Tarean Folston, Parrish Gaines, Daniel Gonzales, George Jamison

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 49, Navy 39

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It seemed too easy, didn’t it?

Notre Dame’s offense was rolling. The Irish were on pace for 860 yards after the first quarter. Looking unbeatable, Everett Golson was throwing strikes, Tarean Folston was cutting through Navy’s defense and Brian VanGorder’s first attempt at slowing down the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack found enough stops to build a 28-7 lead.

But those that expected the Naval Academy to pack it in and go home were ignoring 88 years of history. And after a quick touchdown drive, a Golson interception and a third-quarter Notre Dame sleepwalk, the Irish were on the ropes and trailing in a game that got out of control in a hurry.

As hopes of style points went out the window, Notre Dame scraped together just enough on both sides of the ball for a 49-39 victory. After a week of Brian Kelly paying tribute to the fight in the Midshipmen, the Irish had to go toe-to-toe down the stretch to find a way to come out alive.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s really all you can ask for is to win a football game and get some guys experience, and then not have to play Navy again until next year.”

It’s tough to say it any better than that. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned.

 

Everett Golson isn’t back. He really never left. 

For as frustrating as the string of turnovers has been, it’s worth pointing out that for all the flaws we’ve now picked out in Everett Golson’s game, we might be watching the best quarterback at Notre Dame of the modern era.

Think about it. While Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen put up some incredible numbers in Charlie Weis’ scheme, they didn’t win games like Golson does. And while Tony Rice won a title and Rick Mirer went No. 2 overall, neither had the diverse skillset that Golson showcases every Saturday.

The scary part? He’s only getting better.

While most will focus on the interception that helped turn the momentum in Navy’s favor, Golson was absolutely dominant tonight, producing six touchdowns for the Irish offense, three through the air and three on the ground. His 18 of 25 for 315 yards including a 78-yard touchdown on his first throw and an eight-yard touchdown scamper to essentially end the game.

Golson has now thrown 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His three scores on the ground add to his team leading seven rushing touchdowns. On a night where the offensive line showed cracks in the second half and the team looked frazzled, putting the ball in Golson’s hands was the only ingredient needed for victory.

Losing the 2013 season cost Golson a precious season of on-field development, and the Irish a year where they very easily could’ve been a BCS contender. But after outplaying the defending Heisman Trophy winner (according to his head coach) last week, Golson threw his name back in the ring for the most coveted individual award in sports with a singular performance.

 

Awards talk earlier in the season proved distracting, even as the quarterback tried to shut it out. But four more games this month will give Golson an opportunity to lead the Irish into the postseason, and write a very impressive chapter in the Notre Dame history books.

 

End the debate. Tarean Folston should be Notre Dame’s featured running back. 

When Notre Dame’s offense was at its best, Tarean Folston was in the backfield. The sophomore had another impressive night, running for 149 yards on 20 carries to pace the Irish ground game.

When given the opportunity to establish a rhythm, Folston looked silky smooth in the backfield, showing patience as his blocks set up, suddenness going through the hole, and vision you just can’t teach. Add to his efforts the game-sealing 30-yard catch in the fourth quarter and it’s two consecutive games where Folston has made it clear that he’s the team’s best running back.

Now his head coach needs to reward his efforts.

After spending more than half the season trying to mix and match three running backs, Kelly and the offensive staff would be best served to just turn the keys over to Folston. For as wonderfully reliable as Cam McDaniel is, and for as talented and filled with promise Greg Bryant still figures to be, the Irish have a marquee running back in their stable who’s capable of doing it all if only his head coach will let him.

Want to see the Irish offense stuck in neutral? Just look at the running plays where McDaniel got carries. This isn’t 2012, where Kelly was willing to sacrifice some explosiveness for the versatility and toughness of Theo Riddick, who took the majority of carries over Cierre Wood even if Wood put up better stats.

Folston’s the team’s best all-around back. By any measurement possible.

Want to get McDaniel his snaps? Play him in pass protection. After starting the season getting his shot, Bryant’s best days are likely in 2015, with Irish Illustrated reporting that Bryant is also banged up.

If the Irish are going to play balanced offense down the stretch, this is Folston’s job. And give credit to the sophomore for ending a platoon with impressive production.

 

Notre Dame’s defense got even younger as they traded punches with Navy’s offense and came out alive. 

Make no mistake, the game tape won’t be pretty. But after being battered and bruised by Navy’s triple option, the Irish defense stood its ground and won the fourth quarter, helping Notre Dame escape alive. And they did it behind freshmen like Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Andrew Trumbetti.

