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

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Notre Dame beat Navy by 17 points, the final quarter a comfortable finish in a series that doesn’t always afford one. And with victories over both the Midshipmen and Georgia Tech, the coaching staff’s work over the offseason achieved its desired result.

Yes, the game was sloppy. Notre Dame was gashed by the fullback dive, a struggle that felt a little bit like a regression, especially with everybody seemingly understanding that Job No. 1 is, and always will be, stopping the fullback.

So while Quentin Ezell awoke the ghosts of Vince Murray and Alexander Teich, the defense tightened up in the second half. And winning the turnover battle decisively helped make up for a less explosive Irish offense, with the Midshipmen able to keep Notre Dame from breaking a play of longer than 30 yards.

It’s time for USC. So let’s put the triple-option to bed with the Good, Bad and Ugly and then get ready for the Trojans.

THE GOOD

Forcing Turnovers. Navy turned the ball over three times after having just one turnover through the first four games of the season. That played a huge factor in the victory, allowing the Irish a considerable margin for error on offense as they struggled early to score points.

Elijah Shumate made an excellent interception to seal the deal. Jaylon Smith was opportunistic when an option pitch fell through the hands of Chris Swain. And a key strip by Nyles Morgan led to Devin Butler recovering the opening kickoff of the second half and turning the game on its head. (Butler had to fight through a scrum to secure the ball, after missing an easy opportunity when the ball originally popped out.)

The Irish won the turnover battle for the first time since 2012. Not surprisingly, that allowed the Irish to get Navy off-schedule, and the result was some breathing room during the fourth quarter, with the Irish controlling the football and the game clock with three consecutive drives of 10 plays or more to end the game.

 

Getting Out Injury Free. On Sunday’s teleconference call, Brian Kelly confirmed what we thought we saw on Saturday—the Irish survived against Navy’s offense with no major injuries. Kelly credited that to good luck, but also talked about the continual work against the SWAG team, who cut block against the starting defense the week of the Georgia Tech game as well as this week.

“We had no injuries again—knock on wood—this week to anything below the waist for any of our linemen,” Kelly said. “They’re a little sore, obviously, but no major injuries there, again, for playing two very physical teams that play the triple option.”

Jerry Tillery did sprain his elbow, though Kelly said the freshman will wear a brace and continue to play. Nick Martin tweaked his ankle, though returned to play. And Kelly talked about how nice it’s been these past few Sundays after a nightmarish start to the season.

“My 1:30 (Sunday) meeting with the doctors has been my most anxious time of the year,” Kelly quipped. “So the last couple of weeks, the last two, three weeks have been pretty good. Hopefully, that trend continues because we get USC this week, and then we get a week off. So that’s going to be helpful as we move into the back end of the season.”

 

Robby Regan. Notre Dame’s freshman walk-on was awarded the game ball after Saturday’s victory. That a high school athlete better known for his wrestling ability was able to play such a significant role in the first half of the Irish season without ever taking the field says something about his value to the team.

“The guys love him. He sang the fight song,” Kelly said Sunday. “That’s the first time we had a true freshman stand up, and he got the game ball and sang the fight song, and there was a huge roar from the team.”

Regan helped give Notre Dame their best practice look at the option. And while he’ll never be Keenan Reynolds or Justin Thomas, he makes decisions at game-speed, something vital to the team’s preparation.

After surviving a week of getting pounded by Notre Dame’s starting defense, Regan became the first walk-on in Kelly’s memory to ever receive a game ball.

 

Justin Yoon. After looking really shaky earlier in the season, Yoon jump-started the Irish with a career-long 52-yard field goal as the first half expired, and was pure on every one of his other kick attempts, too.

After drilling a big field goal at Clemson in the rain storm, Yoon seems to have regained his confidence and the momentum he had going during fall camp, something he talked about after the game.

“Trying to get my momentum as a freshman wasn’t easy. A freshman going on the football field for the first time is a big spotlight, and that’s a difficult experience,” Yoon said. “I’ve progressed through the games, my teammates have put their trust in me. That’s the biggest thing.”

