Dan Fox

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


A day after watching Cincinnati, Miami and Michigan all end their season in ugly, embarrassing fashion, Notre Dame’s lethargic 29-16 victory over Rutgers doesn’t look so bad. It wasn’t always the prettiest football, and the Irish left a lot of points on the board, but in the end Notre Dame went home happy and ended the season a respectable 9-4.

” A good year, but we want more,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “It’s not enough for us. 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame, it’s not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”

We’ll going to spend this week looking back at the Irish season. But before we shift our focus, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Notre Dame’s Pinstripe Bowl victory.


Lots of Plays. The Irish set a season high in plays and first downs against Rutgers, getting 90 plays off and 31 first downs. The previous high for plays this season was 75, so the Irish making a 20 percent improvement is pretty significant.

After the game, Brian Kelly talked about the decision to run most of the offense out of the spread, crediting Rees for being able to handle the change, considering he hadn’t run the system since 2011.

“He hasn’t run this offense since two years ago,” Kelly said. We were in spread virtually the whole game. He’s so smart. You can go in and run a system with him.

“He just has the ability to pick up all the things that we can do offensively. Today was case and point where we were able to do some things that we haven’t done in a couple years and it looked like it was pretty easy for him.”

Getting the offense to move at a faster pace was something Irish fans were clamoring for all season. With the exception of a few sequences against USC, the Irish rarely did it. While they didn’t cash in on the plays and yards they racked up, it’s a step in the right direction.

Zack Martin. You’ve got to hand it to Martin for keeping the run game moving and Rees protected. The senior put on quite a display during his final game with the Irish, taking home the bowl’s MVP trophy for leading the Irish offense.

After the game, Kelly heaped heavy praise on Martin, calling him his the best lineman he’s ever coached, impressive considering Joe Staley from Central Michigan went in the first round to the 49ers in 2007. But Kelly talked about Martin’s ability to make the linemen around him better.

“I call it the Larry Bird effect. An offensive lineman can make others better around him,” Kelly said. “He does that. He’s made that offensive line. Now, Harry Hiestand is an outstanding offensive line coach, but Zack  Martin needs to have some of that credit placed on him as well, because those linemen play so well because of his leadership. He’s an outstanding and a unique player.”

Martin’s MVP trophy for his performance was the rare time an offensive lineman gets credit in a bowl game. How rare? Consider the last time an offensive lineman won an MVP at a bowl was in 1959, when Penn State’s Jay Huffman won it at the Liberty Bowl. Bear Bryant was coaching against the Nittany Lions in his first bowl game.

Troy Niklas. After not being featured as much the past few weeks, Troy Niklas put together a very nice performance against the Rutgers defense, catching four balls for 76 yards. Niklas was a big play weapon down the field and did a nice job blocking at the point of attack as well. (Even if one block went a little overtime and cost the Irish 15 yards.)

Jesse Palmer raised a few eyebrows when he said during the broadcast that Niklas received a second round draft grade, the same as Tuitt, somewhat surprising considering Troy’s underwhelming body of work. But one look at his size, strength and athleticism and you get the picture on why he makes professional teams salivate.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson caught up with Niklas ($) after the game to talk about the decision Niklas suddenly has to make.

“Coach was like, ‘Well, there’s really not a decision to be made. We think you have first round potential, so you for sure should come back. It’s not even a decision,'” Niklas told Sampson.

Niklas’ draft grade was anywhere from the second round to the fourth, so I tend to side with Kelly on what Niklas should do. But the Irish’s elite tight end placement in the NFL just keeps on rolling.

The Irish Running Game. Both Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston did a nice job on the ground against a Rutgers defense that’s statistically stingy. While the running game was struggling in the first half, the Irish pounded it when it counted, and both backs did a nice job.

Kyle Brindza. The junior kicker made five field goals, tying the NCAA record for most in a bowl game. After missing a 44-yarder into a stiff breeze, Brindza made another clutch fourth quarter kick that extended the Irish lead.

“Kyle Brindza, when we need a kick, he drills one late in the game,” Kelly said. “He is so good in the fourth quarter, regardless of what the distance is. You’ve got to put that guy in, he’s the best kicker. I’ve got to put him on the field, and he goes and kicks the field goal regardless of the conditions.”

