George Atkinson MSU

IBG: Pushing towards Purdue

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In case people forgot, the Irish are playing a football game this Saturday night. Yep, they’ll be hopping on the bus and heading down to West Lafayette, enjoying that glorious drive down US 31 into Boilermaker country, where a hostile crowd will be looking to enact revenge from 2009, where Purdue nearly pulled the upset on Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish.

I’m a few hours late on the Irish Blogger Gathering, which I’ll blame on last night’s baseball and this afternoon’s schedule. (Neither are good excuses, I realize that.) Supplying the excellent fodder this week was the Irish Round Table, giving us quite a few interesting questions that I spent far too much time answering.

Enjoy.

1) Excluding Aaron Lynch, who is your top newcomer of the year thus far (freshman or player that hadn’t seen much playing time in prior seasons)?

There is no other answer that I can think of than Louis Nix, even if you include No. 19. But here’s a quick run through of the worthy candidates:

George Atkinson: Tough to not be impressed when the kid has already taken a kickoff to the house.
Kyle Brindza: Remember when Irish kickers never got touchbacks? Brindza certainly solved that problem.
Aaron Lynch: I’m only expecting more from him in the weeks to come. Think he’ll lead the Irish in sacks.
Stephon Tuitt: Could be athletic enough to help in a four-man front against Air Force or Navy.
Ishaq Williams: He’s getting playing time in the base defense behind Darius Fleming. That’s impressive.
Troy Niklas: My true freshman Newcomer of the Year (Non-Lynch division). This guy is a really impressive athlete. Watching him the next four years will be very fun.

2) We asked our Twitter followers for questions to use in this week’s IBG. Here’s a sampling of what we got. Choose ONE and answer:

Let’s get crazy and try to answer them all.

@TheSubwayDomer: If the #NDFB quarterbacks were female super models, who would they be? What would they endorse? #IBG —

Man, my knowledge of supermodels has slipped since college. Can I change this to actresses from our favorite TV shows? (Answer by me: Yes.)

Tommy Rees is Pam Beesly.

Now known as Pam Beesley Halpert. We all loved Tommy from the start, he was the quarterback next door: Decent arm, calm under pressure, great personality, and we all really wanted to see him succeed. Well, Pam got married to Jim. We all loved it. Then she got promoted from receptionist, tried getting into sales and kind of sucked at it. That’s not the Pam we like! Now she’s a little too snarky, not quite as good as we thought she’d be, and probably mistakenly gives Cece the wrong flavor of Gerber, or drops the baby bottle too much. Aren’t we better off liking Erin?

Dayne Crist is Christina Applegate.

It feels like we’ve known Christina forever. (At least I do. I practically grew up with her.) Ever since we’ve seen her, we knew she had star qualities. (Who could forget Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead!) But while she’s shown those flashes of brilliance, she’s never quite become the movie star she should have.To be fair, she’s also had to overcame huge personal setbacks. And it’s a credit to her that she did.

There are people that will go to the mattresses supporting Applegate — She was magic as Veronica Coringstone! But she’s also failed on TV, forcing America to watch Samantha Who? Now she’s back with Up All Night, a show almost reverse engineered to make us like it, teaming her with Will Arnett and Maya Rudolph. A good cast doesn’t hide the show’s flaws, but it might be the perfect place for her to show what she can do… even if that isn’t under the Golden Dome.

Andrew Hendrix is Minka Kelly:

Okay, I’m rapidly running out of steam here, but follow. Everybody loves Minka Kelly. Looks like the complete package. Hell, she was the apple of Derek Jeter’s eye, and that guy has some pretty good taste. Yet we have absolutely no clue if she can get it done. Kelly wasn’t the reason Friday Night Lights was good, even if she was good to look at. Now she’s in charge of making Charlie’s Angels TV show watchable, no easy task for anybody.

Hendrix might very well still be the quarterback of the future for the Irish. Brian Kelly is on the record as saying he’s got as much talent as anybody. Everybody looks at the guy and just sees a starting quarterback. But he hasn’t done it yet, and he might not ever.

Everett Golson is Zoey Deschanel.

Everybody loves the New Girl! Zoey’s a perfect fit for TV. Movie star skills. Funny, talented, cool dresser, awesome glasses. World class musician. (Crazy that she likely came to TV because she was sick of seeing how much money her sister was making on Bones, while she got like $150k for 500 Days of Summer.)

Well, everybody loves Everett Golson. He’s a prototype for Brian Kelly’s offense. Point guard quickness. Rocket arm. World class musician. Not sure if he wears awesome glasses, but it’s a pretty good fit. And he’s the new guy. What’s not to like?

@PerrasW01: Why has the #NDFB program gone to hell since Holtz left?

