South Florida v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. South Florida


SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There are statistics. Then there are statistics that matter.

Statistics: 508 yards of total offense. 391 passing yards. Cierre Wood — 21 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown. Michael Floyd — 12 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.

Statistics that matter: Turnovers — Notre Dame 5, South Florida 0. Red zone scoring — South Florida 3 for 3, Notre Dame 2 for 6. Notre Dame — four personal fouls.

Skip Holtz triumphantly returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he both coached and played under his Hall of Fame father. But even Lou Holtz never saw a Saturday quite like this one, with Holtz’s Bulls triumphing 23-20 in a 5 hour, 59 minute game that had two weather delays totaling just under three hours.

The severe thunder and lightning that caused Notre Dame’s first ever weather delay might have been something out of the norm. But the 2011 Fighting Irish just learned a lesson as old as the sport. Regardless of how talented you think your football team is, your biggest opponent is yourself.

“We say this all the time,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “You can’t start winning until you stop losing. The things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games. You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose football games because you have four personal fouls penalties. The list is long.”

As Notre Dame tries to quickly turn the page after a shocking 23-20 loss, here are five things we learned.

Tommy Rees has to be the Irish’s starting quarterback.

When Brian Kelly named Dayne Crist his starting quarterback eleven days ago, there was so little that separated to two quarterbacks that Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar had to look past the statistics.

“The deeper we dug on numbers the cloudier it became,” Kelly said just two weeks ago. “I’ve been doing it a long time and sometimes it’s easy to just look at the numbers and they tell you who the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterbacks are. We’re going to get into subjective things now as we move forward because the numbers are so equal.”

For those that watched the Irish run off four straight wins with Tommy Rees at the helm last year, they know that objectivity is not necessarily a friend of Rees.

Statistically speaking, a production comparison of both quarterbacks would be considered a toss-up. But those looking at NFL prototype Crist and the whispy, dorm-guy Rees would be wise to peer past the statistics and simply look at the way the offense moves when Rees is its pilot. After a half of football, Kelly had seen enough after sitting for over two hours with a 16-0 deficit.

“Production,” Kelly said of his rationale to switch to Rees. “We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have.”

And while Rees’ numbers — 24 for 34, 296 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions — may objectively have some flaws, there’s no doubt that he’s got to be the quarterback that starts when Notre Dame plays Michigan next Saturday at night in Ann Arbor.

“He was 24 for 34 in a situation where they knew we were going to throw the football,” Kelly said. “I don’t want to put him in that situation. I want him to have the luxury of a running game which we established when Dayne was in there.”

What happens with Crist will be a question the coaching staff didn’t want to have to answer going forward. When Rees lay dazed on the ground after a roughing the passer call, it was freshman Everett Golson running for his helmet, not Crist. (Rees got up and threw a touchdown pass to Michael Floyd, avoiding a bigger controversy.)

While Kelly was mum about what he’ll do for next week, the choice is no longer subjective. Tommy Rees needs to lead the team, even if it does throw the roster into upheaval.

2. The Irish need Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray to bounce back after disastrous debuts.

Both Theo Riddick and Jonas Gray learned about the burden of great expectations. Two of Notre Dame’s most important players spit the bit in their first game as mandatory contributor. Gray’s fumble as the Irish were pushing the ball into the end zone at the end of a surgical first drive flipped the game on its head, as USF safety Jerrell Young ripped the ball out and cornerback Kayvon Webster scooped it up and ran it in for a 96-yard touchdown to shock the home crowd.

Likewise, Riddick’s muffed punt late in the second quarter turned the game for the junior wide receiver, the Irish’s best chance for a game-breaking receiver opposite Michael Floyd. Riddick had a game he needs to forget, muffing two punts (and almost a third), and dropping three balls up the seam that erased potentially big receptions.

Riddick has never been a natural returning punts, but after not returning them last year, Brian Kelly isn’t giving himself any other options in the return game.

