Michael Floyd 3

Pregame Six Pack: One last time for 2011

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You’ve got to love college football. It’s the only sport where you can logically explain taking a month-long break in your schedule before playing a bowl game, an essentially meaningless exhibition game when it comes to postseason implications.

But that’s our sport and we all love it. And for Notre Dame and Florida State, two teams that failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations, tomorrow evening’s date in the Champs Sports Bowl gives two of college football’s most tradition-laden programs a chance to end this season on a high note. Is it the BCS game both fanbases hoped for before the season? No. But with five combined losses between the two programs before mid-October, the fact that the two teams are meeting in one of the most intriguing games of an otherwise mediocre slate of postseason games, it sure makes for some compelling football.

Before Brian Kelly‘s squad renews an old rivalry with the Seminoles on Thursday evening at 5:30 p.m. ET, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before we put a bow on an interesting 2011 season.

***

You can never avoid the winds of change in the college football world.

Rumors swirled the past few days of more big news coming in college football. Whether that was rumors that Michigan was going to drop Notre Dame in football or another team hightailing it from a conference in search of more money, you’ve got to give credit to Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott for actually thinking outside the box to both help their respective conferences while also not dropping another bomb on an already unstable landscape.

Starting as soon as next year, the two conferences will start a “collaboration,” a newly founded alliance that’ll have a lot of the benefits sought during the rumored “seismic shifts” without the bloodshed seen in the Big 12 and the SEC.

“Rather than go down the road of just trying to add members, we thought this was a way to keep who we were and an increased value for everybody,” Delany said.

“It’s a flexible approach to achieving some of the benefits of expansion without dealing with some of the other structural issues,” Scott added.

Of course, the one school that was probably most effected out of the conference members was Notre Dame. And as Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports reports, Irish AD Jack Swarbrick was all over this from day one.

Here’s more from Forde:

The Fighting Irish have a huge part of their schedule invested in those leagues. The fiercely independent Irish have five ongoing annual series with teams from those leagues: Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue of the Big Ten, and USC and Stanford of the Pac-12. If the leagues are going to add an annual game between members, would that potentially squeeze Notre Dame out of the mix?

Not likely, said Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who has a close relationship with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

“I don’t anticipate it having much of an impact,” Swarbrick told Yahoo! Sports. “I was aware it was coming; they sort of kept us informed. I think it’s a great thing for the two conferences.”

A more likely scenario than dropping Notre Dame is a reduction in conference games from nine to eight. Thus, the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 game would be a substitute for that league game on the schedule, which means Notre Dame’s spot would not have to be sacrificed in favor of a “guaranteed” home game against a lesser opponent.

Swarbrick has done a pretty impressive job maneuvering the Irish through some tricky times the past few years. It’s good to see Notre Dame will be able to hold onto these traditional opponents, and even better to see that the days of buying wins and scheduling cupcakes is possibly on its way out.

***

Expect special teams to play a big role in determining a winner.

It might be too late for the Irish to work their way out of the depths of mediocrity when it comes to their punt return game. But if there’s ever a game where the Irish need to show up in special teams, this is the one.

The Irish face the best set of specialists they’ll see all year, with punter Shawn Powell No. 1 in the country averaging 47-yards a kick and Dustin Hopkins an All-American place kicker. In a game where yardage will be at a premium, manufacturing field position and getting something — heck anything — out of the punt return game would be a huge help to an Irish offense that’ll be facing its stiffest task of the year. Just as important, it’ll be up to Mike Elston’s troops to slow down a dangerous set of Seminole return men, headlined by junior Gred Reid, who has averaged 11.4 yards a return.

“Florida State can put points on the board in the special teams,” Kelly said. “I think they’re the first team we will play this year that have that kind of dynamic ability in their special teams. It’s been a constant point of emphasis for us relative to how we have prepared in our bowl season, but clearly if you have two fairly even-matched teams sometimes special teams makes a big difference. We knew that going in and we are going to have to play well in that area.”

Adding another interesting twist to the special teams battle, the Seminoles All-American kicker was almost Irish, as Hopkins nearly selected the Irish before deciding to head to Tallahassee. It wasn’t as dramatic as Lorenzo Booker’s last second defection to the Seminoles, but a mysterious string of events pushed him to Florida Stat.

The junior All-American, who was a finalist for this year’s Lou Groza Award, admits now that a series of chance occurrences during his recruiting visits played at least some role in shaping his decision.

