Notre Dame v Air Force

Pregame Six Pack: Primetime at Pitt

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During a season filled with high-wire acts and last-second escapes, Notre Dame’s 29-26 victory over Pitt might have been the capper, with the Irish miraculously winning the game in triple overtime after trailing 20-6 in the fourth quarter.

They did so even with Everett Golson throwing a killer interception in the Pitt end zone, trailing by eight with under four minutes to go. They won even after Cierre Wood fumbled going into the end zone in double-overtime, surviving when a 33-yard field goal sailed wide right (with an assist from a high snap).

Saturday night’s game might not have the same dramatic set-up, but Notre Dame will face a similarly desperate team that wants badly to beat the Irish after losing three straight close games to Notre Dame. While Paul Chryst’s team has been inconsistent on both sides of the football, for 60 minutes on Saturday night, they’ll have the chance to turn their season around in front of a national audience.

“They don’t seem to like Notre Dame very much, and they want to beat Notre Dame,” Brian Kelly said earlier this week. “I think it’s one of those games where you know you’re going to go in and it’s going to be a fight.”

Let’s jump into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Pittsburgh do battle on Saturday night in primetime.

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Matched up against the interior of Notre Dame’s offensive line, defensive tackle Aaron Donald will be Public Enemy No. 1 in the trenches for the Irish. 

He may lack the size of an elite defensive tackle, but Pitt’s Aaron Donald has been a terror this season, leading the country with 19.5 TFLs, averaging roughly 2.5 a game. Matched up on the interior of the Irish offensive line, freshman Steve Elmer and first-year starter Nick Martin have their toughest challenge of the season, especially with Chris Watt far from full strength with a PCL tear.

While Watt isn’t 100 percent, Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated reported on the Irish Illustrated Insider podcast that Watt told him he was 100 percent going to play, and it’s likely because of the importance of keeping Donald out of the backfield.

Aaron Donald has been a one‑man wrecking crew,” Kelly said this week. “We know about him from last year.  Big, physical defensive line, and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down.  He’s in the backfield, very active.  I think for him, you know, you have a powerful guy, but he’s also extremely quick at the point of attack.”

Last year, Donald racked up seven tackles in Pitt’s near upset. Interestingly enough, after the overtime victory, Kelly talked a little bit about spreading the defense out to try and neutralize Donald. A week after playing a base with mostly two-tight ends, we’ll see how the Irish try and attack the Pitt defense.

***

With Ben Councell out for the season with an ACL tear, it’s Jaylon Smith or bust at outside linebacker. 

Heading into the season, most wondered how talented freshman Jaylon Smith would find his way onto the field. Now we’re wondering how he’s ever going to find his way off of it. Brian Kelly confirmed the bad news most assumed this week when he disclosed Ben Councell tore his ACL. That removes the returning two-deep depth chart at the Dog outside linebacker position with Danny Spond retired after his battle with migraine headaches.

We already know Smith is no ordinary freshman. But what’s really helped him grow throughout this season isn’t just his superior athleticism, but rather his ability to mental grasp one of the hardest positions on the Irish defense.

“I would say that each and every week he builds on his knowledge base,” Kelly explained. “That doesn’t necessarily happen in all the players that I’ve coached in my years.  Sometimes it takes a year to kinda digest everything and then come back that next year and you really see kind of a rise in your play.

“But with this young man, things happen to him, and they stick. He learns from mistakes that are made, and applies them the next week. He’s an extraordinary player in the sense that an accelerated learning curve for somebody that experiences it for the first time and very rarely does it come back to hit him again.”

That’s high praise from a head coach that doesn’t spend much time fawning over his players. And it also gives you an idea of the pressure that’ll be put on Smith during these last three games, with no true back-up at the position any more.

***

With the Irish beginning their ACC scheduling pact next season, expect plenty more of Pitt… and the expansion of a below-the-radar rivalry. 

Pitt tight end J.P. Holtz expanded on Brian Kelly’s quote about the Panthers not liking Notre Dame this week, with the young tight end carrying over some collateral anger from last year’s overtime defeat.

