SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish passes against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Pregame Six Pack: Notre Dame (and Mother Nature) head to Clemson

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As the East Coast braces for Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame prepares for a gigantic football game. The Irish head to upstate South Carolina on Friday, ready for the elements, not to mention a football game with No. 12 Clemson.

The Irish practiced with a wet ball this week. They worked out on natural grass. They drilled down and tried to cover everything, from squib kicks to rain delays, any potential scenario they might face, on or off the field.

“We booked a hotel for a couple extra days just in case,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got a place Sunday or Monday, we’ll be down there and ready to play.”

After a week of work, Kelly is confident that his team won’t be worried about the weather. After all, the Tigers seem to be challenge enough.

So as DeShone Kizer gets ready to lead the Irish into Memorial Stadium and a rain-soaked Death Valley, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. (Hopefully you brought an umbrella.)

 

Forget about Hurricane Joaquin. All Irish eyes should be on DeShone Kizer.

There is no single player more important to the Irish’s fate this weekend than quarterback DeShone Kizer. The sophomore is coming off three performances where he’s looked at home in the pocket, never displaying any of the shakiness you might expect from a first-time performer.

But traveling to Clemson will be different. As will the elements. Kizer covered both parts of this equation on Wednesday, sounding not all that worried about any slickness that might come with a wet football.

“I’ve never really had too big of an issue when it came to rain. I have pretty good-sized hands where I can grip the ball pretty well,” Kizer said this week. “We’ll definitely prepare for that with using wet balls in our practice and understanding that the wind is going to come into play and things like that. But it’s all going to be a mental mindset.”

Dealing with the crowd is another point. After recalling the feeling that came when he heard his first Tomahawk chop at Doak Campbell Stadium, Kizer expects this crowd to be even louder, giving him all the more reason to do his best to quiet them down quickly.

“Doing the extra small things—making sure you’re being quick in getting up there and relaying the play a couple times down. And getting back into your stance so you can be able to make a check,” Kizer said. “Also with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays…so we’ve got to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”

 

It’s been since 1977 since Notre Dame and Clemson did battle. Let’s hope this one is as good of a game as the one 38 years ago. 

It’s a trip beyond Memory Lane for me, but the last time Notre Dame traveled to Clemson, Joe Montana led the Irish to an epic victory that helped spring a national championship. Trailing by 10 heading into the fourth quarter, Montana put the team on his shoulders, running for two touchdowns to pull out a 21-17 win, their closest game in their national championship season.

(Fun fact: Montana faced off against his professional teammate, TE Dwight Clark, that evening in Clemson, collegiate opponents before becoming one of the game’s historic QB-TE connections, including “The Catch” from the 1982 NFC Championship game.)

But while Montana’s comeback is all that remains in most stories, one controversial call still stands above the rest. On a critical 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line, Clemson looked to be stuffed just shy of the end zone (feel free to watch for yourself). But the referee found a way to block Notre Dame’s defender from making the tackle, allowing Clemson’s Lester Brown to get to the pylon before the Irish could chase him down.

It’s the type of play that would’ve likely melted the internet (certainly more controversial than the illegal pick called last season) today, with screams of home-cooking surely to last for years to come. Instead, the Irish pulled the victory out, rallying from the 10-point deficit to turn the play into a forgotten footnote.

Are we in for a game as memorable as that one? Check out this spooky stat:

 

Keep your eye on the trenches. While the Irish offensive line is stout, Notre Dame’s front seven might hold the key to victory.

Clemson’s offensive line is a work in progress. While the Tigers skill talent is among the best Notre Dame has faced, the guys protecting Deshaun Watson are still figuring it out.

So while most of us have wondered if Harry Hiestand’s boys can continue their dominance up front, take a look at Notre Dame’s front seven, because there’s a chance this group is the one that wins the game for the Irish.

Clemson starts a true freshman at left tackle. Mitch Hyatt was a blue-chip recruit and a Top 100 player, but at this time last year he was playing at North Gwinnett high school, not in the ACC. A matchup with Sheldon Day or Isaac Rochell might be a good one for Notre Dame.

Starting center Ryan Norton is out with a knee injury, replaced by junior Jay Guillermo. Even veterans Eric Mac Lain and Joe Gore, both fifth-year seniors, hardly inspire much confidence.

In their preview of the offensive line before the season, Shakin’ the Southland had this to say about the veteran duo.

