Chris Milton, Will Fuller

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Georgia Tech

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What a difference a day makes. The third Saturday of the college football season was a crazy one, with the happenings in South Bend far from the only eye-opening outcome on the weekend.

Alabama went down. USC lost to Stanford at home for the fourth time in their last five contests in the Coliseum. Big bad Ohio State looked far from that as they struggled to beat Northern Illinois 20-13, while future Notre Dame opponent Clemson’s defense carried the Tigers against Louisville in a closer-than-expected 20-17 win.

On a day where Colorado, Kansas State, Miami, South Alabama, Syracuse, Toledo and UTEP all won in overtime, Notre Dame served notice with its convincing 30-22 victory. The AP moved Notre Dame up to No. 6, while the coaches slid the Irish up to No. 8.

With UMass set to visit South Bend next Saturday, let’s get to the good, bad and ugly from the big Irish victory.

 

THE GOOD

The Defense. A day later, the performance of Notre Dame’s defense is just as impressive. A week after looking much more susceptible than we ever expected, the Irish were completely locked in (at least for 58 minutes and change) as they turned Georgia Tech’s well-oiled machine into a mistake-prone unit that lost its composure.

“I thought right from the start we kind of got rattled a little bit,” Paul Johnson conceded after the game. “When it wasn’t going good at first, we didn’t respond very well.

“I think you have to give Notre Dame some credit. They had something to do with that.”

A season after leading college football in third down conversion rate, Georgia Tech started 0 for 9 on 3rd down, and finished the game just three of 15. Entering the game without a three-and-out on the season, Notre Dame forced two straight to open the game.

Even more important, after starting the season 12-of-12 with a ridiculous 12 touchdowns in the red zone, Paul Johnson’s team got nothing on its first red zone appearance, scoring just twice in four appearances.

Notre Dame’s athleticism in the front seven matched Georgia Tech’s, with Joe Schmidt phenomenal from his middle linebacker spot. The schematic tweaks the Irish utilized paid immediate dividends, as Greer Martini stepped into the starting lineup and made eight tackles at outside linebacker.

Keeping Max Redfield on the sideline was a bold move, but it paid off, as Drue Tranquill put together an impressive first half working the alleys before his season was ended just before halftime. And when Matthias Farley was called into action after Tranquill went down, Farley immediately made a big play, forcing a fumble and holding his own with four tackles.

Best of all, it was finally revealed that there wasn’t just some “solution” for the option. Notre Dame’s defense succeeded by being aggressive, being multiple, and continually making changes, varying three and four-man fronts, one and two-high safeties, with the only constant aggression. And after five years of looking for a solution to the option, Kelly and company seem to have found their firmest grasp on it yet.

 

The SWAG team.

Nothing better illustrates Notre Dame’s commitment to stopping the triple-option than the SWAG team. Assembled in training camp and utilized on a near daily basis to give the starting defense consistent work against an option opponent, the SWAG team is a specialized unit comprised of walk-ons, scholarship players and scout teamers whose sole job was running Georgia Tech and Navy’s triple option.

“I’d be remiss without mentioning our swag team,” Kelly said. “That is our triple option team. They named themselves swag. It’s been kind of this thing that’s gone on since camp started. They wanted their own identity. They did such a great job preparing our defense.”

According to Kelly, SWAG stands for Students With Attitude and Game. But fancy wordplay aside, “swag” is a shortened version of swagger, and how kids these days talk about confidence, uniqueness and style.

That isn’t usually how you’d describe a group of freshmen, walk-ons and career back-ups whose job it is to get knocked around by the starting defense on a daily basis.

“The Swag team does an incredible job week in and week out. And I think they just have complete buy in,” captain Matthias Farley said after the game. “There’s guys on that team who are on scholarship and are very talented, fast and dynamic. When you have guys like that giving you a great look, they’re not down, they’re busting their tails and that gives us an incredible look.”

 

 

Notre Dame’s coaching staff. It had to feel pretty good inside the coaches’ room on Saturday evening. With just about every national pundit picking Georgia Tech to win, the self-belief in the locker room was instilled by the staff this week and carried onto the field by the players.

Notre Dame’s game plan for slowing down Georgia Tech was nine months in the making. And a continual approach to facing off with the option as opposed to one week of focus is now the way you should expect Kelly and company to move forward.

“For me personally and moving forward as we see that the option is going to be something that we see each and every year, I wanted something that definitely could be duplicated and replicated from year-to-year,” Kelly explained on Sunday.

“The way we play it, you know, is something that I want to continue to do, and we don’t have to have such a huge adjustment each year with our defensive football team. I think we may have found the right kind of balance with the way we’re teaching our kids.”

The Irish aren’t in the clear yet, especially considering Keenan Reynolds is every bit as dangerous as Justin Thomas. But this game meant something, and there was no hiding that.

We already knew about the Brian VanGorder-Paul Johnson subplot. Now add to it this little tidbit, revealed by Eric Hansen and Al Lesar in the South Bend Tribune, and it likely tasted even a little bit sweeter.

There’s a reason that Brian Kelly called this game a “program win.” I think it’s probably the most impressive regular-season victory of his time in South Bend, considering what the option did to him early in his tenure, the injuries that have accumulated and being forced to start DeShone Kizer for the first time.

 

 

 

THE BAD

Turnovers and Mistakes. Probably the most impressive thing about Saturday’s win was the fact that the Irish weren’t perfect. DeShone Kizer’s ill-advised throw to Corey Robinson was the product of a bad read by Kizer, who missed bracket coverage that forced Robinson to convert his route. It took points off the board.

