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The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

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Ultimately, TJ Jones said everything that was needed after the Irish’s 27-20 loss, putting into context the 8-4 season the Irish just completed.

“You’re not great. You’re not terrible,” Jones said of the 8-4 record. “Little better than average, I guess you can say.”

Notre Dame was game for most of the evening against Stanford, but was unable to cash in early chances or make a play down the stretch when it was needed. And as Stanford has done over the past few years, the Cardinal leaned on a power running game and a suffocating defense, daring the Irish to beat them in the fourth quarter.

The Irish couldn’t.

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s 27-20 loss to Stanford.

THE GOOD

Hanging Tough. Brian Kelly won’t take moral victories, but I’m inclined to give them one for Saturday night. As I tweeted mid-game, Notre Dame fans needed to remember the moment, because this was exactly what it feels like to be an undermanned team hanging around with a superior opponents.

Offensive line play. Losing Chris Watt could have killed the Irish. Yet just like the week before, the next man in did a very good job. With an interior of Conor Hanratty, Matt Hegarty and Steve Elmer, the Irish did a great good job protecting the quarterback, holding Stanford to just one sack.

Running the ball was a different story, but even against one of the top run defenses in the country, Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston averaged a not terrible 3.7 yards a carry on their 18 touches.

Dan Fox. Gutty performance by the fifth-year senior, who made 15 tackles from his middle linebacker position. Fox started the season banged up, lost his job to Jarrett Grace, then finished the season playing the best football of his career.

Austin Collinsworth. Watching the senior safety get steamrolled in the backfield might solidify the opinion that he’s not physically impressive enough to be anything more than a role player, but 11 tackles and an interception is a nice day at the office.

Collinsworth gave it his all and played the best game of his career.

Matthias Farley. He’s been the whipping boy a bit lately, but outside of one bad missed tackle, Farley brought his lunch box to work on Saturday night and played a solid game as well.

Zack Martin. He might not end up being a first round draft pick, but some team is going to be very happy when they take Martin in next year’s NFL Draft.

You’ve got to scroll WAAAAY down the box score to find Stanford All-American Trent Murphy’s name, with the nation’s leading sacker held to just two tackles.

Just as important as his play on the field has been, Martin has been an anchor both on and off the field for the Irish.

Go ahead and talk about Taylor Lewan as one of the top tackles in the draft. I’d make the argument for Martin, and don’t think I’d have a hard time backing it up with game tape.

Quick Takes:

* Great interception by Bennett Jackson. Picture perfect technique and a clutch play. It’s good to see Jackson finish on a high note, making a play that evaded him earlier in the year.

Tarean Folston looked the part. Next year’s running back depth chart will be tons of fun.

Both James Onwualu and Corey Robinson ended up in the box score. But what makes Onwualu so interesting is that he made a big special teams tackle as well as a clutch reception.

Thinking back to some conversations I’ve had with Onwualu’s high school coach Mike Scanlon, Scanlon always thought James could succeed as a jumbo safety. Looking at the profile of Irish recruit Drue Tranquill, could you put 20 pounds on Onwualu and turn him into a sideline-to-sideline linebacker, like the staff will try to do with Tranquill?

Or is Onwualu too good of an offensive player?

Notre Dame has a weapon in Kyle Brindza. Expect some awards attention for Brindza next season.

THE BAD

Late Interceptions. I was told pregame by someone that would know that nearly 80% of the offensive game plan was put on Tommy Rees’ shoulders, relying on Rees to get the Irish in the right play against Derek Mason’s tough Stanford defense.

Kelly echoed that in his postgame comments, calling Rees’ work presnap masterful.

Unfortunately, when you throw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, nobody remembers your excellent game management for the other three quarters.

Rees had quietly put together a good game against the Cardinal defense, sitting at 14 of 28 with 2 touchdown passes and no turnovers at one point. But with the game on the line, Rees completed just 2 of his final six throws, with two of those misses going to Wayne Lyons.

Stopping the tight end. I’m not sure Devon Cajuste is technically a tight end, but the Irish were done in by Cajuste and tight end Davis Dudchock, who teams for 6 catches and 99 yards on Saturday, the lions share of the Stanford passing game.

With the Irish selling out to hold up against the run, the Irish were vulnerable against the pass, and even in a season where Stanford’s tight ends all but disappeared, they came back and killed Notre Dame on Saturday.

Red Zone offense. Want to get it done against Stanford? You’ve gotta get 7 instead of 3. The Irish weren’t able to cash in their first two appearances in the red zone, settling for Kyle Brindza field goals before cashing in touchdowns to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels.

Too little, too late.

Third Down defense. Stanford converted 8 of 13 third downs, moving the chains far too effectively, and doing it a few times on some critical draw plays.

I’ve read some criticism today by fans picking on Bob Diaco’s scheme, but it’s hard to take that too seriously when you look at the personnel the Irish were playing on defense, especially with the heart of the unit — the team’s depth — all but gutted.

Rush Offense. It’s hard to be too tough on an offensive line featuring four first-year players, but establishing a ground game in the red zone would’ve been helpful. Getting just 64 yards on 24 carries isn’t good enough.

Critical Decisions. It’s impossible for us to know the progressions of Rees’ reads during the fourth quarter. But the idea to target two first-year receivers with the game on the line isn’t the best.

Throwing the deep ball to Will Fuller isn’t a bad decision. He’s the team’s best home run threat and has shown himself to have great ball skills. But that redshirt freshman CJ Prosise was the intended target running up the seam, and that Prosise was allowed to get bodied off his route, isn’t good. That Rees was so quick to pull the trigger to Prosise also doesn’t make much sense.

With the game on the line, Notre Dame targeted receivers that have caught 11 balls. No, I don’t necessarily think they were the primary read.

But that’s not the way I want to go down.

THE UGLY

The Missed Opportunities. It’s too simplistic and narrow-minded to call this season a lost year. But it’s hard not to think about what the Irish could have been, especially when you think about this team playing with Everett Golson, a full-strength defensive line, and a better idea of the team’s offensive and defensive identities.

The work Notre Dame does from now until the bowl game will be crucial towards building to spring practice, where the Irish will need to develop some key leaders. Don’t expect much from Everett Golson, he won’t be allowed to start practicing until December 20. Depending on the bowl game, that could be just days before the Irish play.

Notre Dame will say goodbye to three captains. They’ll also miss the leader of the offense in Tommy Rees, Danny Spond, a guy who would’ve likely worn a C if he didn’t go down for the year, and key starters like Chris Watt, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

The roster returns plenty of talent, but leaders will need to emerge quickly– and if that’s Stephon Tuitt (or Louis Nix), the Irish coaching staff will be very happy.

 

 

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.”

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.