Lloyd Carrington, Everett Golson

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

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Give Brian Kelly credit. He found an appropriate nickname for the egg the Irish laid Saturday afternoon, dubbing it, “The Debacle in the Desert” during his Sunday post-mortem teleconference. That game shook the core of the Irish, with Everett Golson’s five-turnover afternoon ending Notre Dame’s playoff chances in a first half from hell.

With Northwestern heading to South Bend on Saturday, the final three games of the season will test the mettle of Kelly’s young football team. With their playoff hopes destroyed, the goal is altered, but a ten-win regular season is still a tremendous achievement — it would be only the third in the past dozen years.

Let’s dig in to this week’s good, bad, and ugly before closing the books on the Sun Devils.

 

THE GOOD

The Wide Receivers. Outside of one really bad, back-breaking drop by Corey Robinson, it was a nice afternoon by Notre Dame’s skill players.

The Irish receivers had explosive afternoons, with Will Fuller leading the way and slot receivers C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle doing their jobs as well. Facing aggressive man coverage for a lot of the afternoon, the Irish made the Sun Devils pay, racking up 446 receiving yards, most coming in the second half.

 

The Rally. It’s a stretch to give a team credit for correcting their already fatal mistakes, but the Irish made this game pretty interesting down the stretch. While the final score won’t reflect it, Notre Dame had ASU on the ropes, needing to get one defensive stop but coming up short.

Of course, falling behind 34-3 seems all but impossible against this football team. But fumbles, interceptions and deep balls tell the quick story, until the Irish regrouped at half time and made a game of it.

Notre Dame’s second half was the type of football Kelly expected from his team, with the Irish outgaining Arizona State 314-164 in the second half. The Sun Devils also continued to play aggressive in coverage and move at tempo on offense, giving the Irish an unlikely chance to be in the game with six minutes remaining, a miracle considering Notre Dame flushed 10 more points down the drain in the second half with a goal line interception and a botched field goal attempt.

 

C.J. Prosise & Amir Carlisle. After struggling with consistency earlier this season, Prosise has really rounded into form. His ability to turn a quick screen into a big play helped turn the momentum around for the Irish. He broke another big play in the second half that went for 59 yards and set the Irish up for a score.

Prosise seems to have found his home at slot receiver, a capable duo with Amir Carlisle, who is back to full speed after a knee injury against Purdue. Carlisle looked great as well, breaking a great catch and run on his own screen pass, not to mention the touchdown on broken coverage that pulled the Irish within three points.

 

The Second Half Defense* (*Until the six-minute mark)

The Irish came out for the second half with the right defensive adjustments. The understaffed group got after the Sun Devils, forcing punts when needed and allowing the Irish offense to slowly make their way back into the ball game. They even forced a critical turnover.

Jumping between a three and four-man front, Notre Dame got some solid play from a group of unsung players, with Andrew Trumbetti, Justin Utupo and Grant Blankenship all taking key snaps up front. But after making significant progress, Mike Norvell’s ASU offense took over with the ball and a three-point lead and marched down the field for a decisive score to extend their lead to 10-points.

(The rest of this belongs in the bad column.)

 

Matthias Farley. At this time last year, Farley was getting kicked down the alley, playing his way out of the starting lineup and out of the two deep as well. We thought that his position switch to cornerback — the deepest position (at the time) on the roster –this spring was the result, not an actual scheme-tweak to help the senior find a better home.

Right now, Farley is playing some really impressive football. Given a tough assignment at nickel back, Farley had a critical interception when the Irish were rallying, and also made two tackles for loss, including one sack. While his limitations sometime expose themselves, he’ll make more good plays than bad, and he certainly did that on Saturday.

 

THE BAD

Everett Golson’s ball security. At this point, it feels like beating a dead horse. But Golson’s struggles holding onto the football are damaging the very foundation of Notre Dame’s offense. Golson fumbled on the Irish’s first two possessions. He luckily recovered the first, and was not so lucky on the second.

(One play later, on a nifty pick play, the Sun Devils had their first touchdown.)

This isn’t a new problem. From the moment Golson stepped on campus, Kelly and the offensive staff took to breaking the quarterback of some very bad habits. While we’ve seen improvements in other parts of Golson’s game, the more trust this staff puts in Golson to clean up these self-inflicted mistakes, the more difficult it becomes to put up with the crushing mistakes.

