SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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

60 Comments

After Notre Dame’s 62-27 win, Brian Kelly said the Irish will follow their standard 24-hour rule and celebrate their victory. But here’s guessing they cut the celebration short a few hours, knowing there was significant work to be done before heading to South Carolina for their biggest game of the year thus far.

But before we turn our full attention to next weekend in Death Valley, let’s close the book on the weekend that was. Here’s your good, bad and ugly from the Irish’s 35-point win.

 

THE GOOD

The Ground Game. Notre Dame ran for 457 yards on Saturday. That’s the first time over 400 since the 1996 season. It’s the fifth-straight game the Irish have gone over 200 yards, the first time that’s happened since 2000. So it’s safe to say that the offensive line, C.J. Prosise and the rest of the Irish ground gainers have it going pretty good right now.

The mismatch up front was obvious from the start, maybe even before the start considering Colorado gashed UMass in a season-opening win. And it’s tough to say much more succinctly than UMass head coach Mark Whipple said after the game.

“We just couldn’t handle their offensive line. Their offensive line just manhandled us,” Whipple said.

Prosise got the 15 carries that I thought he should get. Josh Adams was fed the ball and he responded with a 70-yarder for a touchdown and his first 100-yard afternoon. Dexter Williams looked good and even both quarterbacks were effective running the ball.

A few years ago, the Irish couldn’t find a back who could break a 20-yard run. Now, Notre Dame has a backfield of home run hitters (including a back-up quarterback!), none more impressive than Prosise, who had two more touchdown runs of 15+ yards. He’s already at 600 yards for the season, and could’ve probably been two-thirds of the way to 1,000 had Kelly kept giving him the football.

A dominant performance when we were expecting one. That’s what good football teams do.

 

The Special Teams. Tyler Newsome set a Notre Dame record with an average of 52.4 yards per punt. C.J. Sanders returned a punt for a touchdown, the first since Golden Tate did it in 2009. Jarrett Grace and Greer Martini sniffed out a fake punt and everything but an extra point off the upright was pretty much perfect.

Freshman Nicco Fertitta also ripped loose a football on a kickoff, though UMass jumped on the fumble. (Worth noting: Montgomery VanGorder came in to hold late in the game, likely as a backup, but also possibly because DeShone Kizer’s got plenty on his plate.)

The Irish flipped the field and took over the game when Newsome’s punt was pinned inside the one-yard-line. That Kelly put his trust in the special teams and not the offensive line was telling and another good strategic move by the Irish head coach.

 

Big Plays for the offense. Notre Dame scored four different touchdowns of 35 yards or more. That makes nine touchdowns this season over 35-yards or longer, a nice reminder that this team is filled with guys who can take the ball the distance whenever they get a shot at it.

Five different players had a run of a dozen yards or more. Four different receivers caught a pass 15 yards or longer. If the Irish can find ways to make plays in space against Clemson next week, it’ll be hard to slow Notre Dame down.

 

The Kids. So many young players got on the field on Saturday. And just as many of them looked good doing it. After sticking mostly with the two deep in the first three games, Notre Dame cleared the benches on Saturday afternoon.

Brandon Wimbush made a terrific debut. He showed elite arm strength and game-breaking athleticism, breaking the longest QB run since Andrew Hendrix nearly took it to the house against Air Force.

Wimbush is clearly still learning. His decision to not run the ball, freestyle on the fly and throw deep to Equanimeous St. Brown, was sandlot football. It was completely illegal (the Irish had multiple offensive linemen down field blocking, aka doing their job). But it also revealed both players’ ability, something we’ll likely see in the years to come.

Notre Dame’s No. 2 offensive line got work, with Hunter Bivin giving Ronnie Stanley a break after he was rolled up right after half and Alex Bars getting in on the right side. Sam Mustipher put a snap past Wimbush, but otherwise he was unnoticed—another good thing.

Defensively, it was great to see young players everywhere. Greer Martini led the Irish in tackles. Nyles Morgan managed to make seven, playing only in garbage time. Linebacker Te’von Coney played some key snaps (he was on the field in goal line) and we got a look at Nick Watkins and Nick Coleman as well.

It was a next generation game for the Irish and that group looked very good.

 

Quick Hits: 

Chris Brown made his second touchdown catch of the season. That’s a career high. That’s a surprising stat to me, and Brown’s emergence at the No. 2 receiver is a pleasant surprise, matching up to the dominance he’s routinely displayed in practice.

Nice to see Sheldon Day earn another sack. Day made a big play to kill what was left of UMass’s momentum. Another surprise? Day’s two sacks is now tied with his career high in a season, when he was a freshman in 2012.

