Robby Toma

What to take from the Blue-Gold game


The 27,863 fans that paid to see the Blue-Gold game in person might be thawed out and dry by now. For the rest of you that either skipped the festivities or watched on TV, trying to quantify what you saw and reach some conclusions might be a little difficult.

First, let’s cross off a few of the easy ones. Notre Dame has four intriguing quarterback options, all of whom are good enough to start for a BCS program… eventually. The Irish also have three legitimate kicking options, with Nick Tausch and Kyle Brindza putting together impressive performances. Lastly, Aaron Lynch looked pretty good out there, even if he still is a work-in-progress.

Here are a few other thoughts worth chewing on after re-watching Saturday’s game.

1. Even with a shaky Saturday, Dayne Crist is still the leader in the clubhouse for the starting job.

Sure, that short-hop throw to Theo Riddick gave many of you the twitches. But Crist looks much more stable in the offense, and that 5 for 11 wasn’t as ugly as it semi-appeared. Is Dayne as accurate as Jimmy Clausen (or even Brady Quinn)? No. But his command of the offense is much better than it was last year, and Crist’s struggles on Saturday were often because his receiver wasn’t on the same page — a page Crist was correctly on.

While it was nice to see both Hendrix and Golson flash brilliance, it’s clear right now that Crist and Rees give the Irish the best chance to win. Rees’ day — specifically his struggles controlling the slick ball and his poor read on Lo Wood’s interception — were a reminder that Tommy isn’t quite ready for prime-time either.

2. Dan Fox inserted his name into the middle of the middle linebacker conversation.

Fox has always been an intriguing candidate, but never much of an option because of his inability to stay completely healthy. But his seven tackles tied for a game high with Danny Spond and Aaron Lynch, and he was incredibly active from his middle linebacker position.

The depth at middle backer, whoever takes the spot next to Manti Te’o is an intriguing lot, with Carlo Calabrese the starter, but by no means a clear leader over Fox and Kendall Moore. You can easily add David Posluszny and Justin Utupo to that list, and I was really impressed with the freshman’s physicality.

3. Bob Diaco wasn’t showing his hand on Saturday.

Blink and you missed these guys: Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith. (I’m not counting Manti Te’o, who Kelly allowed to play on the punt team.)

Diaco has always played things close to the vest, but Saturday he filled his secondary with walk-ons and rolled into a vanilla coverage just about every play, relying on the strength of his front-seven players to keep the Irish offense at bay on a sloppy day.

Still, Kelly said everything he needed to after the game.

“When you go into the Fall and you feel like your defense is going to be able to stop the run and play the ball in the air, that is pretty good feeling,” Kelly said.

4. The wide receivers need a little work. The tight ends are good to go.

Regardless of weather conditions, I was hoping to see more from Theo Riddick and TJ Jones. Jones was playing nicked up with a bum ankle and Riddick was still in the midst of a (potentially temporary) transition to Michael Floyd’s receiver position. Still, it’d have been good to see one of the quarterbacks take a shot down field, especially against a mostly walk-on secondary. Robby Toma looked good in the slot, and Deion Walker finished up a strong spring with five catches for 56 yards.

While the wideouts underachieved, tight end Alex Welch impressed in his first real performance in front of Irish fans. Mike Ragone also had a nice catch to open the game in the slot, adding another complement to Tyler Eifert, who could be an All-American candidate this season. With Ben Koyack coming to campus this summer, those are four solid options at the position, taking some of the pressure off the receivers.

5. The young secondary is coming on strong.

For worried Irish fans, seeing Lo Wood step in front of a Tommy Rees pass and make a savvy play had to be reassuring. Just as important, Bennett Jackson looked like a natural at cornerback, making a few big hits and seeming at home on the opposite side of the ball. Ditto for Austin Collinsworth, who spent a ton of time as the only scholarship DB on the field, covering plenty of ground and making quite a few plays.

6. There’s a punting battle brewing between Ben Turk and Kyle Brindza

It’s no secret that Ben Turk struggled last year, both in terms of hang time and distance. With a strong wind, Brindza averaged 42.7 yards on his kicks while Turk averaged 40 yards per kick, with one of Turk’s punts the beneficiary of some nice roll.

From all reports, Brindza is still learning and his operation time needs some work. But special teams coach Mike Elston knows he needs more out of his punter and I expect Turk and Brindza to battle well into the fall.

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.”