After the game, Kelly wasn’t willing to get into specifics, but pointed to the obvious.

“It’s one of the deals where you take one step forward and two steps back, and then he comes back in the second half and he does some really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s got to strive for consistency.  If he plays clean in the first half, who knows where we’d be right now.”

(You’d be 8-1, coach.)

 

The Offensive Line Play. What a frustrating performance by the five men in charge of taking care of the quarterback. Arizona State blitzed the Irish offense into submission in the first half, giving up five sacks in the game’s first 22 minutes.

We can talk about the batted passes, both turning into touchdowns for Arizona State. We can talk about the missed assignments, inconsistencies that had Kelly scratching his head after practicing all week on the blitz schemes.

At this point, the progress the Irish showed up front the past few weeks has been flushed down the toilet. While Stanley seems to be at home playing left tackle, you could argue that the rest of the offensive line looks out of sorts. After struggling at tackle, Steve Elmer is making an argument that he’s not a right guard, either. Christian Lombard, whose “steady” play is why he’s starting instead of sophomore Mike McGlinchey, was far from solid on Saturday, whiffing on more than one occassion.

Kelly and Harry Hiestand settled on a starting five late in camp, eventually shifting things around after a few weeks. While most of us categorized it as a champagne problem because of an enviable depth chart, it’s turned out to be the fatal flaw of this group. While you’ve got to give Kelly credit for shifting early in the season, this unit still makes too many mental mistakes and gets beaten at the point of attack as well.

While there are still three important data points (and a bowl game) available for evaluation, next spring should be an open competition, as the riches of the past few recruiting classes deserve a chance to compete before everything spoils.

 

Quick Hits:

* For as many snaps as Ben Koyack has played this year, there were some pretty bad ones on display Saturday. Particularly in his protection of Golson. The senior tight end caught an ear full for inexplicably missing the block off the backside of Golson’s third interception, with the quarterback hit as he threw. He also plain whiffed on a few assignments that were head-scratchers, and his effort seemed to lack when it was vitally needed.

For a player expected to be one of Notre Dame’s most complete, Koyack laid an egg on Saturday.

* Elijah Shumate‘s pass interference penalty late in the second quarter could’ve been a big interception if Shumate would’ve showed the confidence to look for the football. That’s what Matthias Farley did after Taylor Kelly lofted a throw his way, and it became a game-changing interception. Shumate instead ran through a receiver.

* The Irish struggled defensively when Arizona State shifted late and moved at tempo. That’s part of the pain that comes with playing Nyles Morgan at middle linebacker, where the freshman was doing his best to read and react, but too often needed to think.

* Oh boy was Golson’s interception on the first drive of the third quarter a bad one. It would’ve been the perfect quick strike coming out of halftime. And to think it would’ve been a touchdown if Golson’s throw to Amir Carlisle on the post route wouldn’t have forced Carlisle to stumble just shy of the end zone.

* The short-yardage ground game left a lot to be desired. The Irish needed to use a bunch of clock to get running touchdowns, forced to go to fourth down to score on Cam McDaniel’s first plunge and third on his second score. Getting the touchdowns were key. But it took a lot of time.

* At this point, I don’t let Hunter Smith onto the field without gloves on. Or I change holders. For two guys (Scott Daly and Smith) who live together and eat and sleep the center exchange, there are just too many mistakes there, with the pressure of the moment likely crumbling the confidence of both players.

* Max Redfield made 10 tackles Saturday afternoon. But the one he missed on Arizona State’s critical scoring drive in the fourth quarter was rightfully criticized by Chris Spielman on the broadcast. With D.J. Foster tight-roping up the ASU sideline, Redfield had a chance to push him out of bounds shy of the first down. Instead, he went for what looked like a kill shot and ended up whiffing entirely.

That’s a brutal miss for the young safety and hopefully one he learns from.

* For as great as Corey Robinson‘s hands have been this year, the gift-wrapped interception he gave to Lloyd Carrington was a shocker.

