are worried that junior wide receiver Mike Floyd’s career will end after just three seasons, meaning this could be the only time Floyd hits the field against the rival Trojans. The previous two seasons Floyd missed the game, a knee injury holding him out of the 2008 game and a broken collarbone keeping Mike on the sideline last season.

While Floyd says he hasn’t made any decisions on next season, it’s clear this game means something to him.

“I’m really excited,” Floyd said. “My first time playing SC. This is one of the reasons you go to Notre Dame. It’s kind of like starting a whole new tradition. New coaches and stuff like that. Kind of start our own history. We’re all excited. It’s a big rivalry, SC-Notre Dame and we’re up for it.”

If there’s ever a time for Floyd to make a statement in the biggest rivalry game of the season for the Irish, this is it.

2. This is not the Trojan defense of old.

Maybe the best thing on Lane Kiffin’s coaching resume is his father Monte, who followed Kiffin from Tennessee to USC after spending the majority of his career in the NFL as one of the best defensive minds in all of football.

Both the elder Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron run a defense that’s astounding full of star power, with nearly every player in their two-deep having a four-star rating, and those that don’t are almost as likely to have five stars than three.

But the defense is a shell of the ones put together under former coach Pete Carroll, and the Trojans rank an astoundingly mediocre 92nd in total defense in the country. (92nd. Right between Wyoming and Idaho. The Irish rank 55th.)

There are only six teams in the country doing a worse job stopping the pass than USC, most likely a testament to the two healthy scholarship cornerbacks that the Trojans have at their disposal. The Trojan run defense is middle of the road, so there’s very good reason to believe that Notre Dame should be able to move the ball, even with Tommy Rees playing in hostile territory for the first time in his career.

3. Another plus for the Irish? It’s looking less and less likely that Matt Barkley will play.

On Wednesday, Lane Kiffin went on the Dan Patrick show and reported that starting quarterback Matt Barkley has been held out of practice this week with a high ankle sprain, an injury suffered last week that would make playing on Saturday incredibly unlikely.

“Matt didn’t practice yesterday,” Kiffin said. “Mitch Mustain took all the snaps yesterday. We have great confidence in Mitch.”

The news from Wednesday’s practice was even more predictable, with Kiffin calling Mustain’s work in practice “Phenomenal. the best we’ve seen him since he’s been here.”

Meanwhile Barkley still hasn’t practiced, but no longer is in a walking boot.

“It’s improving every day, which is great,” Barkley said. “It’s still a day-to-day thing. I’m definitely above 50 percent.”

Barkley was one of many quarterbacks to have a career day against the Irish last season, but he’s struggled the past few weeks after getting out of the gate quickly. The Irish may get a break if he’s unable to go on Saturday night.

4. That said, Mitch Mustain is no slouch either.

Before there was hotshot, uber-recruit Matt Barkley, there was hotshot, uber-recruit Mitch Mustain, who signed with Arkansas after then head coach Houston Nutt made the nearly unprecedented move of hiring Mustain’s high school coach Gus Malzahn as his offensive coordinator. While Malzahn has become a star at the collegiate ranks, Mustain has fallen flat.

The consensus high school National Player of the Year took the reins of the Arkansas offense immediately, leading the Hogs to a freshman record eight straight wins before losing playing time before the SEC Championship game.

From there, Mustain’s relationship with Nutt and Arkansas soured in bizarre fashion, including Mustain’s family making an open records request for Nutt’s cell phone records that revealed a personal relationship between the head coach and a local female news reporter. With bridges burned in his home state, Mustain transferred to USC, where he has yet to win the starting job.

Now Mustain’s final two games as a Trojan might be two of the biggest starts of the season. And the senior quarterback is ready.

“There was always a chance it would never happen, but I’ve always looked forward to the chance, however slim it may be,” Mustain said this week. “It’s what I’ve been practicing for, and it’s why I stuck around this year. I’m ready to go.”

Mustain always has Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel to look at for inspiration, who spent his career at USC as a backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart before being plucked out of obscurity by the Patriots and signing a monster contract with Kansas City.

