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

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The Irish exited Notre Dame Stadium for the last time in 2014. And for the second-straight week they sang the alma mater after a defeat, taking another step backwards from the home-field advantage Brian Kelly and the Irish had quietly built over the past few seasons.

The loss was Notre Dame’s fourth in five games, a third-straight defeat at a time of year where Kelly’s football teams have historically gotten better. But that’s certainly not the case in 2014, where a ravaged defense played a mix of journeymen and children, a difficult blend for any program, but especially this one.

That — combined with a slow start by the offense and struggles in the scoring areas — cost the Irish a victory. And the razor’s edge that Kelly once danced upon comfortably, has drawn blood again, another loss where one or two key plays swung the balance.

With the annual rivalry battle with USC set for Saturday afternoon, both teams enter battered and bruised. But before we get to that, let’s close the book on the Irish’s 31-28 defeat in their first ever meeting with Louisville on the gridiron.

Here are the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Louisville.

 

THE GOOD

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back is emerging as a star player. For all the clamoring for Greg Bryant, it’s been the running back who didn’t come in with a five-star tag that’s turning into the best runner the Irish have had in the backfield since Julius Jones.

Folston didn’t get 20 carries against the Cardinals elite rushing defense, but it didn’t matter. He ran for 134 yards on just 18 carries, a 7.4 average on a day where the rest of the team managed -28 yards on nine carries. (Golson’s fumble craters that number, but it’s still a stat worth mentioning.)

Even better, Folston stayed on the field in passing situations, holding his own as a pass-blocker in a situation where Cam McDaniel usually steals snaps. In case you are wondering, his head coach noticed.

“What I’m most impressed with is that when we challenged him as a complete running back, he took that challenge and he stepped up,” Kelly said Sunday.”As you saw, he was in the game late, and he did an outstanding job in pass protection, and that was the piece that was missing for him.

“He did a great job.  And then tough yard running.  He’s just, again, a guy that’s developed as a sophomore to the point where he’s put himself in a position to get the primetime carries and be in the game late.”

 

Will Fuller. Another game, another touchdown for Will Fuller. Fuller has scored a touchdown in every game this season minus Stanford, and his 14 touchdown catches are one shy of the single-season mark held by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate, who both caught 15 in their breakout junior seasons.

Fuller is making that move as a sophomore, and doing so as it becomes more and more apparent that he’s the team’s most dynamic pass-catching weapon. Fuller got behind the talented Louisville secondary multiple times, and likely would’ve scored another touchdown if Golson could’ve gotten a deep throw out quicker.

“He’s a factor in every game we’ve played. Louisville had probably two of the better corners in the country, and he ran by them at will,” Kelly said.

Earlier in the year, Kelly hesitated to call Fuller a No. 1 receiver. On Sunday, he acknowledged the step forward Fuller has taken in his game as the season has worn on, acknowledging his ascent in a very condensed timeline.

“He has obviously put himself in a position to be considered one of Notre Dame’s finest receivers,” Kelly said. “And he’s done it in very short order. Obviously he didn’t play very much at all last year, and he’s made a statement this year.”

 

Jaylon Smith. After seeming lost in the shuffle after Joe Schmidt’s injury, we saw flashes of the Jaylon Smith of September on Saturday, with the sophomore linebacker leading the team with 11 tackles, including one TFL. Probably most important was the return to Smith tracking down an opponent in the backfield, an occasion that’s frequency dropped precipitously since Schmidt’s injury.

Smith was named a finalist for the Butkus Award on Monday, a tip of the cap to a talented young player who from afar still resembles an elite linebacker. But for those that have watched the sophomore the past few weeks as the Irish defense has collapsed, they’ve seen a young player whose taken some lumps as he’s learning along the way.

That’s perfectly normal. Especially for a (still) young player learning a new position in a new scheme, forced to rely not just on his elite athleticism but to deal with some limitations that come with being slightly undersized at his position in the trenches.

As he met with the media after another difficult loss, Smith sounded wise beyond his years as he took a relatively big-picture approach to things, while also understanding that winning the next game continues to be the most important thing.

“It’s experience. The whole atmosphere. Even losing, in this case, is something we’re all learning,” Smith said. “I’m young myself. I’m a sophomore. I’m 19 years old. We’re all just continuing to learn.

“Obviously, it’s not acceptable to lose at any cost. There’s no moral victory, so you can’t look at it like that. We’re not even focused on next year right now. Right now, it’s all about our rivalry next week and finding a way to get a victory.”

 

Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did their best to match the sophomore cornerback with Louisville’s DeVante Parker. Luke held his own, with Parker catching three balls against him, though Luke had two pass breakups.

But it was the catch that didn’t have Luke in coverage that burnt the Irish, with Parker matched up with Devin Butler that turned into a 21-yard touchdown.

“Outstanding,” Kelly said, when asked to evaluate Luke’s play. “Except we didn’t get the matchup on the touchdown. We had matched them up all day and didn’t get that matchup and they threw a touchdown.”

Kelly didn’t mention the gameplan to shadow Parker with Luke all game. But that’s both a testament to the improvement Luke has shown this season. It’ll also likely be the assignment with USC’s Nelson Agholor, who after exploding the previous four games was held to just three catches for 24 yards against UCLA.

 

The Effort from the Young Guys. Nobody wants to find moral victories out there, but not too many people had Jacob Matuska, Greer Martini and Isaac Rochell contributing sacks against Louisville. Add to that a productive afternoon for Nyles Morgan (10 tackles and a 1/2 TFL) until his ejection for targeting and the incremental steps are starting to show up.

Morgan’s ejection will cost him the first half against USC, putting Greer Martini into the starting lineup. That’s an awful long way down the preseason contingency plans for the Irish defense at a position that couldn’t be more important in this system.

After calling the targeting penalty a “careless mistake” after the game, Kelly took the long view when asked about the play of his freshman middle linebacker, reminding everybody that while he appears to be struggling now, that the sky is still the limit for Morgan.

“Oh, he’s going to be a terrific player. He just shouldn’t be on the field right now,” Kelly said. “He’s a great kid, we love him.  He’ll learn, because the kid does everything we ask him to do. He’s going to get an opportunity to be a complete player.  It’s just going to take a little bit more time.”

 

Greg Bryant. That’s the type of return Notre Dame can use in the punt game. Bryant showed a way to impact the game as a punt returner, nearly taking a kick to the house as the Irish rallied back from a large halftime deficit.

Bryant’s still making too many mistakes back there — no fair catch early, and the huge collision with James Onwualu was a near-crisis that was barely averted. But Bryant made a game-changing play.

Now go make a few more against USC.

 

THE BAD

The Third Down Defense. The Irish defense killed themselves early against Louisville, allowing the Cardinals to convert three key third downs that extended touchdown drives to open the game.

The mistakes were critical ones. After after allowing just four conversions on 39 attempts of 3rd and 10 or longer, the Irish defense gave up three back-breakers to put Louisville up early.

The Irish defense recovered, allowing the Cardinal to convert just six of 14 third downs, but the three long early ones killed them.

 

Tackling. This one might seem a little all-encompassing, but that’s kind of the point. There are some pretty elusive skill players on Louisville’s roster, but that might have been the worst tackling we’ve seen from an Irish team since the BCS title game had Zeke Motta performing fly-bys on Alabama All-Americans.

Those misses were headlined by Austin Collinsworth trying to play with one arm. Or Nyles Morgan flying by or misdiagnosing plays. Or young defensive linemen doing their best to chase down a play and miss it.

 

The Rush Defense. In a game where Notre Dame knew it absolutely needed to stop the run, they gave up 226 yards. Yes, it took Louisville 50 carries to do it, but still — there were just too many big runs happening, a product of injuries and missed assignments that’s timed up with the injury to Joe Schmidt.