First, he and his family were walking in a Houston airport when they found an old Buffalo nickel, which featured the face of an American Indian on one side. Hopkins’ mother immediately joked that it might be a sign for the Seminoles, but the family just laughed it off.

Then during a recruiting trip to Northwestern’s football offices, the Hopkins clan spotted a trophy named for then-Florida State coach Bobby Bowden.

“My sister saw it and said, ‘Dustin, look … another sign,'” he recalled. “We laughed that one off, too.”

Then during his recruiting visit to South Bend, Ind., Hopkins went to eat with Notre Dame’s coaches at a Chili’s restaurant. And there on a wall was a mural featuring an American Indian riding a horse — an image not unlike Florida State’s own Osceola and Renegade.”It was just really ironic,” Hopkins said.

The message, of course: Don’t take a recruit to Chili’s on his official visit.

***

After losing his captaincy before the season, Michael Floyd finally gets to lead his team.

Among the permanent repercussions that came from Michael Floyd‘s DUI arrest last spring was getting stripped of his captaincy before the season started. The honor bestowed on the rising senior wide receiver at the award’s ceremony last winter was taken away as Floyd was put on probation by the school, and Harrison Smith was the sole captain of the Irish this season, with a game day captain named each week to join him.

But Floyd took his final classes as a student earlier in December, graduating at the semester break from Notre Dame. Scoring four As (and a C-) in his final semester, Floyd did all that was asked of him in the classroom, not to mention countless hours of community service and other off-the-field work. He also helped prove that the faith the university administration placed in him, not to mention Kelly staking his reputation on his star player, was deserved.

“He’s exhibited all the things necessary that we’ve asked him to do,” Kelly at a press conference Wednesday. “He’s gotten his degree from Notre Dame, he’s lived his life the right way, he’s been extraordinary in his preparation in practice. He exhibits all of those traits that we feel are important to be a game-day captain.”

Last year, Michael took the bowl game to torch a talented Miami secondary for a big game. This year, he’ll have a national spotlight on him against a talented Seminoles secondary, but one that presents some physical mismatches for the top Irish receiver in school history.

Regardless of who’s throwing to him, look for the Irish to take some shots down the field throwing to No. 3 — the last time we’ll be able to watch Mr. Michael Floyd don the Irish uniform.

***

Kelly hints that a staff promotion is coming from within.

The smoke that’s surrounded running backs coach Tim Hinton has struggled to clear, especially with Urban Meyer still looking to round out his offensive coaching staff in Columbus, and Hinton having such deep roots in the state of Ohio.

That said, both Hinton and Kelly have proclaimed Hinton is staying put, and Kelly once again made it seem that there won’t be any more defections, and it’s possible that any addition will come from coaches that already work for the Irish.

“We’re very excited that we’re going to be able to keep our staff in place,” Kelly said. “Obviously Charley Molnar is at UMass and we’re excited for him. But we’re going to be able to announce those things. I can tell you this, they’re guys who have already been on Notre Dame’s campus. That’s the exciting part that we’re going to have continuity within our staff and maintain that this year.”

Whether that means Ed Warinner will climb the ladder to offensive coordinator or secondary coach Chuck Martin will switch sides of the ball remains to be seen. We also don’t know just how coy Kelly was being — does “already been on Notre Dame’s campus” mean this year? If it does — the Irish have four solid candidates among their GA troops:

Scott Booker, Offensive Intern. Booker was a four-year starter at defensive back for Kent State, and coached the secondary for his alma mater from 2005-08 and at Western Kentucky in 2009. Booker took a step back, dropping down to the intern rank to come to Notre Dame, but could slide into the defensive staff if Martin moves to OC.

Bill Brechin, Offensive Intern. Brechin came to South Bend with Martin, playing for the former Grand Valley State coach as an All-Conference DB before working as a graduate assistant for the Lakers before switching sides of the ball in South Bend.

Jon Carpenter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Carpenter played under Kelly at Cincinnati as a linebacker and is the younger brother of former Buckeye All-American and current NFL player Bobby Carpenter. He’d likely only fill a void on the defensive side of the ball.

Michael Painter, Defensive Graduate Assistant. Painter has worked with Kelly all the way back to Central Michigan, working his way from there to Cincinnati, where he spent three years as a staff associate. Painter spent some time working special teams for the Chippewas, an area he could chip in for the Irish.

***

How good is the Irish running game? We’ll find out against the Seminoles.

