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Pregame Six Pack: War with the Wolverines

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An all important snapshot will be taken of Brian Kelly’s football program on Saturday night. Tasked with their first big challenge of the season, we’ll see how quickly the Irish have turned the page from their historic ’12 season, building on the sizable momentum the program has quietly established over the past two-plus years.

Nobody has beaten Brady Hoke in the Big House. Brian Kelly and his team had that chance, only to squander a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead that’ll surely be mentioned a few dozen times this weekend.

But the Irish program is on solid footing, perhaps more so than most recognize. In the Irish’s last 25 games, Notre Dame has won 21 of them, good for a .840 winning percentage, bettered only by Oregon and Alabama among BCS schools. With a five-year extension for Kelly and a long range plan for the program coming into focus, it appears the Irish have finally found their place among college football’s elite programs, after struggling through four head coaches trying to find it.

Yet that assumption will need to be affirmed on Saturday night, with Kelly’s Irish team needing an impressive performance against the Wolverines to erase some of the skepticism that’s carried over from the BCS National Championship game.

This Irish team believes they’ve turned the page, leaving last season behind and forging a new trail. But a victory will go a long way towards helping everybody else understand that, likely pushing the Notre Dame into the top ten of the major polls, and getting by one of the major hurdles in a difficult schedule that stands between the Irish and another BCS appearance.

With Notre Dame and Michigan set to play in primetime on Saturday night, let’s dig into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, leftovers, fun facts, and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and Wolverines go to battle.

***

Not Rocket Science: When the Irish play turnover free, they’re unbeaten under Brian Kelly. 

After watching a promising ’11 season derailed after turnovers decimated the team’s offensive productivity, Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin set out to correct the fatal flaws that sunk a talented and explosive offense.

We saw the fruits of those labors last season, when the Irish chopped their turnovers impressively, even while breaking in a new quarterback and restructuring an offense that had relied on wide receiver Michael Floyd to power the engine.

For all the complaints and supposed limitations in Tommy Rees’ game, the Irish offense hasn’t lacked punch with Rees in charge. But the key to escaping Ann Arbor with a win is playing a clean game in the turnovers column.

No stat crystalizes the Irish’s fortunes more than this one. Notre Dame is undefeated under Brian Kelly when they don’t turn the football over. So while we can talk about special teams worries or containing Devin Gardner, the Irish have won their last eleven games when they put a goose egg up in the turnover column.

The last game Notre Dame lost without a turnover was a 34-27 loss to Southern Cal in 2009.

***

After being damned by September failures, Notre Dame has turned it around under Brian Kelly’s watch. 

For much of the past decade, Notre Dame’s BCS aspirations were dead before the season’s first month finished. Dating back to 2002, the Irish had not gotten out of September clean since Ty Willingham’s first season in South Bend. Even at Charlie Weis’ best, the Irish loss a September game in both ’05 and ’06.

That trend continued with Brian Kelly. Kelly’s teams stumbled early out of the gates, losing five of their first six games in September. But since that fateful evening in the Big House in ’11, Notre Dame has won every September game on their calendar, winning seven straight, including last week’s 28-6 victory over Temple.

In the past five September games, the Irish have dominated the turnover battle, winning the margin 13-3. (The Irish pulled off victories against Michigan State and Pitt in ’11 even while losing the turnover battle in both games).

A season after making it to the final game of the college football season, the goals have not changed for Brian Kelly’s squad. But to have a realistic shot at forging another BCS run, they’ll need to get out of September alive, no easy task considering dates with Purdue, Michigan State and Oklahoma still await the Irish after Michigan.

***

With an offensive trying to get back to its roots, can Michigan actually run the ball against Notre Dame’s defensive front? 

Denard Robinson is gone. It’s worth a sigh of relief for Irish fans, but also an encouraging sign for the Michigan faithful that has been waiting patiently for the Wolverines to get back to their blue-collar roots of running the ball and playing power football.

That will certainly be an emphasis for the Wolverines on Saturday night, but the big question is will the rebuilt offensive line be able to win the battle up front against a stout Irish front. Bookend tackles Taylor Lewan and Michael Schofield return, with Lewan turning down a first-round NFL grade to come back for a fifth year in Ann Arbor. But the interior of the Michigan line is still a big question mark, with coordinator Al Borges admitting the depth chart is still very much in pencil.

In Michigan’s first game explosion, the Wolverines ran for 242 yards on the ground en route to putting up 59 points against Central Michigan, averaging a healthy 5.1 yards-per-carry. But parsing those numbers a bit, the productivity is a bit misleading. Take away a 38-yard gain by Dennis Norfleet on a reverse, and Devin Gardner’s highlight reel scramble for a touchdown, and Michigan averaged an ordinary 3.9 yards a carry against a rush defense that finished 91st in the country last season.

Fifth-year senior Fitzgerald Toussaint is still the starting running back, but freshman Derrick Green has ascended to No. 2 thanks to some attrition at the position. Green came into camp with about 20 pounds on him that the coaching staff wasn’t happy about, but at 240-plus pounds, he’ll be a physical load to take on.