Eric Mac Lain was a failed tackle experiment that moved inside to guard and has still struggled at times in the pass pro department. Joe Gore looks like Tarzan but for the most part has played like Jane throughout his career.

Notre Dame’s front controlling things could be key this weekend. And facing an offensive line that finished last season ranked 101st in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and has had to deal with injuries and replacing two key starters? This might be a place where the Irish could take control of the game.

For all the join a conference talk, Notre Dame is still plenty comfortable in the ACC. And they should be, considering the Notre Dame alums running athletic departments across the conference. 

It’s not exactly a story that’ll impact the play on the field this weekend. But Dabo Swinney’s non-comment comments about Notre Dame and the ACC stirred up a bunch of old news, namely complaints from other coaches that the Irish should join a conference.

The Irish did join a conference, in all sports but football. And Notre Dame’s made a quick home in the ACC, a partnership that has all parties involved saying nothing but good things. That ACC commissioner John Swofford accepted partial-admittance in exchange for five regular season football games raised a few eyeballs. But no group of athletic directors likely understand the value of the Irish to the conference more than the ACC.

We see that this week, in ticket prices. We saw that in Notre Dame’s trip to Virginia. And as the Irish continue their tour of ACC opponents, they’ll play to packed houses, not always the norm for an average Saturday in a conference that isn’t as rabid as the SEC.

In this week’s game notes from Clemson, Tigers Assistant AD and football SID Tim Bourrett (a 1977 Notre Dame grad) points out the Irish alums in leadership positions inside the conference, likely a reason the move was such a good fit to begin with.

Georgia Tech’s athletic director Mike Bobinski is a 1979 Notre Dame graduate. Florida State’s AD Stan Wilcox graduated from Notre Dame in 1981, playing for Digger Phelps on the 1977-78 basketball team that reached the Final Four. North Carolina’s Bubba Cunningham played golf for the Irish and earned both a bachelors degree and a master from Notre Dame. He also spent over 15 years in the Irish athletics department.

So while some head coaches inside the conference may not understand why Notre Dame’s allowed a unique relationship with the conference, don’t worry—their bosses do.

Going up against a tough Clemson defense, Notre Dame’s offensive line knows it has a chance to make a statement. 

Notre Dame’s running game has taken college football by storm. Expected to be a backup, C.J. Prosise‘s 600 yards are the most in school history through four games. His yardage, touchdowns and average per carry all are within the nation’s best dozen statistically.

That work has been fueled by the offensive line. Both Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin look like top NFL prospects. The Irish rank 12th in the nation in rushing offense at 284.8 yards per game, the most through four games for an Irish team since 1992, exactly 23 seasons ago. (Another fun fact: Not a single player on Notre Dame’s team was alive for that season.)

Center Nick Martin talked about the mindset the Irish offensive line has as they head into their most challenging environment of the year, facing their most capable opponent.

“It’s a sense of pride. As an O-lineman we love to run the ball. We like when we have success,” Martin said. Our running backs, the way they run, you guys have all seen it. It’s unbelievable.

“Up front, we work our butts off to try and make holes and do our best. But beyond that also, it’s about the people that come before you, too. The O lines, having guys like Chris Watt, Zack Martin, Christian Lombard, those guys, and even before that, the O line at Notre Dame, especially in the 90s and ever since then, has always been a sense of pride, and we just try to carry that on.”

Saturday evening, with a 99 percent chance of rain in the forecast, the offensive line will be asked to dictate terms. After earning the game ball last week, Martin and his linemates couldn’t be happier for the opportunity.

 

With the hype machine turned up to an 11, every little thing counts. And it’s certainly added some fuel to the matchup of Will Fuller against Clemson’s talented secondary.

We’ve already talked about Will Fuller vs. Mackensie Alexander. Clemson’s top corner is ready for the receiver that Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables is calling perhaps “the best receiver in America.”

Alexander’s teammates are also ready. They took this tweet by Fuller and used it as fuel, a slight only understandable with an advanced degree in social media and youthful hashtags.

“I actually ‘favorited’ the tweet,” Clemson safety Jayron Kearse told local media on Monday. “They’re talking a lot. Obviously they don’t know what we do down here in Death Valley, so I’m looking forward to this.”

The Tigers have put together quite a winning run at home over the past few years. But Fuller has also dominated college football these past two seasons as well, scoring more touchdowns than any other receiver in college football since the start of 2014.

So Saturday night, something’s got to give. And with the weather, the Irish and the Tigers all set to do battle in Death Valley, it’s got the ingredients to be a classic.

 

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.”