Kelly and Blanton

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State


In a series of games that have seen close wins by both Michigan State and Notre Dame, the Irish finally were able to pull off an impressive victory — something that’s been few and far between these past 15 years. After dominating the Spartans in every phase of the game, it’s finally time to find the good, bad and ugly of a football game that still ultimately ends up in the good column.

With the Irish dominating the run game, relentlessly chasing Kirk Cousins in the pocket and creating a big play on special teams, Notre Dame found the winning recipe on Saturday, even while struggling to shrug off some of the mistakes that have plagued the team in these first three games.

As the season passes the quarter turn, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over the No. 15 Michigan State Spartans.


The Irish rush defense. After trying to play assignment perfect defense for the first two weeks of the season, the Irish went back to just trying to dominate a segment of the opposition, turning the Spartans one-dimensional with an aggressive attacking scheme at the line of scrimmage. The result was a Michigan State running game stuck in neutral and Cousins forced to chuck the ball 53 times, a recipe for disaster with an offensive line like the Spartans.

After looking at the game tape, Brian Kelly continues to see the impressive work he’s getting from newcomer Louis Nix, who has elevated his game with Sean Cwynar limited with a hand injury that forces him to cast resembling a club on his hand.

The play of Nix and defense ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, gives the Irish a nearly 1,000 pound three-man front that has the ability to wreak havoc. Kelly talked about what stood out on film after watching the tape of the defense’s work.

“We got really good play at the nose. I think when you talk about Nix and getting Cwynar back, that position was really strong for us on Saturday,” Kelly said. “I think we always talk about it, but both of our defensive ends were able to take on some big tackles at Michigan State. Ethan and Kap played very well against the run. Troy Niklas who came in as a true freshman kept the ball inside of them.”

The Irish gave up some plays in the passing game, but after two straight games of reading and reacting, it seemed like Bob Diaco and the Irish coaching staff wanted to dictate terms to the offense, and the results were encouraging.


The Irish punt teams might be historically bad. With a nice day punting, Ben Turk moved up to 104th in the country in punting average. His rugby punts in particular might be something to build off when getting Turk’s confidence back in order. Still, Turk’s punts have consistently put the Irish on the wrong side of the field far too often.

On the other side of the ball, the Irish are the 111th ranked punt return team, and that doesn’t take into account the damage Theo Riddick and John Goodman‘s muffed punts did with potentially game-changing turnovers. Notre Dame is averaging less than one yard a return (0.70 to be exact), and it’s been a comedy of errors just getting Irish returners to master simple concepts like catching the ball or calling for a fair catch.

The sure-handed Goodman is allowed to have brain farts like he did against Michigan — not fair-catching a punt he should have, calling for one when he had 20 yards of grass in front of him on another, and running backwards and laterally on a third, if he at least catches the ball. With a crucial fourth quarter punt going through his wickets on Saturday, he’s not proving that he can’t be trusted to do that. Kelly has already turned to freshman George Atkinson on kickoff returns. It’s only a matter of time before he gives Cam McDaniel his shot on punts.

Turk’s short punts have also been low, helping to push the Irish into the 112th ranked team in covering punt returns, with Notre Dame yielding an astronomical 27.5 yards a return. Mike Elston‘s troops were a top 25 unit last year, so this is bound to get better, but the combination of shoddy coverage and mediocre kicking points out two units in dire need of improvement.


With amateurism under attack in places like Auburn, Columbus, Eugene, Los Angeles and Miami, the NCAA has taken great pains to up enforcement and compliance as schools work to keep illicit money out of the pockets of student athletes. Yet at the same time, the presidents and athletic directors making sure scholarship athletes aren’t taking advantage of the system are hellbent on doing the exact same thing, throwing tradition and affiliations to the wind and blowing up conferences at the first glimpse of a new television contract.

On a Saturday filled with intriguing match-ups, there’s something terribly wrong with the leadership in collegiate athletics when the wheeling-and-dealing off the field is stealing headlines from the players on it. When a top-five match-up between Oklahoma and Florida State is page two news behind Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving the Big East for the ACC and its television riches, there’s something very wrong with a system that’s buckling down on players’ indiscretions while the grownups are imploding the history of the game for a quick buck.

As Brian Kelly commented about his team’s long awaited first victory, he also needed to field questions about the Irish’s cherished independent status, now thrown back into flux as pieces begin to shift that could change collegiate athletics’ landscape forever. Those changes could potentially push Notre Dame into a conference in football, with four super-conferences possibly on the horizon.

Being tasked with winning football games, keeping track of 85 players, and running a clean program should be enough for college football coaches. They shouldn’t have to keep an eye on their bosses as they blow up the status quo in search of more money.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.