Mostly, College football got a lot better. I’m not old enough to understand why Holtz truly left, so I’d only be spewing someone else’s rhetoric when I blame administrators, athletic directors, or board members for maybe or maybe not pushing Holtz out before he could pass Knute Rockne.

But the bottom line is college football got a lot better and Notre Dame was really slow to come around to the changing landscape in college football, and the game blew by the Irish. In retrospect, the decision to hire Bob Davie is just shocking. You’ve got a program still at or near the top of college football and Notre Dame decides to promote its defensive coordinator, a guy with no real ties to Notre Dame. No offense to the Eagles, but that’s a move Boston College makes, and only with a guy that’s been on staff for a decade. Notre Dame got caught at the absolute worst time: A brewing arms race in college football that Notre Dame thought it was better than, mixed with the hiring of a guy that was absolutely overmatched for the job. Institutional arrogance at its best, and just in time for this young schmuck to start paying tuition.

@rpleary: You know that sign that says “Play Like a Champion Today”? What does our offense have against the sign?

Not sure. I think they’re “Playing Like People With Champion-like Ability.” Obviously that doesn’t get it done, but I actually like the strides they’re taking, even if last week was a step back for Rees and the unit.

@chadros: Based on our offense’s performance to date, is the current play calling mix (run vs. pass) the right one? Should we be running the ball more?

I’ve got no problem with the run/pass mix. One thing the Irish need to do is run the ball more effectively in the fourth quarter. I’d also like to see some more creativity out of the running game, giving the ball to Theo Riddick on a jet sweet, getting Cierre Wood in space more, and just seeing how slow Tommy looks on a QB keeper.

Last week’s offense was ugly, but it was impressive to see the Irish get every 3rd or 4th and short that they needed. That’s running to win.

@yetiisready: Will this be the week we see the “change-up package” AKA “the Leprecat?”

I will never call it the Leprecat. Man, that’s horrible. I’m kind of hoping we don’t see Everett Golson this year, only because saving a year of eligibility would be great, and seeing what Andrew Hendrix can do this year would be interesting as well.

That said — I think we’ll see some kind of “change-up package,” I just don’t think there’s any reason to show it against Purdue or Air Force. After bye week, I’m expecting a few interesting wrinkles for the men of Troy when they come to chilly South Bend.

(Not to mention a wrinkle in uniforms…)

3) If you could have 1 play back this season, what play would you want a do-over? How would that have changed a game’s outcome? Are you sure your do-over would work in ND’s favor?

I’m hoping everybody says Jonas Gray‘s fumble. That was like getting floored by a big right uppercut in the first round of a twelve-rounder. Sure you get up, but you’re starting out in a 10-8 hole after the first round and still finding your legs. If the Irish get in the endzone that first drive, I’m pretty sure this entire season looks different. A lot different.

4) In 140 characters or less “tweet” a summary of the season so far. Bonus points for hashtags or mentions.

Everybody please calm down RT @AngryNDFans Don’t you understand the other QB is better! Stop turning the ball over! Man 2-2 is frustrating!

5) Lou Holtz asked 3 basic questions of every player and coach, “Can I trust you? Are you committed? Do you care about me?” In your opinion, which player would every other player give a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions and why?

On offense: Michael Floyd. Take away last spring’s off field incident, and Floyd is the perfect football player. He’s the Irish’s best player. He makes a difference even when the ball isn’t being thrown to him. And he’s the guy everybody on the other team is watching. It will be sad watching the Irish without him.

On defense: Manti Te’o. If it’s possible, people are under-appreciating Te’o. He’s an every down linebacker, he’s a force in the run and playing better in the pass game, and he’s brought a swagger to the Irish defense that hasn’t been seen since Shane Walton was terrorizing quarterbacks, only Te’o has a first round skillset to go along with first round confidence.

6) Jumbotron. Good idea or terrible idea. What would you do to make it a great idea?

It’s not a polarizing thing for me, but I think it’s coming sooner than later. If you went to the Yankee Stadium game, it was really cool seeing Notre Dame use the video board as an extension of the university brand and a great way to remind people of the traditions and history of Notre Dame. If it helps keep fans engaged, informed and loud, even better. Just don’t have it block Touchdown Jesus.

(That said, give me FieldTurf or a semi-artificial surface first.)

7) Every week we try to fire up the masses with a “Fire It Up” video. Sometimes these videos are inspirational ballads of kick-ass Notre Dame football. Sometimes they are of a Japanese game show with dudes getting hit in the junk. Submit a video to Fire Up the Irish faithful for the Purdue game.

With a game like Purdue, I’ll let coach Eric Taylor get the boys fired up:

 

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.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.