Tommy Rees BC

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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For all the bellyaching that’s followed the Irish’s imperfect 16-14 victory over Boston College, a chaotic Saturday in the college football world should’ve given people plenty of reminders that no victory should be assumed and simply surviving is sometimes accomplishment enough.

That was No. 8 Virginia Tech surviving a fourth quarter rally by mediocre North Carolina to get the win on Thursday night, while No. 20 Southern Mississippi got beat by a 3-7 UAB team. Friday night brought another surprise as Iowa State — yes, Iowa State — took down mighty Oklahoma State, the No. 2 team in the country with the inside track to the BCS Championship game, in stunning fashion in double overtime.

In case that wasn’t enough for you, three other top ten teams tumbled on Saturday, with Oklahoma losing a shocker to Baylor 45-38, and Clemson getting drilled by 24-points to North Carolina State, a team that just a week ago lost to Frank Spaziani‘s Boston College club. And of course, who could have missed USC’s upset of Oregon in Eugene, where the Trojans withstood the Duck’s furious rally from down 24 points late in the third quarter to miss a 37-yard field goal attempt to force overtime as time expired. For those interested in burying the Irish for not doing the same to the visiting Eagles, the transitive property will put you back in your britches pretty quickly.

Still, there’s no doubt the Irish missed an opportunity to jump up the polls. But rest easy, grumbling Irish fans. The Irish will have all the chances in the world to make a statement this Saturday, when they’ll get their shot at Andrew Luck and the No. 4 Stanford Cardinal (who got all they could handle from the 6-5 Cal Bears last night, holding on for a not-so-impressive 31-28 victory.)

As Thanksgiving approaches and the season’s final regular season game awaits, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from the Irish’s 16-14 Senior Day win against Boston College.

THE GOOD

* The opening drive. Say what you want about the offensive performance the rest of the afternoon, but the game’s opening drive was a beauty. The Irish mixed the run and pass, with Jonas Gray carrying the load on the ground. The Eagles helped the cause with a personal foul penalty, but the Irish had success on first down, converted both third downs, including a 3rd and 1 for a 26-yard touchdown run by Gray.

* Tyler Eifert‘s one-handed catch. Just a play after Michael Floyd couldn’t come down with a one-hander that would’ve walked him into the end zone most likely untouched, Eifert made a ridiculous grab on a flag route thrown over his shoulder. The reception covered 37 yards and put the Irish in David Ruffer’s field goal range.

* David Ruffer was clutch. The fifth-year former walk-on finished his career at home in style, making three clutch field goals when the Irish needed them, and getting back on track as the season comes to an end.

* Robby Toma. His diving catch was of the one-handed circus variety, and dug the Irish out of a deep hole. He and Rees also connected for a big-time throw and catch on a 27-yard strike into a tight hole in the BC zone that dug the Irish out of their own end as well. (He also caught the cherry hop on BC’s onside kick attempt, all but icing the game.)

Toma’s play in the slot is giving Kelly a chance to explore the idea of Theo Riddick at tailback at Stanford, helping out a depth chart now in serious trouble with George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel the only options behind Cierre Wood.

“I think we’ll look at all of those possibilities,” Kelly said. “We’re into a one-game season, so to speak, when it comes to Stanford. We’ll sit down as a staff and first of all see what Theo is able to do physically and decide whether he can go into a running back position and help us out. We haven’t made that decision but we’ll certainly consider it.”

* Big sticks. Manti Te’o added another huge hit to his highlight reel, drilling a running back out of the backfield and planting him on his back in the first quarter. Jamoris Slaughter also came off the edge twice to deliver a few bone-crunching hits. First, Slaughter broke free on a blitz to stuff a third-and-one in the backfield. His next big hit on quarterback Chase Rettig didn’t count, with the refs whistling a false-start dead but the crowd noise covered the whistle. (Score one for pump-up music.) Even though Slaughter lost a strip-sack, a free shot like that and five free yards is a fair trade every time.

* Louis Nix. The sophomore played a very nice football game, making a lot of noise in the offensive backfield and chipping in five tackles from his nose guard spot. Nix is going to need to be a force against Stanford if the Irish want to contain the Cardinal offense.

* Troy Niklas. You want versatility? The freshman made a tackle on a kickoff, played linebacker, then filled in for Stephon Tuitt as the inside pass rusher down the stretch, laying out Rettig on a 4th down throw that fell incomplete.What a weapon Niklas will be in the years ahead.

* Here come the freshman. At the very least, the Irish look like they’ve found three potential impact defenders in this recruiting class with Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Niklas, with guys like Chase Hounshell and Ishaq Williams showing promise as well.

