Prince Shembo

Final thoughts before kickoff


On a beautiful South Bend Saturday, it’ll be up to Notre Dame to play a near perfect game. An underdog at home to the visiting Sooners, the Irish will need to play their best game in all three phases to emerge victorious against the Sooners.

Let’s run through a few final keys before kickoff:

Tommy Rees. How much of the offensive burden will be hoisted onto his shoulders? Because right now, Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin have asked the senior quarterback to do it all. With pass heavy game plans the past three games, Rees will need to be more accurate throwing the football down field than he was last week, when a heavy wind — and a really good Spartans secondary — played tricks on his deep ball accuracy.

Still, expect the staff to support him more with this game plan. Intermediate throws, crossing routes and slants would be a nice start. Maybe even a run game to try and challenge Mike Stoops’ 3-3-5 defense that has stood strong through three games.

For Notre Dame to win, Rees is going to have to play his best game of the season. But he’ll need his teammates to help carry the load as well.

Notre Dame’s offensive line. We’ve talked about how well they’ve done in pass protection. We’ve talked about not running into bad run looks or overloaded boxes. But this is a group that many expected to be the best offensive line since the Lou Holtz era. With two All-American caliber players anchoring the left side and big, strong, physical players across the board. It’s time to cut through the reasons and start dominating.

Harry Hiestand’s group is four games through the season. And they’ve yet to have a road-grading performance this year. Against a Sooner front seven that was much maligned heading into the season, can the Irish not just protect Tommy Rees but make this offense two-dimensional, providing a ground game to help dominate the clock and keep the ball out of the Sooners’ hands?

A key stat for this afternoon: Oklahoma’s front six weighs an average of 253 pounds. Notre Dame’s front six (including Troy Niklas), weighs an average of 304 pounds. That’s over 50-pounds a man. It’s an advantage the Irish need to capitalize on.

The Irish secondary. This has been a puzzling group that’s really struggled at the start of the season. But after two weeks of solid performances (against bottom of the barrel Big Ten quarterbacks), can this group play smart, fundamental football and make Blake Bell pay for his mistakes?

From a personnel perspective, this is the toughest test the Irish will face all year. The Sooners receiving corps is loaded, a likely sign that Bob Diaco will abandon some of the man-coverage looks he’s played to start this season and focus on the two-deep zone.

This group should be fine giving up five to avoid giving up fifty. But there’ll be some throws that Bell leaves out there this afternoon. And it’s up to guys like Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth to identify it and take the football away.

Notre Dame’s pass rush. If Notre Dame is going to win, they’re going to need to make things uncomfortable for Blake Bell. That means a heavy dose of guys like Prince Shembo, who has yet to get on track this season, and Stephon Tuitt, who notched his second sack of the year last week.

(After listening to Notre Dame fans the past month, you’d think Stephon Tuitt was closer to the bench than the NFL. But as October approaches, Tuitt and Jadeveon Clowney both have two sacks and ten total tackles.)

Sheldon Day is back in the lineup. Louis Nix will be matched up with Gabe Ikard.  But whether the pressure is supplied by the front three, Shembo, or Ishaq Williams, the Irish need to get in the face of Bell early and often, doing it without having to sell the farm.

Stopping the run. Bob Stoops has made a commitment to running the football. With a veteran trio of seniors in Brennan Clay, Damien Williams and Roy Finch, and a standout freshman Keith Ford, whose powerful style has reminded some of Adrian Peterson (blasphemy!), the Sooners are running for over 270 yards a game.

Nobody forgot how well the Irish did stopping Oklahoma’s running game last year. But holding this group below 100 yards could be the key to force the Sooners to throw the football more than they want.

Starting quick. Nothing is more important to the Irish than getting out of the gate quickly. Other than a great start against Temple, the Irish offense has been inept in the first quarter. Getting out to a quick start and getting points on the board early will be key.

Standout wide receivers. We’ve talked about how dangerous the Sooners receivers are, but Notre Dame isn’t trotting out slouches. But a week after DaVaris Daniels had some growing pains against an experienced set of Michigan State cornerbacks, the Irish need better individual performances by their pass catchers.

Big games should bring out big players, and this is a stage that should be set for TJ Jones and Daniels. Was last week a fluke performance by Corey Robinson or a sign of things to come? And lost in the mix against the Spartans was tight end Troy Niklas. The 6-7, 270-pounder should be a valuable weapon against a trio of linebackers that doesn’t have a man that weighs more than 229 pounds.

Play big in the fourth quarter. Brian Kelly’s team knows how to win close games. If they can get the game into the fourth quarter with the game within reach, the Irish believe they can pull it out.

(Even if it’ll turn the fans into nervous wrecks.)

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.



Navy, Notre Dame will display mutual respect with uniforms

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell

The storied and important history of Notre Dame and Navy’s long-running rivalry will be on display this weekend, with the undefeated Midshipmen coming to South Bend this weekend.

On NBCSN, a half-hour documentary presentation will take a closer look, with “Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect” talking about everything from Notre Dame’s 43-year winning streak, to Navy’s revival, triggered by their victory in 2007. The episode will also talk about the rivalries ties to World War II, and how the Navy helped keep Notre Dame alive during wartime.

You can catch it on tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or online in the same viewing window.

On the field, perhaps an even more unique gesture of respect is planned. With Under Armour the apparel partner for both Notre Dame and Navy, both teams will take the field wearing the same cleats, gloves and baselayers. Each team’s coaching staff will also be outfitted in the same sideline gear.

More from Monday’s press release:

For the first time in college football, two opponents take the field with the exact same Under Armour baselayer, gloves and cleats to pay homage to the storied history and brotherhood between their two schools. The baselayer features both Universities’ alma maters on the sleeves and glove palms with the words “respect, honor, tradition” as a reminder of their connection to each other. Both sidelines and coaches also will wear the same sideline gear as a sign of mutual admiration.​

Navy and Notre Dame will meet for the 89th time on Saturday, a rivalry that dates back to 1927. After the Midshipmen won three of four games starting in 2007, Notre Dame hopes to extend their current winning streak to five games on Saturday.

Here’s an early look at some of the gear: