Skip Holtz USF

ND vs. USF: Final questions with Greg Auman


With kickoff just a few short hours away, I had a chance to catch up with Greg Auman of the St. Petersburg Times and get the scoop. Greg’s been covering the USF Bulls since 2004, so he’s got the beat covered better than anyone.

If you’re looking to get some final cramming on USF so you can impress your friends at the tailgater or game-watch, check out Greg’s stuff here.

KA: How badly do you think Skip Holtz wants to win this game? This isn’t just another Saturday for him, is it?

Skip’s been very careful about framing this game as being much larger for USF than it is for himself, but he’s also been very honest about what an emotional and meaningful game this will be for him personally. There’s a great reverence for Notre Dame — as you probably know, he takes pride in being the first Holtz in South Bend, having gone to Holy Cross for two years so he could get in to Notre Dame, all before his father became head coach. It’s a very special place for him, and I think he as much as anyone recognizes the grand tradition that Notre Dame has and how much it would help his young USF program to win such a game on a huge platform as he has this weekend.

KA: What’s been the biggest change to the USF program since Holtz took it over?

There’s not any one thing you can point to, but the demeanor of the head coach is certainly different. Jim Leavitt built the program from scratch and Holtz has been very consistent in praising him for that, but Leavitt was an intense, driven coach that didn’t care much about anything not directly related to football. I think Holtz has been a bit more public and charismatic as an ambassador for the program — a lot of radio and TV appearances and such — and in doing that has helped make USF a little more approachable for outsiders beyond their core fanbase. I think USF players liked Leavitt very much as well, but there’s a different feel in the building now.

KA: Is there a part of this matchup that has the USF staff confident? What’s USF’s weakness?

Notre Dame doesn’t have a glaring vulnerability, but I think the coaching staff likes the time they’ve been able to spend studying Notre Dame and building a scheme that best suits USF’s personnel. The defense is USF’s stronger, more experienced half, and I think the coaches like the speed they have on defense when it comes to the challenge of containing so many talented skill-position players for Notre Dame. A weakness? The lack of experience on offense as a whole, I would say — the offensive line has three new starters, so that’s probably where they have the least known commodity going into the season.

KA: What’s the blueprint for a USF upset?

You look at the Florida State win in 2009, and it was solid defense and big plays on offense. USF has to play well early so the crowd isn’t a huge factor. B.J. Daniels has to limit (or perhaps eliminate) any turnovers, and the running game has to show up so defenses can’t focus on Daniels too much. If all those things can happen, it’s certainly a game that USF can take advantage of in the final minutes, much the same way they won in overtime at Auburn in 2007 and at Miami last fall.

Special thanks to Greg for his time. Follow him on Twitter @GregAuman

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.”