Alabama Crimson Tide's head coach Nick Saban holds up The Coaches Trophy after the NCAA BCS National Championship college football game in Miami

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

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That resounding thud you heard Monday night was reality setting in for millions of Notre Dame fans. After a season where just about everything went right for the Irish, after echoes were awaken, odds were defied, and luck had returned, it was hard for even the most jaded of fans not to feel like they were about to witness something magical. That destiny had found its way back to South Bend.

A handful of days in South Florida only emboldened those beliefs. While the odds looked long according to Las Vegas, more than a few analysts felt like the Irish would hold their own, and even the biggest skeptics had become believers in Brian Kelly’s football team. And for the thousands of Notre Dame fans that flooded the region, that invaded South Beach, it was hard not to believe that this team would find a way to get things done.

And then the game started.

After good kickoff coverage and a nice stop on first down, Alabama took advantage of the Irish’s aggression and went to playaction, where cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Matthias Farley got their heads caught in the backfield, making for an easy throw to a wide open receiver running a flag pattern. From there, it got worse, Eddie Lacy zipped past Zeke Motta in the backfield, danced through traffic and was finally hogtied and taken down by Dan Fox, who was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty. With Alabama already inside the Irish 30, a hard count added five yards to the Irish misery, when Louis Nix jumped offside. Stacking five men across the line, the Irish stuffed TJ Yeldon on 1st and five, before Lacy returned.

On the next snap, Lacy sprinted up the middle for an easy 20 yard touchdown. Freshman Sheldon Day was no match for All-American center Barrett Jones, who twisted Day out of the A-gap. Prince Shembo was swallowed by two offensive linemen. Te’o missed Lacy, diving at his feet as he sprinted by. KeiVarae Russell did the same. Matthias Farley was no match for Lacy with a blocker in front of him and from their, the route was on.

As the proprietor of this operation, I’m going to flip things around a bit. I’m a bad news first kind of guy and that’s the way this is going to be presented here. So let’s get on with the inevitable.

Here’s the bad, good, and ugly from Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame.

THE BAD

The rush defense. Let’s get the big stuff out of the way. It was an ugly performance for ND’s front seven, after looking to be one of the toughest challenges for Alabama yet. From the get go, things started poorly and the Tide marched down the field for three straight touchdowns to open the game, with drives of 82, 61 and 80 all but icing the victory. Prior to Monday night, the Irish hadn’t given up a scoring drive longer than 75 yards.

“They ran the ball effectively. For us, we’ve been able to manage the run game. They were able to run the ball effectively, and then obviously when you do that, it opens up so much of the play‑action game,” Kelly said afterwards.

The Irish defense was often swallowed by Alabama’s offensive line, unable to shed blocks throughout the night. While Louis Nix played well along the front, contributing five tackles and two TFLs, the rest of the unit struggled, and the Irish just couldn’t stop Alabama when they subbed out their starting three, leading to difficult nights — understandably — for first year players like Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann and reserve Kona Schwenke. When Kapron Lewis-Moore went down with a heart-breaking knee injury, the Tide had already controlled the game, but any chance the Irish could stop the Bama ground game became even less likely.

Missed tackles were a product of Alabama’s excellent blocking up front, poor angles by guys like Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, who found themselves having to knife through a crease hoping to trip up a runner, and Manti Te’o trying to fight his way through traffic to make tackles. With all eyes on the Irish’s No. 5, he struggled with the size and blocking of Alabama’s front, unable to get off a block before it was too late.

With six weeks to break down the Irish’s defensive principles, the Tide created a series of playcalls that looked to expose Bob Diaco’s scheme. After the game, center Barrett Jones discussed the Tide’s counter to what they expected the Irish defense to do.

“They’re good because they are so simple,” Jones told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “But, also, they’re simple. We knew if we had certain shifts, they would get into certain formations that we felt like we would have good runs against. We were right — every play, almost. This is not a flaw in Notre Dame. We watched a lot of film. We had a lot of time to figure out what they did in certain formations.”

The pass defense. With Notre Dame selling out to stop the run, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had the perfect answer: a devastating playaction passing game. Quarterback AJ McCarron was accurate all night, hitting on 20 of 28 throws, and just missing a few more big completions.

But McCarron had plenty of help from the Irish secondary, who too often got caught trying to play run support and left gigantic chunks of the field wide open. Just as helpful was Alabama’s tremendous diagnosis of the weak spots in the Irish zone defense, with the Tide continually attacking the deep corners and also having luck on the slants and posts as well.

