Jim Tressel

The battle for the Midwest


With this week’s news exposing Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel as not quite the virtuous character his sweatervest and pious nature portend, this is a remarkably turbulent time for the powers of Midwestern college football.

Consider the state of the Big Ten conference. After firing Lloyd Carr for failing to keep Michigan up-to-speed with their archrivals in Columbus, the Wolverines bottomed out their program with three years of Rich Rodriguez, a failed attempt at wooing Jim Harbaugh, and settled for hiring Brady Hoke, he of a sub .500 head coaching record.

Ohio State, now short their head coach for at least two games (and if the NCAA has anything to say about it, likely longer) will open the season without senior quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games, last season’s preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. They’ll also miss four other contributors, with DeVier Posey, Dan Herron, left tackle Mike Adams, and Solomon Thomas sitting out that stretch, too.

Sure, the Buckeyes will only have one conference opponent to beat among those five foes (though playing down in Miami won’t be easy), but the secondary effect of Tressel and the Buckeyes wearing the scarlet letter could be worth watching. The stench coming from a Midwestern power that relies significantly on recruits culled from within its geographical corridor could bring some upheaval to the status quo.

And that’s where these next few years get interesting. Joe Paterno can’t coach forever, and Tom Bradley’s pursuit of other head coaching jobs likely means there’ll be transition in Happy Valley soon. As Nebraska enters the fray, and programs like Wisconsin and Michigan State continue to rise, the Big Ten could be looking at a significant shake up in their ranks.

For the first time in nearly two decades, you can easily argue that Notre Dame is the most stable of the (perceived) elite programs in the Midwest, and with both Michigan and Ohio State on far shakier ground than they’ve ever been, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff have an opening that they’re uniquely qualified to jump through.

Just about every coach on Kelly’s staff has roots in either the state of Ohio or Michigan. Whether it was on Kelly’s staff at Grand Valley, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati, this staff has relationships at the high schools where students primarily look at the Buckeyes and Michigan as the top program on the proverbial heap.

If you’re looking closely, the move is already happening. Of the 85-odd scholarships the Irish have offered, there are reportedly 12 offers out to Ohio natives. According to IrishSportsDaily.com, here’s who the Irish have offered from the state of Ohio:

Maty Mauk, QB — Kenton, Ohio
Will Mahone, RB — Austintown, Ohio
Warren Ball, RB — Columbus, Ohio (an Ohio State commit)
Dwayne Stanford, WR — Cincinnati, Ohio
Corey Smith, WR — Akron, Ohio
Taylor Decker, OL — Vandalia, Ohio (an Irish commit)
Tom Strobel, DE — Mentor, Ohio
Greg McMullen, DE — Akron, Ohio
Adolphus Washington, DE — Cincinnati, Ohio
Sevon Pittman, DE — Canton, Ohio
Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB — Centerville, Ohio
Jarrod Wilson, FS — Akron, Ohio

These scholarships were obviously offered well before the Irish caught wind of any controversy in Columbus, but there’s no better time for Notre Dame to target the state, which appears to be incredibly talented this year and Ohio State already low on available scholarships.

All this isn’t to say that the Irish will have free reign across the Midwest. While Rich Rodriguez looked south for speed during his time in Ann Arbor, Brady Hoke has recommitted to the program’s roots, bringing with him a defensive coordinator that knows the area, and the Irish, well. Former Baltimore Ravens, Florida Gators, and Irish defensive coordinator Greg Mattison returns to Ann Arbor where he’s already worked as a coordinator and Mattison is well known for his recruiting exploits, often labeled as a negative recruiter against the Irish when he worked under Urban Meyer in Gainesville. He’ll likely have to change his tune, now that Notre Dame has completely upgraded its facilities since Mattison coached in South Bend, and with the Irish already showing they’re willing and able to combat negative tactics, evident when you consider Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt will be in Irish uniforms next season.

Obviously, any story talking about recruiting and program momentum can only truly be judged once the games start being played. So while the Irish happily possess the type of hope and progress that comes with rattling off four straight victories to close the 2010 season, they’re still building off a five-loss year with a head coach entering his second season. But, if trends turn into results and Kelly and company build on a promising season and recruiting class, the dynamics of the college football food-chain might be shifting.

And for the first time in a long time, Notre Dame is in position to do some damage.






Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.