Will Fuller, Nick VanHoose

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

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A little less than 48 hours after Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern, it doesn’t seem like too many people are over it. So let’s dispense with the introductions and pull the band-aid.

Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s disastrous 43-40 loss to the Wildcats.

 

GOOD

Will Fuller. Right now, Notre Dame’s sophomore wide receiver has 13 touchdowns, tied for the lead in the NCAA, and on pace to break Golden Tate’s record of 15 scores in his Biletnikoff Award-winning junior season.

Once again, Fuller had a monster day, scoring three times on his nine catches for 159 yards. He beat a good Northwestern secondary on deep routes, screen routes and everything in between. He also dropped two or three balls, reminding you that Fuller is still a work-in-progress, an exciting proposition as we look to the future.

 

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back bounced back, running for 106 yards on 20 carries Saturday. He scored a nifty touchdown on a spin move at the goal line, and also showed the type of vision and patience that’s become a staple of his game.

While it feels like we saw too much of Cam McDaniel or grumbled every time Folston wasn’t in the backfield, he had five times as many rushing opportunities as McDaniel, who gained 12 yards on his four runs — including the game-turning fumble when the Irish were trying to run out the clock.

 

Matthias Farley. Another game, another really big play for Farley, who is turning into one of the lone bright spots on a defense that’ll be discussed for much of the “Bad” section. The senior (with a fifth-year available) stepped in front of a pass near the Irish goal line and returned it 39 yards.

Farley is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. His 6.5 tackles-for-loss are also tied for the team lead. It’s been a nice bounce-back season for the veteran who struggled last year at safety.

 

Forcing Turnovers. Notre Dame forced four of them. (And nearly a fifth that would’ve iced the game if it didn’t bounce from the arms of two diving defenders and squirt out of bounds.)

And Austin Collinsworth’s scoop and score was the defense’s first touchdown after Max Redfield’s block on Devin Gardner nullified Elijah Shumate’s pick six.

 

BAD

The Defense. So it’s gotten ugly. Really ugly. Just how ugly? Historically ugly.

This five-game run is the worst in the history of Notre Dame football for allowing points. Per BlueandGold’s Lou Somogyi, the doldrums of 2007 saw the Irish give up 166 points to open the 2007 season. This five-game streak has seen the Irish give up 211.

To keep everything under this one stench-filled lid, let’s go through the bullet points.

  • Tackling. Boy, it got comical for a bit out there. For as nice of a season as Cole Luke has had, I think he’s still trying to drag down a receiver while futilely punching at the football. That’s not to say Luke was alone, as it was a group fail out there, as the Irish turned the least explosive offense in power-five football into a group of worldbeaters.
  • The First Half. Lord only knows how many more points Northwestern would’ve scored had they not gotten hit with a rash of the drops. But the Irish’s first-half effort against the Wildcats’ version of hurry-up was likely (hopefully) rock bottom for this group.Having rewatched the game twice over the weekend, I’ll spare the gory details. But the ground game had major breaches, the pass defense allowed the chains to move early and often (Northwestern converted just 8 of 20 third downs, but it sure felt like a lot more), and the situational awareness of this group continues to be really distressing.
  •  Injuries. I’m listing this third for those of you who like to take to the comments and accuse me of being too kind. But at this point, it’s difficult to call this defense Notre Dame’s, when in a perfect world half of this group would be watching and learning still.We’ll find out more about Sheldon Day’s future this season on Tuesday, as the junior defensive tackle had an MRI yesterday to take a look at his knee. The same with freshman tackle Daniel Cage, who has played some impressive snaps this season. But the front seven of this football team — a group that had no margin for error from a depth perspective during training camp — has hit a critical state.The secondary isn’t much better. Getting Austin Collinsworth back was a nice boost, but the captain isn’t a great fit as an “in space” defender. But when you’re counting on a guy with a shoulder harness and a cornerback with a broken foot to be two key components, it’s going to result in 10-catch days for Kyle Prater.

 

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s senior specialist had a horrific day at the office. He missed two key field goals that ended up being critical points. He also struggled punting the football, with two big misses setting up the Wildcats with great field position.

Brindza had help — a botched hold by Malik Zaire set up Brindza’s blocked extra point. But the senior kicker hooked a 38-yard field goal as the first half ended that could’ve extended Notre Dame’s halftime lead to a touchdown. The senior kicker also missed a crucial field goal in overtime, hooking another ball left to gift wrap the Wildcats’ victory in their first possession of overtime.

Punting the football was also a struggle. Brindza’s first bad punt — a 27-yarder — gave Northwestern the ball near midfield. It didn’t bite the Irish, with the defense stopping the Wildcats on a missed pass on 4th-and-3 in the second quarter.

But on 4th-and-9 from the Northwestern 44, Brindza took the field with an 11-point lead and the opportunity to pin the Wildcats deep with six minutes left in the game. Instead, he shanked a 17-yarder that jump-started Northwestern, with the Wildcats going nine plays and 73-yards in just 1:58.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading field goal kicker is making just 57 percent of his kicks this year, dropping his career average down to a musty 72 percent. With the center exchange and holder problems the Irish have had, it’s certainly not all on him. But a key veteran on the Irish roster is struggling… a recurring theme that we’ll get to later.

 

Drue Tranquill. Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder tried to get a good football game out of Tranquill this weekend at safety, starting the freshman in place of Max Redfield. The move backfired in a big way, with Tranquill near or around many of the big Northwestern plays that went the Wildcats way.