Stephon Tuitt. If this is it for the big fella, he had a nice performance. Tuitt’s 1.5 sacks push him into a tie for third place on the career sack list at Notre Dame, even with Victor Abimiri’s 21.5.

I’ve got no new inside information, but I still think Tuitt makes the decision to come back. There are just too many bad plays on tape for the junior this season, who could become one of the dominant players in college football next year… and earn his college degree.

KeiVarae Russell. Great day in coverage for the sophomore cornerback. His three pass breakups were very impressive.

Turnovers and Sacks. Notre Dame hadn’t picked off four passes in a game since Denard Robinson and the Wolverines threw five last year. And the four sacks were a nice effort as well.

The Future. It’s hard not to see how explosive this offense could be next year. Kelly gave a hint at his expectations heading into next season after the game.

“We’d like our offense to have a little bit more multi-dimensional,” Kelly said. “We had five yards rushing from the quarterback who ran 90 plays. If we have a quarterback next year that has the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend.”

(Here’s a hint: Everett Golson can run.)


Special Teams Units. Outside of Brindza, the special teams were awful. You can blame the injuries, but there’s no good excuse for some terrible cover teams, and expect that to be addressed this offseason.

Kelly had to joke about the coverage, complimenting the sky kick the Irish used late to finally slow down the Rutgers return game.

It’s a little simplistic to put this all on Scott Booker, the young assistant that took over special teams duties to go along with coaching tight ends. But perhaps Kelly will turn this unit over to Mike Elston, who could add a coordinator title back to his business card as a reward for staying in South Bend.

Red Zone. The good news? Notre Dame scored seven times. The bad news? Five of those scores were field goals. That helps explain why the Irish had to sweat out a game that shouldn’t have been close. Red zone offense has been the one lagging piece of the puzzle for Brian Kelly in South Bend, and Tommy Rees’ limitations as a runner go a long way towards pinpointing some of the problems.

But you also can’t drop three touchdown passes. Execution seemed to be the biggest thing that bothered Kelly after the game.

“Out red zone offense today was simply catching the football,” Kelly said. “We had great looks, exactly what we wanted. We ran a boot, came out clean, overthrew him. We actually came out with the next play and Troy Niklas fell down. Had another opportunity and didn’t get it to TJ. So I’m really happy with what we did today in the red zone. We just didn’t execute. We’ve got to throw it and catch it down there.”

Again, a running quarterback will be the biggest addition in the red zone, especially considering Golson won’t be seeing things for the first time.

Field Position. How ugly were things? Rutgers had a +14 differential on starting field position, a monster number that’s not usually talked about. According to Bill Connelly of SBNation, teams win 96.9 percent of the time when you’re starting field position is at least +16.

Rutgers wasn’t quite at the magic number, but it was close.

The Atkinson Situation. The Irish were shorthanded at running back after George Atkinson and Jalen Brown were suspended for the bowl game for violating a team rule. Various reports mention that both George and twin brother Josh took to Twitter to protest the ruling, another violation of team rules.

Entering their senior seasons, it doesn’t appear that either Atkinson brother will become a breakout player as many hoped. But it’s a situation worth monitoring how this all shakes out, with Kelly saying he hasn’t decided whether George’s suspension will effect his future with the team.


The Field Conditions. Come on, Yankees! You had us begging for Notre Dame’s turf!

Chris Fowler’s Choke. Literally. ESPN announcer Chris Fowler needing rescuing at halftime after he started to choke on a chicken sandwich. Luckily his partner in the booth, Jesse Palmer, gave Fowler the Heimlich Maneuver and dislodged the sandwich.

Impressive work by Palmer. Fowler is one of college football’s treasures and a very ugly situation is now something we can laugh about.

Kelly thinks simplicity might aid offensive production

Notre Dame quarterback Kizer DeShone makes a throw during the Blue-Gold spring NCAA college football game, Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
South Bend Tribune via AP

Back to the basics. If there’s a refrain we’ve heard—or one that’s made its way through the echo chamber these past few weeks—it’s that Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are drilling down, looking for any way to pull this team out of their slump.