The guys got better as the game wore on. But once again, in need of a critical drive on defense, the Irish weren’t able to get it.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated ($) had this key stat that shows how far the D has fallen since Schmidt’s injury. In 30+ quarters of football with Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones manning the middle, the Irish gave up just 25 rushes of 10 yards-or more. In the 13 quarters since Schmidt’s broken ankle? Notre Dame’s given up 31.

 

Red Zone Offense. I said it very early in the game when the Irish settled for three points on their opening drive, but celebrating a made field goal masked the issue of not getting seven.

The Irish might have scored on four of five red zone drives (with the missed chip-shot field goal the back-breaker), but scoring only two touchdowns isn’t going to get it done.

Give Louisville’s defense credit. They’re a Top 10 red zone defense and a Top 5 group when it comes to allowing touchdowns in the red zone. But with a chance to win the game with a touchdown near the end, the Irish ended up needing to settle for a field goal, and even that short-circuited.

It’s popular to criticize the playcalling near the goal line. But ultimately it comes down to making the plays and being assignment correct. That didn’t happen on the final drive, with Kelly trying to run clock down and get seven, but unable to do it after struggles up front blocking derailed the final series.

When asked about the step backwards in the red zone, Kelly wasn’t willing to make any blanket statements, though acknowledged the special teams struggles and turnovers for any statistical drop off. But just like he said when Tommy Rees was playing quarterback, it comes down to making the plays in a tougher offensive environment.

“It’s really hard for me to give you a great answer other than we take a lot of time and effort to break down that area of the field and think we come away with the plan that’s going to allow us to score touchdowns in that area,” Kelly said. “But it’s still about execution.”

 

Safety Play. At this point, we can only speculate what Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have done to be stuck behind Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill at safety. Because for the second consecutive game, the safety play has stunk, and Notre Dame’s best two athletes at the position still haven’t been able to work their way back onto the field.

Shumate was the missing player when the 10-man Irish gave up a critical third-down conversion to Northwestern, a junior who should know better. Redfield had mostly been an invisible presence on the back line, outside of an interception against Michigan and a missed sideline tackle against Arizona State, a play that caught the ire of analyst and former All-American linebacker Chris Spielman.

Most fans see the safety play and think that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are cutting off their nose to spite their face. And there’s plenty of ammunition for that school of thought, especially after watching Collinsworth and Tranquill struggle in space against both talented and less-than-talented personnel.

But here’s what Kelly said about the situation on Sunday, asked specifically about the absence of the Shumate and Redfield.

“We would like to have the two young guys back there… but we haven’t been consistent enough,” Kelly said, while correcting himself after calling Shumate young. “That’s forced Austin into the game, and he’s not 100 percent.  He’s giving us everything he has, though.”

When effort is the best thing you can say about your injured safety, you’re essentially saying everything you need to about the guys that are being replaced. So if the message hasn’t gotten to Shumate and Redfield, there’s a chance it might not happen this year.

But with a very talented group of receivers on USC’s roster, the Irish will need to match athletes in the secondary. That means Redfield and Shumate need to do what it takes to sharpen their gaze in practice.

But Kelly was rightfully asked if the schematics of the defense weren’t part of the problem. After reminding the head coach of his comments about making it easy enough for Jaylon Smith to get on the field and allow him to use his skills, Kelly agreed to a point, before drilling down further and acknowledging the elephant in the room.

“It’s a dramatic shift from where we were last year to this year in terms of the scheme that we’re playing,” Kelly acknowledged. “So we’re never going to put it all on the players.  It’s part coaching, as well.  You’re right in the premise of your question in that we’ve got to get the best players on the field, but they also have to be the most productive players, so it’s also about production while they’re on the field.

“Max and Elijah are not on the field not just because there’s mental mistakes, but there’s production lapses, as well.  So it’s a little bit of both in that sense.  In other words, it’s not just simply the scheme, it’s also about production, and we’ve got to keep an eye on both of those things.”

It’s worth mentioning to people who continue to call for Redfield and Shumate to play. Those opinions were likely formed not by anything they saw on the field, but by the stars affixed to their recruiting rankings. Those have been rendered useless since they stepped foot on campus.

