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IBG: Turning the page to Michigan


As an 18-year-old freshman, I had no idea just what my first big-time college football game would be like. Sure, I had sat in a half-empty Metrodome once or twice, watching the hometown Gophers take one on the chin to a team like Houston or Purdue, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolute pandemonium that took over that Saturday morning in early September, when the 4th floor of Stanford Hall erupted at 7 a.m. and the day ended celebrating in the Stonehenge fountain across from LaFortune.

That the Irish’s victory over the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines was my first game was almost unfair for a kid that’d never stepped foot in Notre Dame Stadium before. It would never get better than that first day.

There are things I’ve learned in the years since that first time. Most of it having to do with just how contentious the ND-UM rivalry is. Irish fans and Wolverines fans don’t seem to like each other much, and sure take delight in the other program’s misfortunes. As a kid that swapped freely between a Michigan hat and a Notre Dame lid, that kind of polygamy would be shocking to see now.

Neither program is where they want to be, but Saturday night’s game still takes center stage in the college football world. And after seeing the Irish lay an incredibly smelly egg last week, and the Wolverines look anything but dominant against cupcake Western Michigan, there’s a lot to be discovered in prime-time Saturday night. (Discover it together, with the return of an old-fashioned live-blog!)

As we’ll try to do every week, we’re joining the Irish Blogger Gathering and (almost) answering all the questions posed to us. This time, they come from the feisty fellows over at Her Loyal Sons, who do their best to not let their disdain for the Wolverines get too in the way of their questions.

HLS asked, I did my best to answer:

Well that really sucked. Please describe how you feel about the loss using lyrics from a pop diva’s song. Bonus points for video or pictures. (Something good has to come out of last week.)

There’s a lot of things I’m competent at, but quoting current pop diva lyrics isn’t one of them. That said, you’ve got to think that Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I did it again,” fits pretty perfectly for Irish fans.

Tough not to like Brit in that red spacesuit…

While we all want to move on, last week’s game can teach us many things about the ’11 Irish. After seeing what Week One brought us, do you find yourself more confident, less confident or still confused as hell about Notre Dame’s chances against Michigan?

I think you definitely have to feel less confident about what we thought the Irish would be, but I don’t think anybody should jump to conclusions until very late Saturday night, when we see how the Irish come out of Ann Arbor. If Notre Dame walks away with a win, then we can take a look at a two-game sample size and still hope to learn more against Michigan State.

As for this weekend, this match-up usually strikes fear into the heart of Irish fans, and for good reason. On paper, Notre Dame should’ve won the last two games, and still found themselves losing in absolutely painstaking ways both years. Having watched the mini-game the Wolverines played against Western Michigan, regardless of how vanilla they played, there wasn’t anything that impressive about the performance, and it’s clear the defense is still very much a work in progress.

Let’s say Notre Dame only turned the ball over three times last week, and won the football game by ten points. I’d expect the line to be about a touchdown. The fact that it’s 3.5 points, even though the Irish lost last week and Michigan is playing in front of the best homefield advantage they can historically create, that goes to tell you what wiseguys think about these teams.

That said, I have absolutely no clue what’s going to happen. Nothing would surprise me.

Other than quarterback, which position group pleasantly surprised you this past week? Which disappointed? What player absolutely must see more time in Week 2?

You’ve got to be happy with what you saw out of the nose tackle position, with Louis Nix being as good as advertised and Sean Cwynar chipping in four tackles. I’d also add the offensive line, which looked pretty impressive, save a few tough plays for Taylor Dever and Braxston Cave. Disappointing? I guess you’ve got to target the secondary. Both Gary Gray and Harrison Smith had multiple major penalties, and they weren’t able to get an interception from B.J. Daniels, a guy who gave turnovers away last year like lollipops. I want to add Special Teams into the big disappointment column as well. Ruffer misses a chip shot, Turk once again flubs punts after hitting beauties in warmups and some shoddy punt coverage… a really terrible day for Mike Elston’s troops.

As for someone that better see more playing time, I’d love to see what Cierre Wood can do when he’s not taken out of the gameplan after halftime.

Tommy Rees will lead the Irish offense this week. Do you agree with Brian Kelly’s call? Either way, what part of Crist’s game will the Irish O miss the most, if any?

After saying all offseason that Crist was going to win the starting job, it feels a little weird to go back and support Tommy Rees after one mediocre half by Dayne. That said, I’m 100 percent in favor of the switch, even if it’s giving Crist a pretty raw deal. Maybe we thought BK was paying Rees lip-service when he said that the QB race was as close as it was, but Dayne’s microprocessor just doesn’t move as quickly as Tommy’s — and in this offense, that’s what matters. If you weren’t sure of it before last Saturday, you should be now.

That Kelly was able to pull the plug on the Crist era quickly shouldn’t be that surprising. Whether it be injury or preference, Brian Kelly has used a lot of quarterbacks in his day. Will the Irish miss anything Dayne can do? Probably, as his physical skillset is pretty impressive. But Crist has always been a square peg from a round hole in this offense, and the senior leader’s development has been stunted by an unfavorable depth chart and some difficult injuries, all to go along with some accuracy issues, a fatal flaw in a Brian Kelly offense.

What’s the key to beating the Wolverines this week. Just one thing. Not two. One.

Easiest question I’ve heard all year: Containing Denard Robinson.

Make your over-under picks:

O/U on Michael Floyd’s receiving total for this coming weekend: 154 — Over. Rees is going to have the ball going to Floyd early and often.

O/U on Robinson’s rushing total: 100 — Over. But barely.

O/U on ND’s number of turnovers: 2 — Under. I see ball security being something far more important this week, and while Michigan did a nice job of getting a few turnovers last week, I think Rees is going to do a good job against Greg Mattison’s blitzing defense.

O/U on number of times Kelly is caught “purple monstering” (read: yelling) on camera: 2 — Believe it or not, I think BK knows he probably went a little overboard with his hysterics last weekend, and I think it was a confluence of events that led to the geyser he blew on Jones. If you’re looking for a reason for Kelly to remain cool, it’s that he’s on the road. He’ll need to keep everybody under control, and a calm demeanor might be what the doctor ordered. So under.

Michigan: Just another Opponent, Enemy, or Rival? Explain.

I think it’s more enemy than rival. Brady Hoke has two clocks ticking in his lockerroom. One for the big game against Ohio State, the other for the in-state battle against the Spartans. The Irish and the Wolverines are more Hatfields and McCoys than traditional rivals.

It’s one of those bizarre hatreds between two schools that are probably far more similar to each other than they’d like to acknowledge, but still have just enough apart that they’ll never come close to conceding anything.

In other words, just one more reason why college football is great.

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


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.”