Jeff Whittingham, Kyle Friend, Louis Nix III

Irish need to improve up the middle


A baseball team is often judged by its strength up the middle. Look at any great ball club and you’ll usually find a strong catcher behind the plate, a shortstop with range and a centerfielder that can run down just about anything.

When you look at the uneven performance coming from the Irish football team through three games, my head wanders back to my baseball days, riding the pines and chewing bubble gum at Eck Stadium. Strength up the middle is paramount for an elite baseball team. And that’s where this football team needs to find its focus as well.

There’s no better anchor point to build from than Louis Nix. While it’s hard for a nose guard to fill a stat sheet, Nix has looked the part of everybody’s All-American this season, constantly double-teamed as he takes on the interior of an offensive line. But if you’re wondering why this defense doesn’t look like the one that was on the field last season, keep looking up the middle, where two position groups are still in the middle of getting sorted.

Inside linebacker seems to be improving, though many hoped Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox would flourish when given the chance to play next to each other. The jury is still out, but neither Fox nor Calabrese look like the player they were when playing next to Te’o last season. Joining them in the rotation has been Jarrett Grace, who has looked like a guy getting heavy snaps for the first time in his career.

A season after being dominant against screen passes and short underneath throws thanks to Manti Te’o’s instincts, this defense is getting beat underneath too often. Call it dinking and dunking, but more accurately it’s called moving the chains, and the Irish are having a hard time getting off the field. Add to that struggles in the red zone after being so dominant there a season ago, and that’s why this group sits at No. 57 in scoring defense after playing two teams ranked outside the Top 100 in scoring offense.

Part of that comes from the instability at safety. Many assumed Matthias Farley was ready to step in and be a dominant player in the back end of the defense. That hasn’t been the case, with the former wide receiver still looking like a player growing into his position. After hoping that Elijah Shumate was going to step in and use his athleticism to effect the game at safety, the sophomore hasn’t been heard from, except when getting beat in pass coverage. Austin Collinsworth seems to be a guy the coaching staff can trust, but he hasn’t been a game changer. And the Irish’s most dynamic option, freshman Max Redfield, seems to be in the middle of a learning curve that still hasn’t gotten him onto the field.

The up the middle struggles aren’t just on defense. After having two running backs that knew exactly what was asked of them, the Irish ground game seems to be stuck in neutral. How much of that is on the guys toting the rock remains to be seen, but if you watched Brian Kelly’s interactions with the running backs, there are cutback lanes and alleys that haven’t been hit in the Irish’s zone blocking scheme.

Up the middle of the field, just about everybody is new. A five-headed running back monster where guys are learning on the job. A quarterback that took reps as a situational reliever last season. A new center. A trio of linebackers trying to replace the national defensive player of the year. And two safeties, one who sat out all last season with an injury.

There’s a reason Kelly continues to preach patience, and with a four game stretch that’ll likely define the season, now is the time to make sure the pieces come together.

“We know there’s going to be an evolution of getting those players in the right position, developing them. That’s going to take a little time,” Kelly said.

Well with the No. 1 defensive in the country coming to town and ranked Oklahoma and Arizona State squads before USC, time is of the essence.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.