Belk Bowl - Cincinnati v North Carolina

Spring update: North Carolina


Notre Dame enters the teeth of October with North Carolina sandwiched between Stanford and Florida State, two likely Top 10 teams. But overlooking the Tar Heels is the last thing the Irish should do, with Larry Fedora’s team coming off a strong finish to 2013.

Fedora enters his third season as the head of the North Carolina program, on his way to turning around a program that was in disarray when Butch Davis was relieved of his duties after an academic scandal shook Chapel Hill.

With the Tar Heels back on the Notre Dame schedule for the first time since 2008, we reached out to Brian Barbour of SBNation’s Tar Heel Blog to get up to speed on what to expect from North Carolina next season.


After losing five of their first six games, the Tar Heels looked like a different team, winning six of their last seven games, including the Belk Bowl over Cincinnati. What changed? Is the late season push one of the biggest reasons for the optimism heading into 2014?

The schedule in 2013 was frontloaded. UNC played South Carolina, Georgia Tech(an offense UNC struggles against), an ECU team that ended up winning ten games, Virginia Tech on the road then Miami. Compare that to the back half where the best team UNC saw was Duke. The 1-5 start was not necessarily shock with the loss to ECU at home being the notable exception. Of course winning a bowl game and returning most of your personnel always sets a team up to “have momentum” going into the next season.


Larry Fedora is one of the more intriguing coaches in college football. Can you assess the work Fedora has done in his two seasons in Chapel Hill? Considering the circumstances he inherited, has his short tenure been a success?

Fedora’s tenure has been on course for the most part. There is a sense he has done a better job putting together a solid coaching staff and the recruiting is rolling along. He isn’t bringing the same quantity of Butch Davis-type talent but doing well enough in his own right. At this point much of the talent from the Davis years is gone so the next season or two offer a true test of his tenure. What can Fedora do with “his guys” who have been recruited for and played from the first day in his system. The transition to that period will be worth watching.


Seth Littrell comes in from Indiana to replace Blake Anderson as offensive coordinator, after Anderson took the Arkansas State head job. After spring practice, does it look any changes will be implemented to the offense?

Despite the change in offensive coordinator this is still Larry Fedora’s offense system. I would expect there could be some subtle changes in what UNC does, perhaps even more attention to passing downfield and stretching the defense out. Otherwise nothing jumped off the page during the spring game other than a fairly healthy competition at quarterback.


How is the quarterback position shaking out? Is the job Marqise Williams’? On paper he looks ready, though he seems to have struggled against Duke? Who do you think is behind center when the Tar Heels come to South Bend?

There is really no way of knowing. Mitch Trubisky played well in the spring game and rumor has it that he is Fedora’s preference since he was recruited by Fedora specifically to play in this offense. At the same time, Marquise Williams brings experience to the table and brings that mobility dynamic that can be so effective at the college level. The knock on Williams is the passing game simply isn’t as refined whereas Trubisky is probably more accurate. There is also that element of keeping everyone happy, especially Trubisky who could transfer and still have two seasons left whereever he goes. At this stage there is the possibility Fedora uses both quarterbacks in a game. This happened with Williams and Bryn Renner last season after Renner missed a game. The issue with the dual QB system is there were times when the rotation seemed haphazard and counter intuitive to the flow of the game. If they can iron that out, using both players could be effective.


Defensively, Vic Koenning and Ron West’s unit seemed to have found their stride around midseason. While they need to replace Kareem Martin, there’s a lot of talent back. Are there a few defensive players Notre Dame fans need to keep an eye out for?

Cornerback Dominque Green showed some chops as a walk-on freshman last year. Green had five pass break-ups and three interceptions in thirteen games. Norkeithus Otis and Darius Lipford, both linebackers, are expected to be solid contributors. Otis had 8.5 sacks last season and 14 tackles for loss which was second behind NFL draftee Kareem Martin. Lipford has 2.5 sacks and six TFLs.


How did Elijah Hood look this spring? Between he and Gio Bernard, the Irish have had a tough time holding onto running backs against the Tar Heels. (But then again, Kelly poached Everett Golson late in the game from the Tar Heels.)

Will Hood be an immediate contributor in the North Carolina backfield?

Elijah Hood didn’t do much in the spring game collecting just 15 yards on nine attempts. T.J. Logan did the bulk of the rushing for the Blue Team with 108 yards. Hood will face some stiff comeptition for carries. Logan returned from injury last season to produce in the last half of the schedule and Khris Francis, a small but quick back, will get this share of carries but also be used in quick throws to the sideline. Hood certainly has the talent and with Fedora pressing the tempo, there will be plenty of carries to go around not to mention opportunities to catch passes out of the backfield.


For more coverage of North Carolina before the Irish and Tar Heels do battle on October 11th, check out the Tar Heel Blog or follow on Twitter @TarHeelBlog.

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.