Central Michigan v Michigan

Objectives cut and dry for both teams


Football is a game of numbers. And it’s not hard to look at a few of them and understand the difference between winning and losing.

When you check the stat sheet from last year’s 13-6 game, the Irish held Michigan’s offense to just 299 yards while forcing a whopping six turnovers in a hard-earned victory. Compare that to the game in ’11, when Michigan racked up 452 yards, while going +2 in the turnover differential in their furious comeback win. Turnovers and defense. Hold onto the football and limit yards. Just about any guy with a gas grill and a cable TV package can figure that one out.

That said, the key to the Irish’s defensive plan makes simple math look mighty complicated. Especially when facing a quarterback like the ones Michigan has had behind center the past few years. Gone is Denard Robinson, a quarterback Brian Kelly called the most dynamic and electric playmaker he’s ever seen at the position. But in his place is Devin Gardner, another dual threat player that also happens to throw the football with grace and accuracy.

Kelly talked about defending a guy like Gardner, who he compared to Randall Cunningham, and how it’ll be different than facing someone like Robinson.

“Gardner throws the ball with much more accuracy,” Kelly said. “He pushes the ball down the field very easily.  And he certainly scrambles very well, keeps his eyes downfield and is not afraid to run. Another dual‑threat quarterback that is going to be very, very difficult to defend.”

As the Irish prepare to face yet another Wolverine quarterback that keeps defensive coordinators up at night, Michigan offensive coordinator Al Borges talked about the challenges that he faces in the Irish defense, a group that shut down his offense last season.

“They’re as good as anybody we’ll play I think, across the board,” Borges said. “A stout nose guard, two athletic defensive ends. They don’t have Te’o any more at linebacker, but they’re still pretty active kids. Solid cover guys on the back end.

“They know their system pretty well because they’ve been playing it for a while. They’ll be formidable. That’s a good defensive football team.”

Borges brings up what life is like for Notre Dame after Te’o. Kelly also talked about Michigan’s offense post-Robinson. That leaves a little bit of guessing for both teams, as tendencies and structure tends to change.

“We’ll have a little bit of a different plan,” Kelly said. “There’ll obviously be some similarities, but they’re different players.”

Borges conceded the same, though reserved the right to go back and use some things that have been successful.

“We’re different, but there’s still a little carry over here and there that you can steal from a year ago,” Borges said.

That carryover exists in the ability to scramble. Michigan coaches likely watched Temple quarterback Connor Reilly scrambling last Saturday and began licking their chops. That’s where Gardner is at his best — dangerous with his legs but deadly with his arm — and put together a few highlight reel plays against Central Michigan, extending plays until a receiver broke open. It’s something Borges and the Wolverines offense has worked hard at perfecting.

“You have to have some structure within your improv. What we practice, and talk about a lot, is how we are going to adjust when the pocket is broken,” Borges said.

Last year, that rarely happened. The Irish were able to pin Robinson in the pocket, using an overpowering front seven to keep Michigan’s quarterback hemmed in and hassled, forcing bad decisions by Robinson, which turned into four interceptions.

While Gardner sparkled over the weekend, he still threw two interceptions — one a very bad decision deep in his own territory and the other when he was under duress.

“I know one thing about Devin. If he uses good judgment, he’s a problem for the defense,” Borges said. “There’s some stuff you just don’t draw up on that board to account for. You’ve got to cover him and cover the receivers. And that’s not easy to do.”

Limit yardage and force turnovers. Play mistake free and get outside the pocket. Only one of these two objectives will be reached. And that team will likely be celebrating a hard fought victory Saturday night.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”