“We haven’t given up on them, let’s put it that way,” Kelly said. “We still believe in them. But they’ve got to continue to show more consistency in practice.”

 

THE UGLY. 

Making a Field Goal. The dynamics of a successful field goal operation are three-fold: Snap, hold and kick.

Of course, that’s the simple version. But with the school’s all-time leader in field goals stepping up to tie the football game, the final two pieces of that puzzle seemed to executed at a less-than-satisfactory rate.

On the sidelines, we saw Kyle Brindza, Kelly and holder Malik Zaire talk about the hold, with Brindza frustrated and animated as he talked to Zaire.

Here’s the slo-mo version of the kick in question.

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source:

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Without question, it takes a little bit too long for Zaire’s hands to clear the kicking area. The ball is late getting to the correct position on the ground.

But the ball is there, and Brindza — a senior kicker who snap-hooked two misses last week that contributed greatly to the loss against Northwestern — needs to just rip it. It’s a 32-yarder that doesn’t need anything more than brute force and direction.

Instead, Brindza pushes the ball wide right — like a golfer giving up on a swing before it’s off his club. The view of the conversation on the sideline didn’t look like a veteran coaching up a young guy. It looked like Sergio Garcia blaming a difficult lie or a Bubba Watson yelling at his caddy.

On Saturday, Kelly backed his veteran kicker. On Sunday, after reviewing the tape, his viewpoint shifted.

“I think we needed a little bit better hold, and we needed a little bit better kick.  I don’t think it’s all on the holder, and I don’t think it’s all on the kicker.  I think it was a combination of both.”

In a results based business, Brindza’s taken a nose dive at a time of year where his mistakes have been remarkably painful. In Notre Dame’s two home losses, Brindza’s missed field goals have been the difference in the final tally.

 

Notre Dame turns to its strengths to slip past Navy, 24-17

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Navy did what Navy does, wear down its opponent, rely on the option and shorten the game. No. 8 Notre Dame overcame the Midshipmen’s relentlessness 24-17 on Saturday only after the Irish remembered what they do best: Run, run and run to set up the pass.

Four handoffs to Irish junior running back Josh Adams set up a 30-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson in the third quarter, tying the game at 17. Notre Dame’s next drive featured five runs mixed in with six passes, again culminating in a Stepherson touchdown reception and the winning margin.

“[We] got that close win that everybody’s been waiting for, so we checked that box,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “We were able to come up with a victory against a team that’s really difficult to defend, and [Navy] played really well today.”

The Midshipmen playing well most shows itself in their rushing statistics, obviously. They gained 277 yards on 72 carries, an average of 3.85 yards per rush, but perhaps more notable is Navy’s time of possession of 42:42. As best as can be reckoned in the Notre Dame Stadium press box to this point, the Irish have never held the ball for so little time in a game. If they have, it was long, long ago.

“In a game like this you don’t worry about rhythm. You worry about being efficient and being effective with the possessions that you have,” Notre Dame junior running back Josh Adams said. “… Whatever chance I get to contribute I have to take advantage of that because you just never know with a great team like Navy — the way they control the ball and control time of possession — when you’re going to get out there.”

Adams finished with 106 yards on 18 carries, including 69 yards on eight carries in the second half alone. Seven of those eight rushes came on the two key touchdown drives, setting a tone for what would lead to success. That is, what would lead to success whenever the Irish had the ball, as rare as that was.

“Any time we go out to the field and take the field as an offense, it’s time to get physical,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s who we are, it’s who we’ve been. We take a lot of pride in being able to pound people. [Adams] is as big a part of that as anybody.”

Complementing Adams, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush ran for 44 yards and a touchdown on seven carries (sack adjusted) while completing nine of 18 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
When halftime came around and the score was tied at 10, concern may have been understandable, but not to an excess. When Navy used the first eight minutes (7:59 to be exact) of the second half to march 72 yards to the end zone and a 17-10 lead, that concern rightfully gained magnitude.

