Ken Niumatalolo, Emmett Merchant

Pregame six pack: Navy edition

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Backed into a corner, Brian Kelly‘s first Irish football team overcame a ton of adversity before finishing last season in style. Facing Todd Graham’s Tulsa squad just days after the death of Declan Sullivan, the Irish lost their starting quarterback in the opening minutes of the game before losing in the final seconds. Given a bye week to gather itself, the 2010 edition of the Irish went on to win their final four games, finishing the season in style.

With the Irish sitting at 4-3, the 2011 Irish have a chance to avenge one of their worst defeats from last year. But don’t expect Kelly to find too many parallels between last year’s challenges and those that face this team.

“Last year’s team overcame adversity,” Kelly said. “This year’s team needs to overcome itself. They need to play better consistently. Adversity to me is a bigger picture. We had adversity last year. This year, our guys just need to play better football.”

It’s a simple solution to grasp. Achieving it has proven to be much tougher. Both Notre Dame and Navy come into this Saturday’s game with a bad taste in their mouths. We’ve spent plenty of time talking about Notre Dame’s disappointing loss to USC. Navy has had its own string of disappointing defeats, the latest coming last Saturday against East Carolina.

As Notre Dame puts its finishing touches on prepping for the dreaded triple-option of the Midshipmen, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings as the Irish prepare to take on Navy at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

Don’t hold your breath on the Jumbotron. But a new playing surface might be right around the corner.

Earlier in the week, Brian Kelly got some Irish traditionalists up in arms with his open embrace of a Jumbotron in Notre Dame Stadium.

“Eventually, we want a big Jumbotron in there,” Kelly said. “We think that’s going to be something that adds to the atmosphere, too. It won’t be my decision to make. I can only give you my thoughts, and I think I have sprinkled that in the conversations. I don’t think it’s a mystery that we would like that, but it’s not going to be my call.”

Opponents of a video-board seem to think that it’ll turn the “stadium experience” into some kind of slimy commercialized product-placement fest. Proponents see it as an obvious way to keep the fans engaged, promote the unparalleled traditions and history Notre Dame has, while actually helping people see what happened on the field.

(If you were at Yankee Stadium last year, you’ll know how great it was. Come to think of it, if you were at the Compton Family Ice Arena last weekend, you’d have seen it first hand, too.)

Any number of the Irish’s main corporate partners would be happy to help offset the cost of the video board. That said, don’t look for a video-board anytime in the near future. But when it comes to a new field surface, that change might not be too far away.

One source close to the football program has told me that Notre Dame will begin serious research on replacing the stadium’s natural grass as soon as the season finishes. No option has been taken off the table yet — keeping the natural surface is certainly still in play. So is replacing the grass with field turf, the surface already on the LaBar practice fields.

An interesting option that might make everybody happy is a surface to what the Packers use in Green Bay. It’s a natural grass surface that’s also reinforced with man-made synthetic fibers, that’s set on a sand-based soil.

Beneath the field is a heating system, irrigation lines and drainage system that has turned the surface into some of the best and safest in the NFL. It’s also designed to keep the grass and ground at 55 degrees even on a day when the temperature is well below freezing.

After years of mediocre playing surfaces often times holding back the athleticism on Notre Dame’s sidelines, any change to the current grass would be a good one. And at a place like Lambeau Field, where tradition also has its own very important place, the Irish might have a perfect match.

***

Stop the fullback, win the game.

Two years ago, it was Vince Murray. Last year it was Alexander Teich. Whoever it is, the Irish need to tackle the fullback.

In Charlie Weis and Jon Tenuta’s last game against the Midshipmen, Murray averaged 11.3 yards a carry — a career game for the Navy fullback. Last year, Teich went for a career high 210 yards on 26 carries.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco knows the pressure is on his unit, a year after allowing 367 yards on the ground, the most ever by Navy in the 85 year history of this rivalry.

“They’ve seen every single thing that can be done to defend the offense,” Diaco said of the challenges Navy presents. “There are only a few things that can be done, so effort and fundamentally sound football and a clear understanding of the plan, and it always helps to get the team off schedule.”

As we mentioned yesterday, Navy will be without Kris Proctor, the Midshipmen’s leading rusher with 591 yards and 8 touchdowns. And while Teich got off to a quick start before he was suspended for the Southern Miss game, he’s had a modest 30 carries for 110 yards in the two games since, numbers the Irish would certainly take on Saturday.

Still — The Midshipmen have had a fullback come out of the woodwork in each of the last two years to star. If they can stop that from happening, they’ll be in good shape.

***

Putting together winning streaks hasn’t been easy.

People hardly noticed, but the loss to Southern Cal broke just the second four-game winning streak that the Irish have had since back in 2006. Up until the closing four games of the season, this senior class just hasn’t been able to string together victories, something that’s frustrated Kelly and this coaching staff.

