Catholics vs. Convicts

Pregame six pack: Hurricanes roll into Chicago

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Notre Dame – Miami. It may not be the blood feud it was 20 years ago, but the match-up certainly lights up the marquee. And with a stage as unique as Soldier Field and in a city like Chicago, there’s plenty of luster left in a game that might not mean what it once did, but still is a headline grabber.

“We understand the history of this ball game,” Manti Te’o said this week. “But we also understand the importance of being ourselves and not buying in to the whole hype of a rivalry game.”

As we prepare for No. 9 Notre Dame to take on a young and feisty Miami team that’s 4-1, let’s run through six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Shamrock Series kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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1. Despite the whispers, the quarterback job is still Everett Golson’s.

Rumors spread like wildfire across the internet that Brian Kelly, already known for his hair trigger at the quarterback position, was ready to make another big change. Yet when Kelly addressed the media this afternoon, he reaffirmed the news that Everett Golson was still his starting quarterback.

“It’s the same guy who’s been the starter the last four weeks,” Kelly said with a smile. “I thought I made that pretty clear. But Everett will start in Week Five, and I expect him to start in Week Six and Seven and Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven, Twelve, and Thirteen.”

And with that, another (ND) national crisis was averted. The news that Kelly is sticking with Golson is far from shocking, and is a consistent tune for a head coach willing to roll with the punches as he develops his young quarterback.

“He is getting better. There is so much development that’s taking place that’s not on Saturdays,” Kelly said. “It’s coming. We’re not a finished product yet, and I’ve got a guy in Tommy Rees who can come in and help us while we go through this process of learning. I’m comfortable with it. I guess that’s all I can really say, but yes, Everett will start.”

A few evenings after watching two politicians carefully craft statements, Kelly’s comments on Golson come off as more declarative than the two men fighting to be the free world’s leader, but there’s still a sprinkle of ex-politico in Kelly’s statements.

Over the bye week, junior Tommy Rees took a large portion of first team reps at practice. And when asked about the state of the locker room in regards to who the team’s quarterback should be, Kelly carefully picked his words.

“I’m aware of our team and I have the pulse of our football team as it relates to who would be the quarterback,” Kelly said. “I’d feel very comfortable saying that our football team will respond to whatever decision I make. I think I’ve got the trust of our football team that they know that I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of our football team, to win right now.”

For now, that means Golson will get the chance to go against Miami’s mediocre defense.

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2. It’s time for Notre Dame’s running game to kick into gear.

The Irish offense hasn’t moved the ball as well on the ground as many expected. Slogging their way to just 3.8 yards per carry and a meager 140 yards a game, Kelly discussed the challenges that have come around with changing up schemes.

“It hasn’t been talked a lot about, but we were a heavy gap-pull team last year, and we are much more of an inside-outside zone team this year,” Kelly said. “The reads are very much different for the running back… The idiosyncrasies of it all are really big. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say it takes more patience and we really focused on that more this week.”

Running back Theo Riddick embodies the run game struggles, leading the team in carries with 63, but averaging only 3.8 yards a tote. While the offensive line certainly hasn’t played up to the level it expects, Riddick has left plenty of yardage on the field with his propensity to cut back against the grain too quickly, unwilling to wait for the outside run to develop.

But after a week off, the Irish might encounter the best slump-buster Chicago has to offer: The Hurricanes defense. Entering Saturday night with the nation’s 115th ranked run defense, Miami will be without starting defensive tackle Olsen Pierre.

And after missing the season’s first two games due to suspension and struggling to find a rhythm against Michigan, expect Cierre Wood to get every chance to seize the starting job on Saturday night. Even struggling, the Irish senior has gone for 5.6 yards a touch, a number that should go up on Saturday.

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3. Even if he wasn’t a wrecking ball on the defensive line, Louis Nix is a guy you want in the middle of anything.

Let’s not let Louis Nix‘s tremendous personality get in the way of the work he does on the field. The junior defensive tackle, at 6-foot-3 and far-more-than-his-listed-326-pounds, is a tremendous key to the Irish’s pass rush against prolific thrower and dangerous runner Stephen Morris. He’s played active, relentless football this season, and his three tackles-for-loss and 1.5 sacks give the Irish a legitimate disruptor at the line of scrimmage that also has the ability to chase down the quarterback.

But leave all that behind, and Nix is still a guy you want to build your team around. If only because you get to listen to wonderful nuggets like these. JJ Stankevitz of CSNChicago.com has plenty more.

As Notre Dame’s defense has spurred its 4-0 start, Louis Nix has begun to earn national praise for his work on the interior of the Irish defensive line.

But not everyone is praising his work as a defensive tackle, although that’s because Nix’s little brother, Kenneth, has his older brother’s position mixed up.

“I don’t know where they got quarterback from,” Nix laughed. “My little brother had a presentation for class and he told them I was the quarterback.”

But Nix wasn’t going to leave it at that.

“You know, right about now, I would love to play quarterback,” he continued, in complete deadpan mode. “I think I’d be real good at it, you know, put me in the wildcat. I don’t even want to play running back, though, I want to be a wildcat QB.

“I look like one, huh?” the 326-pound Nix added between bites of a Hershey’s bar.

Nix said all the right things about his evolution as a player, crediting added maturity for his success in South Bend, a place not many in Florida thought made sense for one of Jacksonville’s elite football talents. But he also let his personality shine through, raising more than a few reporters’ eyebrows when addressing his biggest weakness: Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

“If they don’t have it, I get cranky. I don’t want to eat Honey Bunches of Oats. Really? I need something sweet.”

