Pregame Six Pack: Irish invade Dublin


Football is finally here. And while I wasn’t able to watch South Carolina and Vanderbilt play one of their patented SEC slugfests, it’s good to know that it’s finally time to start talking about the games, instead of all the other rubbish that happens this time of year.

With thousands of fans from Navy and Notre Dame descending on the Emerald Isle, it’s time to finally kickoff the 2012 football season.

As usual here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers of miscellaneous musings as the Fighting Irish prepare to play the Midshipmen.


1. While the first month of the season has been tough on Notre Dame, the Irish have usually fared well in the season opener.

Nobody is likely to forget last season’s opening game debacle against USF, but overall the season opener hasn’t usually been the problem for the Irish. While most bemoan the front-loaded nature of recent Irish schedules, it’s actually been a good run for opening days in recent years.

Lou Holtz: 9-2
Bob Davie: 4-1
Ty Willingham: 2-1
Charlie Weis: 4-1
Brian Kelly: 1-1

The Irish have won 20 of their last 25 openers, logging a collective 102-16-5 record overall. But it’s been a decade since they’ve gotten out of September unscathed, dating back to that magical start to the Ty Willingham era.

Beating Navy this weekend is the first step. But getting on a roll and getting past Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State will have the Irish right back on the map and in the hunt for a BCS bid.

(Sounds easy, right?)


2. Starting away from home might not be a bad thing for rookie quarterback Everett Golson.

Ideally, you’d like your first-time starting quarterback to have the benefit of a home crowd and familiar surroundings. But the last time the Irish went on the road with a first-time starting quarterback things worked out just fine.

In 1994, the Irish started the much ballyhooed Ron Powlus era in Evanston, Illinois and the young quarterback certainly didn’t disappoint. Powlus threw for 291 yards and four touchdowns as the Irish routed Northwestern.

Since 1985, the Irish have debuted 20 quarterbacks. Sophomore Everett Golson will be the 21st. Fourteen of them won their openers, including a string of nine straight from 85-98. Let’s take a quick hop down memory lane…

1985 — Terry Andrysiak, Soph. 37-14 victory over Ol’ Miss.
1987 — Tony Rice, Soph. 35-14 victory over Air Force.
1987 — Kent Graham, Fr. 32-25 win over Boston College.
1990 — Rick Mirer, Soph. 28-24 win over No. 4 Michigan.
1991 — Paul Faila, Fr. 45-20 win over Purdue. (Played only first series.)
1993 — Kevin McDougal, Sr. 27-12 win over Northwestern.
1994 — Ron Powlus, Soph. 42-15 win over Northwestern.
1995 — Tom Krug, Jr. 44-14 win over Air Force.
1998 — Jarious Jackson, Sr. 36-20 win over No. 5 Michigan.
1998 — Eric Chappell, Jr. 10-0 loss to USC.
2000 — Arnaz Battle, Jr. 24-10 win over Texas A&M.
2000 — Gary Godsey, Soph. 23-21 win over Purdue.
2000 — Matt LoVecchio, Fr. 20-14 win over Stanford.
2001 — Carlyle Holiday, Soph. 24-3 loss to Texas A&M.
2003 — Brady Quinn, Fr. 23-10 loss to Purdue.
2007 — Jimmy Clausen, Fr. 31-10 loss to Penn State.
2007 — Evan Sharpley, Soph. 38-0 loss to USC.
2010 — Dayne Crist, Jr. 23-12 win over Purdue.
2010 — Tommy Rees, Fr. 28-3 win over No. 15 Utah.

We’ll find out if Golson’s debut is a footnote in Irish history or the beginning of a new era in Notre Dame quarterbacking.


3. If Navy’s passing game is going to give the Irish fits, it’ll have to do it without its two starting wide receivers.

It isn’t just Brian Kelly sitting key starters out for the season opener. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has left starting wide receiver Brandon Turner home for a violation of team rules. Turner, at 6-foot-4, 225-pounds, was a red zone threat, solid blocker, and also  led the Midshipmen in receiving last season.

It’s been a disappointing start to the season for Turner, who failed his physical readiness test and missed a chunk of training camp. Quarterback Trey Miller will also be missing starter Matt Aiken with a knee injury that he suffered during fall camp. Still learning the intricacies of the triple option attack, Miller will be breaking in two new wide receivers, not exactly the plan heading into the season.


4. Even after an embarrassing loss last season, memories of a Navy victory are still fresh in the heads of the Midshipmen.

Last season’s 42-point domination by the Irish didn’t erase the positive memories Navy players had from their shocking 35-17 victory over the Irish in 2010. With Ricky Dobbs running the offense and Alexander Teich bulldozing his way through the middle of the Irish defense, Navy forced Dayne Crist into some bad decisions and the Midshipmen coasted to a 35-17 win.

It’s a victory many players from the team are going to draw on this Saturday.

“It was an awesome game. Offensively, everything was clicking. It just seemed like every play was working and everyone executed,” Howell told the Capital Gazette. “You put that many points and yards up on a high-caliber team and it’s a lot of fun.”

A win by Navy would give the Midshipmen seniors a stunning three victories in four years over the Irish, an accomplishment only done twice in school history (1937 and 1964).

“Beating them one year doesn’t necessarily make it easier to beat them next year. Notre Dame always has an entire roster of big-time players and we need to remember that,” lineman Josh Cabral said. “At the same time, I think we’ve developed a sense that if we go in there and play as hard as we can and execute at a high level we have a chance. Obviously, we have to play perfect football in a lot of areas in order to beat them.”


5. It takes quite a bit of work to turn the pitch into the gridiron.

There might not be a more unique stadium than the one the Irish and Midshipmen will battle in this weekend. Dublin’s Aviva Stadium hosts soccer and rugby matches, and will welcome Lady Gaga in a few weeks. But they had to do a little work to transform the stadium into a football field.


6. It may not be the easiest place to play a football game, but all the Irish players and coaches are thankful to be playing in Dublin.

Brian Kelly might have caught a little flack for saying he preferred playing his football games in South Bend than Dublin, but it’s clear that this is a great life experience for both players and coaches.

While the logistics and challenges of uprooting a football program and putting them in a foreign country add some complexities to an already difficult upcoming season, team captain Manti Te’o said it best.

“It’s my first time outside the United States,” Te’o told UND.com. “I don’t think you could do this anywhere else but here at Notre Dame. It’s a special place and they give us opportunities to explore not only the states but the world and I’m really humbled to be here and really grateful to be here.”

He’s certainly not the only one that feels that way.

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


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.”