The numbers don’t look good for the Irish. After losing senior Jonas Gray with a knee injury against Boston College, the Irish will take on the nation’s toughest run defense in the country, with the Seminoles giving up only 2.32 yards per carry.

This is hardly the Irish’s first dance with a dominant running defense. Florida State will be the sixth team the Irish have faced in the Top 35 in the country in yards-per-carry, with the Irish putting up mixed results:

No. 1 — Florida State:
No. 7 — Michigan State: 32 carries, 114 yards, 2 TDs
No. 8 — South Florida: 29 carries, 117 yards, 1 TD
No. 11 — Stanford: 31 carries, 57 yards, 1 TD
No. 20 — Pittsburgh: 32 carries, 182 yards 1 TD
No. 35 — USC: 14 carries, 41 yards, 1 TD

That’s a modest average of 3.7 yards a carry against those five defenses, with sack yardage not taken into account. The Irish had their biggest ground games against Purdue, Air Force, and Maryland, one mediocre (Purdue) and two statistically horrible teams against the run.

With Theo Riddick in the backfield and Andrew Hendrix adding to the rush attack, the Irish will need to squeeze every bit of efficiency they can on the ground, even if the going is tough.

***

It’s a fond farewell to a senior class that left Notre Dame in a better place than they found it.

It’s a bittersweet time of year. Notre Dame will say good bye to another class of seniors, with Thursday’s bowl the last time we’ll see this group take the field. Here’s a quick run down of the class likely taking the field for the last time:

Harrison Smith — Senior leader grew more in five years than anyone.
David Ruffer — An often told story that’d make even Rudy blush.
Mike Ragone — Star-crossed tight end matured into a model citizen.
Andrew Nuss — Fifth year player supplied critical depth on the offensive line.
Nick Lezynski — Walk-on hopes to continue football career as a coach.
Gary Gray — Bounced back from early adversity. Potential to play on Sundays.
Taylor Dever — Never sniffed the field until Kelly arrived, then became two-year starter.
Patrick Coughlin — Former Irish track member followed his dream to football.
Hafis Williams — Reserve nose guard might spend fifth-year playing elsewhere.
Deion Walker — While he never lived up to the hype, he’s always been a team guy.
Jamoris Slaughter — Free of injury, Slaughter will be back for a fifth-year.
Ryan Sheehan — Walk-on walked away from track scholarship to join football team.
Ryan Sharpley — Former baseball player (and brother of Evan) joined team as WR.
Chris Salvi — Special teams dynamo honored as game captain.
Trevor Robinson — One of Irish’s quirkiest personalities, should find way to NFL.
David Posluszny — Played large on special teams, even if he struggled in brother’s shadow.
Andrew Plaska — Walk-on who’ll end up in medical school next year.
Sean Oxley — Turned down Ivy Leagues to walk-on at Notre Dame.
Brandon Newman — Senior DT will be remembered for personality… and Trick Shot Monday.
Matthew Mulvey — Walk-on QB and leader of Red Army.
Anthony McDonald — Linebacker battled health issues for most of career.
Dan McCarthy — Safety struggled to stay healthy after coming to ND with neck injury.
Dennis Mahoney — Law school likely for walk-on, who saw the field against Air Force.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Knee injury ended season, but career will continue in 2012.
Ryan Kavanagh — Walk-on snapper added holder to his repertoire.
Ethan Johnson — Heart of defensive line battled injuries during final season.
Mike Grieco — Walk-on and Holy Cross transfer kicked extra point against Air Force.
Jonas Gray — Story of the season only sidetracked with ACL tear.
John Goodman — With one year of eligibility left, Goodman could stay or play elsewhere in 2012.
Mike Golic Jr. — Came up big after spending career as back-up. Might return in 2012.
Jonathan Frantz — After two years as a student, Frantz walked-on to the football team.
Michael Floyd — The greatest pure WR in Notre Dame history.
Darius Fleming — Chicago product battled through coaching changes to be best pass rusher.
Steve Filer — Knee injury ended a career that never found its mark.
Dayne Crist — A model student-athlete for Notre Dame. Has Kansas detour to get career on track.
Lane Clelland — After an attempted position switch, Injuries hurt Clelland’s career.
Braxston Cave — Foot surgery ended 2011 season, will be back in 2012.
Robert Blanton — A four year contributor, Blanton is athletic enough for an NFL shot.

One last chance to wear the blue and gold should be enough motivation for this group to leave Notre Dame victorious. Congratulations to each and every one of this group for a great accomplishment.

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.