Then came a six-yard Adams carry, followed by a five-yard rush and a seven-yarder from Adams. Next, he broke loose for 30 yards to get into Midshipmen territory. Just when it seemed the Irish were going to match Navy’s triple-option with their own brand of monotonous pounding, Wimbush found Stepherson streaking to the end zone for a 30-yard score and a tie game.

Touchdown answered by touchdown, no matter the offensive means.

Even if Adams was not the final piece of the puzzle, the ground game created the opportunity.

“Obviously it’s no secret that the running game has definitely opened up a lot of things for us this season,” Wimbush said. “Josh came out in the second half and he saw a little bit more, holes were opening up and he did have a more effective second half running the ball.”

Every eight-minute Navy touchdown drive made Notre Dame wonder, if we don’t score here, when is the next time we will even get the ball? By rendering the first half of that thought moot, the Irish put the pressure entirely back on the Midshipmen.

Navy responded to that pressure by settling for a field goal attempt on the next drive, missing it wide left. With that sliver of a window, Notre Dame followed the same recipe, relying on Adams to open up the defense before finding Stepherson to capitalize. Such begat the 24-17 result.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
After junior Chris Finke fumbled a punt, Navy took over possession at the Irish 39-yard line midway through the second quarter with the game still tied at three. Perhaps the best example of the Midshipmen’s habit of wringing the life out of a game, they took more than five minutes to cover those 39 yards for a score.

Navy took its sweet time to such a degree, Kelly considered surrendering a touchdown once the Midshipmen were inside the five-yard line. If they were going to score anyway, why not expedite the process to get the ball back for a chance to answer before halftime?

“It was just one of those things where clock had been utilized to the point where we needed the ball back,” Kelly said. “We felt like we could score if we just got the ball back. There were a lot of things going through my head at that time.”

Kelly opted to play it out, and Navy scored two plays later with 1:08 left on the clock. Notre Dame quickly ran six plays to get within two yards of the end zone with 14 seconds left in the half, lacking any more timeouts.

Wimbush ran up the middle, struggling through a few tacklers, falling into the end zone. If he had not gotten across the goal line, the clock would likely have run out, sending the Irish to halftime trailing by a touchdown and giving the Midshipmen a chance to go up two touchdowns halfway through the third quarter.

“That was huge. We were pretty upset with ourselves for not having points on the board prior, but it gave us a big boost coming into halftime,” McGlinchey said. “We had a great drive there. … Great execution, great job by our quarterback and by our receivers making plays, and we protected pretty well on that drive.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
On the final meaningful play of the game, Navy hoped its insistence on the option had loosened up Notre Dame’s defense enough to catch it off guard. Irish senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti was not fooled.

With a fourth-and-five from the 25-yard line, the Midshipmen were out of timeouts and absolutely needed to gain the yardage. The game was quite literally on the line. Rather than entrust junior quarterback Zach Abey to make the correct read on a typical option play, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo had Abey pitch to senior back Darryl Bonner, in motion. Bonner was to then find senior Tyler Carmona downfield with a halfback pass.

Trumbetti reached Bonner before he could set his feet, forcing a fluttering pass attempt, off-target and short. Senior linebacker Greer Martini had joined sophomore cornerback Troy Pride in vainly trying to catch up to Carmona after initially assuming a run would be coming toward them.

“I saw [Bonner] kind of pulling the ball back so I knew something was up there,” Martini said. “I just looked and [Carmona] was kind of wide open, so I just ran to him.”

If Bonner’s throw was on-target, Carmona likely reaches the end zone without much difficulty. It certainly would have been a first down, if nothing else. Trumbetti made sure none of that would become reality.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Stepherson’s progression from a vague September suspension to the most-reliable and most-productive receiving option is complete. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown was knocked out in the first quarter after jumping for a high pass led to him falling on his head/neck on the turf. (Kelly said St. Brown is being evaluated for a head injury.) While sophomore Chase Claypool was productive, finishing with two catches for 28 yards, Wimbush’s focus settled on Stepherson.