We saw the changes defensively, a gigantic detour away from the scheme and philosophies of Brian VanGorder. And while that’s helped jump-start the defense, the impact of the move may have hit the offense’s productivity.

Kelly talked about some of those aftereffects this week, the changes on one side of the ball leaking over to the other.

“We’re keeping the points down, but we’re limiting possessions,” Kelly explained. “We went from 15 possessions earlier in the season to this past game we had four possessions in the first half. That’s like playing an option team. We’re going to keep the points down, we’re probably not going to get off the field quite as quick as we did earlier in the season.”

Those lack of opportunities have shown up in the box score. Throw away the game played in hurricane conditions and it’s still clear that the Irish offense didn’t capitalize on their chances against Stanford. And whether it was DeShone Kizer’s interceptions, Malik Zaire’s three short-circuited series or a general lack of running game, Kelly is taking a similar approach with his offense that he did with the opposite side of the ball—though not running anybody out of town.

“We have fallen into a similar trap that we were dealing with earlier defensively. We’re probably doing a little too much,” Kelly said. “When you do the things that you practice every single day, it becomes second nature. You can play free, you can play fast.

“I think from an offensive standpoint, we can just be who we are. Let’s practice what we’re good at and let’s be better at execution in this kind of game.”

Do what you do, but do it better. It’s an approach that’s worked under Greg Hudson’s direction, with a defense mastering the bare essentials as they try to stop the bleeding. Offensively, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen this unit struggle. And while pointing in one direction usually takes the focus off of a multi-faceted problem, cutting down the inventory and letting the Irish talent play fast and loose could be a big help for a group that’s still really young.

“I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that,” Kizer said. “In the first half of the season there were some specific looks that are more successful than others, and we have to put emphasis on those looks.”

Behind the Irish: Leaders eat last


Leaders eat last. As the 2016 season continues to be a struggle for the Irish, holding firm to leadership mottos like the above is more than just lip service or an empty slogan.

In our latest Behind the Irish feature, several Notre Dame players talk about this season’s slogan and how it helps guide the team as they look to stay united through this stretch run.

And in that corner… The Miami Hurricanes


Sure, the high-wattage match-up might have lost some of its preseason luster. But even with both Notre Dame and Miami entering the weekend limping, bringing the Hurricanes and the Irish together—two of college football’s premier programs with quite a bit of history together—is always a game worth watching.

As the Irish return from an off week healthy and looking to rebound after two-straight losses, Mark Richt’s Miami team poses quite a challenge. Especially as the Hurricanes do what they can to stop a three game slide. They’ve got the ammo to do it, with junior quarterback Brad Kaaya one of the best Notre Dame will face this season and a defense that’s done a 180 under new coordinator Manny Diaz.

To get us ready for a very big weekend, Isaiah Kim-Martinez joins us. A sophomore studying broadcast journalism who also writes for the student-run Hurricane (in circulation since 1929!), Isaiah took time away from his busy schedule to answer some questions from on the ground in Coral Gables.

Hope you enjoy.


This season started with a four-game winning streak and gave way to a three-game losing streak—all ACC opponents. What do you make of the season so far, and how do you evaluate a Hurricanes team that has just one win against a Power Five opponent?

I would say that this season has brought what most fans were expecting – inconsistency. The team is just not quite there yet. This season isn’t a failure, nor is it really a success. There was supposed to be growing pains with a new coach and a new system, and we are seeing it now as the Hurricanes have played tougher opponents.


Before we get to the play on the field specifically, what’s the transition to Mark Richt been like? Getting a tenured head coach with connections to the university looked like a coup from a far. Is that the reaction amongst Canes faithful? What’s surprised you so far through seven games?

The transition has been great. The school and the fans have welcomed him with open arms. There is a general understanding that bringing the U back to national prominence would take some time, even with someone of Richt’s track record. So, Canes faithful is generally being patient with the head coach, understanding that this is a process.

What’s surprised me most has been the ups and downs of the offense. Miami averaged over 40 points through the first four games, and that quickly dropped to under 20 for the next three. I understand that the difficulty of the opponent was higher over the last three weeks, but that is more of a drop off in offensive production than I expected.


