CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Wide receiver William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a third quarter touchdown against the Virginia Cavaliers at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27

145 Comments

With the clock ticking below half a minute and Notre Dame’s offense tossing away precious seconds as backup quarterback DeShone Kizer tried to get the Irish back to the line of scrimmage, Kizer made the wisest decision of his young football career when he turned to Will Fuller to bail the Irish out of season-destroying calamity. The sophomore looked left and saw Fuller streaking down the sideline, delivering a perfect throw to a receiver who was inexplicably in single coverage. Fuller pranced into the end zone for his fourth score of the season and Brian Kelly’s team escaped Charlottesville by stealing a victory in the game’s last dozen seconds.

That’s the good news.

The bad? Well, where to start?

Kizer was thrust into the role of hero after starting quarterback Malik Zaire fractured his ankle on a run up the middle, ending the junior’s season in mid-September. In consecutive weeks, the Irish have now lost pillars of the offense, with the Irish M.A.S.H. unit now including starting running back Tarean Folston, Zaire and nose guard Jarron Jones.

If Zaire’s hard-luck injury was the worst of the news, perhaps the biggest disappointment of the afternoon was the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense. The Irish surrended 27 points to Virginia’s offense, taking a unit that looked inept last week in the Rose Bowl and turning them into world-beaters.

Leading the way for the scrappy Cavaliers was quarterback Matt Johns, who had his way with the Irish secondary, exploiting the continuous man-coverage looks that VanGorder threw at him. Johns nearly played the home-team hero in Scott Stadium when the Hoos scored with just 1:54 left in the game.

But Fuller could not be stopped. And while the Irish emerge 2-0, in seven days, Notre Dame went from having all the ingredients of a playoff team to a team quarterbacked by one very big question mark.

Notre Dame escapes the Commonwealth of Virginia with a surprisingly hard-fought victory. But Kelly’s football team will return to South Bend with a slew of questions that didn’t exist when the sun came up.

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Without Zaire, Brian Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock will need to reinvent Notre Dame’s offense. 

Let’s not lose sight of the big picture: DeShone Kizer rallied Notre Dame to a victory with a game-winning touchdown drive in his very first two-minute drill. That’s pretty special.

But as the dust settles on the Irish’s 34-27 victory, Notre Dame’s coaching staff might as well sweep up what’s left of the Irish’s offense and chuck it into the recycling bin. It’s time to rethink some things.

Saturday afternoon was hardly a good one for the Irish’s play-calling collaboration, with Notre Dame’s schematic design nearly as poor as its execution. After missing only three throws on Saturday, it took four passing attempts for Zaire to miss three times, with the Irish starter off from the start.

The entire Irish offense seemed off its game minus C.J. Prosise and Fuller, converting exactly zero of its ten third-down attempts, consistently losing in short yardage situations and having little success in the red zone. Want a recipe for losing football? Jon Tenuta might have slipped Betty Crocker into the Irish playbook.

With Kizer behind center, the Irish will likely reboot the offensive game plan for the season. Gone is Zaire and his ability to carry a significant part of the load in the running game. Enter Kizer, a 6-foot-5 quarterback who can run the football but certainly doesn’t make for the ideal zone-read signal caller. Especially with only true freshman Brandon Wimbush behind him.

When Kelly brought in Mike Sanford from Boise State, he attracted the rising star with an opportunity to have a seat at the table and “turn things upside down.” Well Zaire’s injury did all the turning upside down the Irish ever needed. Now Sanford, Denbrock and Kelly will need to rearrange things and find a way to cobble together an offense that still has elite pieces.

Kelly has done that before, most notably at Cincinnati when he rode five different quarterbacks to a Big East title. But Notre Dame isn’t playing the Big East this season. And to survive the short-term, this coaching staff is going to have to earn its salary.

 

The offense shouldn’t be the only group rethinking their game plan. Brian VanGorder’s unit needs to take a hard look in the mirror. 

Just a week ago, Virginia fans would’ve packed the moving vans for head coach Mike London and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild, chipping in enough gas money to make sure the duo took its vanilla scheme outside state lines. On Saturday, Fairchild had the Irish defense on a string, consistently wreaking havoc with motion, formation shifts and play-action passing.

After spending all offseason talking about how ten returning starters had a better understanding of what VanGorder’s scheme demanded, the Irish reverted back to a unit that found ways to get as little as possible for their production. The Irish struggled in man coverage against Virginia’s wide receivers and playing woeful defense in the red zone. They made Matt Johns look like a big-time quarterback and failed to take advantage of multiple 50-50 balls that hung dangerously in the air.

Now 15 games and two offseasons into VanGorder’s scheme, it’s time to start wondering if the former NFL defensive coordinator is getting the most out of his personnel. We can talk all about the mad scientist designs and his exotic schemes. But they don’t matter if the Irish continue to struggle to execute.

Communication issues seemed to plague the Irish all afternoon. On a critical 3rd-and-short in the first half, Drue Tranquill ran straight into Jaylon Smith, the collision leading to a Virginia first down. The very next play, the Irish got beat over the top for a touchdown, a trick play that young, inexperienced teams fall for, not a defense like Notre Dame’s.

