Michigan State v Notre Dame

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 17, Michigan State 13


Brian Kelly told us all week that he was expecting an ugly, hard-nosed football game. But even the biggest fan of a defensive battle had a tough time watching Notre Dame and Michigan State’s defenses beat up on the opposition, with neither team able to gain 300 yards of total offense.

Even with eight penalties, a blocked punt deep in their own territory, and just 224 yards of total offense, the Irish pulled off a hard fought 17-13 victory that looked a lot like some of the unglamorous wins that propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season last year.

“If you’d have asked me last week about what this kind of game would be, it wasn’t going to be a beauty contest,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game.  “I felt like it was going to be this kind of game.”

Against a Spartan defense that came into Saturday ranked the best in the nation, Pat Narduzzi’s group certainly played up to their reputation. With Tommy Rees completing just over 40 percent of his throws and relying on the 15-yard pass interference call to be the offense’s most effective weapon, the group missed some open looks downfield in the first half before putting this game on the defense’s shoulders. And after struggling at times early this season, Bob Diaco’s group was up to the occassion, with strong play in the red zone, solid improvement in the secondary, and a pass rush that made things tough on Michigan State at the end of the game.

Thanks to a big rushing touchdown in the fourth quarter and a game-icing 14-yard carry by Cam McDaniel, Notre Dame survived and extended their home winning streak to ten games.

“Somebody was going to have to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “We were able to get the touchdown and hold them from scoring one.”

Let’s find out what else we learned in the Irish’s 17-13 win.


While it wasn’t necessarily successful, the Irish offense is going to challenge defenses downfield when presented with man to man coverage.

It wasn’t a secret that Michigan State was going to challenge Tommy Rees to beat them down the field. And while he didn’t do it on Saturday, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Rees threw early and often down the field, taking dead aim at one-on-one match-ups that had the senior quarterback looking down field for most of the first half.

In blustery conditions, Rees wasn’t able to take advantage of the aggressive downfield coverage the Spartans played, completing just 12 of 27 first half throws. Heading into halftime, Brian Kelly crystalized the boom or bust mentality the Irish played when he spoke with NBC’s Alex Flanagan.

“We’re swinging and missing,” Kelly said. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities, we just haven’t connected. Were going to keep pushing the ball. We’ve got virtually all man-to-man coverage, and we’re going to have to hook up to score more points.”

From there, the passing game was all but shut down by Kelly, with Rees officially attempting just seven second half throws. Kelly talked about the urge to continue taking shots at a Michigan State defense that was daring the Irish to beat them, but understood that he needed to play strategically and close out the game.

“I wanted to throw the ball so bad on those last few drives,” Kelly said after the game. “But we felt like we wanted to put our defense back on the field and not give Michigan State, because they’ve been so opportunistic defensively, an opportunity to win the football game on defense.”

After doing a nice job throwing the ball down the field in the first three games, Rees wasn’t able to make Michigan State pay, just missing TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels multiple times, and only reliably connecting with freshman Corey Robinson. While the Spartans bailed out the Irish offense with some critical (and criticized) pass interference calls, more important than any stat, Rees played a turnover free football game.

“Their corners did a good job of playing man. We missed some opportunities, but we had guys open,” Rees said after the game. “We found a way at the end of the day to put enough points to help our defense win the game.”

Still, in a game plan that needed Rees to complete passes down the field, he struggled to do so. And there’s work to be done for both quarterback and receivers to continue making this offense more efficient, especially against an aggressive defense.

“This was not a hitch, spot, screen, bubble, high‑percentage game,” Kelly said of the game plan. “This is grip‑it‑and‑rip‑it.  That’s the kind of game it was. You’re going to hit big plays.  You’re going to score some touchdowns.  So throw the completion percentage out. You’re either going to make some plays or you’re not.”

Notre Dame didn’t make the big plays, but they also didn’t make the bad ones. That was enough on Saturday afternoon.



After struggling with the fundamentals, the Irish defense made some changes and made some critical stops. 

Brian Kelly promised some changes after a sloppy defensive game against Purdue. And it didn’t take long to notice them, with senior Dan Fox and junior Matthias Farley out of the starting lineup. While both veterans played, it was likely a shot in the arm for a unit that might have been resting on its laurels after an impressive ’12 season. Without Sheldon Day able to go with a sprained ankle, the Irish defense buckled down and got key contributions from Kona Schwenke up front and an infusion of youth in the secondary.

“We’re just trying to get the right mix and the right lineup and the right guys in the right place,” Kelly said about the changes. “Definitely you could sense that that defense is starting to come together. But I wouldn’t say that we’re at that point where we’re definitely sold we have the 11 guys in the right place. We think we’re closer. We still have to do a little bit more work.”

Where the improvement was most visible was in the red zone. While the Spartans were able to get a bit of momentum running the football, they weren’t able to cash it in when it counted. Michigan State was only able to score one touchdown in its four red zone appearances, also missing a key field goal early in the game after Kyle Brindza’s punt was blocked and the Spartans started with the ball at Notre Dame’s 30-yard line.