* Good Ben Turk. Give the kid credit — he kicked the Irish out of trouble more than a few times, booming both traditional and rugby punts for an average of 44 yards.

BAD

*Bad Ben Turk. Three touchbacks is just too many, and you can’t land a pooch punt in the end zone.

* Play-action pass defense. If you’ve got a pit in your stomach about this coming Saturday, it should be because of the Irish’s struggles defending the play-action pass. It’d be disingenuous to say that Chase Rettig had a successful day against the Irish, but when he did make throws, he did it with the linebackers heading downhill in pursuit.

The Irish linebackers — Manti Te’o included — need to do a better job in pass coverage, or Luck and the Cardinal will have a big day throwing at the holes in the Irish’s zone coverage.

* Come on, Tommy Rees. You can’t throw that screen pass interception. Credit Max Holloway for a very nice read and play, but the sophomore quarterback blindly threw a middle screen, always a recipe for disaster. While we’re picking out Rees’ shortcomings, here’s hoping Tommy has gotten in deep ball inaccuracy out of his system. If he’s got Michael Floyd streaking open down the sideline against Stanford, he’s got to hit him.

Rees got away with another interception when he rolled right and threw to a heavily covered Tyler Eifert around the goal line. It’s probably time to put the half-field reads away for the year in the red zone, as Rees has made some poor decisions on the move.

* The special out (or jerk pattern). Bobby Swigert just abused the Irish from the slot, beating linebackers, corners and safeties on pretty much the exact same pattern. When you’re playing an offense as remedial as the Eagles, you’ve got to do a better job taking away the things you’d expect them to run, especially with a receiver like Swigert in the slot.

* The punt return game. I give up. I just don’t get it. I can tell you for certain that Mike Elston is an excellent special teams coach. But I can also tell you that the punt return unit is an absolutely joke. Right now this unit is in plain old “don’t screw up” mode, but would it be too much to ask the Irish to block one or two of the gunners running down the field? Would it be too much to ask John Goodman to show just a shred of competency in determining whether or not to call a fair catch? Against Boston College, the return game killed the Irish, an equal collaborator with Eagles punter Ryan Quigley on putting the Irish in terrible starting field position.

This spring should be dedicated to fixing the return game. Sure, spread punts, rugby kicks, and all sorts of other rule tweaks have punt returns down around college football. But at this point, it’s just getting ridiculous.

* Kyle Brindza really struggled on kickoffs. The moment got too big for the freshman who got a sudden case of the snap hooks in the second half. After a solid season of kickoffs, Brindza has lost consistency in the second half of the year, and he inexplicably sent two kickoffs out of bounds — at a crucial point of the game — and had a third that would’ve gone out that would’ve given the Eagles three starts from the 40-yard line.

* The refs got hoodwinked by a fake injury when Eagles running back Rolandan Finch, saved his team a timeout with a well-timed case of a mysterious ailment.

* Gotta look for the ball Zeke Motta. Just because you’re beat in a one-on-one situation doesn’t mean you need to panic when chasing  Swigert near the goalline. The pass interference call set up the Eagles for their late touchdown.

UGLY

* The flu bug absolutely decimated the Irish this week, and it’s still lurking around. Brian Kelly and his staff are taking no chances.

“Our training staff is in the process of cleaning the meeting rooms, the weight room, talking to players about their roommates,” Kelly said. “We’re actually on full alert because we’ve had so many guys affected by it at this point.”

It’s the wrong time of year for the Irish to go into Palo Alto less than full strength, especially with the injuries that are limiting the roster right now.

* It’s just unfair to see Jonas Gray’s career end the way that it did. While Kelly tried to keep his hopes up last night, it’s clear the MRI results are just a formality that’ll tell the coaching staff just how badly Gray’s knee is hurt.

“We don’t have the MRI results, but it’s pretty apparent that he has a significant knee injury,” Kelly said. “The MRI would probably confirm what we know as to be, as I mentioned, a significant knee injury.

The horrible injury came on a swing pass to Gray near the Irish sideline. Rees hit Jonas in stride, but he was met by freshman Manny Asprilla, who put his helmet just below Gray’s knee.

There was no stoppage in play for the hit and Gray actually picked himself off the turf and walked off under his own power, working his way quickly to the bench before the extent of the injury became known. It’s a sad ending to a triumphant season. The knee injury won’t erase all the good that Jonas put on tape this year, but it’s certainly a setback for a senior that turned around his career this season.

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.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”