Pregame Six Pack: Prepping for Pitt

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What a difference a week makes. Irish fans didn’t quite know what to make of last weekend’s game: an annual rivalry, a game the Irish usually don’t fare well in, and Las Vegas somehow favoring Notre Dame by almost a touchdown even though they were the team with an 0-2 record and Michigan State was undefeated and ranked No. 15 in the country.

Well the wise guys in Sin City are once again making a heavy move for the Irish, with the line opening with ND favored by 3.5 point only to double in hours. The Irish are a touchdown favorite against a Pitt team that’s a fourth quarter collapse away from being undefeated. Once again, there are still plenty of Irish fans waiting to jump back on the Notre Dame bandwagon. After years of being the worst bet in town, the Irish are now Vegas’ darling.

As we do every week, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to take on Pittsburgh at 12:00 p.m. ET. (Join us for our live blog!)

1. For those complaining about Tommy Rees’ turnovers, you’re forgetting how football works.

There’s been a lot of bellyaching over sophomore Tommy Rees‘ rash of turnovers this season. His hometown newspaper, the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch has a nice feature on the new leading man at Notre Dame, and it looks at the “Good Tommy, Bad Tommy” phenomenon.

“He plays a good role. We don’t expect Tommy to be vocal guy,” said Floyd, predicted by many to be a 2012 first-round draft choice. “I put that on my hands to do that job. We just want to make sure Tommy gets the ball and does the right things and eliminates mistakes.”

Rees detractors — and there are many amongst Irish fans – -will reframe the debate around Floyd’s last comment. Consider this — in 10 quarters of play this season, Rees has turned the ball over seven times (five interceptions, two lost fumbles).

This burgeoning demon reared its ugly head in the first quarter against the Spartans when Rees fumbled and threw an interception on back-to-back drives. The “oh, here we go again” chorus inside Notre Dame stadium was as loud as the pre-game one for “God Bless America.”

But that’s life with a young quarterback. When Brian Kelly pulled the quick hook on Dayne Crist‘s season, he did so knowing that Rees would make youthful mistakes, but that the good would out-weigh the bad.

For those ready to get rid of Rees, let’s take a quick look back at Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, two quarterbacks that turned out to be some of the better players in Notre Dame history. We’ll compare all three’s first seven starts, and then their sophomore numbers:

Brady Quinn:

First Seven Starts: 121 of 258 (47%) 5 TD, 11 INT, 86.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 3-4
Sophomore Season: 191 of 353 (54%) 17 TD, 10 INT, 125.9 QB Rating. W/L Record: 6-6

Jimmy Clausen:

First Seven Starts: 99 of 175 (56%) 4 TD, 5 INT, 93.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-6
Sophomore Season: 268 of 440 (61%) 25 TD, 17 INT, 132.5 QB Rating. W/L Record: 7-6

Tommy Rees*:

First Seven Starts: 139 of 220 (63%) 16 TD, 10 INT, 138.7 QB Rating. W/L Record: 5-2
Sophomore Season: 69 of 99 (70%) 6 TD, 5 INT, 145.1 QB Rating. W/L Record: 1-1

*Stats include the Tulsa game as a start.

It’s pretty easy to see by just about every measure you can think of, Rees is off to a much better pace than the two other guys that have rewritten the Notre Dame passing record books. As you can tell by Tommy’s sophomore season, his efficiency is so impressive in spite of his interceptions, mostly powered by a near 70 percent completion percentage. Nobody wants to see interceptions and fumbles. It’s just what you get when you go with an inexperienced quarterback. What separates Rees is what he does when he’s not turning it over.

2. Paging Darius Fleming, Darius Fleming, the Irish defense requests your help.

With a season at Cat linebacker under his belt, everybody thought senior linebacker Darius Fleming was primed for a big final season at Notre Dame. That included his head coach:

“He’ll be one of the more explosive players in the country this year,” Kelly said. “He’s just comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot,’ now he flows to that spot. It’s a big difference.”

That explosion hasn’t showed up yet, with Fleming struggling to produce with dual-threat quarterbacks B.J. Daniels and Denard Robinson neutralizing one of the Irish’s best pass rushing threats.

After two games, Kelly wasn’t ready to praise Fleming’s productivity. But after his best Saturday of the year, Kelly is hopeful his senior linebacker is ready to elevate his game.