“As far as Michigan State is concerned, get down in the red zone, you got to score touchdowns,” Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio said. “Had our opportunities in the red zone.  Kicked a couple field goals, missed one. You got to score touchdowns in those situations.”

With the Irish offense unwilling to risk giving the game away to the Spartan defense, Kelly depended on the defense to get key fourth quarter stops. They did that, with Stephon Tuitt getting a much needed sack and Prince Shembo providing quite a bit of pressure in three and four man pass rush situations.

“I thought we played very well today up front, getting three‑man pressure and four‑man pressure up front,” Kelly said. “When you can do that, you can drop a lot of guys in coverage.  I think the defenses had a lot to do with today’s ballgame.”

With Oklahoma coming to town next weekend after a week off, the Irish defense will need to build on this performance. But when the chips were down, Kelly bet on his defense. And they rewarded him by icing the football game.


While the offensive line held up to Michigan State’s pass rush, there’s still plenty of work to do for Harry Hiestand’s troops. 

When the Irish needed it, Cam McDaniel ran the ball up the gut and sealed the game with a critical 14-yard carry. But other than that the Irish struggled to do anything against Michigan State’s defense, struggling miserably on 3rd and short conversions all afternoon. On 3rd and three or less, Notre Dame converted just five of 13 attempts, with one coming courtesy of a personal foul on an incomplete Tommy Rees pass. Four of those five conversions game through the air.

“We’re too hot and cold right now,” senior captain Zack Martin said after the game. “We have a long way to go. Once this offense figures out how to be consistent, we can be pretty good.”

Kelly talked about the challenge of trying to run the ball against a defense like Michigan State’s, and acknowledged that you need to pass the ball to beat the Spartans.

“You have to win throwing the football against Michigan State. You’re not going to win running the football against them,” Kelly said after the game. “You’re just trying to carve out an existence in the run game against a defense like this. You’ve got to run it well enough to win the game.”

Notre Dame may have done that, but the work is far from done up front.



After winning a big gamble with Little Giants, Mark Dantonio has come up empty against Notre Dame since. 

There’s no forgetting Little Giants, Mark Dantonio’s heroic fake field goal call in overtime that beat Brian Kelly and the Irish in ’10. But since then, the risks Dantonio has taken have come back to bite the Spartans.

In ’11, Dantonio attempted to follow up Little Giants with another fake field goal as the Spartans were trying to score going into half. The play was snuffed out easily and the Spartans never pulled closer. Saturday afternoon, Dantonio rolled the dice twice with two risky decisions and both went Notre Dame’s way.

The first was an ill-fated halfback pass that completely flipped the second half momentum. After a dominant 15-play, 75-yard drive that took over eight minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal, Dantonio called a halfback pass with R.J. Shelton, who heaved an ill-advised pass into a flock of Notre Dame defenders that Matthias Farley came down with. A nice return (and late hit personal foul) later, The Irish had the ball at the Spartans 37-yard line, marching the ball down for a touchdown that broke open a tie game.

Dantonio took the blame for the decision, suggesting the play to his offensive coordinator in hopes of catching the Irish napping.

“I made the suggestion on that one because I felt like we needed a big play,” Dantonio said after the game.

The next big decision came late in the game when Dantonio and the offensive staff chose to put the game in Andrew Maxwell’s hands. With Connor Cook only completing 16 of his 32 throws for 135 yards and a touchdown, it wasn’t as if he was dominating the game, but the decision to put the game on Maxwell’s shoulders, especially in a situation where quarterback mobility could really come in handy, was a head-scratcher.

“I think we put him in there just to try to change the pace. Felt like he needed an opportunity, should give him an opportunity,” Dantonio said of Maxwell. “Tough situation to put him in at. I felt like he was a little behind on some throws, needed to mix it up and see what he could do.  Obviously didn’t work out.”


There were plenty of special teams blunders to work out, but in the end Kyle Brindza iced the game with two clutch fourth quarter punts. 

The Irish gave up their first punt block of the Kelly era. Senior captain TJ Jones had a very shaky day returning punts, nearly coughing up two to the Spartans. And while Kyle Brindza missed a field goal he should have had, he bailed out the Irish with two clutch punts late in the game to flip the field position.

“He got the game ball for us,” Kelly said of Brindza. “He flipped field position for us in the fourth quarter, which to me was as important as anything that happened today, pinning Michigan State back twice in field position that tilted the field in our favor and allowed them on a longer field.”

It won’t be a good Sunday in the film room for Scott Booker and his troops. Brindza’s punt was blocked because of a high snap by redshirt freshman Scott Daly and a mediocre effort by Jarron Jones. And TJ Jones’s decision to return punts in part to boost his NFL Draft stock won’t be much good if he continues to take careless risks with the football.

But with the game on the line, Brindza nailed two beautiful punts, back-to-back 51-yarders that netted zero in the return game.


How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.