Notre Dame in 2011: What makes this year different?

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It was almost odd seeing it. Six years ago, a roster filled with the same guys that were trampled by USC and Purdue (Purdue!), edged by BYU, Boston College and Pittsburgh, and looked rudderless at the Insight Bowl after head coach Tyrone Willingham was dismissed, came out of the locker room eight months later transformed.

In an opening day grudge match between Charlie Weis and Dave Wannstedt, both fresh from the AFC East, the Irish ran the former Dolphins head coach out of his own stadium, as both coaches led their alma maters in decidedly different directions. Brady Quinn, a junior that looked the part his first two seasons but hadn’t delivered, transformed into a leading man. On the ground, an offensive line that was soft turned into a steamroller up front, leading an Irish cavalcade — five guys averaged more than five-yards a carry. Little used wide receiver Jeff Samardzija snatched a tricky touchdown pass in the end zone with six minutes left in the first half. As the Irish went to halftime, they had scored 35 first half points. It might as well have been raining manna from heaven.

The entire 2005 season still feels like a blur. Even when the Irish lost, it was memorable; storming back from a twenty-one point second-half deficit, the Irish lost a stunner in overtime to Michigan State 44-41. Then, an electric Saturday with the underdog Irish in green jerseys on a crisp October afternoon. When the numbness of USC’s improbable comeback wore off, Irish fans would never admit it, but the loss didn’t really matter: Notre Dame was back.

For a school that made a habit of waking up the echoes, the upcoming 2006 season felt different. It wasn’t just Irish fans that thought it could be the year. Sports Illustrated had bought in. So did ESPN. So did the entire AP Poll. That was Notre Dame sitting at No. 2 in the preseason, narrowly behind Ohio State and garnering 10 first place votes.

With 17 starters and 36 monogram winners returning, the banner Weis hung in the weight room that claimed “9-3 isn’t good enough,” didn’t feel like over-confidence from one of college football’s brashest coaches. The offensive backfield returned. Rhema McKnight replaced Maurice Stovall as All-American Jeff Samardzija’s partner-in-crime, protected by an offensive line with three returning starters. Even better, the defense returned nine starters and eight of the top ten tacklers. All four starters returned on the defensive line. The secondary was completely intact. Weis even inserted tailback Travis Thomas in at weakside linebacker (a move right out of Belicheck’s playbook), and an immediate athletic upgrade to a defense that looked a step slow against USC.

As Brian Kelly looked to build off the first winning season Central Michigan had completed in nearly a decade, Charlie Weis was set to return Notre Dame to college football’s promise land.

***

EXT. OPEN FIELD – DAY

Leaves scatter on a football field on a glorious autumn afternoon. CHARLIE BROWN stands with his faithful companion SNOOPY. His friend LUCY approaches carrying a football.

LUCY
Say Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football.
How about practicing a few place kicks?
I’ll hold the ball and you come running
and kick it.

CHARLIE
Oh, brother. I don’t mind the dishonesty
half as much as I mind your opinion of me.
You must think I’m stupid.

LUCY
Oh, come on, Charlie Brown. I’ll hold it steady.

Charlie is immediately distrustful of his friend in the blue dress.

CHARLIE
You just want me to come running up to kick that ball
so you can pull it away and see me land flat on my
back and kill myself.

LUCY
This time you can trust me.

Charlie seems skeptical until Lucy produces a DOCUMENT out of thin air.

LUCY
Here’s a signed document. Testifying that I promise not to pull it away.

Lucy hands him the document. Charlie marvels at the development as he peruses the contract.

CHARLIE
It is signed… It’s a signed document! I guess if you have a signed
document in your possession, you can’t go wrong. This year,
I’m really going to kick that football.

Filled with belief, Charlie looks down at the document. He’s convinced. With a running start, he charges toward Lucy, who holds the ball for his kick. Charlie SWINGS HIS LEG, ready for the triumphant strike when… THE BALL DISAPPEARS.

Lucy has done it again, pulling the ball out from under an unsuspecting Charlie Brown. Charlie SCREAMS in agony as he LANDS FLAT ON HIS BACK.

