USC v Stanford

Opposition round-up: Week three


Let’s take a quick jog through the Irish schedule and see how Notre Dame’s past and future opponents did in week three.

NAVY — It looks like it might be another tough season in Annapolis, with Ken Niumatalolo’s squad turning the ball over four times against Penn State to give Bill O’Brien his first win. Quarterback Trey Miller, still nursing an ankle injury he suffered against Notre Dame, completed only 6 of 13 passes and only gained 21 yards on 18 carries. The Midshipmen outgained Penn State, but still were down 34-0 before scoring a late touchdown.

Trending: It’s not a surprise that Navy started 0-2 against Notre Dame and Penn State. How ugly it’s been might be though.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers rolled over Eastern Michigan 54-16, putting up 576 yards of offense against a MAC squad that has yet to win a game. Caleb TerBush completed 16 of his 24 passes with two touchdowns, but did throw a pick-six to give the Eagles one of their scores. Danny Hope’s squad ran for an impressive 392 yards on 42 carries and six touchdowns, emptying the backfield as the Boilermakers pulled away after EMU pulled to within four points in the middle of the second quarter.

Trending: A nice bounce back win for the Boilermakers, who have to feel good about themselves heading into Big Ten play.

No. 17 MICHIGAN — The Wolverines feasted on former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar’s UMass squad, rolling to an easy 63-13 victory that featured another big game by Denard Robinson. The senior quarterback threw for 291 yards and 3 touchdowns while running for 106 yards on 10 carries. Still, the Minutemen gained 259 yards against Michigan, 100 more than they did against Indiana. (UConn held UMass to a paltry 59 yards.) Of course, the Wolverines face the Irish this Saturday, a better status check than any cupcake.

Trending: It’s clear the Wolverines are a flawed team on both lines, but they still have the ultimate wild card in Robinson. This status update will become clear Saturday night.

MIAMI — It appears that the Duke Johnson era at Miami has officially started, with the talented freshman running back scoring by ground, by air, and via kick return against Bethune-Cookman. The 38-10 win was a nice rebound after being embarrassed by Kansas State, but the Wildcats — the Bethune-Cookman Wildcats — ran for 233 yards against the Hurricanes, leaving plenty of questions about Al Golden’s defense.

Trending: Anything is better than what happened in Manhattan, but there’s still plenty of work to do for the ‘Canes.

No. 9 STANFORD — And the victory of the week goes to David Shaw’s Cardinal, who punched USC in the mouth and beat up the Trojans on the way to their fourth straight victory over Southern Cal. After only sliding by San Jose State in their season opener, Stanford sacked Matt Barkley five times, held the Trojans ground game to just 26 yards on 28 carries, and limited the vaunted USC aerial attack to 254 yards on 41 passes with two interceptions. Consider the blueprint to beat USC, especially without starting center Khalid Holmes, written.

Trending: It’s a huge jump up in the rankings for the Cardinal, who are also breaking in a new quarterback. A terrific win for coach David Shaw, who is emerging quite nicely from the shadow of Jim Harbaugh.

BYU — A fourth quarter comeback and two shots at a game-tying field goal wasn’t enough for BYU, who lost their Holy War with in-state rival Utah. The defeat drops the Cougars out of the top 25 and casts some doubts on the BYU ground game, which struggled against a Utah team that suffered an embarrassing defeat to Utah State. Riley Nelson and Cody Hoffman hooked up eight times for 120 yards and a touchdown, but kicker Riley Stephenson had a 51-yard field goal attempt blocked at the end of the game, but incredibly got another chance to make it after Utah’s students rushed the field before the play was blown dead. Stephenson then kicked the next attempt off the left upright, preserving the win for Kyle Wittingham.

Trending: A tough loss for BYU, who have to rebound quickly before facing Boise State on Thursday, then face Hawaii, Utah State, and Oregon State before heading to South Bend.

No. 6 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners took the week off from facing cupcakes to prepare for its first Big 12 opponent, No. 15 Kansas State. We’ll know much more about Landry Jones and company after they face off with Bill Snyder’s Wildcats in Norman this weekend.

Trending: Holding steady. First true look comes this Saturday.

PITTSBURGH — Paul Chryst’s first victory at Pitt was a big one, with the Panthers knocking off Frank Beamer’s No. 13 Virginia Tech squad after looking hapless in their first two games. Tailback Ray Graham ran for 94 yards and two touchdowns, but freshman Rushel Shell burst onto the scene with 157 yards to surprise the Hokies. Quarterback Tino Sunseri battled through a leg injury and found jumbo wideout Mike Shanahan five times for 111 yards and a game-clinching touchdown. The Panthers intercepted Tech QB Logan Thomas three times to help spring the upset.

Trending: Huge victory after looking pretty bad in convincing losses to Youngstown State and Cincinnati.

BOSTON COLLEGE — The Eagles will have Saturday off before their huge road test against Clemson next Saturday. Frank Spaziani’s troops managed a victory over Maine, but lost in a shootout to Miami before coming up short against Northwestern 22-13 on Saturday. Quarterback Chase Rettig has looked solid, but the Boston College ground game has only managed to run for 95 yards a game so far this season. The Eagles defense managed to keep Northwestern out of the end zone until the 4th quarter, even while giving up 560 yards of offense and 34 first downs.

Trending: With BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo retiring, there might not be a hotter seat in college football than Frank Spaziani’s.

WAKE FOREST — It was a Saturday to forget for Jim Grobe and his Demon Deacons, getting bludgeoned by Florida State 52-0 on Saturday after the Seminoles ran for 385 yards against a Wake Forest defense that was without Nikita Whitlock. After sneaking out an opening win against Liberty and rallying to beat North Carolina, The Deacs were held to just seven first downs and 126 total yards, with the Seminoles defense just overwhelming the rebuilt Wake Forest offensive line.

Trending: Clearly a step backwards, though I think most Wake Forest fans would be happy with being 2-1 right now. Three straight against Army, Duke and Maryland might help Grobe’s squad get their confidence back.

No. 13 USC — The Trojans found out the difference between being the hunter and the hunted on Saturday night, with the No. 2 ranked Trojans the first of the big-three atop college football to fall. While the star power certainly exists at USC, all the signs were there, especially with the offensive line in shambles after Khalid Holmes went down with an ankle injury. The Cardinal’s Stephan Taylor ran for 153 yards and the Trojans were held scoreless for the game’s final 41 minutes.

Trending: A huge step backwards for USC, who is learning that a football team is only as good as its weakest unit. On Saturday, the Trojans couldn’t run the ball, block, or kick a field goal. There’s plenty of season left, but expect the Trojans’ opponents to follow the script Stanford wrote.

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.”