Trey Miller Navy Ishaq Williams

Pregame Six Pack: Next up Navy

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As winners of three straight (and five of the last six), Notre Dame’s season is coming into focus after a rough start. The quarterback play of Tommy Rees has improved steadily since back-to-back tough games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. The defense has tightened considerably, playing its best football during the winning streak, with two consecutive second-half shutouts and three straight perfect third quarters.

While injuries have taken their toll on the team, Brian Kelly and the Irish enter November knowing exactly what they need to do: Win.

Now comes one of their most familiar opponents. Notre Dame and the Navy have played every year since 1927, one of college football’s longest running rivalries. After the longest winning streak in college football, the Midshipmen struck back winning three of four, until the Irish took back the power with two-straight 40-point victories.

Let’s dive into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Navy do battle at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

History is vital in the appreciation of this rivalry. 

Notre Dame and Navy share a mutual respect that exists because of the rich history these two institutions share. Before Notre Dame was one of the most powerful and financially secure universities in the country it was a school that could’ve closed its doors when the war took its toll on enrollment and the student body.

Navy established a college training program in 1943 that saved the university, with enrollment numbers that were down to almost Great Depression era levels skyrocketing back to health. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s beloved former president, talked about how important Navy was to the university.

“All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students,” Father Hesburgh said in 2010. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”

If you’re wondering why the Irish will join Navy at the end of Saturday’s game in honoring their school, it’s because the Navy supported Notre Dame in its time of need. That’s something that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

***

Notre Dame’s staff might have been fooled once by Ken Niumatalolo. It hasn’t happened again. 

The loss in 2010 to Navy was one of the most lopsided in Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. Sixty carries for 367 yards, a staggering 6.1 a clip. Since then? The Irish have held Navy under 4 yards a carry, with the Midshipmen failing to break 200 yards in either game since then, and held to just 149 in last season’s opener, Navy’s second-lowest output in a game since late in the 2010 season.

When asked about trying to forget that dreadful day in the Meadowlands, Kelly made it clear neither he nor his staff have forgotten the ugly 35-17 loss.

“I just think that we felt like there’s only been a couple of times since we’ve been here where we felt like we let the players down, and as coaches you never want to feel that way,” Kelly said when thinking back to that game. “I take full responsibility for that. You want your team prepared. That’s why we’re in this profession, to prepare our kids. We weren’t prepared properly. We redoubled our efforts based off that game to make sure that never happens again.”

***

It’ll be a fun game for the Robinson family, who can certainly be considered a house divided. 

Expect to see your fair share of David Robinson on the TV screen this weekend. The seven-foot NBA Hall of Famer is also easy to spot with a TV camera, but Navy’s most famous ex-athlete will also be supporting his son Corey, who will take on the Robinson family’s roots when he goes up against Navy.

Robinson likely always saw this game as part of his future — at least if he was going to play football in college. He just always thought he’d be playing for the other team.

“My whole life,” Robinson said, when asked if he saw himself following his father’s footsteps to Navy. “When Notre Dame offered me, I kind of opened up my mind a little bit.”

Our friends over at Irish Illustrated captured Corey’s interview on Wednesday this week, and the freshman was at least with the camera in his face, full of energy as he talked about the excitement that came with his first touchdown and playing against the Midshipmen.

***

Brian Kelly announced Everett Golson might be back with the team sooner than anybody expected. 

For Notre Dame fans eagerly awaiting the return of Everett Golson from his academic exile, Brian Kelly revealed that day may be coming sooner than anybody thought. When speaking after practice on Thursday, Kelly said that Golson would join the team (in practice) this season, not waiting until spring ball to begin to take reps.

“Let’s say he’s admitted back into school on December 15. He would be eligible to practice,” Kelly said. “If that’s the case, then we would practice him, but he would not, of course, be eligible to compete. Provided of course he gets readmitted.”

Getting Golson back on the field and working with the team would be great for jumping starting development, one of the key factors to Brian Kelly’s bowl preparations. If the Irish get to the BCS, there might not be a better scout team quarterback to face than Golson, who could replicate a dual-threat quarterback like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, or take the place of just about anybody to give the starting defense a good look.

On Thursday, Golson took off from his ten-week training stint in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield. It’s the longest Whitfield has ever had to work with a single quarterback, and catching up with Whitfield, he said Golson’s physical, mental, and mechanical gains were incredible.

Golson’s physical strength also benefitted, gaining almost 15 pounds of good weight, checking in at 204 after joining Whitfield at 190. He’s also throwing the football using the laces, a relief for some Irish fans that worried about the young quarterback’s mechanics looking fairly freestyle.

***

More option, less Louis Nix. (But better depth eases the blow.)

Another week against an option opponent.  And another Irish defense without All-American Louis Nix. The 350-pound senior defensive tackle will sit out this week against the Midshipmen, pushing Kona Schwenke into the starting lineup again next to Stephon Tuitt, who shifts to defensive tackle in a four-man front.

The Irish will also be without defensive end Ishaq Williams, who injured a knee on a low block early in the game against Air Force. But the Irish depth on defense showed itself, with little used veterans like Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo playing very well, two guys that’ll likely see time on Saturday as well.

With Jaylon Smith locked in at outside linebacker, Ben Councell was spotted putting a hand on the ground as well. The Irish also have support with sophomore Romeo Okwara, so while guys like Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate should be back and playing, there’s confidence being built in the depth chart, a beneficial thing this time of year.

Big defensive plays. Game-changing special teams. Expect the unexpected against Navy. 

Ever since former Notre Dame defensive end Renaldo Wynn ran back a 24-yard fumble for a touchdown in 1996, the Irish and Navy have been making plenty of big plays on defense and special teams. Ten times in the last 17 meetings Notre Dame or Navy has scored a touchdown on defense or special teams, with Stephon Tuitt supplying the highlight last season with his 77-yard fumble return.

Here’s a rundown of the highlights since 1996:

2012: Stephon Tuitt, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2008: Toryan Smith, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2007: Chris Kuhar-Pitters, TD Fumble Return (Navy)
2002: Vontez Duff, TD, Kickoff Return (ND)
2001: Gerome Sapp, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
1999: Davede Alexander, TD Interception Return (Navy)
1999: Chris Oliver, TD Punt Block (Navy)
1996: Renaldo Wynn, TD Fumble Return (ND)

Making things all the crazier? For as many big touchdowns that have happened on defense or special teams, Notre Dame has only managed to punt just seven times in the past eight games against Navy, with three coming during the Irish’s 2008 victory.

The Irish lost in both 2007 and 2009 without punting the football, making them a ridiculous 2-2 against Navy when not punting.

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.”