 

Jarrett Grace. We touched on this postgame, but Grace’s role meant more to the team that just a veteran backup making some big plays when his number was called. Inserted into the game to try and add some bulk to the Irish defense, Grace played big minutes, something that Kelly couldn’t help but marvel at during the Sunday teleconference.

“It was as meaningful for him as it was for me, just to know what he’s gone through and to be called upon to come in and play a very important role for us,” Kelly said. “If you watched him last year in August and September, you’d say there’s no way he’s going to be able to play again…

“To see him get out there and play on Saturday was pretty gratifying that he could get out there and help us.”

Kelly mentioned that in Grace’s introduction before speaking at the pep rally, he only had highlights from special teams. He knew that was selling him short, perhaps a good final reminder that the Cincinnati native could help this defense play smash-mouth football.

“He was one of our speakers at the pep rally, and all they showed him was on special teams, and I was like, dang, he’s much more than that.”

 

Quick Hits: 

* Another option opponent, another monster day by Greer Martini. Notre Dame’s sophomore linebacker has been a wonderful weapon for the Irish in triple-option games, mostly because of his ability to do his job.

“He’s got a really good understanding of his job and he’s a disciplined player, so when we ask him to do his job, he’s going to get it done,” Kelly said. “He just fits really well with the scheme that we’re employing and so it’s just a really good fit.”

* He already earned mention in our Five Things yesterday, but Sheldon Day‘s been incredibly disruptive, as we saw with nine tackles and two TFLs.

* Another game, another monster day from C.J. Prosise. While some want Prosise to get the national attention they feel like he deserves, it should be enough that he’s filling the stat sheet while also learning what he’s doing.

Prosise still isn’t the natural inside the tackles runner you might want a 220-pounder to be, but his ability to get to the edge and run through tackles is really, really impressive.

* It doesn’t seem fair when DeShone Kizer buys time rolling out and then finds Will Fuller. Not too many defenses can stop that type of scramble drill, and Kizer’s ability to keep his eyes down field is really impressive for a young kid.

* Coming into the game Navy was one of the best 3rd down teams in the country. Notre Dame’s defense held them to just 2-of-11.

 

THE BAD

A tough start. If you were thinking the Irish were in for a long Saturday after going three-and-out and then letting Keenan Reynolds slice and dice the defense in under 80 seconds, you weren’t alone. (I was with you.) But credit this group for showing resilience.

Kelly talked about not letting that start get in the way, especially after a good week of practice.

“I thought we responded very well offensively. And I think that response in scoring right away, kind of settled everybody down,” Kelly said.

 

Interior running struggles. Notre Dame attacked the perimeter yesterday, with C.J. Prosise getting to the edges via the quick pass or outside handoffs. But the Irish seemed to struggle running north and south, disappointing against a defense like Navy’s.

Alex Bars started for the first time, as Quenton Nelson’s ankle wasn’t ready to be tested. Nick Martin will need to get healthy after a tweaked ankle. But against USC, the Irish will need to be able to move the point of attack, something they didn’t necessarily do consistently against the Midshipmen.

 

Consistency in the secondary. It didn’t take long for Max Redfield to be replaced by Matthias Farley, especially after Redfield missed tackles while overrunning his alley. And while Elijah Shumate’s interception was a great step forward and Navy’s quarterbacks completed just three of six throws for 22 yards, the performance of the back end of the defense is still the one thing holding this defense back.

Kelly talked about what he wants to see from his secondary, and how two games against option competition might have actually been part of the problem this year.

“I still think consistency in the back end of our defense,” Kelly cited when asked where the team needs its best growth. “I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s kind of difficult. We played two option teams over the last four weeks. It makes it hard to continue to evolve defensively. I think that’s probably the area that we want to see continued growth is the back end of our defense.”

With USC’s talented skill players coming to town and the Irish just a season removed from getting absolutely demolished in coverage at the Coliseum, all eyes will be on Shumate, Redfield, KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke next weekend.

 

THE UGLY

Call it a big victory or call it mutual respect, your choice. This section is staying empty after a 17-point win.

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.

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)
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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.