The signed document floats into Lucy’s hands.

LUCY
Peculiar thing about this document. It was never notarized.

FADE TO BLACK.

***

Charles Schulz got it wrong when he chose yellow and black for Charlie’s shirt colors. Our favorite optimistic lad might have felt far more comfortable wearing blue and gold, surrounded by the thousands of alumni and subway domers gearing up to once again take the leap after five seasons of frustration.

While two BCS appearances since 2005 is hardly grounds for a eulogy, it’s been a winding road filled with plenty of detours that’s led Notre Dame back to this not-quite familiar place. The rug was pulled out from beneath the program in 2007. A year later, a 5-2 start was erased by a humbling conclusion. While Weis seemed to have the Irish building for the future after a much-needed bowl victory, 2009 was a different version of the same song. After a four game swoon ended the regular season in dramatic fashion, an expensive plug was pulled on a Charlie Weis era that started with a bang but went out like a whisper.

Brian Kelly didn’t come out of the gates swinging. He won his debut in unimpressive fashion, but the Irish limped out of the gate, starting 1-3. Steadfast in his 20 years of experience as a head coach, Kelly didn’t panic.

“There’s going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country,” Kelly said after the Irish were beaten soundly by Stanford 37-14. “Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 8- or 9-3. It’s what you decide to do from here on out. There’s going to be success down the road for them if they stay with it, and I’m certain that they will.”

It got worse before it got better, with the Irish losing in humiliating and shocking fashion to Navy and Tulsa respectively. But with a bye week to regroup, a funny thing happened. Notre Dame started playing good football. November had been particularly unkind to Weis’ Irish squads (1-8 record the past two seasons), but last season’s Irish vanquished demons of seasons past, ending the year on a four-game winning streak that included wins over Utah, Army, USC and a convincing defeat of Miami in the Sun Bowl.

An 8-5 finish doesn’t get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, but there are plenty of people that see big things in store for the 2011 campaign. While it may be hard for some to dust themselves off and get ready to kick off another season, here are four reasons why this season will be different.*

1. The Irish have the size in their defensive front seven.

There aren’t many football teams that have the sheer size of the Irish in their front seven. When LSU pushed Notre Dame all over the football field in the Sugar Bowl ending the 2006 season, it was obvious the Irish were undermanned physically.

Let’s take a quick look at the front seven of both the 2006 defense and the 2011 Irish, and you’ll quickly get the picture.

2006 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Victor Abiamiri: 6-4, 270 – Sr.
DT: Trevor Laws, 6-1, 283 – Sr.
DT: Derek Landri, 6-3, 277 – Sr.
DE: Ronald Talley, 6-4, 262 – Jr.
OLB: Travis Thomas, 6-0, 215 – Sr.
MLB: Maurice Crum, 6-0, 220 – Jr.
OLB: Mitchell Thomas, 6-3, 232 – Sr.
Key Reserves:
DL: Chris Frome, 6-5, 262 – Sr.
DL: Dwight Stephenson, 6-2, 248

2011 Opening Day Front Seven

DE: Kapron Lewis-Moore: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
DT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285 – Sr.
DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300 – Sr.
OLB: Darius Fleming: 6-2, 255 – Sr.
ILB: Manti Te’o: 6-2, 255 – Jr.
ILB: Dan Fox: 6-3, 240 – Jr.
OLB: Prince Shembo: 6-2, 250 – So.
Key Reserves:
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326 – So.
LB: Carlo Calabrese: 6-1, 245 – Jr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265 – Fr.
DE: Stephon Tuitt: 6-6.5, 295 – Fr.

If you’re looking for mathematical proof that the Irish are stronger up front than they have been in a long time, take a look at the difference in sheer size between the 2006 front seven and the unit from this year. Even with Sean Cwynar playing as an undersized defensive tackle, he’d still be the largest guy on the 2006 roster.

With proper weight training and physical conditioning, this isn’t a team you’re likely to see on rollerskates at the end of the season, like you did with Irish team’s of the past. Size may not be the only determining factor, but for the first time in a very long while, the Irish can control — and dominate — the point of attack at the line of scrimmage.

