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IBG: Thankful for another year of football

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What a bizarre year of football. After months of anticipation, the season got off to its worst possible start, as the Irish stumbled out of the gate so badly that most casual football fans never even got a chance to hop on the Notre Dame bandwagon.

But of course, this website isn’t for the casual fan. We’re here — 365, 24:7, whatever term you prefer that means you’ve got something to read daily — and while two gut-punching losses took some wind out of our sails, we made it through another season, and for that, I’m immensely thankful. (Even if some of you like to write stupid comments during the live blog just to mess with my blood pressure.)

After being a passive participant all season, it’s my week to host the Irish Blogger Gathering, so if you don’t like the questions… well, it’s my fault. After eleven games, we’re running out of debate topics, but I feel like I’ve put together enough to make things interesting. I’ll continue to update this post with responses from other writers as they roll in, so be sure to check in and read everything by kickoff Saturday, if only to make fun of the poor prognostication of this group.

So loosen your belt, enjoy a lovely day of carb-loading, turkey, football and all the wonderful things that make the fourth Thursday in November one of the greatest days of the year.

Obviously, Saturday night’s game is massive. Win, and the Irish get to nine wins after starting 0-2, and you can make a really persuasive argument that they’re deserving of a BCS berth. Lose, and ND only makes incremental progress over last year’s 8-5 record. Three potential outcomes: Win, close loss, ten-point loss. How does your takeaway for the season change?

Saturday night’s game is definitely a tipping point in the Brian Kelly era. I don’t think there’s a way to understate the importance of the game. Win — and you’ll hear me bang the drum for a BCS bid, regardless of the three losses. Lose and it’ll give Irish fans a month to debate what exactly is wrong with another Irish head coach. Get blown out? Well, that’s one of those topics I’m not going down unless I’m forced to do it Saturday night.

Brian Kelly has spent over two decades as a head football coach. But this season probably added a few hundred grey hairs to his scalp, and for understandable reasons. Whether it was replacing his starting quarterback thirty minutes into the season, losing games because of defensive implosions or self-induced mistakes, it’s safe to say that the first two weeks of this season spun the year into such a weird place to start that in his wildest dreams, Kelly never saw this coming.

Still, give the team — and their head coach — credit for not packing it in. While the loss to USC was really disappointing, the Irish did exactly what everybody asked for: win a bunch of games and make the last Saturday of the year a compelling football game.

Right now the Irish have 15 prospects committed to the 2012 recruiting class. Let’s assume every starter with a year left is coming back (Cave, KLM, Cwynar and Slaughter) and the Irish end up signing 20 recruits. That’ll make 93 players technically available for the 85-man roster (With Mike Ragone potentially being No. 94). Assuming Te’o and Eifert are back next season, what reserves do you invite back for a fifth year? Why?

I don’t know why I do this to myself, as these are the kind of questions that make life really difficult. Notre Dame’s policy on fifth-year players is incredibly admirable, but it must make life hard for a head football coach.

If you’re in the business of coaching student-athletes and objectively deciding their ability to help your team, picking who stays around for a fifth year must add a lot of stress to your life. A football coach’s job is to believe in the students he brings to Notre Dame. It’s easy to decide that a wet-behind-the-ears freshman isn’t ready to play. It’s got to be a whole lot tougher to decide a mature, 22-year-old student isn’t deserving of one more opportunity for the light bulb to go off. It’s practically antithetical to your mission statement as a coach.

With that in mind, let’s get cold-blooded about an Irish roster that’s finally — this is a good thing — bursting at the seams.

Fifth-year candidates:

Dayne Crist — One of my favorite players on the team. I wish him well as he transfers and plays a final season to rebuild his NFL Draft stock.
John Goodman — One of the more difficult decisions on the roster. I’d cut bait with him depending on the wide receivers that came in during recruiting. Even though he’s the quintesential example of a “waiting for the lightbulb to turn on” kind of player, he just hasn’t been the athlete many thought he could be.
Deion Walker — Even though Walker was one of the most highly touted recruits in his class, he just hasn’t been able to work his way into the two-deep. This year is it for the other No. 1.
Mike Golic — Probably the toughest call in the group. I’d actually let Golic walk, and then spend all spring turning Bruce Heggie into the super-sub type player that can play center and guard. (That said, if he comes back, I’d completely agree with the decision.)
Lane Clelland — Let him walk. Clelland is one of those guys that just as easily could’ve turned into a first round pick. His pedigree is perfect: high school wrestler, big-bodied athletic lineman. The coaching staff thought he had a chance to make a difference at defensive end, but the experiment ended after spring ball, and injuries robbed Clelland of a final chance to contribute.
Hafis Williams — There are just too many youngsters that have jumped ahead of him in the depth chart.
Brandon Newman — Ditto. Although I will really miss his thoughtful personality, which is always on display in UND.com’s videos and Trick Shot Monday episodes.
Anthony McDonald — Another tough, but logical decision. McDonald got passed up by Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, not to mention youngsters like Kendall Moore. And he’s struggled with injuries.
David Posluszny — He’s not much smaller than his brother, but Poz just couldn’t work his way onto the field. Another guy that struggled with injuries.
Dan McCarthy — One of my favorite recruits when he signed on to play for the Irish, McCarthy battled a serious injury coming into Notre Dame and just never seemed to work his way onto the field. Even though his brother was a late-bloomer, Dan is far down the depth chart after four years. It’s a tough decision, but I’d let him go.
Mike Ragone (Sixth Year) — One guy I’d fight to bring back. He’ll help the running game just as much as the passing game, and he’s a perfect compliment to the offensive line, and an off the field leader for a team that could be in need of one.

