Malik Zaire

Priorities clear for Irish in bowl game


Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick will be in wintery New York today, for a press conference with Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood and his athletic director Julie Hermann. It’ll be another opportunity for us to hear from the Irish head coach, who has a busy week with recruiting, visiting Everett Golson, and preparing his football team for their final game of the 2013 season.

While some Irish fans batted around the idea of staying home this bowl season, the reality of winning at least six games means your coaching staff has unlocked an additional month of work with your football team. And while it’s likely too late to do too much to developmental improve the team that’ll play just a few weeks later, it can serve as a jump-start to spring practice, and a first look at players you expect to contribute in the season ahead.

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the delicate balance he and his staff will take in the ten scheduled practices the Irish will have before the Pinstripe Bowl.

“Well, we want to win the football game first,” Kelly said. “I want to send out our football team and build momentum into 2014 with a win. In particular, our seniors going out with a win, I think that’s very important.  They’ve meant so much to the program.  I think that’s first and foremost, getting a win for our seniors, and the momentum it builds going into 2014.”

The Irish walked into a bowl game with a similar 8-4 record after losing their season finale against Stanford in 2011. Matched up against Florida State in the (then) Champs Sports Bowl, the Irish gave away a lead to the Seminoles, dropping their fifth game of the season, and pushing the Irish into their offseason with a foul taste in their mouths.

Winning a ninth football game isn’t the same as playing in the BCS National Championship game, but the difference between an 8-5 and 9-4 record is sizable.

“It’s not a catapult into an undefeated season by any means,” Kelly conceded. “I don’t want to overstate that.  But it does leave a good feeling going into the offseason when you win that football game.”

Of course, winning the game is important. But with some really intriguing battles set to play out next Spring, Kelly also talked about the opportunities to work with young players that’ll likely step into big roles next season, including freshman quarterback Malik Zaire.

“I was able to work I think in the 11‑on‑11 today, which is our ones and twos working. I was able to get 20 reps of really good work with Malik today,” Kelly said. “The young guys get a lot of work.  Torii Hunter and Malik working together today.  Max Redfield played virtually all of seven‑on‑seven.  Those kind of guys getting out there today.”

With logistics not working out for Everett Golson to join the team this month to practice, the spotlight at quarterback is (temporarily) on Zaire. Andrew Hendrix’s return is far from certain, and Kelly hinted at four scholarship quarterbacks being too many to carry, a painful lesson learned with the departure of Gunner Kiel leaving the Irish shorthanded this year.

For a redshirt season, Zaire certainly made some headlines. He was put on a Twitter ban earlier in the season when he leaked out some information about his bout with mono. That ban likely returned with his commentary following Chuck Martin’s departure, where he voiced his frustrations after the news broke that Martin was heading to Miami.

Yet Zaire was a constant in press conferences, with the young quarterback mentioned almost weekly as a potential player to spark the offense. Kelly finally admitted late in the season that the plan was to redshirt the Ohio native, pushing his eligibility clock into a fifth season.

But these next few weeks are crucial for the Irish future, as both Zaire and Golson can run the football and Kelly’s spread offense, adding some continuity to a positional depth chart that after four seasons will finally have it. That will only be helpful if Zaire can take advantage of this month of work, a bonus one-on-one session with his head coach that wouldn’t have been as possible without Martin’s departure.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.