When we looked at the 2016 Notre Dame season in August, Brad Kaaya looked like the best quarterback the Irish would face. The junior has a big-time national profile and has nice numbers so far, 12 TDs, 5 INTs, completing almost 62 percent of his throws. Evaluate Kaaya’s junior season.

Kaaya has played well, but has clearly not met the expectations that most fans had set for him prior to the season. The numbers look fine on paper, but what is misleading about stats is that they don’t tell you when the touchdowns and interceptions happened. In the biggest games of the season, Kaaya’s touchdowns have mainly come with the team being down, which to me, negates some of the luster of them. Many of the touchdowns have not been that impactful. Kaaya hasn’t buried any team over the past few weeks with a series of plays he has made. He has also already thrown more interceptions this season than he had thrown all of last season.

That being said, it is not all his fault. The offensive line has not been good, so Kaaya has not had the adequate time to consistently throw in the pocket. It seems that part of the reason for the struggle has been the adjustment to the new system and the play-calling of a new coach, which is perfectly understandable. Once again, it is not all on Kaaya, however I do not believe he has taken a legitimate step forward to this point in the season. He has been good, just not great.


Defensively, Manny Diaz has done a stellar job, the Hurricanes defense taking a huge step forward from 2015. What’s the strength of the unit? And how will they attack an Irish offense that looks in a bit of a slump?

The strength of the unit, especially early on, has been the defensive line. It is getting pressure to the quarterback. I expect the team to do the same against Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, thus forcing him to make errors.


On the other side of the ball, Kaaya’s struggled with protection and the ground game isn’t necessarily putting up great numbers. What are the keys for the Hurricane offense, especially with Notre Dame finding its footing on the defensive side of the ball?

The key is the offensive line giving Kaaya the time he needs in the pocket to be effective, and making holes for running backs Mark Walton and Joseph Yearby to rush in between the tackles, which they have not been able to do effectively since before playing Florida State.


This is a rivalry with some history, though not many games against each other. Neither team is playing particularly good football, but it still was a game Irish fans circled on the schedule. How big of a game is this for the Hurricanes and their fans?

Indeed, it can be agreed upon that both teams expected to be in better situations come this matchup, so the implications are quite different. However, this is a huge game for the moral of the Hurricanes’ team and fans. Miami may have lost three straight games, but all the losses have come to opponents with records over .500. UM as a whole is being patient with the program, but I doubt there will be much tolerance if the Canes lose to a team that is currently 2-5.


Any prediction on how this game goes? Any keys that’ll determine a victor in your mind?

The Hurricanes defense is dealing with the injury bug, but I expect it to come out with a vengeance after allowing Virginia Tech to drop 37 points on it. The defense will hold the Fighting Irish to fewer than 25 points, and the Canes run game will finally see some day light and have a big day.

Keys to the game:

· Establish offensive presence early (strike first blood)

· No big plays allowed on defense

· Offensive line must play strong

Score Prediction: Miami 31 – Notre Dame 21

Kelly stays in the moment

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)

Coming off a bye week, you could excuse Brian Kelly if he started looking ahead. To his impending hire at defensive coordinator, or his shifting focus to a recruiting class that suffered its first defection since Blake Barnett bolted for Alabama.

But the seventh-year head coach has his hands full fixing his current predicament, leaving any planning beyond Miami to the weeks after the regular season.

“My time is spent on the present right now. I don’t look too far ahead,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I think I’ve stayed with very similar thoughts about not mortgaging the future, not dwelling too much on the past, but living in the present right now.”

That commitment to right now hasn’t translated into wins yet. But it’s the best way to beat Miami, a talented football team with what might be the best quarterback the Irish will face, coming in on a three-game losing streak.

So while Irish fans wonder how this team will find a way to straighten out and win four of their next five to qualify for a bowl game, Kelly talked about the internal motivation this team has, playing for each other more than any postseason bonus.

“All these kids, they come to Notre Dame because they want to be challenged,” Kelly said. “They have incredible intrinsic motivation every day to get up, to go to class, to want to succeed. It’s why they come here. There’s an immense amount of pride. They want to freakin’ win. They want to win. They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game.

“They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games. They want to be successful in the classroom. They want to be successful on the football field. That’s why they came here. That’s why I’m here. That’s all we talk about. That’s all we do every day, is think about how we can be more successful.”