Combined with big games from James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Justin Utupo and Matthias Farley, the Irish defense won the game not on the back of their stars but rather on the shoulders of their lunch-pail performers.

Especially essential was the performance of Martini. The freshman linebacker shifted inside as VanGorder decided to put Jaylon Smith on the perimeter, making nine tackles in basically his debut as a non-special teams contributor, a heady performance by a young player who was — for better or worse — the next man in.

“Greer is a very smart kid and his attention to detail is really good,” Kelly said. “And he’s the only guy we had. We don’t have anybody else.”

Martini was joined by Nyles Morgan on the inside, with the promising Chicagoland product thrust into action after an ankle injury to Joe Schmidt. Morgan showed flashes of the prep All-American who many compared to Manti Te’o, showing a burst and obvious athleticism, not to mention shoulders made of concrete, as he ran sideline to sideline chasing Navy ball carriers creating a few big-time collisions. The next step in Morgan’s game is actually knowing where and who to chase, as a few broken assignments late likely contributed to Navy’s final touchdown and two-point conversion.

With the Irish on the ropes, the Irish defense actually stepped up. In five fourth-quarter possessions, the Midshipmen managed just one touchdown, turned the ball over on downs twice and threw a critical interception. Nobody can look at the stat sheet and see much beauty, but when it was needed it was the defense, not the offense that sealed the deal.

 

Notre Dame didn’t earn any style points for beating Navy. But there’s no reason to be embarrassed — and Brian Kelly certainly isn’t — after exiting this matchup with a victory. 

Don’t expect the Irish to make a move up next week’s Playoff committee rankings. And don’t expect Brian Kelly to care.

He’ll be too worried about an Arizona State team that will likely move up in the polls after winning in overtime over Utah. But if you’re expecting Kelly and company to apologize for struggling to put away a Navy team that fell to 4-5, don’t count on it.

“I challenge anybody to put these guys on their schedule, anybody who thinks Navy is an easy team to play,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s very, very difficult. I’ve got some smart defensive coaches back there. Bobby Elliott, one of the better defensive coordinators in the country in the eighties and nineties. He’s forgot more football than I know.

“Brian VanGorder’s an accomplished defensive coordinator at the NFL and college level. Mike Elston’s been with me for a long time. These are really good coaches. It’s hard to defend what they do at Navy and my hat goes off to Navy and their coaching staff, they do a great job on offense and once again they do a great job.”

That just about every Navy-Notre Dame game feels like the same scary movie played over again isn’t really the point of it all. That’s the great equalizer called the option. Knowing that it’s coming isn’t the hard part. Stopping it is.

So while most of us will look at the blown leverage by Notre Dame’s safeties or struggling to shutdown some plays to the boundary side of the field, the Irish coaching staff will gladly pull the Navy tape and their prep into storage, kicking this mess down the street when there’s more time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

Looking for something to correct? How about the Irish’s two series that started in plus territory, with the offense unable to even get a field goal that could’ve secured the victory. But all that comes after celebrating a hard-fought victory in the most thankless game of the season.

 

A serious injury to Joe Schmidt could drastically change the complexion of Notre Dame’s defense. 

If someone told you this spring that an injury to former walk-on Joe Schmidt could be the scariest news of early November, you’d likely think they had spent too much time in the comments section below. But seeing Schmidt in a walking boot and on crutches with a still undetermined ankle injury is a scary scenario for this Irish defense.

That’s not to say Nyles Morgan didn’t look impressive. But after serving as the nerve center of the Irish defense, Notre Dame’s losing more than its leading tackler, they could be playing without their rosetta stone, the critical translator of Brian VanGorder’s scheme-heavy approach.

Kelly said Schmidt will have an X-Ray once he returns to South Bend. But after doing his best to tape up his ankle and return to the game, this could very well be an injury that takes Schmidt out of the Irish game plan for a few games, hardly the type of news you want heading into a critical weekend.

“We don’t know the circumstances of Joe, but we’re praying he’s all right,” Jaylon Smith said after the game.

We saw what the reinforcements look like. Throw Greer Martini into the mix as well, with the linebacker likely better suited for coverage duties than Morgan.

But after seeing James Onwualu play his best football of the year (and then suffer what looks like a concussion late in the game after a nasty collision with Sheldon Day) and Matthias Farley serve as the closer, it’ll be all hands on deck next weekend in Tempe.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

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)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.