The Irish defense’s lack of depth in the secondary had been well hidden by Diaco, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott all year. But watching youngsters Farley, Russell and Elijah Shumate do their best in coverage against Alabama’s receiving corps gave you an idea that the youth was finally being served.

The first fifteen minutes. Add in a few more seconds to count the Tide’s third touchdown drive, and it was a nightmare start for Notre Dame. As I quoted in my Five Things, you can’t say the Irish didn’t know starting fast would be crucial. But after deferring on the opening kickoff, the Tide just controlled the game, dominating the first fifteen minutes before coasting to a 28-0 halftime lead.

The running game. Falling behind early certainly didn’t help establish a ground game, but it was slim pickings for Theo Riddick and the Irish running game. Being held to 1.7 yards per carry doesn’t give a team much of a shot, and for a team that averaged more than 200 yards per game, that was a huge disappointment.

50-50 calls. Nothing wreaks worse than blaming referees in a game that’s decided by 28 points.

But it was a really tough start for the Pac-12 officiating crew. Tyler Eifert had what looked like possession of the football with feet in bounds on a critical 3rd and two catch, and then bobbled the ball before holding onto it as he fell out of bounds. Yet the Pac-12 officiating crew ruled that he was juggling the ball on the field, and even after Brian Kelly called timeout to give the replay booth more time to review it, they disagreed, as boos chorused down from the stands.

The very next play, Notre Dame got an even tougher break, called for kick catch interference after Ben Turk’s 50-yard punt. The Irish came up with the fumble, which would have given them the ball at the Alabama 24, a huge turn of events.

Replays showed that Matthias Farley, who was flagged for the 15 yard penalty, didn’t touch Christon Jones, the Alabama returner, and moreso was blocked into the return by cornerback Deion Belue. Kendall Moore nearly caught the punt mid-bobble before the scramble for the ball. With a really late fair-catch signal, Farley did all that he could to avoid making contact with the return man, and the Irish were on the spot to recover the fumble, yet it was all for naught, as referee Land Clark marked off 15 yards for the Tide.

“That’s a horrendous call,” Brent Musburger said at the time.

Already feeling aggrieved at the lack of replay review on Eifert’s catch, the pro-Notre Dame crowd overwhelmed the stadium with boos directed at the Pac-12 officiating crew.

“It’s amazing what a bad reputation Pac-12 officials have,” Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel said on Twitter. “And it’s amazing that they continue to perpetuate it.”

As you’d expect, the coordinator of officiating gave a clean bill of health to the crew on the field. But with momentum swinging in the wind, a few close calls early went Alabama’s way, and Notre Dame never recovered.

Missed tackles and Lost leverage. Zeke Motta played as hard as he could, and his 16 tackles were a career high. But he missed a half-dozen others, joined by a slew of teammates that too often came up tackling grass.

Also frustrating for Irish fans was watching Danny Spond and Prince Shembo give up leverage on the edges of the defense. Setting the edge was something that Spond and Shembo both did remarkably well this season. But against Alabama, too often the OLBs were swallowed up and taken out of the play.

It wasn’t noticeable this season because both Spond and Shembo played great, but one of the issues that come with starting those two at outside linebacker is that they lack the size and height Diaco and Kelly want in their edge players. With Shembo sliding down to the line and Ishaq Williams taking a ton of snaps, the outside linebackers didn’t have great games and didn’t do well against the size Alabama presented up front.

Manti Te’o. After spending the entire season playing great football, Te’o picked a tough game to miss some big plays. He still came up with ten tackles, but Te’o struggled with the phyiscal bulk of the Alabama run game, and the three-man front that the Irish employed had Te’o too often going head up with a guard, a battle even the best of players will struggle to win.

Special Teams. The special teams units featured new personnel and saw quite a few starters sprinking into the units. But that didn’t stop the Irish from struggling to get anything going in the return game, with George Atkinson really struggling all season at kickoff return after a record-setting freshman season.

Davonte Neal showed some bad decision making on punt returns, catching a ball inside the five yard line when he tried to make a play and then muffing another return when his fumble rolled out of bounds. The Irish special teams certainly weren’t in the top five reasons why the team lost, but it was discouraging to see nothing in the return game, and a huge penalty (that may have been the wrong call) go against the Irish.

THE GOOD

Everett Golson. All things considered, Golson played a strong game, especially after he was forced to mostly throw as the Irish were behind. Golson completed 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards. He threw a touchdown to Theo Riddick and extended many plays with his legs, connecting 13 times with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, two receivers that’ll be keys to next season’s Irish offense.

After struggling for most of the year to find chemistry with Tyler Eifert, he connected with the All-American tight end six times for 61 yards. (He was three inches and one marginal call away from making that eight catches for 100 yards.)