Add to that the difficulties the Irish had playing Virginia’s Canaan Severin straight up, and you can help but project those struggles forward, especially against teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.

The focus shifts as soon as the Irish get back to South Bend, with VanGorder taking on Paul Johnson’s triple option and the Georgia Tech coach out to settle old grudges. So for now, maybe we can give the Irish defense the benefit of the doubt and say hey were just looking a week ahead. But a unit that looked like world beaters just a week ago played poorly on Saturday, and it’s time to examine some of the bedrock assumptions for the defense.

 

C.J. Prosise looks at home as a feature back. 

Playing in front of family and friends, C.J. Prosise put on a show on Saturday, running for 155 yards on 17 carries. Breaking the 100 yard barrier by halftime, Prosise responded to Zaire’s season ending injury by matter-of-factly running 25 yards for a touchdown on Kizer’s first snap and extending the Irish lead to double digits.

No, the lead didn’t last. But the Irish found their new offensive engine in Prosise, with the senior playing just his second game as a running back looking up to the task.

As you’d expect, Kelly didn’t put much on the shoulders of his freshmen backs, never wanting to do so in road games. And while the Irish struggled in short yardage (we’ll get to that in a second), Prosise found big lanes early and often and could’ve put up a monster number had the Irish offense found a way to stay on the field by converting some third downs.

With Folston and Zaire gone, there’s no other option to trigger the ground game. But Kelly’s big spring decision—one that looked like a head-scratcher to many, me included—has paid off big time, with Prosise now Notre Dame’s first offensive option.

 

Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is going to have one uncomfortable Sunday. 

Lost in all the snickering about Jon Tenuta the last seven days, Irish fans forgot that Virginia’s defense was one of the more disruptive in the ACC last season. Forcing turnovers and making big plays behind the line of scrimmage, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator did plenty of good things for a Cavaliers team that was searching for positives in 2014.

After a tough Saturday last weekend in Los Angeles, the Virginia defense gave the Irish fits, especially in the passing game. They made five tackles for loss and had two sacks, disrupting the passing game from the opening bell. And while it’s hard to take many positives out of blowing a victory in the game’s final seconds, Tenuta’s defense was incredibly disruptive on Saturday, slowing down the Irish offensive juggernaut in short order.

No, they couldn’t stop Will Fuller. But they certainly gave Harry Hiestand’s offensive line their share of problems.  Notre Dame’s veteran offensive line coach will likely spend the evening breaking down tape and showing his troops a lot of plays where improvement is desperately needed, especially with a new quarterback behind center.

The point of attack was won too often by the Cavaliers. And the interior of the offensive line struggled too, especially in short yardage. A week ago, center Nick Martin was Notre Dame’s highest-rated offensive lineman, according to ProFootballFocus. I don’t expect that to be the case after the tape gets graded.

It’s hard to be too tough on this group when the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry. But Tenuta wreaked havoc in the passing game with pressure and the Irish receivers struggled to find space working against the Cavalier’s secondary. That all stems from line play.

Mediocre isn’t going to cut it next weekend against Georgia Tech, especially when moving the chains and controlling the clock will be vital. So Hiestand and his guys need to get back to work.

 

 

It may not have helped, but Brian Kelly tried his best not to let the Irish start flat. 

Yes, he’s the head coach. But I’m not sure how much blame you can give Brian Kelly for Notre Dame’s lethargic start. Kelly did everything he could to jump-start the Irish, including a bold fake field goal that went for Notre Dame’s first touchdown.

You watch football long enough, and trap games start to feel like watching a car crash in slow motion. You see it coming. I see it coming. We all see it coming. Unfortunately, the college kids laughing in the car and passing around the snacks and the Big Gulps don’t realize things are going to go very wrong until it’s too late.

Kelly looked like a cagey baseball pitcher, doing his best to work through the early innings without his fastball. As the Irish bumbled their way through the early going with two blown timeouts and a field goal operation that took a delay of game penalty, Kelly pulled a rare rabbit out of his special teams’ hat to score the Irish’s first touchdown.

On a day where touchdowns weren’t easy to come by, those six points (the two-point conversion attempt was unsuccessful) came in handy. And with the Irish now looking to ham-and-egg their offense with Kizer (and true freshman Brandon Wimbush) in the two-deep, Notre Dame’s head coach needs to be as cunning as ever.

We saw that on display last week when he burned two timeouts before halftime and waited out Texas kicker Nick Rose for a long-range miss. So hopefully the sixth-year head coach has learned some magic (and maybe some dark arts) from friend Bill Belichick, as the Irish are going to need every edge they can get.

For all the Irish fans who’re certainly grumbling about Notre Dame once again letting an average team hang around, her Lady’s team hardly has a monopoly on that habit. Arkansas just nuked its season with a loss to Toledo. Auburn slid by Jacksonville State thanks to an FCS punter and an overtime score. Even Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team looked sluggish for three quarters against Hawaii before pulling away late.

A win is a win is a win. Dominating Texas and sliding by against Virginia counts the same in the history books. But after starting this season with great expectations, Kelly now needs to find a way to squeeze every ounce of goodness out of this team if the want to achieve their goals.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

27 Comments

Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
13 Comments

Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 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)
Getty
69 Comments

Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
Getty
14 Comments

Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.