PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

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

104 Comments

On a Saturday where we saw multiple Playoff contenders drop by the wayside, Notre Dame’s ability to handle their business was a welcome relief. Courtesy of DeShone Kizer‘s poise and a nice effort by both the offense and defense, the Irish managed to cruise to an easy victory, even while only putting up 437 offensive yards, their lowest output in a victory this season.

Notre Dame lost offensive engine C.J. Prosise, but rolled on behind freshman Josh Adams. And Irish receiver Will Fuller reminded opposing teams why trying to cover him with one man is a bad idea, Pat Narduzzi’s calculus failing a simple logic test.

With Senior Day next Saturday and the Irish big favorites against a young Wake Forest team, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 42-30 win over Pittsburgh.

THE GOOD

Josh Adams. Perhaps Adams will be the player who allows Irish fans to finally take a deep breath and wait until a recruit gets to campus before evaluating him. (Just kidding. I know he won’t be.) Remember, it was Adams who was one of the “head-shaking” offers of Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, a three-star running back with just an average offer list who was also coming off of an ACL tear.

Yet Adams has been what the Irish staff thought he could be—a big, powerful, fast and instinctive runner who has quickly picked up the system and provided a much-needed backup to C.J. Prosise.

We saw that on Saturday, with Adams gashing Pitt’s defense for 147 yards on just 20 carries. He scored on a quick flip from Kizer, and he ran for tough yards on inside looks, something the Irish haven’t been all that successful doing.

Kelly has commented that Adams might just be scratching the surface. That’s a tantalizing prospect, considering he’s averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry.

However quickly Prosise returns to the field, expect Adams to have earned his way into the rotation. He can take some of the load off Prosise’s back, especially as the senior works to get healthy through some nagging injuries.

“I think he proved to everybody that he’s capable against a very good defense in Pittsburgh of getting deserved carries, earned carries. He earned that opportunity in this game,” Kelly said of Adams. “I think he can lessen the load for C.J. and provide us with another option in there, as well. I would agree that he earned that this weekend.”

 

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s sophomore quarterback had a statistical day that was among the best in Irish football history. His six total touchdowns match an all-time record. His five touchdown passes and zero interceptions push his completion percentage up to 66 percent and his TD:INT ratio to 16 scores against just six takeaways. And his mastery of the offense looks more and more complete, capable of doing whatever he wanted on Saturday against a pretty good defense.

After the game, Kizer talked about how happy he was with the offense’s execution, especially the offensive line going against pressure specialist Pat Narduzzi.

“It was unbelievable. They executed our game plan all the way through,” Kizer said. “We knew that Narduzzi had some tricks he was going to throw at us, but we predicted them pretty well. The offensive line did a really good job executing.”

It’s clear that the bar has been raised for Kizer. That performance felt more expected than anything else, especially with all segments of the offense operating at maximum efficiency.

Sunday, Kelly acknowledged Kizer’s ascent, with Saturday his best game grade of the season.

“I graded him out very, very high. I would probably say right now that he did some things in this game that he hasn’t done all year,” Kelly said. “I think that probably is because he’s gaining so much more confidence and seeing some things that he feels really comfortable with that has allowed him to now elevate his game to the level that it is right now. I would probably agree that it was his best performance this year.”

 

Tyler Newsome. Let’s give Notre Dame’s punter some credit! A week after kicking the ball poorly against Temple, Newsome got back to the basics and launched the football against Pitt, another special teams unit that’s been very disruptive this season in terms of blocks.

Newsome helped flip the field twhen the Irish offense sputtered for a time in the first half, and averaged 51.8 yards per kick with three punts over 50 yards.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Kelly said after the game.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Hunter chipped in with three catches and scored his second touchdown of the season on Saturday. But more importantly, he unveiled the defense’s newest plan to find consistency in the nickel alignment, with the junior receiver moonlighting as a coverman.