After being bottled up and held to just 161 yards on 41 carries last year, Lewan acknowledged how important the play up front with be for Michigan.

“We didn’t play well,” Lewan said earlier this week, when thinking back to last year’s 13-6 loss. “None of us did. So that’s unfortunate.”

***

In the pre-snap chess match, can Greg Mattison beat Tommy Rees and the Notre Dame offense? 

Michigan defensive coordinator Greg Mattison is known for his impressive scheme, with the ability to confuse a quarterback with multiple looks and apply pressure by any means necessary. Never will that be more important than on Saturday night, when the Wolverines will need to pressure and confuse quarterback Tommy Rees to limit the Irish offense and force some much needed mistakes. The senior quarterback feels prepared for the unexpected, and knows much of his job will take place presnap.

“They do that all the time, where they’re showing one thing and play something else,” Rees said Thursday. “For us, we’ve just got to be prepared and focus in on what they’re trying to do to us.”

How the Wolverines plan on getting after Rees remains the big question. While Michigan picked up four sacks last Saturday against CMU, they only had 22 sacks all of last season (77th in the country), and lost their best playmaker behind the line of scrimmage when Jake Ryan went down with a knee injury last spring.

Overall, Michigan’s two-deep front seven accounted for just 9.5 sacks last season, with Jibreel Black (3) and Frank Clark (2) the only players to register multiple sacks. Mattison rotated an incredible 14 linemen through the Wolverine front against CMU, getting just about everybody on the roster some reps before the Irish head to town. While it’s easy to keep everybody fresh up front when you’re winning by a quarter-century, how Michigan distributes reps up front — and manages to get to Rees — will be a key in this game.

Whoever’s on the field for Michigan, Brian Kelly feels confident that Rees is ready to to respond accordingly.

“You’re going to see somebody who is so much more proactive in the game,” Kelly said of Rees. “He’s going to see it before it happens. He did a very good job in that game. He’ll do a better job taking care of the football.

“I think you’ll see that on Saturday. I hope you see it. I expect to see it.”

***

After last season’s disappointing performance up front, Notre Dame needs to control the line of scrimmage with improved offensive line play. 

While most look at Notre Dame’s success limiting Denard Robinson and Michigan’s offense, there was a whole lot of ugly coming out of the Irish offense last year as well. Michigan’s defense shut down the Irish running game during the Irish’s 13-6 win, holding Notre Dame to under 100 yards of rushing on 3.1 yards-per-carry.

The interior of Michigan’s defensive line is stout, with Jibreel Black and Quinton Washington anchoring the front four. But the Irish need to impose their will against a front seven that’s replacing a lot of experience.

The challenge will be playing their best in one of college football’s least friendly environments, with the Big House expected to be rocking for another game under the lights. Harry Hiestand’s crew is ready for the challenge, as Zack Martin talked a bit about the prep that goes into a big night game.

“We rep all week of practice with loud music. We’re lucky that we’ve played together for all of camp, all of spring,” Martin said Thursday. “Me and Chris have played for the past few years together, so we just get used to how we play.”

One element that also needs to be ironed out is finding a running back that’s going to carry the load for the Irish. It’s easy to get all five backs reps when you’re playing Temple. But Kelly and the Notre Dame offense will need to find someone on Saturday night to turn to that can move the chains, make big plays, and convert yards to points.

***

While the last visit to Ann Arbor still spooks Irish fans, there’s nothing haunting Brian Kelly and the Irish. 

Just about every Notre Dame fan that I’ve spoken with isn’t heading to Ann Arbor. It just hasn’t been a friendly place to Notre Dame, with each loss seemingly more cruel than the next. That’s especially true if you made it to Ann Arbor in ’11, experiencing first hand one of the more shocking and gut-wrenching finishes in the history of the ND-UM rivalry. But if you expect that game to resonate in this team’s minds, you’re discounting the mental toughness Kelly’s squad has developed over the past two seasons.

The game isn’t something that the team is likely to forget, but it’s also something that won’t hang over the heads of the guys playing Saturday night.

“Anybody who was there will certainly remember it, but it doesn’t do anything to affect the outcome of the game,” Kelly said. “I mean, the game will be affected by how you prepare this week and how you play on Saturday, so if that’s motivation for them to prepare better, that’s great.  If that’s going to help them play better, that’s great.”

Even more interestingly, Kelly’s walking into this weekend’s game with an underdog mentality. And it appears Las Vegas agrees with him, giving the Wolverines a four-point advantage Saturday night in a game where 20 of the past 24 underdogs have covered the spread.

“I mean, the pressure’s on Michigan. They’re at home. They’ve got to win at home,” Kelly said. “For us, we’re going to go up there swinging. Go on the road, we’re going to have to play well. It’s a very good football team. We can’t go up there and turn the ball over like we did a couple years ago. We understand that.

“Nobody’s been able to do that now under Brady Hoke, at Michigan, you better go up there with an attitude to be aggressive and go play the game. You can’t sit back and wait and hope, because if you do, you’re not going to win the game.”

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”