Chris Hairston, Nate L. Smith, Alex Wells

And in that corner… The Temple Owls

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A lot has changed since Temple visited South Bend to kick off the 2013 season. Head coach Matt Rhule had just taking over for Steve Addazio, who had jumped to Boston College after a few nice seasons in Philadelphia.

Rhule had returned to the Owls from the NFL, back to the place where he had coordinated Al Golden’s offense during Golden’s impressive build job that got him a chance in Miami.

Rhule’s work has been brick-by-brick. A two-win season first year built to last season’s 6-6 campaign. But 2015 has been a dream start, capitalizing on a veteran defense and a team that’s shown a champion’s mentality—with the Owls holding the inside track for an American Conference title, something most didn’t think possible just a few years ago.

With the college football world focused on the Owls’ evening in the spotlight on Saturday, Temple will be ready for its star turn. And getting us ready for what might be the biggest game in Temple program history is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marc Narducci.

Marc has been with the Inquirer for over 30 years, covering just about every sport the area has to offer. During one of the busiest weeks covering Temple football in a long, long time, he still found time to share his thoughts about the state of the Owls and this weekend’s big game.

Hope you enjoy.

Temple’s season-opening win over Penn State started 2015 with a bang. Since then, Matt Rhule’s team has done nothing but win. Before we getting into this weekend’s matchup, can you provide Notre Dame fans with some context for this 7-0 start? In your opinion, is this the high-water mark for Temple football?

It is only the high water mark because the program has never been 7-0 to start a season. So in that aspect it is, but the team feels there is so much more to accomplish. Many felt that the Penn State win, the first over the Nittany Lions in 74 years, would be the high water mark, but then the next week Temple had no letdown and beat the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati on the road.

I really believe in Temple’s mind, the actual high water mark hasn’t been accomplished. The goal has always been to win the AAC title and Temple is clearly in the driver’s seat to at least represent its division in the title game.

 

The Owls are getting it done with defense. They’re 8th in the country in scoring defense and No. 6 against the run. What’s been the secret to their success?

I think the biggest factor is experience. This is a unit that allowed 17.5 points per game last year and has improved, while playing a more difficult schedule. Temple is allowing 14.6 points per game and the team has great senior leadership. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is the only FBS player to lead his team in tackles in every game this season. He has 420 tackles for his career and could become the seventh player in NCAA history to record 100 or more tackles each season (He has 65 this year).

DT Matt Ioannidis doesn’t have big stats, but he has been a load to move up front. And the best pure pass rusher is Praise Martin-Oguike, who at 6-2, and 255 is a little undersized, but quick. He has been hampered by injuries, but has shown great flashes. And he made the biggest defensive play of the year – blocking an extra point against UMass that was returned for a two-point defensive score by Will Hayes in a 25-23 last-minute win. The Owls also have a strong secondary, led by the corners, sophomore Sean Chandler and senior Tavon Young. Chandler has been the best one-on-one defender this year.

 

This still feels very much like an offense that’s a work in progress. P.J. Walker played big down the stretch in the comeback victory over East Carolina, but nationally the Owls are 93rd in the country running the football and 92nd throwing it. What’s the secret for Temple’s offensive success on Saturday night? And is Walker the most important piece of the puzzle?

You are right that the offense is a work in progress. The Owls have had trouble getting started in games. Walker separated his shoulder in the opening win over Penn State, but he is a tough kid and didn’t miss any time. He says now he is feeling much better. Walker hasn’t been much of a running threat, which would really open things up. He has been inconsistent, but has shown great composure when it was needed during fourth quarter comebacks against UMass and East Carolina. Plus, he is taking care of the ball. Last year he threw 13 TDs and 15 interceptions. This year he has nine TD passes and three interceptions.

An underrated aspect of the offense’s success is the improved play of the offensive line, led by Rimington candidate, senior Kyle Friend, who at 6-2, 305 is considered undersized, but he is one of the strongest players, if not the strongest on the team. The OL has only allowed seven sacks and junior running back Jahad Thomas leads the AAC in rushing with 117.4 yards per game. He has rushed for 822 yards (5.0 avg.) and 12 TDs.

 

It’s hard to get caught up on the Owls and not notice the season Tyler Matakevich is having. He’s been a tackling machine and has a team-high four interceptions. But the core of the Temple defense is playing equally impressive defense—Matt Ioannidis and Haason Reddick have been great up front and Nate D. Smith has been incredibly disruptive as well, especially in limited snaps. Is that a testament to veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s system? Rhule’s player development? Good recruiting?

It is all of the above. As for recruiting, none of these players was highly recruited, but Temple has a penchant for developing these type of players. For instance, Temple was Matakevich’s only Division I offer. Temple never worries about what the 5-star or 4-star lists say. More than many staffs, the coaches look inside a player and see what he is all about.

If you look, many of these guys are below the height/weight standards people are looking for. Matakevich is 6-1, 232. Nate D. Smith is a converted linebacker who is 6-0, 236. Yet all these players have toughness that is off the chart, something that Rhule looks for in recruiting.

 

Staying on the topic of Rhule, he’s likely to get a long look from a number of major programs that’ll be hiring a new head coach. In your mind, what are the odds that he’s coaching the Owls at this time next season? What has made him so successful at Temple in such a short period of time.

I would place the odds of 50-50 that Rhule stays. He really like Philadelphia, likes Temple and counting his years as an assistant has been there nine years. I think it appeals to him working in a pro city, where his every move isn’t scrutinized. Temple realized what an outstanding coach he could be when they extended his contract before this year, despite having a 8-16 record his first two years. Unlike his predecessor, Steve Addazio, Rhule never looked at this job as a place to climb the ladder. Remember, he left the pros as an assistant to come back here. That all said, if a big program offers him four times the salary, it would be hard to turn down. So we will see.

 

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be following Temple football. A sold out Lincoln Financial Stadium. A national TV broadcast with the weekend’s only game featuring ranked opponents. (ESPN’s College GameDay, too.)

With a long dormant stadium project potentially back to life, what has this season meant for the football program and the university? And is it possible to quantify what a win over Notre Dame on Saturday would mean?

This season has meant everything to football. The fact that Temple is making a strong push now for a football stadium, is a way of capitalizing on all the success. The win over Penn State meant a lot in terms of recruiting and national publicity. Just multiply that by 10 if the Owls are able to beat Notre Dame.

It would help in recruiting, fund raising and more importantly, would give the Owls a chance to earn a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve bowl bid. Even if Temple loses but accredits itself well, being on GameDay and ABC is invaluable publicity.

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.”