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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan

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With the Irish taking the week off with a well deserved bye week, Notre Dame fans everywhere can breathe deep and enjoy a nice break in the action and savor the 4-0 start. As you’d expect with a game like Saturday’s, not everything on the field went the way it was planned, but thanks to a dominant defensive performance and forcing a ton of takeaways, the Irish ran the table in September, and beat back-to-back top 20 opponents for the first time since 2002.

Let’s get down to the good, the bad, and the ugly of Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory over Michigan.

THE GOOD

The scoring defense. Notre Dame hasn’t allowed a touchdown over their last eight quarters, and has yielded just 36 points on the season. The Irish check in at No. 4 in the country in scoring defense, a stat made all the more impressive when you look at the schedules of the teams in the top ten.

No. 1 TCU — Grambling State, Kansas, Virginia.
No. 2 Alabama — Michigan, Western Kentucky, Arkansas, Florida Atlantic
No. 3 Cincinnati — Pitt, Delaware State
No. 4 Notre Dame — Navy, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan
No. 5 South Carolina — Vanderbilt, East Carolina, UAB, Missouri
No. 6 (tie) Texas Tech — Northwestern State, Texas State, New Mexico
No. 6 (tie)  Florida State — Murray State, Savannah State, Wake Forest, Clemson
No. 8 LSU — North Texas, Washington, Idaho, Auburn
No. 9 Iowa State — Tulsa, Iowa, Western Illinois
No. 10 Boise State — Michigan State, Miami (OH), BYU

There are quite a few cupcakes on that list, making the Irish’s slate of three Big Ten opponents (two ranked) and Navy look all the better.

Forcing Turnovers. A season after struggling to force any turnovers, the Irish intercepted an amazing five Michigan passes in a row, forcing six turnovers on their way to victory. Notre Dame hasn’t registered five picks in a game since they did it to Purdue in 1988. Notre Dame now sits at No. 4 in the country in turnover margin, registering five fumble recoveries and eight interceptions on the season, good for a +9 margin.

“My wife even talks to me when I’m plus-nine,” Kelly cracked after the game on Saturday. “Which didn’t happen much last year.”

There’s still plenty of work to do in the young Irish secondary, but whether it’s good fortune or not, there’s a noticeable difference in the secondary’s ability to get their hips opened and turn and look for the ball. Bennett Jackson‘s interception on Saturday night was a product of taking the football away from a receiver and while Denard Robinson was certainly throwing balls up for grabs, he did the same thing the year before and the Irish couldn’t capitalize on it.

The Pass Rush. You can’t just pin your ears back and chase after a quarterback like Denard Robinson. But the Irish still managed to get three sacks on Michigan’s elusive quarterback, and the relentless pressure of the Irish forced more than a few bad decisions by the quarterback. It didn’t show up in the box score, but Dan Fox‘s hustle play on Michigan’s first drive embodied the effort. Coming up the middle on an A gap blitz on 3rd and 9, Fox was chopped down by a blocker, but somersaulted back to his feet and laid a hit on Robinson, forcing a high throw. Stephon Tuitt and Prince Shembo each tallied another sack as well, with Tuitt at six for the year, good for second in the country. Freshman Sheldon Day also had a sack. That’s two for the rookie.

Bennett Jackson. Talk about filling up a stat sheet. Jackson led the Irish with nine tackles — six solo — and had a fumble recovery and an interception. What an active player on the short-side of the field, and in his first season starting at cornerback he’s already an athletic upgrade at the position.

Manti Te’o. With tens of thousands of Hawaiian leis being worn in his honor, Notre Dame’s heart and soul put together another transcendent performance. Te’o intercepted Robinson twice and made eight tackles, including one for a loss, as the defense stood strong and closed out the game. In an era of offensive firepower it might not be possible for Te’o to make his way into the Heisman Trophy race, but it’s not an outrageous suggestion.

Danny Spond. Spond also had his best day in a Notre Dame uniform, making seven tackles and forcing a fumble on Robinson. The junior went through a very scary ordeal after a big collision in practice left him with a severe migraine that caused him to lose feeling in his leg. But Spond has rebounded and played well the last two weeks at the drop linebacker position. He was efficient in the run game and also showed a great ability to get depth in his passing drops, shoring up a position of weakness for the Irish while Ben Councell learns on the job.

Kyle Brindza. After missing his first attempt against Navy, Brindza has been rock solid. His field goal against Purdue won the game. He iced the victory at Michigan State. And with the pressure on him against the Wolverines, Brindza made two clutch kicks, neither in doubt. Mix in his ability to kick touchbacks, he’s turning into another special teams weapon.

Tommy Rees to Tyler Eifert. After teaming for one of the most potent QB-TE combinations in the country last year, Rees and Eifert hooked up for the game clinching completion, with Rees hitting Eifert in stride on a go-route after Eifert blew by Michigan cornerback J.T. Floyd. The 38-yard connection was Eifert’s only catch of the day, but came at a crucial time.

Theo Riddick’s game sealing run. He might not be as dangerous as Cierre Wood, but on 3rd and 8 with the Irish needing a first down to end the game or be put in a tricky situation on 4th down, Riddick ended the game, bursting up the middle for eight yards and a game-ending first down that let the Irish take a knee and run out the clock.

THE BAD

Everett Golson’s step back. There’s no reason to beat this into the ground, but it’s an important two weeks for Golson. For the Irish offense to be what it needs to be, they’ll need Golson to make better decisions and do a good job managing the game. His physical gifts are obvious for anyone that’s watched the Irish play, but they’ll be useless if he makes decisions like the one he did on Notre Dame’s end zone interception. Throwing that ball up for grabs in a game like Saturday’s should get a quarterback pulled, and credit Kelly for doing it.

There will be days like that for young quarterbacks, but the more Notre Dame wins, the harder it is to stomach rookie mistakes. It might make it tough on a young quarterback to develop with confidence, but this is Notre Dame, one of college football’s great pressure-cookers.

The offensive versatility. The majority of ND Nation wanted Brian Kelly to run the football against Michigan. But after Everett Golson under-threw a ball into coverage on his first snap, the game plan turned pretty vanilla. Run twice, then throw a two-yard pattern on 3rd and four creates plenty of grumbling.

It’s tough to run the football with a stacked line of scrimmage. And Kelly openly discussed being stubborn and jamming the football into some not-so-friendly run looks. But if the Irish are going to making a run this season, they’re going to need to get more out of this offense. It’s easy to blame the play of the offensive line, but some creative play calling makes things easier for everybody.

Lack of a killer instinct. This football game could’ve gotten ugly quickly if the Irish were able to capitalize on the field position they had after Denard Robinson’s first two interceptions. It didn’t come back to bite the Irish on Saturday, but putting away opponents — especially ones that have done what Michigan did to the Irish in 2011 — is the next step.

THE UGLY

Denard Robinson’s stat line. After a ballgame like that, there’s nothing else to say. Robinson played the worst game of his football career in one of the season’s biggest moments. There will be plenty of opportunities for Michigan to play better. And in the weakest Big Ten in recent memory, the Rose Bowl is still very much in play for the Wolverines. But after playing his best against Notre Dame in 2010 and 2011, it was a nightmare for Robinson on Saturday night.

An ugly win. But still a win.

 

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.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.