Duke Ejiofor, DeShone Kizer

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Wake Forest

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Notre Dame is 9-1. That’s the main bullet point that follows up a fairly unmemorable performance that saw the Irish win with ease, even if they were statistically held at bay by Wake Forest.

But in a month critical for the Irish’s postseason fate, Notre Dame keeps chugging along. Winning games and playing better defense after a late-game lapse against Pittsburgh killed some forward momentum.

With a special weekend in Fenway Park up next, the Irish can spend the week preparing to face one of the best statistical defenses in the country. But before we turn the page, let’s recap Notre Dame’s 28-7 Senior Day victory as we go over the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Josh Adams‘ explosiveness. Throw away the stat sheet. It wasn’t an easy day at the office for freshman Josh Adams. He took some big hits. He ran tentatively at times. And the Irish missed C.J. Prosise in the short passing game.

But nobody will remember the ten touches that Adams had that resulted in gains of one yard or less. Not when Adams broke loose for a 98-yard touchdown run, all but icing the game when he extending Notre Dame’s lead to 21-points just two plays after Wake Forest nearly cut the lead to seven.

“Obviously, the run was one for the highlight reel,” Kelly said postgame.  “But he is a young man that runs tough, physical, between the tackles, and has size, strength and speed. He’s got all those things, and he’s only going to get better. It’s nice to see a true freshman out there competing at that level.”

 

Getting Healthy. Nobody wants to say it this bluntly, but Notre Dame didn’t seem too worried about losing to Wake Forest. They held back C.J. Prosise, who could’ve played. They rested defensive tackle Daniel Cage and tight end Nic Weishar, both unknown injuries who were also in the concussion protocol.

If there was a big worry for this week, it was James Onwualu’s knee. On Sunday, Brian Kelly gave good news, saying no knee surgery would be needed, though Onwualu won’t be available against Boston College and his return for Stanford is in question.

While Equanimeous St. Brown‘s shoulder injury will require surgery, Kelly expects Prosise, Cage and Weishar to be back next week.

“I’d say probable on all of the concussion guys. Onwualu will be out. He’s got a second-degree MCL. That’s really it,” Kelly said. “We don’t have anybody else that showed any injuries that would put them in any other kind of position from the game.”

Boston College is another flawed football team, though one with a great defense. It’s also yet another opponent with an extended week to prepare for Notre Dame. So having everybody back before heading to Stanford is a good thing.

 

The “high-leverage” defense. Notre Dame’s defense played really well on Saturday, holding Wake Forest to just seven points, only earned after a dubious roughing the snapper call. And even if the Demon Deacons outgained Notre Dame by putting up 340 total yards, it was refreshing to see the Irish defense stiffen when the going got tough—not necessarily how it’s gone this season.

Jaylon Smith made 14 tackles, and was in excellent coverage on a fourth down stop. Joe Schmidt was active, notching 10 tackles after staying mostly off the stat sheet the past few weeks.

The Irish were able to be productive because they were making big plays. Romeo Okwara’s three sacks were all important, including a highlight reel acrobatic play. Sheldon Day added two more TFLs. Schmidt came through unblocked on multiple blitzes, never getting home but always putting a hit on the quarterback. Smith blitzed a few times as well, getting to the quarterback, and then screaming off the edge on the game’s critical fourth down stop.

It wasn’t all perfect, but the mistakes didn’t lead to points. That was likely because Wake Forest’s offense is one of the least productive units in the country. But it’s a step forward nonetheless, holding an opponent below their average and ending a 20-points allowed streak that had gone on since week two.

 

Quick Hits: 

His passing numbers probably take him out of the most ridiculous “Heisman conversation inclusion” I can remember, but DeShone Kizer didn’t throw any interceptions, stayed away from the big mistake, and scored two more rushing touchdowns. (Bonus points for Kizer running over a Wake Forest DB.)

Good job, Chase Hounshell. You got your first career catch. (But miss any more blocks and nobody will remember it.)

You’ve got to think Andrew Trumbetti will remember that gift-wrapped touchdown for a long time.

It was very great to see Jarrett Grace out there running around and making plays. His two tackles came on an emotional day for Grace’s family and the entire senior class.

I liked the physicality of both Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield. Both were active in run support and seemed to play clean in coverage as well.

 

THE BAD

Every other run but the 98-yarder. Notre Dame’s offensive line lost way too many one-on-one matchups for my liking. Wake Forest has talented linebackers and Dave Clawson and defensive coordinator Mike Elko added their share of tricks up front, but too often Notre Dame’s offensive line just lost battles up front.

We saw it from Steve Elmer (again). We saw Quenton Nelson get beat. And we also saw DeShone Kizer struggle to get the Irish in the right protections, spending too much time counterpunching at the line of scrimmage.

There’s no question the Irish offensive line is battling their share of injuries, with Nick Martin and Nelson still playing through ankle injuries and other issues likely kept off the radar. But Wake Forest was able to dominate the time of possession battle because the Irish couldn’t stay on the field. And that’s because Wake challenged the Irish to a run-game matchup with even numbers and, minus one very important play, won the battle.

 

Winning in “uncomfortably comfortable” fashion. Nobody’s opinion but the Playoff Committee matters. But you wouldn’t have been alone if you got frustrated listening to the talking heads and television analysts last night arguing about the horse race for the four playoff spots.

Yesterday was far from an impressive Saturday for most playoff contenders. Throw away Alabama’s decisive victory over a really terrible (offensively, at least) Mississippi State team and it was a survive and advance weekend.

No. 1 Clemson was in a dogfight with Syracuse before pulling away and winning by 10. Ohio State looked just okay with J.T. Barrett at quarterback, too, beating Illinois 28-3. Iowa is proving to be just a little bit better than every average team it plays, still undefeated by surviving Minnesota. And Oklahoma State needed help from the replay booth and a huge late-game rally to beat a three-win Iowa State team.

 

Oklahoma won a big game, beating Baylor in the rain. And some thought that was enough for the Sooners to ascend into the driver’s seat for the No. 4 hole. But can the committee forget that Oklahoma lost to a Texas team that hasn’t beaten anybody else and lost to Notre Dame by five touchdowns?

Who knows. And quite seriously, who cares.

None of it matters until early December. But with two of the easiest games on the schedule both this week and next, it would help if the Irish did more than put up a season-low for yardage and won both games with style.

This wasn’t a tough victory, a three-score lead for just about 40 minutes. But next weekend against a Boston College team who will be looking at Notre Dame’s home game inside Fenway Park as their Super Bowl and bowl game all wrapped into one? It’d be great to win another not-close one.

 

THE UGLY

What’s ugly about a victory on Senior Day? (Nothing.) This senior class won 21 home games, tied for the best four-year total in Notre Dame history. The critics will scour the record books, trying to punch holes in the personnel, opponents or competition, and still find a way to say that Lou or Ara wouldn’t have lost to Louisville or Northwestern.

But it’s not 1988 anymore. There’s cell phones, the internet, and college football played at a different level all across the country.

So even if they haven’t won a national championship or a major bowl game, this class has done something very special. Add to that the fact that Notre Dame’s seniors haven’t allowed this football team to blink even as they’ve lost key cog after key cog.

That means something. And a final home win—even if the play on the field wasn’t memorable—will last for a lifetime, the only important part being an easy victory and a great celebration.

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.

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)
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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.