CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Wide receiver William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches the game-winning touchdown pass in front of cornerback Maurice Canady #26 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the fourth quarter at Scott Stadium on September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won, 34-27. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

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

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The sun came up in South Bend Sunday morning.

After all, the Irish did beat Virginia in thrilling and unlikely fashion, with backup quarterback DeShone Kizer hitting Will Fuller for a 39-yard touchdown pass with a dozen seconds left on the clock.

Thus ended a bittersweet victory for the Irish that kept the lofty goals of the season alive all while added a few dozen more challenges to the schedule. And with Malik Zaire joining Tarean Folston and Jarron Jones with season-ending injuries, another talented piece of the puzzle will be relegated to the sidelines as the Irish continue their mission.

With one of the major hurdles of the season approaching this Saturday when Georgia Tech comes to town, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly of Notre Dame’s come from behind victory over Virginia.

 

THE GOOD

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s playmaking assassin was at it again on Saturday, bailing out the Irish with two long touchdown catches, including a logic-defying game-winner that saw Fuller matched up in single coverage with the game on the line.

Fuller’s now caught four touchdowns in this young season, scoring from 16, 66, 59 and 39 yards, explosive plays that even a young Randy Moss would tip his cap to and salute. That’s 19 touchdowns in his last 15 games. While Fuller has yet to break loose on a screen pass, the junior receiver has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player this season, and it really isn’t even close.

Fuller received the game ball yesterday evening for his efforts. Head coach Brian Kelly said that his star receiver, “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.”

 

C.J. ProsiseThe senior running back broke loose for a career day on Saturday, dominating the first half by carrying for over 100 yards and finishing the day with 155 yards on 17 attempts, notching 9.1 yards per carry.

As the Irish look ahead to life without Zaire and Folston, Prosise is now Notre Dame’s lead back. But the senior is still figuring things out in the backfield, and Prosise now readies himself for the bumps and bruises that come along with carrying the load.

“I’ve just got to keep getting treatment and stay in the training room,” Prosise said. “I have to keep my body fresh and let it heal. I know I’m going to be sore tomorrow, but I know my body will be back and okay when we start practice again on Tuesday.”

On Sunday, Kelly talked about the workload for his converted running back. And when asked if he thought Prosise had what it took to be a 25 carry a game back, Kelly said it was too early to decide that.

“I think that’s probably asking a lot right now. I think he could be down the road. I think he still has to gain some more volume in terms of getting comfortable into the position,” Kelly said. “I think we can ask more of Adams and Williams. And the volume at the running back position can continue to increase and it can increase with all three of them and as the season progresses, I think it can increase with C.J., as well.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s young quarterback led the Irish down the field to an improbable game-winning touchdown, the latest passing score for victory by a Notre Dame quarterback since some guy named Joe Montana won the Cotton Bowl as time ran out in 1979.

And after the game, Kizer impressed many with his poise and composure, understanding that the offense was now his to run.

“I’ve been ready for a while,” Kizer said. “I have no doubt in my ability to be the quarterback for Notre Dame.”

Kizer showed off his arm strength—not to mention his accuracy—when he bought time waiting for Fuller to get down the field and then delivered a perfect strike for the touchdown pass. His head coach, as you might expect, sounded confident that the team could rally around Kizer and that the offense could continue to thrive.

“Certainly DeShone doesn’t have the experience that Malik has, but we can run our offense through DeShone. He has a lot of weapons around him and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers. We just have to balance the offense and do the things that he is capable of doing,” Kelly said.

 

QUICK HITS. 

The stat sheet showed a dominant performance by Jaylon Smith. He made 11 total tackles including 2.5 for loss. I have a hard time putting anybody from the back-seven of the defense in the good category, but Elijah Shumate had 10 tackles and KeiVarae Russell made nine, including a critical strip-sack and forced fumble on a corner blitz.

C.J. Sanders broke loose on a nice punt return, looking close to breaking another one as well. If I’m in charge of Notre Dame’s special teams, I’m swapping out Amir Carlisle for Sanders, as I think the young freshman can add a spark, especially in a game that might need the Irish to juice their offense.

While we’re talking special teams, you’ve got to give Scott Booker a tip of the cap for the design and dial-up of the fake field goal. He’s been a whipping boy long enough around here, so you’ve gotta give him credit when he does something good, too. (Now about that two-point conversion play…)

Another day, another disruptive day for the defensive front. Sheldon Day added another tackle for loss. Isaac Rochell had seven tackles, including a TFL. Daniel Cage chipped in three stops as well.

Man, that was one pretty ball DeShone Kizer threw. Clutch, clutch deep ball.

Two straight games: No Turnovers. 

 

THE BAD

Third down offense. It’s inexplicable that the Irish offense, especially on a day where Notre Dame ran for over 250 yards, couldn’t convert a single third down. A whopping zero for 10, one of the more bizarre, disappointing and frustrating performance we’ve seen in a few years.

Kelly kept things fairly vanilla when asked about it, but he was pretty clear about his displeasure.

“We were largely ineffective in our short yardage run game. There are a number of reasons for it. There were some miscues. Some credit goes to Virginia. I thought they did a good job of defending us on third and short, but it is unacceptable to be that ineffective on third downs.”

Needless to say, the Irish are going to need to find a way to extend drives, especially against an offensive like Georgia Tech’s.

