Prince Shembo

Final thoughts before kickoff


The snow flurries have already started. And they don’t look like they’re going anywhere. Today’s Senior Day should also be a Snow Day, with weather playing a factor from the start. Temperatures will start in the high 20s and continue to drop all afternoon.

Football weather? Frozen tundra weather. It’s a good day to be in the press box.

With that in mind, let’s get to some final thoughts before kickoff.

Can Notre Dame establish the running game? Throwing the football in this weather isn’t ideal. With wind blowing around 20 mph, the wind chill will be close to single digits, making this one of the coldest Saturdays in recent memory at Notre Dame Stadium.

There are about 10 men in the world that can effectively throw the football in this kind of weather. They won’t be in Notre Dame Stadium, and most of them are playing on Sundays. So if the Irish are going to get an offensive attack going, it’ll need to be started on the ground.

This BYU defense isn’t as stout as the one that Notre Dame faced last year. But then again, this running game isn’t as good as last season’s either. This will likely be the X factor for the Irish offensively.

Can Notre Dame slow down BYU’s ground game? This will be the difference in the game. If Notre Dame can keep Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams in check, they’ll have gotten all they need out of the defense to get a W.

How they do that is the big question. Without Louis Nix in the middle, the snaps will likely fall to Kona Schwenke, who isn’t close to 100 percent after a service academy cut block injured his ankle. Then snaps fall to Jarron Jones and Tyler Stockton, two guys that will need to play the games of their lives.

Stopping a running game like this is more a function of eleven guys playing assignment correct football. We’ll see how well coached up Bobby Diaco’s boys are for this one.

Holding onto the football. Ball security is always important on a weather day like this. And with both Taysom Hill and Tommy Rees capable of giving the ball to the other team via air, the team who turns it over the least will likely win this football.

Brian Kelly is still undefeated in games where his team doesn’t commit a turnover. But this will be Tarean Folston’s first football game in cold weather, and that’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

Starting fast. Emotions will be high at kickoff. Can Notre Dame parlay that into a quick start? This team hasn’t shown an ability to get out of the gates quickly, but if they can get out front of BYU, they could disrupt the Cougars offensive game plan.

Keeping pace with BYU’s offense. Replicating the speed of BYU’s hurry-up in practice won’t be easy. But the Irish defense needs to get acclimated quickly, or else they could put the offense into a hole that might not be that easy to climb out of on a chilly day like this.

Enjoying the moment. There are so many great stories to keep track of on a Saturday like this. Will this be goodbye to Louis Nix? Stephon Tuitt? Thanking seniors like Zack Martin, TJ Jones, Chris Watt and Prince Shembo for really impressive careers. Honoring guys like Danny Spond, Cam Roberson and Tate Nichols, players who walked away because their bodies couldn’t make it.

This would also be Senior Day for Matt James, the blue-chip offensive lineman that died during a tragic Spring Break accident. He’ll be honored by high school teammate Luke Massa, who’ll be wearing James’ No. 78 as he fulfills his holding duties this afternoon. Sophomore Ronnie Stanley will wear No. 69 instead.

The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen wrote a tremendous profile on Massa and James in today’s paper, revealing quite a bit about the guy Massa has become, even as a knee injury has robbed him of the athleticism he once possessed.

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.”