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.

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.”