Lane Kiffin, Matt Barkley

Opposition round-up: Week Six


It was an up-and-down weekend for Notre Dame opponents. A few big wins. A few shocking losses. And a few close shaves. Overall, the Irish schedule went 7-5 (including the Miami loss), with Michigan laying it on Purdue and Boston College loses in shocking fashion to Army.

Let’s take a spin across the Notre Dame slate.

NAVY — Navy slid by Air Force in overtime on Saturday, winning on a fumble recovery in the end zone after backup quarterback Keenan Reynolds fumbled the snap into the end zone. The Midshipmen clinched the win when the defense knocked down an Air Force pass, giving them the inside track to win the Commander-in-Chief Trophy.

Trending: The Midshipmen are still just 2-3, but hope to build some momentum into a string of winnable games for Navy. Next up a Friday night test against Central Michigan.

PURDUE — The Boilermakers once again no-showed for a marquee game, getting drubbed by Michigan 44-13 at home. It was a hugely disappointing effort for Danny Hope’s squad, who let Denard Robinson run wild for 235 yards as the Wolverines did most of their damage on the ground. Purdue was held to just 15 first downs and 213 total yards and turned the ball over four times.

Trending: Epic fail for a Purdue team that thought itself a Big Ten darkhorse. They’ll have a shot at redemption against a Wisconsin team that looks like a shadow of its former self.

MICHIGAN STATE — Sparty erased a 17-point lead and roared back to beat Indiana 31-27, averting a potential crisis of faith for a team that still considers itself in the race for the Big Ten title. Andrew Maxwell threw for 290 yards and two touchdowns and Le’Veon Bell trudged his way to 121 yards on 37 carries and scored two touchdowns as the Spartans withstood eight penalties for 115 yards and scored 17 second half points to escape Bloomington.

Trending: Color me unimpressed by the win, especially when the Spartans offensive line is struggling to open holes for Bell, who ran for a pedistrian 3.3 yards per carry. A win is a win, but right now there isn’t a Big Ten team ranked in the Coaches Poll. That’s telling.

MICHIGAN — The Wolverines got back to winning on Saturday, with Denard Robinson putting his cape back on and gashing another Big Ten opponent. Michigan only threw for 105 yards, but played stingy defense and took care of business, reminding the college football world that not all two-loss teams are created equal.

Trending: Upwards. The Wolverines play Illinois before battling Michigan State. We’ll see if they can solve the Spartans before we decide if they are ready to make a run at the Big Ten title.

No. 17 STANFORD — It took all Stanford had to outlast Arizona last weekend, winning a shootout in overtime against Rich Rodriguez’s upstart offense. The good news for the Irish? Stanford’s defense finally looked to have some weaknesses. The bad news? Quarterback Josh Nunes got on track, and the Cardinal offense exploded for a season-best performance.

Trending: Holding steady. Two straight tight games for the Cardinal. Pulling out a victory after being down 48-34 in the fourth quarter is clutch.

BYU — It certainly wouldn’t have won a beauty pageant, but the Cougars beat Utah State 6-3 on Friday night, out-gutting the Aggies in a defensive battle. With Riley Nelson still sitting out with a back injury, freshman quarterback Taysom Hill threw for 235 yards and one touchdown. BYU’s defense has now held opponents out of the endzone for 13 straight quarters, one-upping Notre Dame’s performance. Something to watch: The Cougars’ kicking problems. They have been brutal this year.

Trending: With a young, mobile quarterback and a stout defense, BYU looks flawed, but tough.

No. 13 OKLAHOMA — The Sooners bounced back after their loss to Kansas State and vanquished some Texas Tech demons along the way beating the Red Raiders 41-20 in Lubbock. Landry Jones completed 25 of 40 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns, and the Sooners had three interceptions as they ran away from Texas Tech in the second half.

Trending: We’ll find out after the Red River Shootout, a game that’ll like define either Texas or Oklahoma’s seasons this weekend. There wasn’t much explosiveness in Oklahoma’s offense this weekend.

PITTSBURGH — The Panthers lost a tight game to Syracuse on Friday night, falling 14-13 in the Carrier Dome. Pitt fought back from a 14-0 hole and pulled to within one point in the third quarter, but was unable to score in the fourth quarter. The Pitt offensive line struggled with protection all evening and Ray Graham was held to just 57 yards on 24 carries. (Meanwhile, freshman stud Rushel Shell only got one carry.)

Trending: It’s going to be a long season in Pittsburgh this year, with the offensive line a mess and the team in transition after some serious instability at head coach. Pitt now has to face the class of the Big East in No. 18 Louisville on Saturday.

BOSTON COLLEGE — There’s chaos in Chestnut Hill, as the end of the Frank Spaziani era looks near as the Eagles dropped to 1-4 after losing to Army 34-31 on Saturday. Army ran for a staggering 516 yards as they controlled the playclock and pulled off the huge upset when Trent Steelman ran for a 29-yard touchdown with 45 seconds left.

Trending: There isn’t a hotter seat in college football than Frank Spaziani. With AD Gene DeFilippo retired, it’ll be interesting to see when a change comes at head coach.

WAKE FOREST — The Demon Deacons fell to 3-3 on the season when Maryland edged past them on Saturday afternoon, courtesy of freshman Stefon Diggs’ 63-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter. Tanner Price completed just 13 of 38 throws for 170 yards, but two of them were touchdowns. Without top receiver Michael Campanaro, the Deacs offense was stuck in neutral.

Trending: Not much to worry about here, though you know Jim Grobe’s team will continue to improve.

No. 11 USC — The Trojans spotted Utah 14 points before erupting offensively, scoring 38 points with a downfield passing attack that has the Trojans looking like the team many thought they were. There are still issues — namely on the offensive line — but USC is back to No. 11 after a loss to Stanford.

Trending: This team could go either way. They’ve got no injury leeway, but if they stay healthy they’ll be Notre Dame’s toughest opponent on the schedule.

How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

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)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.