“He’s got to do it. I told him to get his butt back out there,” Kelly said after the game. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire, we can’t trade for anybody. We’ve got to get him to that position.”

The Irish saw their weaknesses put to the test in the opening moments of 2011. How Riddick and Gray respond will go a long way towards determining the season.

3. You may not have noticed, but the Irish defense is as good as advertised.

The Irish might have lost the game 23-20, but the Irish defense only gave up 254 yards to USF, a number that would’ve been their best total in all of 2010.

No USF player rushed for 50 yards. The leading receiver for the Bulls, Sterli Griffin, had eight catches for 75 yards, and USF didn’t have a play go for explosive yardage, with their longest play from scrimmage going for a modest 18 yards. (In comparison, the Irish had nine plays go for 18 yards or more.)

While the Irish weren’t able to force any turnovers from B.J. Daniels, a player who had plenty of them in 2010, they showed a few more exotic packages in their first game of the season, with Bob Diaco rotating linebackers Steve Filer, Prince Shembo, Darius Fleming into hand-on-the-ground pass rusher while using freshman Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch liberally.

Major penalties against team leaders Harrison Smith (two facemasks) Gary Gray (a late hit and a pass interference) and Ethan Johnson (late hit) really hurt the Irish. But make no mistake, the Irish defense played well.

4. Like a chip off the old block, Skip Holtz pulled a rabbit from his hat.

If there was a recipe card spelling out how to beat Notre Dame, Holtz had been hiding it up his sleeve for the entire week. It might be difficult to practice getting turnovers, but Holtz had his defense ready with the perfect gameplan.

“Our whole mindset was bend, but don’t break,” Holtz said. “Our motto was, make them snap it again. Just don’t let them in the end zone, make them snap it again. They haven’t scored yet if they don’t cross that end zone.”

It was a mindset that worked against the Irish, who moved the ball at will between the twenty yard lines, but faltered repeatedly once it got into the red zone.

For Holtz, the victory was one that was well earned. Only in the post game press conference was he willing to address the game’s significance to him, and even then it was begrudgingly.

“I’ve got an incredible amount of memories in this stadium, at this university, as a student driving around campus,” Holtz said. “As soon as the buses got here, I took off and walked over to the grotto and lit a candle, just because that’s how I got through college. A lot of emotional moments for me.”

One more recent memory came in handy on Saturday afternoon. During the Bulls’ preseason training camp in Vero Beach, Florida, a severe storm rolled through town, putting a team scrimmage in an indefinite delay.

“That was the first thing I said to them when I walked into the locker room,” Holtz said. “Hey, we’ve been here before.”

They say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Never was that more apparent than Saturday for the Bulls.

5. For the Irish, every Saturday is the season.

One loss won’t keep Notre Dame from achieving its goals. And to the credit of the players made available to the media, every one of them was already mentally turning the page and looking forward to a Michigan game that now takes on added importance. It was 2004 when the Irish were shocked in the season opener by Gary Crowton’s BYU team in Provo, only to come back the next Saturday and knock off a Michigan team ranked in the AP top ten 28-20.

After last season, both Kelly and his players know they can pick themselves up off the mat.

“You know, we’ve been down this road before,” Kelly said. “The disappointing thing is that we thought going into a year where we had some experience, we wouldn’t have to go through this. But it looks like we’re going to have to make sure that our players are understanding what it takes to win football games.”

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s pretty clear what Notre Dame has to do to win.

You can’t turn the ball over three times inside your opponents five yard line. You can’t have one of your best players lay the football on the ground multiple times. You can’t commit eight penalties, the second most in the Kelly era. You can’t give a game away to a team that you doubled in yardage, like the Irish did 508 to 254.

But that’s what happened on Saturday, for five hours and 59 minutes. In a game that’ll go down as one of the most bizarre in Notre Dame’s history, the Irish lost the football game because of the oldest reasons in the book.

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.