“You see from the results that he is such a huge factor now in our offense and he just adds to the already dynamic receiving corps,” Wimbush said. “… I think he did a good job of all the way through to when he was able to get back on the field of preparing himself to take advantage of this opportunity when he got it.”

Stepherson’s route running and hands were both on display on each of his touchdown grabs, quite a transformation from when he was simply seen as a speed threat, albeit an elite speed threat.

His availability and capability also helped Wimbush settle down after a slow start. He reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards, then going 5-of-8 for 92 yards and the two scores in the second half. Four of those completions and 80 of those yards were via connections with Stepherson.

STAT OF THE GAME
A year after having all of six possessions against Navy, the Irish welcomed nine Saturday. Well, technically nine. One of those drives lasted all of two strides before Finke fumbled a punt right into a Midshipmen’s hands. Two kneels to end the game made up the ninth possession. So that makes seven genuine chances with the ball.

Three of those turned into touchdowns and a fourth into a field goal.

Such is how it is when facing Navy.

The obvious impact of those limited possessions and limited time of possession is just that: Fewer chances to score means fewer scores. The inherent side effect is there is no offensive rhythm to be established. Eight game minutes can pass between snaps, after all.

“It’s definitely difficult and coach harped on it a little bit throughout the week that we only had six possessions last year,” Wimbush said. “… I know it was important to take advantage of every opportunity that we got and obviously we didn’t do that, but still came out on top.”

For context’s sake, Notre Dame had 13 possessions in last week’s loss at Miami.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
Saturday marked senior day, the last home game for most of the 26 recognized beforehand and even for those who may return next year, that is not a sure thing just yet.

It made sense to also ask Adams if it was his last home game. His NFL Draft prospects have certainly bettered since August.

“My last home game? Nah, no, no, man,” Adams responded. “I owe this team too much to even think about something like that. We’ve worked too hard to get where we are to let any one guy focus on themselves and be selfish. It’s just too important to us as a team to focus on stuff like that.”

Call it a good non-answer, if nothing else.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:31 — Notre Dame field goal. Justin Yoon 29 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 0. (11 plays, 58 yards, 2:51)

Second Quarter
12:21 — Navy field goal. Owen White 39 yards. Notre Dame 3, Navy 3. (13 plays, 49 yards, 7:10)
1:08 — Navy touchdown. Zach Abey one-yard rush. Navy 10, Notre Dame 3. (11 plays, 39 yards, 5:02)
0:08 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush two-yard rush. Notre Dame 10, Navy 10. (7 plays, 62 yards, 1:00)

Third Quarter
7:01 — Navy touchdown. Craig Scott 12-yard reception from Abey. White PAT good. Navy 17, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 72 yards, 7:59)
5:33 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 30-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Navy 17. (5 plays, 78 yards, 1:28)

Fourth Quarter
11:49 — Notre Dame touchdown. Stepherson nine-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Navy 17. (11 plays, 80 yards, 3:31)

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

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Of all the things Notre Dame and Irish coach Brian Kelly changed this past offseason, one difference between that 4-8 disappointment and this season’s surprising success had little to do with those program renovations.

Kelly brought in three new coordinators and a new strength coach, he engaged with his team more often, he developed a more easy-going persona. All those changes played large roles in making Notre Dame a Playoff contender into November this season, but one alteration mattered more. It made the offseason workouts more effective, it made the locker room more intertwined, and it created more on-field accountability.

The seniors became leaders.

In the preseason, Kelly shouldered some of the fault for the 2016 Irish lacking tone-setting leadership. That ownership fit into the aforementioned attitude shift from the head coach.

“I realized that we had some issues going into the season,” he said before preseason practice. “Clearly, we had some off-the-field issues leading into the season. We had some things that I had done a poor job in developing our leadership and the message was not clear within the program.”