5. Time to rise to the occasion, Tommy Rees.

If Notre Dame wants to end their losing streak against the Trojans, it’ll happen because Tommy Rees doesn’t get swept up in the moment.

A lot has been made about Rees’ entrance into college football — games at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium and now the Coliseum. But this will be the first time Rees faces anything resembling a hostile crowd, and the freshman will need to keep his composure early for the Irish to have a chance. Kelly’s comments before the Army game likely still apply to Rees’ first true road start.

“We’ll try to give him some more opportunities within what I believe are is strengths,” Kelly said then. “He distributes very well, his ball placement, it’s all now about what he sees and how he reacts.”

Rees spent some of his youth in California, where his father spent fourteen years working in the football department for UCLA and his brother Danny Rees is a senior holder for the Bruins, making Tommy familiar with the crosstown Trojans. While he won’t face a linebacking corp with guys like Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, and Rey Maualuga, he will face the fastest, most talented unit he’s seen, so keeping turnovers down will be imperative.

6. Can the Irish defense stop USC’s passing game?

At the beginning of the year, would anyone have thought the Irish would’ve given up just one less passing touchdown than Alabama? The Irish rank 8th in the country in limiting passing touchdowns with only nine conceded, only two behind the national leaders and ahead of teams like TCU and Nebraska.

The improvement the passing defense has shown is a testament to the improvement of the defensive backs under secondary coach Chuck Martin and the ability for the Irish to get after the passer better, ranking 29th in the country with 26 sacks, already a six sack improvement over last year’s unit that finished with just 20.

It’s been 11 consecutive quarters for the Irish defense without giving up a touchdown, the longest streak since 1981, and done against three teams that average about five touchdowns a game. The Irish have to come into Saturday’s game feeling very good about their defensive chances.

7. The star-crossed path of Dillon Baxter brings him back to the gridiron on Saturday.

Highly touted running back Dillon Baxter became a YouTube sensation for some fancy running during spring drills last year. Since then, he’s been mostly a headache for Southern Cal.

“It’s been an up-and-down season with him in general,” Lane Kiffin said diplomatically this week.

Baxter was suspended for the season opening game against Hawaii for what was largely reported as a on-campus incident that involved marijuana. He’s suffered injuries that have hurt his ability to push for playing time, and has gotten over 10 carries in a game just twice, gaining 75 yards on 14 carries against lowly Washington State in his best game as a Trojan. Almost surprisingly, Baxter’s longest play from scrimmage has been 17 yards, with a run against Virginia in his first collegiate game matched by a reception against Minnesota the week after.

Baxter sat out last week’s game after he reportedly received an improper benefit from a NFL certified agent — a golf cart ride from a USC student that’s started his own agency.

“I’m sure a lot of people look at this one as something that could happen to anybody and that he wasn’t necessarily in the wrong,” Kiffin said. “But it doesn’t matter. He’s already put himself in position where there isn’t room for any poor judgment.”

Regardless of the headaches, Baxter is a supremely talented player, and Irish fans hope the freshman’s coming out party is delayed another week.

8. Familiar faces roam both sidelines.

A quick look at both rosters reveals just how often the Trojans and the Irish compete for the same recruiting targets. USC is still smarting that they lost out on linebacker Manti Te’o, who just about everybody had pegged as going to USC. But for every Irish recruiting victory, there are Notre Dame targets dressed in Cardinal and Gold.

Starting running back Marc Tyler seemed a near lock for Notre Dame when his high school best friend Jimmy Clausen committed to the Irish with Tyler in attendance. Star freshman Robert Woods had an offer from the Irish before choosing the Trojans, and he’s become one of USC’s best offensive weapons. Names like Kyle Prater, Blake Ayles, Brice Butler (more on him later), Butch Lewis, Malcolm Smith, Chris Galippo, and Jawanza Starling all were targeted by the former Irish coaching staff.

