Purdue v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 20, Purdue 17

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The short story out of South Bend is that No. 22 Notre Dame outlasted a scrappy Purdue team 20-17, with back-up kicker Kyle Brindza icing the game on a 27-yard field goal with just seven seconds left on the clock. The longer version? Well… it’s not quite that simple.

With six minutes left in tight ball game, sophomore quarterback Everett Golson was cementing his status as Notre Dame’s quarterback of the future. A week after playing the role of game manager in the Irish’s 50-10 dismantling of Navy, the sophomore was heroic for three-and-a-half quarters as he willed the Irish to victory.

With the Irish ground game largely neutralized, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin put the game on Golson’s shoulders, and the talented youngster delivered. Completing 21 of 31 throws for 289 yards, Golson accounted for both of Notre Dame’s touchdowns, throwing one to TJ Jones and scoring another on acrobatic run. So with just over six minutes left in the game and the Irish clinging to a seven point lead, Kelly called on Golson to get the Irish out of South Bend alive.

With Tyler Eifert and Davaris Daniels out, the Irish relied on their run game. As the clock rolled, the Irish went to work. Theo Riddick churned out an important first down getting the Irish outside their own 20. But then Kelly put the game in Golson’s hands, and things took a drastic turn for the worse. With nowhere to go with the football, Golson took a back-breaking sack, eschewing an easy throw away for a 10 yard loss. Saddled with a 2nd and 20, Kelly once again kept the ball in Golson’s hands. Until the sophomore was stripped of the ball on the Irish 15, setting Purdue up perfectly for a game tying score.

On 4th and 10, Purdue’s Caleb TerBush hit Antavian Edison for a 15 yard touchdown pass, beating linebacker Carlo Calabrese on a double move. With just over two minutes left and the Irish without any timeouts, the Irish turned improbably to Tommy Rees, and the much maligned junior lead the Irish down the field 55 yards for the game winning field goal.

“Any time you come back and show the resolve that our team did, you can imagine it was a pretty excited locker room,” Brian Kelly said after the game, throwing in his contender for understatement of the year.

Nearly 12 years to the day after Irish kicker Nick Setta sunk Drew Brees‘ Rose Bowl bound Boilermakers, Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit out of his hat in a move that could’ve changed the course of his career.

Let’s find out what else we learned during No. 22 Notre Dame’s heart-stopping 20-17 victory over Purdue.

***

With all the chips on the table, Brian Kelly turned to quarterback Tommy Rees for the victory. And the embattled quarterback came through in the clutch.

Notre Dame fans have already made up their minds on Rees. When the junior quarterback took the field with just over two minutes to go, a cascade of boos echoed through Notre Dame Stadium. But with no timeouts left, a field filled with back-up offensive skill players, and an offensive line that was leaking oil, Rees gutted out one of the more improbable drives in recent Irish memory.

Utilizing a mostly vertical passing game, Rees attacked the alleys of the Purdue defense, throwing early and decisively as he calmly marched the Irish down the field. Rees converted two crucial third downs — the first to fifth-year senior John Goodman just as the play clock expired. The second to senior Robby Toma, hitting him perfectly on the break as Toma scampered into field goal range. From there, the Irish worked the ball into the middle of the field, where Kyle Brindza drilled the game winning kick.

When asked if he expected his most experienced quarterback to deliver in the clutch, Kelly talked about what made him confident in the embattled junior.

“It’s what I knew about him, and his make up and moxie and mental toughness,” Kelly said of Rees. “Does he have all of the elite skills? No. But he’s a gamer. And he’ll do anything. Those guys in that locker room will go to the wall for him. They’ll do anything. Because he’s a great teammate.

“He’s the consummate teammate and that’s why those guys in the locker room are pretty happy.”

That Rees was able to march the Irish down the field in crunch time was made even more incredible when you consider he didn’t take a snap with the team until earlier this week, kept out of 11-on-11 drills while the staff got Golson and junior Andrew Hendrix up to speed.