Among those off-the-field issues would be the arrests of seniors Max Redfield and Devin Butler, both expected to be veteran presences in the Notre Dame secondary. As a whole, the 2016 senior class was lacking in bar-raising leaders. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones has more personality than can be succinctly described, but he was not necessarily a presence to be followed. Running back Tarean Folston’s knee injury knocked him down the depth chart, through no fault of his own, cutting into any credibility he may have had in front of the locker room. The same could be said for quarterback Malik Zaire.

Linebacker James Onwualu and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell could do only so much, both soft-spoken by nature.

This leadership void was not the sole reason the Irish fell to 4-8, but it was a big reason why 1-3 became 3-6 and why 3-6 became 4-8.

The likes of fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey, senior left guard Quenton Nelson and senior linebacker Drue Tranquill made sure that would not be the case again. They are just the tip of the leadership iceberg in the current locker room, and they set the stage for something special in years to come. Whether that act is realized or not, this senior class deserves credit for returning it to rational conversations.

“Whether it’s this year or not, the goal is still to win a national championship,” McGlinchey said Wednesday. “If I can do my part and if it’s not this year, going to next year and years to come, if I can try and help out that process and that cause, then I’ll feel pretty good about that as well.”

McGlinchey and Nelson have been the vocal leaders this season, though with very different approaches when speaking, one measured and thoughtful; the other blunt and to the point.

Tranquill has been the definition of leading by example, overcoming two season-ending knee surgeries to now entertain the possibility of heading to the NFL with college eligibility remaining.

It took Greer Martini all of two weeks to go from tearing his meniscus to returning to the field to lead Notre Dame past North Carolina State. Even the week between, a victory over USC, saw Martini dress and lead the sideline celebrations. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini have played through injuries for much of the year, eliminating any excuse anyone else might lean on.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe returned for one more go-around after being largely forgotten a year ago, his perseverance creating a needed role on this year’s offense. The same can be said for senior tight end Nic Weishar.

Each one of these, along with a number of others, helped right Kelly’s ship. As much credit as the head coach deserves for this season, the seniors earned an equal share.

“I think the legacy of the senior class was to get Notre Dame on the right track again,” Martini said. “Obviously after a 4-8 season, it was our goal to bring back the prestige to Notre Dame … so even if it’s not College Football Playoffs this year, continuing on to next year’s and creating a culture at Notre Dame that’s going to last.”

It is far too soon to tell if that culture will carry forward into 2018, but before that could even be considered, it needed to be reestablished in the first place.

McGlinchey and Nelson deserve credit for that, along with center Sam Mustipher and right guard Alex Bars.

Tranquill, Morgan and Martini revitalized a lackluster defense, as did cornerback Nick Watkins and defensive ends Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

Smythe and Weishar led a young group of offensive skill position players. Austin Webster earned a scholarship and a captaincy by shepherding the walk-ons and raising the bar of expectations for the entire team.

These seniors fixed an adrift program as much as, if not more than, anyone else did.


The first mentions above of the 13 individual seniors named all included hyperlinks to profiles published by the Notre Dame independent student newspaper, The Observer. Every year, The Observer puts together a special section featuring each and every senior — 26 this year, including fifth-years, walk-ons and transfers. It is a Herculean undertaking for such a small staff.

Kudos to Editor-in-Chief Ben Padanilam and Sports Editor Elizabeth Greason for keeping that tradition going, keeping it going with quality, and for filling my Friday afternoon with more worthwhile reading than usual.

All 26 profiles can be found here.

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Associated Press
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When Navy and Notre Dame meet, many of the usual barometers of success go by the wayside. No, not because it is such a heated rivalry. Rather, playing the triple-option is a unique challenge for the defense, one otherwise not seen (with the exceptions of the occasional meeting with Army or Georgia Tech), and the Midshipmen’s ball control limits the Irish offense’s chances, minimizing the effect of any talent advantage there.

Simply enough, little of what is learned is applicable so much as a week later.

But one thing this weekend will be quite clear: Will Notre Dame play with the pride necessary to close the season 10-2 just a week after a humiliating loss dashed any national championship hopes?