Freshman tight end Alize Jones did his best to test the blood pressure of his head coach when he coughed up the football in the final minute of the first half. The defense bailed him out. And kicker Justin Yoon was shaky again, clanging one extra point off the upright and missing another completely. But Kelly sent him right back out there after halftime, and Yoon converted the kick.

Kizer, Jones and Yoon are all doing this for the first time, thrown into the deep end as the Irish have won three games against Power 5 conference opponents. So credit goes to the Irish for overcoming their mistakes and still winning the game.

The last two minutes.

With the majority of the working press bundled on the sidelines, Georgia Tech made the game interesting. Too interesting. With just a victory formation left, the Irish couldn’t get the ball back, allowing Tech to march down the field and score a touchdown, then follow it up with another score.

It didn’t get close. But it certainly got a little uncomfortable. And while Torii Hunter recovered the onside kick to end things, it took a little too long to do so.

 

THE UGLY

Drue Tranquill’s knee. You can’t help but feel horrible for Tranquill, who tore his right ACL celebrating a pass breakup before half time, his second major knee injury in as many seasons.

Tranquill was a key piece of the option package, and his loss will be felt against Navy. He’s also a piece of important depth at safety, where the Irish will be looking for considerable answers.

Zaire says thank you to Notre Dame

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - SEPTEMBER 12: Quarterback Malik Zaire #8 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes past defensive end Mike Moore #32 of the Virginia Cavaliers in the third 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)
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Big week for The Observer. Not just for its advertising revenues, but for the classy gesture that outgoing senior quarterback Malik Zaire made this week.

Thursday’s edition included a letter to the editor from Zaire, who took to the student newspaper not to make headlines around the internet, but rather to thank the university for his experience in South Bend.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame is drawing to a close, he will leave as a proud alum. So while he’ll play football next season at another university, Zaire wrote the following in Thursday’s issue:

Dear Notre Dame students and staff,

My life changed for the better the moment I stepped onto the University of Notre Dame’s beautiful campus. The one goal I had set in my mind to achieve was to become a better man, a Notre Dame man. After growing through many trials and triumphs, the thing I’ve learned most from my experience was that if you don’t believe in yourself first, then no one else will. I believed in becoming a better man and succeeding through any circumstance, and I can say that I’ve truly accomplished that. I often refer to the famous quote from the movie “Catch Me If You Can” that was well put by Frank Abagnale:

“Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out.”

I’ve put my heart, soul and passion into the University, the football program, the South Bend community and the Irish community worldwide. I have the unbelievable honor to represent this University to the fullest as a student and soon-to-be alumni. Thank you to the amazing students and staff that I’ve met through the years for helping me grow into the person I’ve always wanted to be. I love the Irish and will always be an Irish alum no matter where I go! I look forward to keeping in touch. Let’s change the world!

Go Irish!

Malik Zaire

Senior
Dec. 7

Zaire is expected to compete for a starting quarterback job next year as a graduate transfer. He’s reportedly taken a visit to Wisconsin and plans to visit North Carolina as well, just two of several programs on the radar as Zaire looks to step in and win a starting Power 5 job.

 

 

 

ESPN’s Kiper & McShay: Kizer should return to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 29: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish drops back to pass during the game against the Miami Hurricanes at Notre Dame Stadium on October 29, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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It’s evaluation season. With college football’s regular season over, the focus now turns to the stay-or-go decision that faces many of college football’s best players. Return for another season? Or head to the NFL?

That’s the big question facing DeShone Kizer. Viewed as a can’t-miss prospect by some earlier in the season, Kizer now awaits feedback from the NFL’s advisory board, who’ll give him either a first-round grade, a second-round grade, or none — essentially serving as a message to return to school.

That feedback is something Kizer’s requested, with Brian Kelly revealing that Kizer is one of four underclassmen requesting a review, joined by Mike McGlinchey, Nyles Morgan and Quenton Nelson. 

And while most still think it’s merely a formality before Kizer heads to the NFL, two of the media’s most well-established pundits, ESPN’s Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, are among those who actually think Kizer should stay in school.

In ESPN’s 25 questions about the 2017 NFL Draft, Kiper and McShay focus their attention on potential first-round quarterbacks:

There’s really only one guy right now, and he might not even enter the draft. That’s North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, a fourth-year junior who is in his first season as the starter. Trubisky has thrown 28 touchdown passes to only four interceptions, but he’s still green — with another year of seasoning, he could be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft. He’s not ready to play right away in the NFL.

I don’t see any other first-rounders in the group. Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, a third-year sophomore, has to go back to school. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson has taken a step back this season. Underclassmen Luke Falkand Patrick Mahomes could use another year in school, and they don’t project as first-rounders.

McShay echoed Kiper’s evaluation of Kizer, stating: “Kizer needs another year.” And if the Irish get that, it means they’ll have a 1-2 depth chart of a third-year starter in Kizer and junior Brandon Wimbush, who saved a year of eligibility in 2016 and has three remaining.

Kizer’s been clear that he hasn’t made up his mind, planning on talking with his family about the decision in the weeks following the season. And with the year-end banquet this weekend with Notre Dame hosting the “Echoes,” that decision might come sooner than later.

Last year, the NFL draft wasn’t kind to the Irish roster. Four key players gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, with Ronnie Stanley going in the Top 10 to the Baltimore Ravens and Will Fuller joining him as a first-round selection after going to the Houston Texans. Even injured, Jaylon Smith was taken near the top of the second round by Dallas and C.J. Prosise was a third-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks.

Underclassmen have until January 16th to declare.

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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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
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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.