On Sunday, Kelly explained his rationale for starting Tranquill.

“We thought that Drue gave us a better chance at that position,” Kelly said, a few questions before explaining the logic. “The game comes a little bit easier at times. Max is learning the game still. Drue has a little bit better feel for the game. It doesn’t mean he’s there. He certainly made a lot of mistakes in his first start. But we just felt like tackling and football knowledge, he may have been a guy that we wanted to give a shot, and we gave him a shot at starting, and now we’ll evaluate where we are at that position today and tomorrow.”

In defense of the decision, Kelly and VanGorder likely figured that a heavy dose of run plays and short passes would allow Tranquill to thrive in tight spaces, as he’s shown that ability through the earlier part of the season. But as a true, half-field safety, the freshman struggled mightily, showing a frustrating lack of success when it came to the basics of the position.

As a wake-up call to Redfield, this might work. We saw the sophomore make a big play on special teams and eventually work into the rotation at safety. But Tranquill sure isn’t a free safety — something Kelly said openly last month — and you have to wonder if Eilar Hardy will get some work against Louisville, even though he spent two months collecting dust away from the program while the academic investigation played out.

 

UGLY

The Guys in the Headsets. It was not a banner day for the guys in charge of the Irish football program. While thousands of angry diatribes have already beaten the decision to go for two points to death, it’s still a head-scratching decision by Brian Kelly that allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game and ultimately win it.

Pinning this defeat on one mistake is completely unfair though. It was a team loss, with the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline and in the box all sharing the blame.

But after 10 games, it’s clear that this coaching staff needs to protect the team from itself. Offensively, that means putting some shackles back on the unit, even if it takes away from the productivity. While the box score will show complete play-calling balance with both 40 runs and 40 passes, the red zone play-calling had some people scratching their heads and allowing this offense to continue to turn the ball over has people shockingly asking for a return to the vanilla days of yesteryear.

Defensively, it’s very difficult to put all of this on Brian VanGorder. Especially when the first-year coordinator has more first-year contributors on the field than players who actually know what they’re doing. But too often we saw a defensive front with just Nyles Morgan behind it, the type of alignment that everybody in the stadium knows won’t work. Epecially as the freshman still sees things for the first time.

Any talk of firing coaches or hypothetical hot seats is silly. I repeat. Any talk of firing coaches or hot seats is silly.

After all, the game plan was there for Notre Dame to win if the guys on the field even competently did their jobs. But sometimes you win by not putting yourself in a position to lose.

That might need to be the strategy moving forward.

 

Leadership. If this team is missing anything, it’s a strong leadership presence in the locker room. And if this team is crying out for one thing more obvious than anything else, it’s a leader among men on the field.

Yes, I know the Irish have Cam McDaniel, Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day and Nick Martin wearing the “C” on their chests. But there is a gulf between the guys leading the team on the field and the ones supposed to be leading it off of it, and that was apparent in a game like this one.

I am not in the locker room. And this isn’t a “call out” or some hand grenade meant to indict a team that by all reports is doing everything their coaching staff asks. But the best players on this roster aren’t the team’s best leaders, and that’s incredibly apparent in games where you need veteran leaders to lead by example on the field.

That didn’t happen on Saturday, with Cam McDaniel fumbling the game away in a kill-the-clock situation. Or kicker Kyle Brindza, a four-year veteran, and not just a specialist, punting and kicking Northwestern back into the football game. (The Irish field goal/PAT unit was on the field seven times. They scored four points and gave up two. That’s not good.)

It’s not all the captains fault. Austin Collinsworth scored a key touchdown, in his only true action this season after being injured in the days before the opener. Sheldon Day may be Notre Dame’s most unblockable defensive lineman, but his first sack of the season came not long before suffering an injury. Nick Martin’s leadership skills don’t likely extend beyond the offensive line, a product of starting just 10 games before this season and being in the shadow of his older brother for three seasons.

There was a lot of discussion about naming captains this preseason. Ultimately, Kelly decided on veteran leaders, naming four guys who have “been there” in McDaniel, Collinsworth, Martin and Day. But the “loyal soldiers” approach hasn’t exactly paid off. And you’re fair to wonder if not having Everett Golson and Joe Schmidt wearing Cs is hurting this program.

Golson has been the face of this team, wearing the struggles of the offense on a weekly basis. That ownership is recognized by his teammates. Schmidt was the MVP of the defense before his injury. A force of nature on and off the field, he’s far removed from any walk-on label that still sticks to him in the media.

One of the challenges of a young team is straddling the line between the present and the future. Nine of the top 10 leading tacklers on defense have eligibility remaining. Same with the offense, where only McDaniel, Ben Koyack and Christian Lombard exhaust their eligibility from the two-deep.

If the Irish want to find a way to be successful in these final two regular season games, they’re going to need to find leadership both on the field and in the locker room from an emerging cast of characters. Schmidt can’t do it, not with a cast on his leg.

But the opportunity is there for Everett Golson, Tarean Folston or Will Fuller to seize those reins on offense, demanding accountability from a group that hasn’t played with it. And after looking lost without Schmidt by his side, Jaylon Smith is the obvious answer on a defense searching desperately for one.

In times like these, a bunker mentality is needed. We’ll see who takes charge moving forward in a critical juncture for the program.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
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Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.

 

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
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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.