2. The Irish will be better balanced and more productive on offense.

It’s hard to believe it, but even with the Irish breaking in an entirely new system, losing their starting quarterback, All-American tight end, two different starting wide receivers and a starting right tackle, the Irish offense wasn’t all that bad.

In fact, it was essentially a mirror image of the 2006 unit.

Looking back at the stat-line for both squads, it’s shocking to see how similar the offensive outputs were between the ’06 squad many saw as one of the most high-octane in college football, and Kelly’s ’10 team that was learning the ropes with Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees.

Here’s a breakdown of the run/pass ratio for both teams, along with their scoring average.

2006 per game output

36 passing attempts, 7.3 yards per pass. (11.8 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 3.9 yards per carry.
Points per game: 31.0

2010 per game output

37 passing attempts, 6.8 per attempt (11.5 per catch)
32 rushing attempts, 4.0 yards per rush
Points per game: 26.3

If you’re looking for the major difference between the two teams, look at the red zone efficiency. Weis’ 2006 squad cashed in 90 percent of their chances, scoring touchdowns on 76 percent. Kelly’s first squad only scored in 82 percent, with touchdowns coming at only a 58 percent clip.

With another year in the system for Crist (and Tommy Rees), a running game that’s got four returning starters along the offensive line, and a team that showed an offensive identity in the final month of last season, if the Irish can build in their second year under Kelly and stay reasonable healthy, the offense will be in great shape.

3. Consistency in coaching a system and fundamentals fuels player development.

If there was a knock on Charlie Weis, it was his strident belief that he could out-scheme anybody. That “decided schematic advantage” became a punch-line to detractors when Weis was under fire, but also went a long way towards explaining why player development stalled out, as Weis consistently tweaked his coaching staff, schemes, and base knowledge for players in hopes of gaining an edge.

“I’ve had three different defensive coordinators, three different position coaches,” Ethan Johnson said. “This is the first time I’ve gone into a system for two consecutive years and known what to expect. In that respect, we’re going to have a much more productive year because we’re not dealing with a new coaching staff and a new system.”

Many questioned Kelly’s approach to hiring a staff when he brought with him a handful of coaches from Cincinnati and a group that was low on Q-rating but high on familiarity with Kelly’s system.

The “one-voice” approach was a stark contrast to Weis’ hiring philosophy. When the Irish defense struggled, Weis replaced coordinator Rick Minter‘s 4-3 defense with Corwin Brown‘s 3-4 system, only to bring in Jon Tenuta and go back to a four-man front. A roster already assembled for a system it was no longer running was forced to add another level of complexity to it, and the results on the defensive side of the ball were self-explanatory.

Kelly’s name hasn’t been too far away from the “genius” moniker, but the brilliance in his system is also in its simplicity. It’s that simplicity, both on offense and defense, that allows players to develop quickly on his rosters, fueling growth and improvement throughout the season.

4. Momentum.

For the first time since this football team enrolled in school, the Irish had an offseason where they were able to build off of an impressive finish and continue developing. Where as Weis’ last two rosters collapsed at the first sign of adversity, Kelly’s 2010 team picked itself off the mat twice, ending the season on a high note.

With a healthy spring practice session, an incredible recruiting haul on the defensive side of the ball, and the return of Michael Floyd from disciplinary purgatory, the Irish are poised to build on a season that had every player and coach on the roster doing an awful lot of self-examination.

***

There will always be questions on a roster. Can Dayne Crist carry the offense? Will Cierre Wood be able to last the season? Can the Irish secondary stay healthy? We’ll find all that out over the next three months.

But as the days get shorter, summer turns to fall, and Saturdays become a communal exercise in hope, there’s plenty of reason to think this year might be better than the last. And while all of this could be shot to hell by the time the calendar hits October, Notre Dame is once again poised to make a run in college football.

Now come on, Charlie Brown. I’ve got a football. Let’s practice a few kicks.

* These reasons were not notarized.

Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

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Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Associated Press
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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.