Everett Golson

Game Day: No. 5 Notre Dame vs. No. 8 Oklahoma


It’s finally here. Now the long wait until tonight at 8:00 p.m. EST begins.

Before the Irish and the Sooners take the field (of course, we’ll be here for the live blog), let’s run through a few last minute questions I’m still pondering.

It sounds like Notre Dame will be without George Atkinson. The news started swirling across the internet last night that Atkinson, Notre Dame’s best big play threat, didn’t make the trip because of a nasty case of the flu.

Both he and his brother Josh were last-minute scratches on Coach Kelly’s radio show Thursday night, which added credence to the rumor, and ESPN.com’s Matt Fortuna confirmed via a source that Atkinson didn’t make the team’s flight.

What does Atkinson’s absence mean tonight? Probably nothing from a production point of view on the ground. In Notre Dame’s biggest games, Atkinson has seen the least amount of action. But for those hoping the Irish special teams were going to get out of their funk, well — this certainly doesn’t help.

How will the Irish defense handle Oklahoma’s tempo offense? Notre Dame will face their biggest offensive test of the year this evening against Landry Jones and the Sooners offense. With an impressive running game, an NFL-level passer, and a few nice skill players on the edge, the personnel Oklahoma has isn’t vintage Stoops, but it’s certainly good enough to beat the Irish.

But Notre Dame’s biggest challenge will be matching up with the Sooners’ tempo offense. How the Irish stop Oklahoma when they try to pick up the pace and go no-huddle will be an interesting subplot.

The Irish will need great games from Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, and Kapron Lewis-Moore. But just as important, they’ll need Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann, and Kona Schwenke to fill in the gaps seamlessly.

The best way to stop tempo? Get off the field. Notre Dame is getting three-and-outs on an amazing 40-percent of opponent’s drives this season, good for sixth in the country.

How will the Irish defense stack up against the Belldozer? There might not be a cooler / more annoying nickname in college football this year, with Sooners’ back-up quarterback, Blake Bell, a 6-foot-6, 260-pound wrecking ball running Oklahoma’s short-yardage offense.

Bell has yet to throw for a touchdown in his two seasons of spot duty, but he’s run for a staggering 21 touchdowns over the past two seasons, with eight already this year, including four in the 63-21 beating of Texas. With Bell in the game, the Sooners have themselves an oversized Tim Tebow, who runs patiently behind the Sooners’ offensive line in jumbo formations that stress a defense.

Notre Dame will fight power with power, and Bell will be running into the strength of the Notre Dame defense. I expect the Sooners’ to use Bell, but also mix in a jump pass or play-action attempt, hoping to catch the Irish stacked for the run.

Notre Dame might not have one, but the Sooners have a fullback. And junior Trey Millard, a 6-foot-2, 255-pounder, is a good one. Millard’s a versatile guy, running the ball 14 times for 109 yards on the season and also making 13 catches. He’s a guy that’s smooth out of the backfield and also does a great job as a lead blocker.

He’s a valuable piece of the Oklahoma offense, and worth keeping an eye on.

Can Everett Golson make some plays down the field? And can he get Tyler Eifert involved? The recipe seems similar to the one Notre Dame needed against Michigan State. Notre Dame needs to make some plays down the field with their wide receivers, and utilize All-American tight end Tyler Eifert.

Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops will likely try to take the run game away from the Irish, forcing Golson to beat the Sooners with his arm. Against the Spartans, Notre Dame’s wide receivers rose to the challenge, winning their share of one-on-one battles, including John Goodman’s long touchdown grab to kick off the scoring.

The Sooners have a talented secondary, but they aren’t world beaters. The Irish will need to work the field vertically in their passing game, taking shots down the field consistently, and they’ll need to hit on them when they are there, something Golson hasn’t been able to do just yet this year. Golson will also need to find a rhythm with Eifert, with hopes that their touchdown pass against Stanford is a sign of things to come.

The Irish defense can’t let the Sooners get over the top. Make no mistake, Oklahoma won’t drop the deep touchdown passes if the Sooners get behind Notre Dame’s secondary. The Irish got away with a few mental mistakes against Miami when Phillip Dorsett bailed them out with some drops. And Zeke Motta and company won’t have Riley Nelson to thank if they forget a wide out is running behind them.

For Notre Dame’s secondary, this is their biggest test of the year. The young group has held up well so far this season, but they’ll need to play better — and smarter — to do their part in the Irish upset.

Could Vegas actually be right? This gambling line continues to move in the favor of the Sooners, up to as many as 12 points in favor of Oklahoma after opening at 8.5. That means most expect Oklahoma to win, and win comfortably.

On paper, it makes sense. The Irish haven’t looked particularly dominant in winning, and they have an offense that has struggled to do anything against decent teams. But can Notre Dame prove that this year is different? Can Brian Kelly’s team win a game, what tho’ the odds?

It should make for an exciting Saturday evening.

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 ESPN.com.

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.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.