Still, for as ugly as the game was, the future looks very bright for Golson, who markedly improved in the six weeks leading up to the game. While the offense only managed 302 total yards, Golson never looked flustered and showed good decision making, turning the ball over only once on a remarkably acrobatic interception.

TJ Jones. It was a nice evening at the office for Jones as well, who battled all night and made a ton of tough catches with coverage usually blanketing the Irish receivers. For Jones, the 2012 season was a tremendous success, and a year that’ll set him up for a great senior season.

DaVaris Daniels. Returning from a broken collarbone, Daniels played terrific, catching six balls for 115 yards. Quite a nice way to finish off a freshman season of eligibility. Daniels looks every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver, and putting up 115 yards against Alabama has to have people feeling good about his future.

Red Zone offense. Sure, they only had two opportunities. But against a really stout defense, Notre Dame got in for touchdowns both times. The first touchdown featured a nice wrinkle by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, running the option off a zone read look that helped Golson dive in for a touchdown. The second came courtesy of a nice throw to Riddick and good execution by the offense.

We said before the game that the Irish would need to get seven when they got in scoring range. While it didn’t end up mattering, they did their job in the red zone.

The Notre Dame turnout.  Throw out the sixty minutes of football. This was a tremendous experience for Notre Dame fans, alumni, and former players. With almost 50,000 people on the beach during a pep rally, ND Nation turned out for their school, and the support was overwhelming.

On the sidelines before the game, it was great to see guys like Mike Floyd and Brady Quinn shaking hands and patting backs. Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate were spotted, with Tate coming in after winning a playoff game. Former greats like Tony Rice and Jerome Bettis were in town, with the 1988 team having a reunion that brought together many former players, all united behind Brian Kelly and his team.

While the Irish showed they have work to do, even Alabama fans were amazed at the turnout at Sun Life Stadium and in the parking lots surrounding it.

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. It was an incredibly difficult game for Notre Dame and its supporters to stomach. After listening to six weeks of SEC crowing, Alabama ran through the Irish’s mighty defense with ease, doing exactly what many SEC fans thought they would do. The result was a worst case scenario for Notre Dame, empowering skeptics who thought that the Irish didn’t deserve to be in Miami, even with a 12-0 record.

But in today’s current system, those arguments should fall on deaf ears. And any categorization of Notre Dame’s season other than a resounding success is completely ridiculous. After losing ten games over two seasons, the Irish entered the season with a freshman quarterback, a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, and in need of replacing the school’s all-time receiving leader and three of four starters in the secondary, including a first round draft pick.

That the Irish didn’t play anywhere close to their best football on Monday, especially early in the game, is tremendously disappointing. But even their best is likely a few rungs short of where the Crimson Tide program is.

“They’re not just better than us; they’re better than everyone,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told SI’s Pete Thamel. “It doesn’t diminish the regular season. That foundation is here. We’re back in elite status.”

Elite status is a great step forward. The Irish beat rivals USC, Michigan and Michigan State this year. They beat a Stanford team that finished No. 7 in the country, and defeated No. 2 Oregon. The Notre Dame offense is in good hands and will surely take a large step forward during the offseason, as Everett Golson becomes more comfortable after a season of learning on the fly. Replacing Theo Riddick and possibly Cierre Wood will be difficult, but Notre Dame has a home-run threat running back in George Atkinson, who averaged 7.1 yards a carry, and Amir Carlisle waiting in the wings. Add in wildcard Cam McDaniel, five-star recruit Greg Bryant and guys like Will Mahone and Tarean Folston, and the Irish will be able to run the ball.

Defensively, filling the shoes of Te’o will be a large task. But Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will give Notre Dame the best one-two punch of any defensive line in the country, and all the depth behind. The Irish will also return three of four linebackers, and the secondary will welcome back Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood, and potentially Jamoris Slaughter, who felt very optimistic about his sixth year chances.

The future is bright in South Bend. Sure, the game was a tremendous disappointment. But more so because it just felt like this magical Notre Dame was destined for victory. But destiny doesn’t stop Eddie Lacy.

With recruiting headed down the home stretch, Notre Dame is still targeting some of the nation’s highest rated players, looking to add to the No. 1 recruiting class they’ve assembled. They’ll also have a very clear picture of what they need to do to be able to plant their flag at the summit of college football, pointed out ever so dominantly by an Alabama team that showed the sizable gap between the Irish and the Crimson Tide.

With their mission statement for the offseason abundantly clear, the focus is already on 2013.

“Pasadena 2014,” Nix said.

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Jarron Jones #94 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with teammates after recovering a fumble in the second quarter 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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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

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.