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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 45, Maryland 21

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In case you didn’t know, Notre Dame’s trip to the nation’s capital had nothing to do about football. Just ask athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

“In many ways the motivation for all this has virtually nothing to do with football,” Swarbrick said. “What we want to do is expose more people to Notre Dame. With two days worth of events here, this is about having a major Notre Dame presence here in the Washington, D.C., area – about serving the larger University mission.”

But for those of you who haven’t figured out this part yet either, here’s another newsflash: Brian Kelly and his football team don’t care about being brand ambassadors. They don’t care what you think about their disco-globe helmets, their green jerseys, or those gaudy leprechaun covered undershirts. They just want to play football. Play winning football.

The Irish accomplished their mission on Saturday night, absolutely dominating Maryland 45-21 in a game that the Terrapins were never really in. Mixing a smash-mouth running game by Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood and efficient passing from Tommy Rees, the Irish won their seventh game in their last eight attempts.

“We got off to a fast start,” Kelly said afterwards. “I thought it was important for us to come here and really make a statement early on and I thought we did that.”

Kelly’s team did more than that, piling up over 500 yards of offense in a game that was out of reach for most of the second half. The win pushed the Irish to 7-3 on the season, their seventh win in the last eight games.

Let’s find out what else we learned:

***

With a running game the best Notre Dame’s seen since Lou Holtz, the Irish dominated this game on the ground.

Everybody in the stadium probably knew Notre Dame was going to try and do it, but the Irish ran the ball straight through the Terrapins defense, with Gray leading the way. It took the senior back until the final three games of his senior season to do it, but Jonas finally had his first 100 yard day, running for 136 yards and two touchdowns — his seventh game in a row with a rushing score after entering the season without one.

True, the Terrapins have been terrible against the run, but the Irish helped them play up to their reputation, with Gray and Wood combining for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone, a seven-yard clip that dictated the tone of the game.

“The guys in front did a great job. The receivers did a great job blocking up field,” Gray said. “We knew we would be able to run the ball. It was starting with a physical mentality and continuing that throughout the game.”

For the second Saturday in a row, it was Gray starting in the backfield after following Wood into the game for the season’s first eight games. But Gray’s physical presence has been too much to keep off the field, and the senior’s breakthrough season was something the coaching staff had always hoped to see.

“I thought he was capable of it,” Kelly said. “We told him that his reps would be based upon his ability to play physical and you could see he doesn’t want to get off the field.”

It didn’t seem likely, but Gray’s late career renaissance will likely keep him on the field on Sundays, too.

***

After a season marked by unevenness, the Irish played a complete game in all three phases tonight.

In a season that’ll likely be remembered by back-breaking mistakes and the team’s inability to play consistently, the Irish’s domination of Maryland was satisfying in that they finally got a complete performance by all three facets of the football team.

“It was a total team effort today,” Kelly said. “If you look at it, our special teams — David Ruffer had a 52-yard field goal, Ben Turk punted the ball very, very well. Defensively we scored. Offensively we were able to play fast at times, which is a sign of a growing offense. So when we look at it, a very good victory for our football team.”

It was a breakthrough performance for the Irish specialists, with Ruffer breaking out of a season-long funk with a career long 52-yard field goal, a beautiful draw that hooked perfectly between the uprights. Turk ripped his season long punt — a 58-yard moon ball — and pinned the Terrapins inside their ten yard line twice.

Kelly was happy with his team’s performance and very happy that a solid week of preparation resulted in a victory.

“Our players truly understand how to win football games now, and it starts with our preparation during the week,” Kelly said. “They know that they have to be able to bring all three phases. We look to repeat that next week, and that’s the challenge to our football team.”

***

Robby Toma is playing his way into the slot receiver role.

The Irish were without slot receiver Theo Riddick, who missed Saturday night’s game with a pulled hamstring. But with Riddick missing, the Irish might have found their starting slot receiver: A pineapple-sized Hawaiian named Robby Toma.

Starting in Riddick’s place, Toma had seven catches for 74 yards, making highlight reel catches and infusing a true third receiving weapon to team with wide receiver Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert.

“He really adds a dimension to our offense,” Kelly said of Toma. “You saw that tonight, especially in the quick game stuff. He’s very good with the ball in his hands, run after catch, just a smart receiver. He’s a really good football player.”

Not many people expected to get a really good football player when Toma received and accepted a scholarship offer as the high school best friend of all-world recruit Manti Te’o. But Toma brings a feel to the slot that Riddick — a converted running back — just doesn’t possess yet.