And while Kelly said he wasn’t certain who the No. 2 quarterback would be heading into this game, Rees took every single snap with the team’s second unit this week, making up for lost time just in case the Irish needed to call on their veteran.

After the game, Rees had the opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong, but stayed incredible humble.

“We’ve got to win this game,” Rees told NBC’s Alex Flanagan about his mindset. “I wasn’t too caught up in the moment. Find a way to win this game and not let it get to overtime.

The junior also didn’t bite when asked about a brewing quarterback controversy.

“I try to be as positive of a role model as I can and help Everett out when I can,” Rees said. “Everett played a great game today. He’s a great player and he’ll continue to get better.”

The majority of ND Nation didn’t want to see Tommy Rees on the football field. But when his number was called, he got the job done, solidifying the respect and belief his teammates and coaches had in him.

***

Perhaps the superlatives lavished on the Irish offensive line were a bit premature.

It didn’t take long for fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr. to realize that the Irish weren’t playing Navy anymore. Golic was treated like a rodeo clown early and often by Purdue’s All-American Kawann Short, as the Purdue defense controlled the line of scrimmage against the Irish for much of the game, forcing Notre Dame to rely on the quick passing game to muster any offense.

“I assumed they wouldn’t come out and try and just run the ball at us, because I think we’re too big and strong for someone to just run the ball at us,” Purdue head coach Danny Hope said after the game.

After cruising for almost 300 yards on the ground in week one, and a year after torching the Boilermakers for 287 yards, the Irish couldn’t run the ball at all, held to just 52 yards on 36 carries. After looking like a line filled with All-Americans, the front five all made their share of mistakes, with captain Zack Martin getting flagged three times and every starter showing up on the wrong side of a Purdue highlight, as the Boilermakers racked up five sacks and eight tackles-for-loss.

“Purdue made up their mind that they were going to have a loaded box today,” Kelly said. “That was it. You’re not going to run the football. We’re going to make it so difficult. We had to manage it by throwing the football.”

Purdue defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar put together a perfect game plan against the Irish, bolstered by the fact that his game-calling was a mystery, having spent the past three years in the Canadian Football League. He also gave teams like Michigan State a blueprint, stacking the line of scrimmage and relying on his talented front to control the line of scrimmage.

It’ll be back to the drawing board for Harry Hiestand‘s troops, who took a large step back in their second game of the season.

***

With their backs against the wall, Notre Dame showed a resolve that was absent in 2011.

It was all hands on deck for the Irish as six starters and seven major contributors were lost during the game with injuries. Defensive captain Kapron Lewis-Moore was lost early with a calf injury. Safety Jamoris Slaughter left the game early after a bone-crushing hit injured his shoulder. All-American Tyler Eifert suffered a mild concussion, watching crunch time from the sideline. Davaris Daniels, on his way to an impressive afternoon, rolled an ankle in the end zone. Ishaq Williams was lost for a large chunk of the game with an elbow injury. Sheldon Day went down with dehydration. And 48 hours before kickoff, Nick Tausch aggravated his groin.

“The story for me as the head coach is our mantra: Next Man In,” Kelly said. “We had seven guys go down today. We had two captains go down. A leader in our secondary. And our guys kept fighting, the next guy came in and battled.”

It’s hard to pinpoint areas that could’ve hurt the Irish worse. Lewis-Moore’s injury turned the defensive end position into another youthful experiment, with Tony Springmann logging heavy minutes after both Lewis-Moore and Day went down.

In the secondary, the Irish depth at safety was already precariously thin, yet the secondary put together a nice game as it mixed and matched youth around Zeke Motta while holding the Boilermakers two quarterbacks to just 19 of 37 for 198 yards. (Navy threw for 197 yards the week before.) Offensively, losing your two top receiving threats is never enviable, but it was veterans Goodman and Toma coming up big down the stretch to help the Irish.