“He had his best game of the year,” Kelly said. “Last week I was asked about him. I think my comments were ‘Good, not great.’ We have a high bar for him. He played great. He played his best game of the year. One time is an accident I told him. Twice, you know you’re trending in the right direction. Hopefully we see it again.”

In many ways, Fleming’s poor play hurts both linebacker positions because it’s also keeping Prince Shembo away from the Cat linebacker position, somewhere he’s a better fit for because of his natural pass rush ability. (Now, Shembo spends most snaps standing half-way in the slot of the field side.) Fleming struggled to get out of the gates last year as well but rallied. Let’s see if Darius does so against a Pitt offensive line that’s dreadful against pass rushes.

3. Aaron Lynch might just be getting started.

You’ve got to love Aaron Lynch. The freshman defensive end showed his age when he mistakenly answered a question about Pittsburgh’s suspect pass blocking honestly.

Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold Illustrated has more:

When Notre Dame freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch met with the media this Wednesday, he was asked about a Pitt offense that ranked 114th in sacks allowed per game (4.0). Most notably, FCS opponent Maine had recorded seven against the Panthers in its 35-29 defeat on Sept. 10.

When asked about those figures, Lynch responded honestly and directly.

“I’m not down on Maine or anything, but I know Notre Dame’s pass rush defense with all the guys we have is more dominant … it makes us happy to know that another team got seven, so that just builds us up to like we’re going to get 10 or 12,” Lynch said. “That’s how I look at it.”

Oops, a classic rookie mistake. Several feet away, Notre Dame’s director of football media operations, Brian Hardin, cringed and shook his head. The proper and politically correct response would have been, “We have great respect for Pitt and we know they have a great offensive line.”

Ten or twelve sacks would be a miracle afternoon for the Irish. But after analyzing Lynch’s effort last Saturday, maybe a historic performance isn’t that far away.

Early in the week, we took a closer look at Lynch’s impressive Saturday, an afternoon where one sack could’ve just as easily been three or four if it weren’t for veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins‘ quick trigger. I mentioned that Lynch’s six quarterback hurries were better than the entire Irish defense in every game but Utah last year. Lynch’s six quarterback hurries would also have been good for a season-high last year, besting Fleming, Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore, who each had five QB hurries to tie for the team lead in all of 2010.

4. With Irish punt returns, expect the unexpected. Especially this Saturday.

Don’t worry, the Irish won’t plan on muffing another punt on Saturday, with Theo Riddick and John Goodman already coughing up the football at really inopportune times. With four guys in the running to return punts — Riddick, Goodman, Robby Toma and Harrison Smith — Kelly’s also taking into consideration some of the tweaks the Panthers run in their standard punt return game.

“They’ll be times when we don’t have a punt returner in punting situations on the field because they leave the quarterback on the field so we’ve got to be prepared for that,” Kelly said. “We’ve had Harrison Smith back there in case we obviously get into a situation where we believe they’re going to punt for sure. It’s rather deceptive in a sense that they take the quarterback and only move him back a couple of yards so you really can’t tell if they’re running an offensive play. So we’ll get our punt team out there but we may not get them out when the quarterback is still on the field.”

For those of you that have been asking for a way to just keep a return man away from the ball, Tulsa’s tricky scheme might just be the answer to your prayers.

5. The battle on Saturday might not just be on the football field. It might make its way up to the pressbox, too.

Along with long-time Big East member Syracuse, Pitt shocked the college sports world with the announcement that the two teams would be leaving the Big East and joining the ACC, setting off another flurry of madness that had the college football world on nuclear alert until Larry Scott and the Pac-12 told the rest of the country to stand down.

Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noticed that Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick — as he was last year — was right in the middle of things. Only this time, Swarbrick voiced his displeasure over Pitt chancellor Mark Dordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson‘s decision to abandon the Big East to USA Today.

Here’s what Swarbrick said:

“I don’t understand it. How do you vote as a collegiate president on something that has the potential to provide some benefit for your institution and the conference you’re affiliated with but has a very negative consequence for a host of other members of the academy, as presidents like to call it? I’d like to know how much of these discussions are: What’s right? What is the best thing for the larger enterprise, and how many other schools would be adversely impacted?” Swarbrick went on to criticize Nordenberg for taking a leadership position in fighting to keep the Big East together and “with no notice to anybody, abandoning it. That’s hard to understand in the context of an industry in which collegiality and integrity are supposed to be such key parts.”