If there’s a controversy, Kelly certainly isn’t acknowledging it. It’s just another step towards building a championship-level team.

“He’s been waiting for his chance, his opportunity,” Kelly said of Toma. “He’s a classic case of our next man in.”

***

The evolution of Tommy Rees continues.

The Irish’s sophomore quarterback is seemingly the favorite topic of just about every Irish fan, and Tommy Rees‘ evening is a case study in just how polarizing a sophomore quarterback only 13 starts into a career can be. For the first time this season, Kelly and Rees pushed the tempo of the Irish offense, and with the sophomore at the helm, the offense moved efficiently while not turning the ball over.

“Any way that we could establish a quicker tempo, allows us an opportunity to either put the ball out on the perimeter to our skill guys or run the ball inside,” Kelly explained. “Tommy did a really nice job tonight of feel. We went fast and he had to have a feel, do I give the ball out or do I put it on the perimeter and throw it. He had a nice feel for it.”

Of course, just watching Rees it’s easy to focus on what the sophomore quarterback can’t do, rather than what he did do, and it’s become a passion for some Irish fans convinced that the team’s least talented quarterback is tasked with running the offense. On Saturday night, Rees was sacked three times, going down for the first time since the Pitt game in September. It could have been a product of a hurry-up system with Mike Golic in place for injured Braxston Cave at center, but Rees also held onto the ball too long on one or two of those.

Just as obvious are Tommy’s limitations outside the pocket. The sophomore looked like he was running in quicksand when trying to scramble for yardage, a reminder that Kelly and his spread offense don’t have a quarterback that can give the running game a true zone-read option. (Not that it mattered on Saturday.)

Just the same, people complaining about Rees’ day tend to skip where he does his best work: the stat sheet. Even though he missed a few open deep throws, Rees still piled up some impressive numbers, completing 30 of 37 throws for 296 yards and two touchdowns. Consider those numbers include two drops by Michael Floyd and another by TJ Jones and Rees put together a mighty fine evening.

Will it ever be enough to stop people from complaining about him? Doubtful, because the siren song of a talented but unused quarterback is something desperate Irish fans will never be able to turn down. But with 11 wins in 13 starts, Rees’ .846 winning percentage would slot him between Tom Clements and Joe Theismann amongst the winningest quarterbacks in school history.

***

With the defense swarming, the special teams solid and the offense efficient, for one Saturday, the Irish attained a complete victory.

Ss complimentary as Kelly was after Saturday night’s victory, any thought that this victory meant anything more than one good Saturday was quickly squashed by the head coach.

“It was just today,” Kelly said of his team’s win. “You know, it’s Saturday, November the 12th. We played the way we need to play in all three phases. We’ll see what happens on the 19th of November.”

And that, is the thing with the 2011 Fighting Irish. On any given Saturday, this football team can look like one of the country’s best, making it easy to wonder what might have been had the Irish not given the game away against USF or imploded defensively against Michigan. But that’s the exact reason why Kelly won’t let this team take a big picture view at this season, especially with crucial games against Boston College and Stanford left to be played.

“I think for us the process is what we do during the week because we’re not at that point where it’s habit, that we do it the right way all the time,” Kelly said. “We’re making good progress there. We really can’t fly at 35,000 feet, so to speak. We have to really focus on the day-to-day.”

Still, the Irish got plenty of what they wanted out of Saturday night’s victory. With Manti Te’o protecting a tender ankle, linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese got plenty of snaps, and Kendall Moore gave us a promising look at what life will look like after-Te’o. With the team comfortably ahead, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood got to take significant snaps, with Wood gifted a pick-six interception that’ll do nothing but build confidence.

More importantly, Kelly’s Irish have won five straight in November, almost entirely erasing the six-game skid that ended the Charlie Weis era. While this team might not yet be able to savor the experience, the win reminds me of something Bob Diaco said just as the team’s training camp was getting started.

“It was 1922 Gandhi to young India, where he talked about satisfaction being in the effort,” Diaco said back in August. “That it’s not in the attainment, but true victory is full effort… There needs to be refocusing daily on the things that need to get done today to create winning. Today. And tomorrow is tomorrow.”

For just one night, the Irish won convincingly. The rest of it — extending the brand of Notre Dame, Inc. by playing neutral site home games, wondering about what might have been with this football team, looking ahead to the polls, bowl slotting and Stanford — that can all wait.

 

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.