“Personally, I don’t like Notre Dame at all,” Holtz said said. “It’s just going to make me go harder. I just think they’re really cocky and their coaches are really cocky. I just don’t like that. They’re just different people there.” 

Holtz might have been the only player to voice the opinion, but it’s safe to say the feeling is likely shared. It’s also likely a product of some really close games over the past five seasons, with two decided in triple-overtime.

There’s been just 20 points separating these two teams over the past five years, with Notre Dame winning the last three games by a total of 11 points.

***

It’s been a long time, but Notre Dame might just finally have their starting defensive line together. 

With little depth left along the front of the Irish defensive line, Mike Elston might finally have his starting three ready to go after not being able to have the group together at full strength for just about any game this season.

Stephon Tuitt came out of the gates slowly, an offseason hernia surgery the culprit. Defensive end Sheldon Day has battled a high ankle sprain for the better part of the season. And Louis Nix sat out the past two weeks against Air Force and Navy, a balky knee and other ailments keeping him off the field.

Kelly updated Nix’s status, feeling confident that Big Lou will be ready for action and the final three regular season games of the season.

“He had a full week of practice, moved around well, Kelly said. “He was in the training room all week. Thursdays are our 48-hour meetings with the staff, which is where we get our pretty definitive idea of if our guys are gonna be full strength and everybody feels like he’s gonna be good to go.”

A week after Day hobbled off after aggravating his ankle injury with a cut block, the Irish hope he’ll be able to answer the bell as well, needing as many good reps out of the starting three as they can get before sliding down the depth chart.

Looking for a stat that best puts the health struggles the Irish have had up front into context? During the last six games, Tuitt, Nix and Day have played together just 13 snaps. They’ve given up just 21 yards and had two sacks.

(Hat-tip to Irish Illustrated for that one.)

***

Expect the Irish to challenge Pitt with the deep ball early and often. 

After spending much of his career throwing accurately and underneath, Tommy Rees and the Irish offense have taken shots down the field from the season opener. And after a rough patch in the middle of the season, Rees has rebounded and played very sound football from the Arizona State game on.

After completing 11 passes of 32 yards or more last season with a rocket-armed Everett Golson at the helm, Rees has already completed an astounding 14 passes of more than 32 yards. Rees’ success hasn’t just come with the deep ball, he’s also been more efficient taking chunks of 20-yards or more.

In his 34 starts entering the season, Rees had completed 59 throws that went for 20+ yards. In nine games this year he’s completed 37. In those 34 starts, he had only completed 20 passes of over 30 yards. This season he’s completed 15.

Even with two interceptions last week against Navy, Rees has put up an impressive 22-8 touchdown/interception ratio. Numbers that have been a good surprise in a season that’s had so many tough breaks.

***

We’ll see if Brian Kelly thinks Tarean Folston’s big game against Navy was more running back or opponent. 

While some looked at Tarean Folston’s 140-yards against Navy as his “Star is born” moment, the reality of the situation is that Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson also ran for over seven yards per carry.

There’s no doubting that Folston added a spark to the Irish ground game and a dimension that we haven’t yet seen, but on second inspection there deserves to be a bit of skepticism that comes with putting up stats against a service academy defense.

All that being said, we’ll see how impressed Brian Kelly was by Folston’s performance by the touches he gives the freshman Saturday night in front of a national audience. We’ve seen big games from fellow freshmen Corey Robinson and Will Fuller already this season, but they’ve gone back to non-factors just as quickly. That shouldn’t be the case with Folston, though we’ll see how heavy an allocation he takes in a running back rotation that looks to be down to Folston, Atkinson and McDaniel.

Probably the most surprising thing about Folston’s emergence last week were the crunch time carries. Then again, McDaniel, Atkinson and Carlisle have all coughed up footballs at inopportune times.

The Panthers only have one defensive lineman on their two-deep that weighs more than 300 pounds. They don’t have a single linebacker that weighs over 230. So the power advantage up front leans Irish. Let’s see how comfortable Kelly is putting the game on Folston’s shoulders.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

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)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.