 

The pass rush. Notre Dame failed to get home with any blitz scheme, minus the strip-sack, fumble recovery forced by KeiVarae Russell. (A big play we need to acknowledge.) That’s a problem, even if there was some disruptive play by Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell.

Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti need to do more. (And Trumbetti’s unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was a back-breaker, putting the Irish back onto the field and eventually giving up a touchdown that would’ve never happened had Trumbetti not drawn the flag.)

The lack of a true pass rusher isn’t  a new development. Notre Dame knew they needed to find somebody who could come off the edge. But too often the Irish brought pressure and didn’t get there, with Joe Schmidt and Drue Tranquill getting to Matt Johns two steps too late one too many times.

 

Short Yardage. At this point, I don’t want to just duplicate some of my complaints from the Five Things. But Notre Dame’s struggles in short yardage offense were inexplicable, especially considering the Irish ran for 253 yards and 7.4 yards per carry.Over 250 and seven a touch, but inexplicably soft on short yardage!

I’m going to give this group a mulligan. And I think having inexperience at running back and quarterback plays into the struggles. But this needs to get fixed, and quickly.

 

Red Zone Defense. We got spoiled by Bob Diaco’s red zone defense. But after Virginia scored touchdowns on three of four appearances in the red zone, the Irish sit at 106th in the country in touchdown percentage given up.

Here’s how the Irish have done in the past five years in giving up touchdowns in the red zone:

2015: 75% (106th)
2014: 70% (116th)
2013: 52% (18th)
2012: 34% (3rd)
2011: 58% (46th)
2010: 42% (7th)

It’s too soon to draw conclusions on this defense. And last year’s unit at the end of the year was a beaten and broken group. But at face value, these stats are beyond obvious.

This group has struggled under Brian VanGorder in the red zone and they need to fix that immediately. Saturday was a terribly disappointing performance by a group that needs to play tougher and smarter near the goal line.

 

Secondary play. Notre Dame’s back-end played poorly, making Canaan Severin look like an All-American and letting Matt Johns slice and dice the defense. The secondary fell for an end around pass thrown by Johns, who was split out wide. That just can’t happen.

But no play was more frustrating than the 3rd-and-15 conversion that Virginia picked up late in the fourth quarter, right into the teeth of Notre Dame’s zone defense. It was a mind-numbingly frustrating conversion that pushed the Irish to the brink and could’ve cost the Irish the season.

Cornerback Devin Butler had no receiver in front of him, yet failed to sink deep into his zone. Worse than that, safety Max Redfield was inexplicably late getting to the deep route (the only pattern in the entire play that could get the first down), and when he arrived, he made a brutal effort to make a tackle, looking like a hockey defensemen throwing a shoulder instead of the last line of defense wrapping up a receiver that never should’ve been open. He took out Butler and when everything was over the Cavaliers had first and goal. One play later, they were in the lead.

After an active game against Texas, Redfield looked pretty bad on Saturday. He was wearing a cast on his hand, with Kelly saying after the game that Redfield was nursing a thumb injury similar to Joe Schmidt’s. But if Redfield is on the field, he needs to do more than hurt the team. And if he can’t be the free safety the Irish need and play with this injury, it might be Matthias Farley’s job soon.

 

THE UGLY

Malik Zaire’s injury. Seriously, this one is brutal. You could see it on Brian Kelly’s face in his postgame comments. You heard about it from the solemn players who didn’t look like they were celebrating a last-second victory.

Zaire’s loss is one of those not-fair injuries in football. And the heart of the Irish offense will now need to beat from the sidelines, doing his best to help DeShone Kizer from crutches.

Notre Dame’s John Heisler did the best job describing what the postgame scene was like. I’ll clip a snippet for you:

Brian Kelly came around the corner, stood right next to where Zaire sat, and it’s a wonder the Irish head coach could figure whether to laugh or cry.

“Look, I asked you to go out there and play for each other. I think I know I’ve got a team that will compete to the end.

“We know we’ve gotta play better. But there’s no quit in here anywhere. I love this group. We’ve got work to do. We’ve got to get better as a football team.”

Kelly then presented the game ball to Fuller, the guy Kelly said “was not gonna let his team lose the football game.

“Injuries are never anything we like to deal with, not when it’s our brothers. It stinks. . . . We lost Malik, and DeShone got his opportunity to step up. You don’t know when your time is going to come. DeShone didn’t know, but he came through and helped us win.”

Fuller, ever the calm and in-control one, referenced Zaire before leading his teammates in singing the Victory March.

Zaire put on a gold Notre Dame hat and Kelly and then quarterback coach Mike Sanford both sat with him—with Sanford kneeling and then associate head coach Mike Denbrock putting a hand on the quarterback’s shoulder.

Coming up with the right sort of consoling words to help Zaire was anything but easy, but everybody gave it their best shot. Athletics director Jack Swarbrick had one arm around Kizer as they viewed the scene.

Kelly visited with Zaire’s parents in the hallway tunnel on his way to the interview room, and Sanford did the same as he left the locker room.

Meanwhile Kelly can’t help but like his team’s fight:

“It says a lot abut their resolve as a group. They never got to the point where they didn’t believe they could win.”

You can’t help but feel for Zaire and his family after an injury like that. Now it’ll be up to his teammates to make sure they go out and win for their injured quarterback, especially in a critical game this weekend.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

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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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”