Kelly doesn’t expect any of the injuries to be major, with no surgeries expected and a week in the training room to cure most ills. Yet the injuries weren’t as painful as the self-inflicted mistakes that came with the Irish home opener. After a remarkably clean debut, Notre Dame committed eight penalties, including personal fouls on both Martin and All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Yet the Irish still overcame all of that, picking themselves off the mat and winning a game that might have gone the other way a year ago.

“A few years before this, the game wouldn’t have gone down like this. We wouldn’t have won,” Martin said after the game. “The resilience of those guys when their number was called, it was a full team effort.”

***

Even with Tommy Rees coming in as the closer, Everett Golson is still the Irish’s starting quarterback.

Rightfully so, Brian Kelly killed any quarterback controversy early, telling NBC’s Alex Flanagan that Golson would be starting against Michigan State and echoing those sentiments to the assembled media.

“There is no quarterback controversy. Everett Golson is our starter. He will start against Michigan State,” Kelly said.

With Golson at quarterback, the Irish have an athletic runner who can make defenders miss and also make big plays with his arm. That confidence was obvious when the staff’s offensive game plan put the ball in Golson’s hands for much of the first quarter. But they’ve also got a young quarterback that is learning the game of football as he goes. Notre Dame burned their final timeout with 11:21 left in the fourth quarter.

And while Kelly said the decision to pull Golson was influenced by an injury to the quarterback’s hand, a source tells me that Golson suffered no ill effects from the tackle that caused his fumble.

While a large portion of the fans in the stands didn’t agree with the decision to go with Rees in crunch time, Purdue coach Danny Hope applauded the decision.

“It was a really good decision by their head coach. It was a pressure situation and it would’ve been a tough assignment for a rookie quarterback,” Hope said. “I was kind of excited about the idea of having a rookie quarterback in there on the last drive. I thought that may have given us an opportunity to get after him some. I thought it was a good coaching decision. Tommy Rees is a good player, he’s a heckuva quarterback, too.”

***

With a job-defining decision on the line, Brian Kelly doubles down on his gut instinct and is rewarded appropriately.

Last week, it seemed like Brian Kelly was miles away from the guy who told Irish fans to “get used to it,” after his decision to eschew a winning field goal and throw for the end zone resulted in an interception and a back-breaking loss to Tulsa. But here Brian Kelly was, rolling the dice once again on Tommy Rees, a quarterback that just about everyone within a hemisphere of South Bend had given up on except for the head coach.

After a second consecutive 8-5 season forced many Irish fans to reconsider if Kelly was the right man for the head coaching job, the Irish coach said and did all the right things. He reshuffled his coaching staff, putting the offense in the hands of his most trusted assistant. He looked inward, evaluating his priorities and putting a focus back on football after spending too much time playing ambassador to the Notre Dame brand. He even holstered his attack on changes to the establishment, leaving decisions on field turf, a Jumbotron, and crowd noise to others while he focused on the football.

For a week, it looked like Kelly had learned his lesson. Against Navy, he played to win — bludgeoning the Midshipmen with a running attack that was impossible to defend. But this afternoon, Kelly reminded everyone that he was still the impulsive coach that marched to his own drummer, throwing himself in the crosshairs of Irish contrarians everywhere when he turning his back on the future and put Rees into the game as he lay all his chips on the table.

That Kelly believed in a quarterback that hadn’t taken a true practice snap until this week says quite a bit about the head coach, and perhaps just as much about this team. While outsiders worry that Kelly’s decision could fracture the locker room, there was nobody that believed in Rees more than the guys wearing the blue and gold. That Kelly was able to double-down and win after exposing himself to as much backlash as possibly imaginable shows that the Notre Dame coaching job — and the pressure cooker that comes along with it — hasn’t broken him.

In a season where victories will be hard fought and tough to come by, the head coach played every card in his hand to gut out a win and keep the Irish undefeated.

“It’s a great feeling,” Martin said after the game. “A tough win today, but we’ll take it. We’re on to Michigan State now.”

The Irish may be on to Michigan State, heading to East Lansing for a primetime showdown of ranked teams. But they can thank a head coach that didn’t flinch for the undefeated journey continuing.

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.