If the Irish are not whole-heartedly engaged this weekend, if they do not absolutely want to play, Navy will expose that and take advantage of it.

“You can stay focused with Navy for 10 plays, 12 plays, and then if you don’t stay focused they get you with a big play,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “They’re so efficient in what they do.

“The good thing is we’ve been talking about how important our traits are and they really have to be applied this particular week against this team.”

The loss at Miami was ugly in all facets and undoubtedly a difficult humbling for the Irish to swallow. If that still lingers in their minds, it will show in a sluggish start against the Midshipmen. If it has been put in the past and all focus is on finishing this season strongly in a way not seen since 2012, then even the mind-numbing effectiveness of the triple-option should not phase Notre Dame.

How will defensive coordinator Mike Elko handle Navy’s triple-option?

Before Kelly hired Elko away from Wake Forest, he made sure Elko had plans for the option.

“That was something we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly said Tuesday. “[We’re] very comfortable with what we’ll be doing. This isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

Indeed, Elko faced Army each of the last three seasons while with the Demon Deacons. Navy may run the triple-option with even more precision than the Knights do, but the tenets are very similar. Aside from his first year there, Elko’s Wake Forest defenses fared pretty well against Army.

In 2014, the Knights ran for 341 yards and two touchdowns on 59 carries, a 5.78 yards per rush average, exceeding their season average of 296.5 yards per game.

In 2015, the Deacons gave up only 186 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, a 3.44 yards per rush average, keeping Army well below its season average of 244.2 yards per game.

In 2016, the Knights gained 238 yards on 64 carries, scoring twice and averaging 3.72 yards per rush. They averaged 328.7 yards per game last season.

How will Brandon Wimbush respond to the first genuine adversity of his career?

If Notre Dame’s offense is to return to potency, it will begin with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Sure, the Irish lost to Georgia in week two and the junior quarterback struggled, but that was in his second career start against a known top-flight defense. More may have been wanted from Wimbush then, but little more was genuinely expected Sept. 9.

By mid-November, that is not the case anymore, and his showing against the Hurricanes played a large part in the rout. After all, Kelly benched Wimbush to give him a chance to refocus. Wimbush handled that moment well, but it was still a moment of strife.

“It was tough as a competitor to have someone take your spot,” he said this week. “But I knew it was for the greater good and for the team’s benefit, and I realized that pretty quickly and I went out there and tried to help [sophomore backup quarterback Ian Book] as best as I could because I wanted to win the game just as much as anybody else wanted to win and I wasn’t executing.”

Much like a basketball player needing to hit a few lay-ups to break out of a cold-shooting slump, Wimbush can get back to executing by converting against the Midshipmen.

Which senior will get the loudest ovation?

Notre Dame will honor 26 seniors this weekend before the opening kickoff (3:30 p.m. ET; NBC), and if wanting to learn about each and every one of them, turn to The Observer’s profiles of all 26.

Which senior earns the crowd’s recognition is an unscientific survey and bears no effect on anything, but it is a curious question because there does not seem to be an obvious answer this year. A guess would be either fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey for being both a star on the field and a public face off it, senior left guard Quenton Nelson for being arguably the best player on the team or senior linebacker Drue Tranquill for overcoming two season-ending knee injuries to lead the defense this season.

Then again, there is a good chance Tranquill returns next year — though he says he has not made that decision yet — so perhaps the best bet would be McGlinchey or Nelson. (Yes, Nelson can return in 2018, as well, but he shouldn’t and almost certainly won’t.)

Is this the day, finally, at last, Montgomery VanGorder throws a pass?

The senior and former walk-on quarterback has no career pass attempts. He would need the Irish to have enough of a lead to get into the game, first of all. Then, maybe a third-and-11 would warrant a pass attempt without showing poor sportsmanship. Even to honor VanGorder, Kelly will not risk showing up the Academy.

VanGorder has earned some version of recognition. Most people would have left when their father was fired midseason. Montgomery not only stayed, but he has also remained one of the most beloved players within Notre Dame’s locker room.