Cook doesn’t seem to like Swarbrick’s comments. More from the Pittsburgh columnist:

It’s pretty hard to get too upset with Marinatto. His conference was left for dead as a football league with the Pitt and Syracuse defections. Of course, he’s going to be bitter. Beyond that, blaming someone else is a lot easier than looking in the mirror and seeing a weak leader staring back, a weak leader who showed no signs of being able to keep the Big East together. Michael Tranghese and Dave Gavitt — great Big East commissioners before him — he is not.

But offensive and preposterous don’t even begin to describe Swarbrick’s remarks. How dare he criticize any other university’s leadership for looking after its school’s best interests? He and his Notre Dame bosses aren’t the least bit interested in any “larger enterprise.” They care only about Notre Dame’s bottom line. That doesn’t make them wrong or bad people. Any of us in their position would do the same thing. But it does make Swarbrick a hypocrite. I repeat: How dare he?

The Big East has been good to Notre Dame. It has given it a home for its men’s and women’s basketball teams and its Olympic sports teams while allowing it to keep its independent status in football. That’s enabled Notre Dame to retain all of its television money from its NBC contract instead of dividing it evenly with conference partners. Remember, the Notre Dame leaders are stone cold, bottom-line people. Clearly, they don’t like to share.

If Notre Dame officials cared about the Big East, they could have saved it by joining as a football member. If that had happened, there’s no doubt the Big East would be a heavyweight in the college game. Pitt and Syracuse wouldn’t have left. Other schools — maybe, just maybe, even Penn State — would be fighting to join. That’s the clout that Notre Dame has.

It’s clear that Swarbrick might have kicked a hornet’s nest or two in the Steel City, but both sides of this argument have some validity. Swarbrick and about a million other rational people are wondering if university chancellors and leaders are really as greedy as they seem, willing to tip over decades of tradition and put college sports into upheaval just to chase more money for their school, all while leaving decades-long partners in a lurch. Cook and other Big East supporters have long bristled at the Irish’s arrangement with the Big East, a seemingly one-sided partnership that gives Irish sports a home while still keeping football independent. It’s true that Swarbrick’s likely making his point loud and clear because he’s against the kind of upheaval that’ll force the Irish to give up their football independence and pick a conference for all sports.

That said, Notre Dame — even without football — has done plenty to help the Big East. To say any differently would be ignoring a lot of truths.

6. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… No! Not a Jumbotron!

Relax Irish fans, Brian Kelly really doesn’t have a vote. But for all those traditionalists out there, the time is coming sooner than you’d like to believe. And if it were up to the head coach, a Jumbotron will be coming to Notre Dame Stadium.

Brian Hamilton explains:

“I think it enhances obviously the game experience more than anything else,” Kelly said during his weekly radio show Thursday night. “I’m not afraid to say it’s a great addition because it creates a great atmosphere in the stadium.

“As well as (promoting) your brand — I thought one of the nice things Michigan did was that the scoreboard did not have any advertising. It just had their brand on there. So, yeah, count me in favor of that. But as I’ve said many times before, they’re not going to be polling me as to whether we get a Jumbotron or not.”

Genuine or not, Kelly insisted this was merely a commentary on the times and not a hand-tipping.

“I don’t have any inside information on this, but I would be surprised if we didn’t have a Jumbotron at some time in Notre Dame Stadium,” Kelly said. “Everybody is watching TV, you’ve got superconferences and all kinds of things going. If you’re going to stay in this arena, I’m sure things will change. It’s just going to take some time.”

After the Irish’s game in Yankee Stadium last season and seeing the new video boards in Michigan Stadium, there’s a ton of support inside the Notre Dame athletic department for a Jumbotron, something that’d truly enhance the stadium experience and go a long way toward keeping the home fans engaged and enthusiastic.

There will always be those “old school” fans that hate the idea, but nobody is asking to use the video screen like USC does at the Coliseum, screeching out commercials and advertisements at decibel levels nearly inhumane. With the Irish’s digital assets looking better and better as the years go by (take a look at UND.com’s new videos if you don’t know what I’m talking about), it only makes more sense to join the 21st century by installing a tastefully done video screen (and some field turf).

Nobody wants to adorn Touchdown Jesus in Ed Hardy, they just want to make Saturday afternoon a better experience. If that gets fans up from sitting on their hands, even the biggest curmudgeons in ND Nation shouldn’t have a problem with that.

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.