That preseason knee injury to Corey Robinson? Weird, it wasn’t a season-ender. Kelly said Sunday that Robinson received a cortisone shot and will be back at practice on Tuesday.

Worth noting: Max Redfield may be listed as the starter, but Matthias Farley played a lot of first team reps at safety. And not surprising, it was a tipped ball that Farley got his hands on that led to Cole Luke‘s first interception of the season, just the first of the year for the Irish.

(It was good seeing Redfield out there in the second half earning his keep with some of the backups. He needs to take the reps, especially against an offense that throws the football.)

It’s getting normal to see C.J. Prosise break really long touchdown runs. But that 56-yarder was a thing of beauty.

The Defense played great in the third quarter, and really not as terribly as maybe we all thought. (We’ll still get to them later in the bad section…)

Last tip of the cap: Mark Whipple. He’s a cagey football coach and his postgame comments were tremendous.

 

THE BAD

Big plays hurting the defense. For the second time this season, a trick play baffled the Irish defense. And almost shockingly, UMass broke a touchdown run right up the gut, a game-changing score from the Minutemen.

It’s hard to feel 100-percent warm and fuzzy about the state of the defense after watching the weekend performance. Coverage was good, but hardly great. Cole Luke had an interception, but he was also beat for a big gain. KeiVarae Russell continues to look good, but he’s still clutching and grabbing too much.

Here’s how Kelly described the secondary’s play after four games.

“I think there’s times where we’re competing and challenging throws, and then there’s some times that we’re not,” Kelly said. “I think that if you’re asking Coach VanGorder and Coach Lyght, I think what we’re looking for is consistency and competing for the ball. Some of it is technique where we’re losing at the line of scrimmage in some instances, and then some of it is just not being as aggressive as we’d like to be to the ball. So at times, we are getting those two things. We just need to get it more consistently.”

Clemson will test Luke and Russell, and even more critically, the safeties. And if the Irish get through the Tigers, watching USC’s receiving corps take Cody Kessler dump offs and turn them into gigantic plays, Notre Dame’s athleticism on the edge will need to be mirrored by excellent technique.

Moving on to the run-fits, that Notre Dame gave up yardage on the ground and at one point was being outgained by the Minutemen as they averaged 9.0 yards per play—that was cause for concern, grumblings that echoed across all of cyberspace for a time.

But here’s another look at the UMass offensive performance, removing the three game-changing negative plays Notre Dame allowed (trick-play pass, long run and flipped field interception by Kizer):

3-1 PUNT
6-14 PUNT
4-5 PUNT
3-5 PUNT
5-34 PUNT
4-7 INT

UMass gained 139 yards and had two double-digit play drives in their final two possessions against the Irish subs. So while cleaning up the big play is critical, it wasn’t as if the defense was sliced and diced.

 

THE UGLY

Staying empty. Young kids running around everywhere. Two dodged bullets (Ronnie Stanley, Corey Robinson) in the injury department. All in all, a fun Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

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)
Getty
48 Comments

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)
35 Comments

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.

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

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
107 Comments

Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.

VanGorder out as defensive coordinator

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)
AP
117 Comments

Brian VanGorder has been fired. Notre Dame’s third-year defensive coordinator was relieved of his duties after just four games.

Brian Kelly made the move official Sunday morning, less than an hour before his weekly Sunday teleconference. He’s replaced VanGorder with defensive analyst Greg Hudson, a former Notre Dame linebacker who joined the Irish staff in June and spent the last three seasons as defensive coordinator at Purdue, a position he also held at East Carolina and Minnesota. The rest of the defensive staff remains unchanged.

“Obviously, this is a difficult day for our coaching staff, but I’m excited and honored about the opportunity that Coach Kelly has afforded me,” Hudson said in the team’s statement. “We’ve got to improve on defense, without a doubt, and I’m confident that we will. We have great student-athletes and a tremendous defensive coaching staff. I can’t wait to get started with our group.”

The VanGorder era ends with the Irish ranked 101st in scoring defense, 96th in rushing defense and 87th in pass defense. The Irish are dead last in sacks, the last FBS team to get one when Nyles Morgan finally got the team’s first sack against Duke.

Hired after Bob Diaco left Notre Dame for the head job at UConn, VanGorder brought with him an NFL system and a multiple, attacking scheme. But after injuries derailed his first season, it was a defense best known for its maddening inconsistency, with even last season’s talented outfit plagued by the big play and mistakes.

As late as Saturday night Kelly pledged allegiance to his defensive coordinator, calling the staff’s game plan the least of his concerns after the 38-35 loss.

“We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective,” Kelly said.