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.

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.