* Notre Dame’s sudden change defense. I asked Kelly after the game what the difference was between the usually excellent sudden change defense the Irish played under Bob Diaco and the struggles the team is having now. He wanted no part of it.

In the moment, it’s a difficult question to answer. But when the Irish look back at this season and some of the wonderful progress they made with some really young players, they’ll need to spend some time focusing on their play right after turnovers. Brian VanGorder’s unit hasn’t done well when they absolutely need to, both in the red zone and coming off turnovers.

 

THE UGLY

Inexplicable Mistakes. It’s difficult to get a grasp on what just happened on Saturday. The Irish went to Arizona State and really just short-circuited, with critical mistakes dooming Notre Dame and ending their hopes at a playoff bid. After putting together a nice, balanced, extended drive on their first possession, things fell apart. Maybe that’s too kind. Things shattered.

How this football team rebounds this weekend will be interesting. If Kelly has shown anything during his five seasons in South Bend, it’s that his team does not quit. So while the playoff chase is over, there’s plenty of work to do.

For the offense, it means that you can’t exchange five great plays for one terrible one. That’s essentially what the Irish did on Saturday, and no matter how prolifically they moved the ball in the second half, if you’re giving away the football it’s not going to matter.

With three games left, there is still plenty of story to write. But the Debacle in the Desert will be a loss hard to forget.

 

 

Five things we learned: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35

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The tombstone for Brian Kelly’s seventh football team in South Bend might read:

Here lies Notre Dame. They found ways to lose.

That might lean dramatic, but the Irish are 1-3, a 38-35 defeat at the hands of Duke the latest boondoggle for a team that’s waking up all the wrong echoes. And Kelly’s program—led by a historically bad defense— is plummeting, a free-fall from what seemed like solid ground entering the season.

But that’s what a perfect storm will do. A horrific defense, a schizophrenic offense, poor leadership and a young roster stepping into every trap laid, every banana peel dropped, especially when the chips are on the table.

A week after getting out-classed by Michigan State, Notre Dame faces a much different monster in the mirror.

“I told our guys we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said postgame. “We’ll have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we are doing it with and how we’re doing it. All of those things.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has infected the entire football team. 

A last-second kneel down was all that kept Duke from crossing 500 yards of offense. But it isn’t enough that the Irish defense is getting decimated by every competent football team that lines up across from them. Their mediocre play has infected the entire team.

That’s what happens when you put pressure on your offense to score every series. That’s what happens when you coach to protect one vulnerability, only to unleash another.

Because it isn’t enough that this defense misses tackles, blows assignments and plays with an alarmingly low IQ. They’ve found a way to infect the offense and the entire coaching philosophy, too.

There’s no need to spend words indicting Brian VanGorder (or Kelly for hiring him) or the position coaches for failing to get the defense in the right position. Kelly made it abundantly clear that any move he makes will likely be postseason, not as some sort of mid-season shuffle.

Because even a back-to-the-basics week did nothing to salvage things. We saw no uptick from working on tackling midweek in mid-September, for preaching the fundamentals; “speed to power” in one ear and out the other, like a Duke player weaving through defenders to daylight.

This defense is toxic and has found a way to derail all three segments of the team, hoisting enough pressure onto DeShone Kizer that it was as much the guys in blue making his afternoon tough as it was David Cutcliffe’s team.

 

Blame coaching all you want, but Brian Kelly is making it clear that he’s holding his players accountable, too. 

Brian Kelly said all the right things about coaching accountability, spitting out the perfunctory cliches—”I’m a 1-3 football coach. We’re all 1-3 football coaches”—through gritted teeth.

But it didn’t take long for Kelly to make his true feelings clear, taking dead aim at the effort and attitude that his team showed Saturday afternoon, making it clear he’ll be looking for a different type of football player to take the field next week.

“Guys that have fire and grit. We had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. And that was Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw,” Kelly said after some prodding.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward. I don’t care what your resume said, if you’re a five star, if you had 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”

After another week where veterans were just as responsible for futility as any rookies, Kelly made it clear that he’s set to make sweeping changes to the team that’ll take the field next weekend in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

“Every position. All 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position,” Kelly said. “There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. That’s the quarterback all the way down.”

 

Notre Dame needs to find an offensive identity, too. Because DeShone Kizer wasn’t close to good enough to bail them out. 