If you ran the website NDNation, what would you do with it? It’s the most prominent Notre Dame hub on all of the internet, but it’s got a very vocal faction of readers/fans that seem to control the agenda — most often with a significantly negative point-of-view. What would you do if that was your website?

This is one question I have no answer for. Unfortunately, there are certain vocal curmudgeons that make navigating their website a difficult task. For thousands of Irish fans, NDNation.com is a daily stop. Yet it’s probably been abandoned by just as many, with people simply growing disenfranchised after years of reading.

While it’s easy to say you’d nuke it and start over, it’s much harder to actually do it. I’d probably find myself deleting a few key posters, and then spend a few hours every day just challenging people to be rational, hoping that eventually people realize everybody wants the same thing: a winning football team.

You’re Brian Kelly. You spent last recruiting class successfully upgrading the front seven of the defense. Over the next two recruiting classes, what position groups do you absolutely need to upgrade to get the Irish over the BCS hump?

I take dead aim at the wide receiver position. My adoration for Michael Floyd is well known, but outside of him, I’m unimpressed with the athleticism of just about everybody playing the position. Kelly showed that he can find and bring in really impressive athletes at other positions — especially along the defensive line, one of the hardest places to bring in talent at Notre Dame. I’d focus my energy on bringing in a better breed of athletes at wideout, and watch how quickly the offense would take shape.

On the flip side of the ball, we’ll know if Brian Kelly is a success based on his evaluation of defensive backs. He’s basically been tasked with completely rebuilding the secondary for 2012, and we’ll know in about ten months whether he did a good job. Kelly has to replace a really veteran group, and if they can do it next yer, the team has a chance at being really, really good.

I’ve seen dozens of analogies used to describe the current state of the quarterbacking position at Notre Dame. What’s your favorite, or the one you think is the most appropriate?

I’m going to lean on the great Stephen Stills, who absolutely nailed how I feel about the current conundrum at quarterback:

“Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove.
And eagle files with the dove.
And if you can’t be with the one you love
Love the one you’re with.
Don’t be angry, don’t be sad.
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had.
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do.

So many people are focused on what Tommy Rees can’t do. I always find myself going the other way. Let’s just enjoy the things that he can do, even if some Saturdays that feels awfully limited. I’ve said it a million times so once more won’t hurt: If Brian Kelly thought he had someone else that’d help the Irish win every Saturday, he’d play him.

Get out the crystal ball. Even after an unimpressive weekend, the Irish are right around a seven-point underdog to Stanford. Do the Irish leave Palo Alto victorious?

If I got paid to pick Irish wins, I’d be broke and living on a street corner. That said, we’re still waiting for this Notre Dame team to play their best football. Even without some key contributors, I really do feel like this Saturday can be the day.

If Notre Dame wins, it’ll be because they played well, not because Stanford played poorly. It’ll also be because the Irish defense did a good job with Andrew Luck, the best quarterback Notre Dame will see in quite some time. Lost in the offensive implosion of last year’s 37-14 loss was Bob Diaco’s very good day against Luck. Statistically, it was one of the three worst games Luck ever played, and if the Irish can force a few mistakes out of him, they’ll have a chance to win.

Gut feeling or deep-seeded hope I can’t be sure, but I’ve got a feeling that Notre Dame beats Stanford, putting this season’s trajectory right back on track.

UPDATING: THOUGHTS FROM PEOPLE LIKELY SMARTER THAN ME:

* Our friends over at Her Loyal Sons had a really thoughtful response to the NDNation question. But he also quoted Beautiful Girls, one of my favorite movies. So there.

* I actually really like Shamrock Head’s take on fifth-year players. Whether it works is a different story.

* Our friends at the Irish Round Table make a really interest point: You can be anti-Brian Kelly or anti-Tommy Rees. You can’t be both.

* Here’s a Tommy Rees comparison that I really like from One Foot Down, comparing the quarterbacking situation to the cast of Saturday Night Live. Is Tommy Rees Kristen Wiig? To some, she’s a one-note comedian worth a couple laughs. Then again, she’s the brain/star behind Bridesmaids, the biggest comedy of the year.

* The Subway Domer gives us the three different places the Irish will be depending on what happens Saturday night.

* Blog Davie (now moving to New Mexico!) and the Gameday 40 crew still think the Irish should concentrate on recruiting quarterbacks, something Brian Kelly agrees with as he takes dead aim at Gunner Kiel.

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.