The Irish pulled guys like Dayne Crist, Cierre Wood, and Ethan Johnson out from under the noses of the USC coaching staff so it isn’t exactly one-sided. Look for guys like Wood to play well, with plenty of motivation to show family and friends the progress they’ve made.

9. Former NBC commentator Pat Haden is now openly rooting against Notre Dame.

There wasn’t a week that went by last season where a reader didn’t openly accuse former NBC commentator and former USC quarterback Pat Haden of rooting against Notre Dame from the broadcast booth. While the accusation was always baseless, for the first time in a long while, Haden can openly root against the Irish this Saturday, when his alma mater takes on the Irish, and Haden is the new face of the Trojan athletic department.

Brought in to create a “culture of compliance” after former athletic director Mike Garrett openly scoffed at NCAA regulations, Haden stepped away from his announcing gig and his successful finance career to become athletic director at Southern Cal.

As the Dillon Baxter story shows, every week is a new challenge for the former Rhodes Scholar and first time university administrator. And while Trojan fans think the new emphasis on compliance is overkill, Haden’s take the drastic measures necessary to turn around an athletic department that had fallen far behind in its organizational structure.

“Where we’re at right now, getting so far ahead of things is good,” Haden said. “Although [recent issues have been] extremely minor, you’re finding them before they become major.”

There’s a large facet of Trojan fans that still have their head buried in the sand about the past regimes indiscretions, but there’s no better man than Haden to restore accountability in the athletic department.

10. Roby Toma is proving most of us wrong.

Of all the receivers you’d think quarterback Tommy Rees would develop a rapport with, you’d hardly expect it to be waterbug Roby Toma. But that was Toma making four big catches for 63 yards against Army, picking up first downs on three of them as he was targeted more often than any other Irish receiver on Saturday.

Messageboard legend Hobbs pointed out last week just how impressive Toma has been, especially when you compare him to one of the Irish’s top recruiting targets of the same class, Trojan Brice Butler, a four-star recruit from Georgia that had his pick of schools.

Butler’s only contributed nine catches this season for 112 yards, with a season high of three catches and 49 yards against Arizona State two weeks ago. After not seeing the field in the first six games, Toma has 12 catches for 172 yards, averaging almost 15 yards a catch.

Theo Riddick and TJ Jones are both likely back on Saturday for the Irish, but expect Toma to continue to play a key role in the Irish offense.

11. David Ruffer is kind of a big deal.

I’ve been out front driving the David Ruffer bandwagon and started the official unofficial David Ruffer for the Groza Award campaign a few weeks ago, but it looks like he won’t need our PR anymore.

Ruffer’s great week continued when just days after being named one of the three finalists for the Groza, Ruffer was named a first-team ESPN Academic All-American, making him the 31st Irish football player to be named an Academic All American.

Ruffer carries a 3.9 GPA in Economics, but more importantly for the football team carries a consecutive streak of 20 field goals into the Coliseum, making two kicks at Yankee Stadium from 47 and 39 yards. Is the streak getting to him?

“It is what it is,” Ruffer said. “As long as it’s on me, people are going to ask questions. I try not to pay attention to it.”

Ruffer’s streak started last year against Pitt when Nick Tausch couldn’t answer the bell after a leg injury. If it lasts through this weekend, it’ll be a very good thing for the Irish.

12. Michael Floyd wanted to be a… Trojan?

It’s hard to imagine it, but Michael Floyd tried his best to get the attention of the USC coaching staff when he was a high school star at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul.

“He wrote us a letter that SC was his dream school and this was where he always wanted to play at the time,” Kiffin said. “He was a dominant player then and still is.”

Kiffin may be practicing a little revisionist history this week, as Floyd’s letters and game tape went largely unnoticed by the coaching staff, who wanted Floyd to camp in Southern California to earn a scholarship offer.

Luckily for Irish fans, Floyd never made the trip to south-central Los Angeles and now Floyd has a chance to feast on a Trojan secondary that has talent, but is incredibly thin.

Floyd celebrates his 21st birthday today and no doubt would consider a victory Saturday night as icing on the birthday cake. Happy birthday wishes to MMF.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)