USC vs Notre Dame

Kiffin’s firing and ASU’s offense both impact Notre Dame


As Arizona State piled up a remarkable six second half touchdowns, two realizations quickly came to mind last night: The Sun Devils offense looks mighty tough. And it was going to be a really difficult week for Lane Kiffin.

First let’s get to the juicy stuff. Kiffin was fired late last night after the team’s charter returned to Los Angeles from Tempe. The Los Angeles Daily News’ Scott Wolf reported that Kiffin was pulled off the team bus, where Pat Haden delivered the news as the team returned to campus without him. (Haden’s move feels right out of a movie, and certainly puts Jack Swarbrick’s sideline cancelation letter delivery to shame.)

In the short term, it’s hard to think USC’s team will be anything more than a mess. Haden will address the media today and is expected to name defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron interim head coach. Probably more damaging to the team’s short-term future is the status of Biletnikoff winner and All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee, who suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter while returning a punt down four touchdowns. Some are reporting that the injury isn’t as severe as some may have expected, but with three weeks until the Trojans come to South Bend, they may be without their best offensive weapon.

Where does Haden turn as he looks for a new head coach? CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman looked at some names with connections to the program (Washington’s Steve Sarkisian, Denver Broncos DC Jack Del Rio), and some not (Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, 49ers OC Greg Roman). Kiffin’s dismissal was likely done now to prevent an uprising among an already fickle fanbase as well as to get a leg up on other top programs that might have a job opening coming.

Make no mistake, the job is still one of the jewels of college football. A new $70 million football building, recruiting sanctions that are nearing an end, and a fertile recruiting base and program steeped in history. The long-term decision was an easy one for Pat Haden and might make things tougher for the Irish in their most important rivalry. But in the short-term, the Irish may have caught the kind of break they desperately needed.


On to the team that put the final nail in Kiffin’s coffin. Todd Graham‘s Arizona State Sun Devils rallied after getting trounced by Stanford last week, piling up over 600 yards against a Trojan defense that until last night had looked very good. If there was any worry that the mood in the Gug would be subdued after the self-inflicted loss to Oklahoma, one only needs to throw in the tape of ASU’s offense scoring a ridiculous six touchdowns in the second half to knock the pout out of the Irish.

Graham seems to have the Irish’s number. He beat Notre Dame while at Tulsa then nearly did it again at Pitt, where he hung tough in a 15-12 loss. He jumped at the job to move west, and he’s putting together the type of elite offense many thought he would. Quarterback Taylor Kelly might be the best one the Irish face this year, gouging the Trojans for 351 yards by air and averaging almost 20 yards per carry. Skill players offer personnel challenges that have started to look a little bit more obvious as the season wears on.

In a Shamrock Series game known mostly for a neutral site and an alternate uniform, Notre Dame’s season will be at a distinct crossroad. Get through Graham’s Sun Devils, and the Irish enter bye week at 4-2, with a USC team that could still be reeling. But a loss on Saturday will push Notre Dame back to .500, a place may hoped they wouldn’t ever see again.

The story lines continue to multiple as this crazy college football season rolls into October.

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.”