“They either can’t do it or won’t do it, and I’ve got to cure the can’ts and the won’ts, and that’s the process,” Kelly said. “We’re a work in progress. We’re working through it. We can win three or four in a row, but we can’t string together seven or eight or nine or 10 in a row. I want to string together 12 and 13 in a row. We can string together three or four and that’s not good enough.”

Kelly used the “can’t and won’t” parallel a few times on Thursday, making an interesting distinction on players that can be taught the right way to do things and players that simply won’t do things the right way. He said it’s his job to teach those that want to learn and leave behind those that won’t. It’ll be interesting to monitor if there are veterans that suddenly see the field less in the coming weeks.

“It’s not about being physical,” Kelly said about adjusting his practices in hopes of getting consistent play. “It’s about being accountable, it’s about doing it the right way all the time, and we’re in that conscious incompetent stage.”

***

Even in the midst of a ugly run, Navy’s got a chance to set a school record.

With a 2-5 record and victories against only Delaware and Western Kentucky, the Midshipmen look every bit the twenty-point underdog that Las Vegas considers them. But there’s every reason to believe that Navy will consider this the biggest game left on their schedule, even taking into consideration the Army game that always closes the season.

If Navy wins on Saturday, it’ll be the first time in school history that Navy would defeat the Irish in three consecutive games. It’d also mark the first time the Midshipmen have won three straight games in South Bend. A victory would give Navy four wins in five tries after losing an NCAA record 43 times in a row.

“We’re at the lowest of the lows,” Navy defensive captain Jabaree Tuani said after losing another heartbreaker to East Carolina. “I know this team has a great fighting spirit and will continue to work.”

With everybody in the stadium concentrating on the Navy triple-option, sophomore quarterback Trey Miller might give the Navy offense an added dimension.

“In every one of their games, they’ve hit the shot pass for a TD,” Kelly said. “They’re going to get matchups to throw the ball. The option game isn’t just the run game, you’ve gotta stop the pass game too.”

Irish fans still cringe thinking about one-on-one pass coverage, especially on underthrown routes. While Miller might give the Irish a break on their true option responsibilities, his ability to throw could add another wrinkle to the game plan.

***

The Navy defense is there for the taking.

If you’re looking for a reason that the Midshipmen have fallen back to earth after an astounding run, the defensive stats tell the story:

  • 103rd in rushing defense
  • 111th in passing efficiency defense
  • 95th in total defense
  • 83rd in scoring defense
  • 110th in sacks
  • 117th in TFLs.

The defensive ineptitude is even more incredible when you consider that Navy possesses the ball for over 31 minutes a game, only about 20 seconds less than they did last year. But Buddy Green‘s unit is injury ravaged, a horrible mix when you’re already dealing with subpar talent. Green has talked about changing things up as he prepares for a talented Irish offense.

“The changes we’re talking about are basically personnel. We’re out of linebackers. We’re running low on corners. We’ve got defensive linemen banged up,” Green told the Annapolis Capital Gazette. “We’re looking at getting personnel in different places because we’ve got so many people hurt. We’re trying to find the right places for everyone and pulling together a two-deep.”

The Irish don’t expect to completely shut down the Navy offense. But the Irish should be able to dominate both on the ground and in the air against Navy. It’ll just be up to them to convert their opportunities in the red zone.

***

The future is now for Tuitt, Lynch, and Hounshell.

Needless to say, the earliest anybody saw a starting trio of Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt was in 2012, not after seven games of their first season. But that’s the way 2011 has played out, with Sean Cwynar limited for much of the year with a broken hand, Ethan Johnson hobbled by a high ankle sprain, and now Kapron Lewis-Moore sidelined with knee surgery.

“”It is what it is, I’m not making an excuse for it,” Diaco said this week. “The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn’t have to be playing right now. They’re really not ready to play the amount of reps they’re having to play each week.”

But that certainly won’t stop them. Expect a healthy dose of Lynch, Tuitt, Chase Hounshell and probably Troy Niklas as well on Saturday. That group will have to go up against the strength of Navy’s football team, an offensive line that propels one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.

“It’s an outstanding offensive line,” Kelly said. “It’s much better than Air Force’s offensive line. That’s the strength of this team, those returning starters. They can control the ball.”

For Tuitt, we’ve already seen that he can succeed playing against an option team, as he was active against Air Force. Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune points out that it was likely from Tuitt’s experience playing for a high school team that ran the trip option itself.

“Our own offense is triple-option, so in spring practice and for the first three weeks of fall camp, he saw it and played against it every day,” high school coach Matt Figg told Hansen. “He was so good at it in high school, he could take the dive and the pitch.”

Just as important as Tuitt, Lynch needs to rebound after doing more to hurt the Irish than help them last week. Lynch let his frustration get the best of him, committing his fourth personal foul of the season, a number that speaks to a freshman needed to gain some maturity.

With a front line on the field that’s a year or two from being ready, Kelly didn’t seem to worked up about his personnel choices.

“You’d rather have veterans in there, but those guys will be fine,” Kelly said.

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.