Set your DVR: Onward to Victory: Notre Dame Hockey


This blog admittedly doesn’t give other Notre Dame sports their fair shake. But there’s a soft spot in my heart for Notre Dame hockey. You’d think someone that rode the bench on the baseball team and covers Notre Dame football for a living would have his allegiances set, but through four years of college, there was no bigger Irish hockey fan than me, and the guys on the team were some of my best friends, people I still talk and email on a daily basis.

Before ringing in the New Year takes over tonight, do yourself a favor and tune into Versus for a wonderful hour of television chronicling the dawning of the new era of Notre Dame hockey: the opening of the Compton Family Ice Arena. It’s a terrific inside look spearheaded by the team at Fighting Irish Digital Media, and gives you an overview on the surprisingly rich history of Notre Dame hockey, while also giving you a behind the scenes look at the opening game of the arena, the Irish’s showdown with No. 3 ranked Boston College — a game so good, the documentary’s producers likely couldn’t believe there luck.

The Irish officially moved from their rink in the JACC to the Compton Family Ice Arena this season, fulfilling a promise made to over a decades worth of Irish hockey recruits and bringing one of the nation’s best college hockey programs out of the dark ages. There’s often talk about “the Notre Dame experience.” Well, playing hockey in the JACC was definitely not the Notre Dame experience, it was one of college hockey’s absolute worst facilities. Growing up and playing hockey in a state like Minnesota, I was shocked when I came to watch my friends play in their first college game — in a rink with temporary bleachers in a personality-less setting that served as the worst home ice advantage in the CCHA. I played every game of my high school career in a better rink.

Over a decade later, walking into the Compton Ice Arena before the Boston College game and taking my seat along the red line, I couldn’t help but think about all of those games that I’d attended back at the old JACC, winning meal money during a cheesy trivia contest in front of a half-empty crowd or freely sliding between bleachers to say hi to friends and family. “Every player that played here over the years, dreamt of it being at this stage,” former coach Dave Poulin said during the show. “And believe me, now everybody knows that Notre Dame has hockey.”

I won’t give away anything else about the show tonight, but one comment struck me as I watched an advanced copy. It was from head coach Jeff Jackson, as he addressed his team as they packed up their things and made the walk over to their new, state-of-the-art, home.

“There’s been a lot of special moments here. But I want us all to remember the humility of this place,” Jackson told his players. “Yeah, we’re all anxious to get outta here. But never lose sight of what we’ve had here. It’s had a lot of special people in this room and a lot of special celebrations.”

As the team gathered around the interlocking ND on the dingy old locker room’s floor, I couldn’t help think of the hundreds of guys that have packed into that cramped room, playing hockey with a chip on their shoulder knowing they were playing in the shabbiest rink in college hockey while representing one of the country’s proudest schools. As you’ll see when you get your first look at the new rink, that problem has been permanently remedied.

Here’s a look at the trailer for Onward to Victory: Notre Dame Hockey, airing tonight at 9:30 p.m. ET on Versus.


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”