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4. Brian Kelly isn’t shying away from the idea that Manti Te’o is a Heisman candidate. But for as good as he’s been between the lines, he’s been even more impressive off the field.

Linebacker Manti Te’o has already found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated. And as he continues to fill up the stat sheet as a sideline to sideline tackler and a turnover forcing machine, Brian Kelly has no problem pushing Te’o’s candidacy for the Heisman Trophy, college football’s most prestigious award.

“I’ve said this from day one,” Kelly said. “What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate? If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don’t think he plays on offense. But if you’re looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program‑‑ look, if you said it was the MVP, does it have to be an offensive player MVP?  Sure.  He’s got to have some offensive numbers or statistics. But you’re also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball.”

But more importantly, Te’o’s ability to play excellent football at a time of severe duress is one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed from a student athlete. More important, he’s shown his teammates — college kids that play a rough and tumble game — that it’s okay to show vulnerability during a time of need, as he’s opened himself up to his teammates and community during this difficult time.

Te’o spent over 40 minutes with the assembled media this week, an unprecedented amount of time for a single player, let alone the Irish head coach. He was emotional, honest, humble, candid, and strong. He was the perfect example of what any athlete should strive to be.

If you’ve got the time, it’s the best performance Te’o has ever had representing Notre Dame, on or off the field.

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5. Notre Dame’s roster management is beginning to take shape.

The biggest personnel news to come out of South Bend was the decision to redshirt running back Amir Carlisle for the season. The sophomore running back, who transferred from USC to Notre Dame during the offseason, had received an NCAA waiver exemption to play this season. But after breaking his ankle in the days leading to spring practice, Carlisle was slow to return to health, and he’ll sit out the year, with three full seasons of eligibility remaining.

“We’re going to redshirt Amir. He will not play this year,” Kelly said. “He’s made close to the kind of recovery that we were hoping when we saw some really good things from him. We don’t want to waste him now.”

The news comes the same week as the Irish announced sophomore defensive end Chase Hounshell will also sit out the rest of the season, with season-ending shoulder surgery allowing Hounshell to save a year of eligibility and still have three seasons left. That extra year of eligibility will come in handy with a guy like Stephon Tuitt looking like he might not need four years of college football.

Just like in Hounshell’s case, the decision to hold Carlisle out, a dynamic player that I expected to fight his way into the two-deep at running back, helps for the long term growth of this football team.

“He’s really close and to try to fit him in in week five or six and use up another year for a half season wasn’t prudent in my mind,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to shut him down, put him on scout team, let him be a great guy over there and let our defense prepare, and then have him back for three seasons of competition.”

After watching Charlie Weis butcher the use of redshirts, Kelly’s understanding of the strategic elements should be a welcome sight for Notre Dame fans. Keeping Carlisle protects Notre Dame in case Cierre Wood wants to test the NFL waters. Keeping an extra year of Hounshell gives the Irish some protection on the front line in life after Tuitt.

As we head to the middle of the season, Kelly’s also looking at other young players that might also be able to save a highly valued year of eligibility.

“We’re getting close to that. We’re not there yet,” Kelly said. “We’ve got a make a decision up to game six and you can’t play in more than three games. So we’ve got a couple of guys on the bubble for the next couple of weeks where we’ll have to make some decisions.”

It might have been painful, but injuries to guys like Lo Wood and Austin Collinsworth help slow down the eligibility clock of guys that are racing through their collegiate career. And while we’ve seen youngsters like Romeo Okwara and Ronnie Stanley, perhaps there’s a method to Kelly’s madness and a plan to extend the careers of some young Irish players, while also getting them valuable on-the-field experience.

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6. It might not be Catholics vs. Convicts, but Notre Dame vs. Miami still means an awful lot.

There isn’t a player on the Irish roster that’s old enough to remember the bitter rivalry between Notre Dame and Miami. After Jimmy Johnson‘s 58-7 beating of Notre Dame all but ended the Gerry Faust era, the rivalry turned into the Hatfields and McCoys in 1987, with the Irish splitting the series 2-2 over the next four years, including one of the greatest victories Notre Dame has ever had in its 31-30 win over the ‘Canes in 1988.

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While it took 20 years to renew the rivalry, it still matters, as director Billy Corben, filmmaker behind the terrific ESPN documentary “The U” notes.

“Literally, national championships were on the line,” Corben reminisced with the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “Every call mattered. Every play mattered. In 1988 in particular. Of course you had the tunnel fight that year as well. Similar things started to happen with a lot of teams from that era like the University of Florida wanted to stop playing Miami.

“I liked that there was a genuine lack of respect for each other. I appreciated that because in those days it was the WWF, the fake wrestling. So this was real. These were real kids and they really wanted to literally take each other’s heads off.

“It was just a real visceral and profound quality to the rivalry that got you really, really pumped. You’d feel your pulse and your pulse would go up. You were genuinely excited about the whole thing. Who was going to win? How were we going to get robbed?  And we’re going to kick their a** before, after and during the game.”

Those sentiments are certainly echoed by many Irish fans that I’ve had the pleasure of talking to this week. And after the Irish embarrassed Miami in the 2010 Sun Bowl — a game that saw Hurricanes players take refuge next to heaters are hide behind face warmers in the brisk El Paso weather — the team’s might not be the national contenders they once were, but there’s still an edge to this game.

“The teams aren’t quite at that level, so the excitement isn’t quite at that level anymore,” Corben said. “That being said, I hope we destroy them.”

Spoken like a true Miami fan.

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)