There’s no applauding the 534 yards of offense the Irish put up. Because when push came to shove, the Irish offense failed to score when they had two final chances to win the football game—a troubling trend that’s beginning to emerge.

The ground game struggled. Behind an offensive line that’s still making too many mistakes, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams were all held below five yards a carry. Only Kizer found an explosive play on the ground, his 23-yarder the only running gain the Irish had over 20 yards.

Kizer put up some empty statistics as well. He was clearly pressing for much of the second half, even after the momentary boost the offense got from the defense after halftime. Kizer’s fourth quarter was one to forget, just 3 of 7 passing for 45 yards, taking a sack, throwing a mindless interception on 3rd-and-20, and short-circuiting any comeback chance with a poor final drive.

Combine that with some head-scratching reads, a handful of missed touch passes and an inexcusable fumble, and it was a difficult afternoon for the Irish’s star quarterback.

“Below standard,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s play.

 

Once again turnovers, special teams and self-inflicted wounds killed the Irish. 

Want to learn how to throw away momentum? Give up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

With Chase Claypool, Julian Okwara and Nick Coleman all blowing tackles, even a serious injury to return man extraordinaire Devon Edwards didn’t stop backup Shaun Wilson from taking one to the house, flipping the game completely on its head when it looked like the Irish could bury Duke early.

Add in Kizer’s fumble, his fourth-quarter interception (and another one he gift-wrapped that was dropped) and Equanimeous St. Brown getting stripped after a big gain, and it’s a formula the Irish know all too well.

“There’s not a lot of things to point out other than the obvious. Three turnovers, all of them impact the game. Sloppy turnovers. A kickoff return for a touchdown,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “And the inability to mount anything consistently throughout the game. Once you feel like you have something going pretty good and then we tend to make a mistake and let teams back in the game.”

That’s certainly what happened Saturday afternoon, with the Irish capable of delivering a knockout punch and instead carrying the Blue Devils off the ropes and right back into the game.

Toss in some of the worst tackling—both attempts and angles—you’ll ever see and you’ve got a recipe for defeat.

 

You need to live and die with the kids. Because this might not be rock bottom. 

Bad news: This could get worse.

Because as Kelly mentioned last week, there are no trades, no waiver wire and no cuts in college football. Sure, you can run Brian VanGorder out of town if you really think that’ll help, but it’s only going to add more instability to a season that’s not close to rock bottom—not with offenses like Syracuse, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Army, Navy and USC on the schedule.

(No disrespect meant to NC State, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get theirs, too.)

The roster that Kelly himself assembled deserves examination. But that’s the group that needs to get this team out of trouble. And it’s tough to say any amount of hard coaching will allow that to happen.

So live and die with the kids.

Donte Vaughn, welcome to the starting lineup. Julian Love, see you there, too.

Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara can’t be any worse at getting off blocks than Andrew Trumbetti—who plays like a two-gap defensive tackle instead of a guy attempting to rush the passer.

Offensively, pass the baton to Equanimeous St. Brown already—he’s clearly the team’s No. 1 receiver. Give Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson reps at the X if Torii Hunter can’t scare teams downfield. And if Tarean Folston can’t find that next gear, Dexter Williams certainly seems willing to show you his.

Notre Dame’s football program is in a dangerous place, and all are responsible.

Because lost somewhere between the fancy new facilities, the social media partnership with Bleacher Report, and the sports-science and nutrition commitments that treat this program better than most NFL outfits, a simple fundamental got lost in the process–and this football team got soft.

We could’ve seen this coming. Kelly hinted at worries during the spring and summer, especially as he openly had questions about this team’s veteran leadership. Those problems were exposed in August, when one senior leader thought it wise to drag four underclassmen with him on a Cheech and Chong adventure, all while exercising his Second Amendment rights, too.

So match a lack of leadership with mediocre effort and a young roster looking for veteran examples and you can bet that Kelly’s postgame comments for the media were a subdued echo of what he said behind closed doors.

“It looks like it’s hard to play, like we’re pulling teeth. We’re playing football for Notre Dame! It looks like it’s work,” Kelly said, almost exacerbated. “Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy.

“We’ve gotta look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s the way we have to go.”

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.