Kelly revealed on Saturday that Hunter had been working at the position for three weeks. On Sunday, he talked a little bit more about the thought process of putting Hunter, there, a part-time player with the ability to take on a bit more workload.

“Torii Hunter shares reps offensively, so we felt like he was a great fit to do some work on defense,” Kelly said.

 

Romeo Okwara. It’s time to acknowledge Notre Dame’s senior defensive end. His sneaky contributions to the pass rush are getting less sneaky by the day, with two more sacks this weekend.

Okwara is up to six sacks on the season, a number not many expected anybody to get to this year. And now that Brian VanGorder feels some comfort giving Hunter reps in coverage maybe Okwara won’t have to drop into the flat anymore.

 

Will Fuller. How pleased was Notre Dame’s weapon with his performance, a game that pushed him up the record books, passing a few guys named Samardzija and Tate?

“It’s just another day at the office. I’m doing what I have to do,” Fuller said. “When the ball is in the air, it is my ball and it is my job to go get it.”

Three more touchdowns for Notre Dame’s assassin, a guy only too happy to face one-on-one coverage.

 

THE BAD

Garbage Time. This team has turned garbage time into a disaster zone. Consider the Irish’s performance against Georgia Tech, allowing the Yellow Jackets to make it interesting. Saturday wasn’t quite as bad, but it sure got interesting after the Irish secondary forgot about Tyler Boyd and Brandon Wimbush gave the Panthers’ defense a free six points.

Put this in the category of champagne problems, but it’s worth pointing out that these things can matter. When the playoff committee goes back and looks at the wins over Georgia Tech and Pitt, they might not be reminded that both games were lopsided until the Irish decided to drive the car like Toonces the Cat.

It’s great getting depth some experience, but not if it’s going to turn into a white-knuckle affair.

 

Jekyll & Hyde Defense. It’s only fair to praise Brian VanGorder’s unit when they do something good after I’ve spent a lot of time pointing out the bad. In the first half, the Irish managed to get off the field after Pitt made some progress, even stiffening in the red zone.

That was particularly impressive considering the Irish were playing without safety Elijah Shumate and still able to hold the usually accurate Nate Peterman to a 3 for 18 first half.

But the second half was a different story. The Panthers scored three touchdowns on their four second half drives, mixing in one three-and-out with 77, 76, and 75 yard touchdown drives—three long touchdown drives for a team that hasn’t been able to do that all year.

As feared, Tyler Boyd broke Pitt’s yardage record on a big play. The good news? It didn’t matter.

“We had a blown coverage and then we were sloppy with the football. If you take those two mistakes away, I thought it was as good as we’ve played in some time,” said Kelly.

It didn’t matter this weekend—and likely won’t until a trip to Palo Alto. But with the look of a contender, it’s up to the defense to hold up its end of the bargain, especially when the competition stiffens.

 

C.J. Prosise’s injury. The good news appears to be Prosise will be fine, with the running back going through concussion protocol as a precaution while he recovers from an “upper body” injury, a very NHL-like classification for what is likely just maximum soreness after a big collision with the ground.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly and the offensive staff holds Prosise out against Wake Forest, if only as a precaution. But the Irish don’t really have the depth to deal with this type of injury, with Adams only now emerging and fellow freshman Dexter Williams still figuring things out.

Walk-on Josh Anderson is an option as well, but this offense needs Prosise—a talented game-breaker who can do so many things as a back and receiver that he demands opponents’ attention. With a pitch count much higher than anybody expected, this is an injury that needs monitoring.

 

THE UGLY

Nothing. Notre Dame is used to returning home after a game in the wee hours of the morning. Saturday? They were home for dinner.

Sure, you can pick at a win like this—missed tackles, blocks and opportunities. But the red zone offense was elite. The pass defense limited Pitt to just 12 of 32 passing and didn’t give up points or maximum yardage on either of the Panthers’ trick play attempts.

The Irish are 8-1 as they head home for Senior Day. In the middle of a trying season, every answer seems to be coming up Irish.

 

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
1 Comment

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)
32 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.