DeShone Kizer, Kevin Kavalec, Harold Landry

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Boston College

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Notre Dame beat Boston College 19-16. The game was as ugly as the final score indicates.

Some will say there’s no such thing as a bad win. We’ll find out if that’s true Tuesday evening, when the College Football Playoff Committee—the only arbiter of value—makes their weekly rankings announcement.

Will the Irish inch up the board, considering Ohio State lost to a Michigan State team juggling backup quarterbacks? Will they get jumped by an Iowa team who has made a season of winning unimpressive in close games, or Oklahoma, who needed to stop a two-point conversion to beat a TCU team decimated by injury?

You can’t blame Brian Kelly for not caring. Notre Dame’s head football coach understands it won’t do anything to help.

“The committee is out of my hands. It’s out of our players’ hands,” Kelly said postgame. “All we want to do is put ourselves in a position to be considered. We feel like we need to win another game to still be considered. We’re one of the top four teams after last week. We’ll see where we stand this week. We’ve just got to keep winning games. We’ve got another game against a nationally-ranked team which will give us an opportunity.”

With that, let’s get on with it. It’s a good, bad and ugly that only a mother could love, as we do our best to erase this game from the memory bank and move on to Stanford.

 

THE GOOD

Winning. The Boston College football program’s DNA was formed thanks to pulling off upsets like Saturday night’s. This isn’t a team or a school that’s known for sustained excellence or winning championships. Rather it’s the loud-mouth brawler with a big right hand—the loser of many, many fights, but always the winner of a few really big knockouts, the epitome of fearless muscle with a puncher’s chance.

So if there’s something positive to take from the win, it’s that Notre Dame did everything it could to present a knockout shot and the Eagles still couldn’t land it. Five turnovers. Red zone futility. Horrific mistakes and decisions by players who until that point had been largely responsible for leading the charge.

That’s what made Kelly happiest postgame. A team that found every way possible to step on the landmine stuck together and managed to win. And did so against a team that would’ve made their season by taking the Irish down.

Here’s Kelly from Sunday’s teleconference when asked about his reaction to the victory. Expecting disappointment? Think again:

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my football team, the way they handled themselves, especially, you know, on the offensive side of the ball and the reaction that our defense had.

“Look, we had five turnovers, plus the one kickoff return, six sudden changes and our defense didn’t give up anything. They gave up three points in those sudden changes. That’s the a great mentality to have defensively.

“And then from an offensive mentality, five turnovers and three in the red zone, I never saw one guy point a finger. I never saw any bickering. Nobody was pointing fingers. All they were doing was we were moving to the next play. They were pulling for each other. It’s just a pleasure to be able to coach this group of guys that just persevere.

“Look, it wasn’t our cleanest game, there’s no question about it. We can’t play this way against Stanford and expect to win the game. But as a coach the satisfying moments are when your team is united, when your team plays together, when there’s no pointing fingers and they just keep playing together. And that’s probably for me the most satisfying thing as a coach when you see that happen and those dynamics come together on the sideline.”

That’s the right kind of attitude to take away from the debacle.

 

Matthias Farley. I already singled him out in the Five Things, but I might not enjoy a football player on this team more than Matthias Farley. He’s a guy who has gone through the grinder. He’s been thrown into the fire and found his way out—one of the more unlikely captain stories in recent memory, and that’s including the walk-on that joins him at the coin toss.

Farley’s four critical plays on special teams—downing two punts near the goal line, making the tackle on a fake punt and recovering the onside kick—were likely the difference in a game that ended up just a three-point win.

“He was given the game ball,” Kelly said Monday. “He’s been that kind of player for us all year, the onside kick, stopping the fake punt, downing the ball inside at the ten yard line. He plays the game wherever he’s called.

“That’s why he’s a captain. That’s why he’s really the guy on special teams that makes big plays for us, and a valuable member of our football team.”

 

Chris Brown and Amir CarlisleTwo veteran receivers made big-time plays. Brown’s TD catch was a beauty. Carlisle’s fearlessness across the middle is majorly underrated. Both guys will be missed in 2016.

 

Fenway Park (the turf, too!): I was very surprised the playing surface was as good as it played on Saturday night. Nightmares from Yankee Stadium lingered in my head, but credit needs to go to the grounds crew at Fenway Park for doing an incredible job.

There were only 36,000+ fans at the game, one of the smallest crowds at a Notre Dame football game in recent history. But from all reports, it was an amazing experience.

 

THE BAD

Where to begin? (Where to end?)

Do you really want to read this? Because here is a (far from complete) laundry list of guys who made mistakes on Saturday night. (Cobbled mostly from memory, because rewatching any more of the offensive performance will make it difficult for me to sleep at night…)

DeShone Kizer made some bone-headed red zone decisions, was majorly inaccurate with the football, dropped an extra point snap and generally looked like a redshirt freshman for the first-time in his redshirt freshman season. His offensive line wasn’t much better—though Nick Martin jumped on a fumble that prevented another big turnover, the guys in the trenches got whipped in the run game, outside of three nice gainers. You want fumbles? Well we’ve got ’em. C.J. Prosise, come on down! Josh Adams—not by the goal line, young man. Back to CJs, Mr. Sanders did his best Davonte Neal impression, muffing a punt, a kickoff, and technically getting away with a second punt before Kelly put in Will Fuller to catch Boston College’s final kick. The All-American Fuller got in on the act, too. He dropped a crucial third-down conversion that would’ve helped ice the game and then for good measure a deep ball that was a likely touchdown, too. (I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other major mistakes, but let’s keep rolling on.)

Defensively, things were better. (Playing Boston College helped.) But still, the Irish once again took a nice performance and through a gigantic smear across the front of it. It came courtesy of a blown zone-read QB keeper—from a quarterback whose only skill is literally running the zone-read keeper—essentially letting the Eagles run their way back into the game. Both Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield bit hard on the run fake, and if I’m putting the blown assignment on anybody, it’s Redfield. (Again.) Joe Schmidt had another free run at a quarterback on a blitz and ran right through it. His teammates cleaned things up, but the fact that Schmidt has two sacks this season—not six—is a little surprising. Cole Luke got lost in coverage, giving up a big gainer to a team less accomplished than Knute Rockne’s with the forward pass. Elijah Shumate got targeted on the game’s final drive, beaten inside on a slant after it looked like he was playing nickel back. And the Irish turned walk-on quarterback John Fadule into Steve Young—though he dropped his head and tried to run over one too many defenders, with Schmidt knocking him into next week. (Worried about something next week? The Irish are getting bludgeoned by QB scrambles.)

Did we talk about the red zone? Do we have to?

After looking like world-beaters against Pitt, the Irish found new ways to mess things up. Kizer’s first-down throw to Alizé Jones was a brain-bender. Can’t do it. The screen pass? Oh boy. It looked great in the Music City Bowl when it beat LSU, but Kizer just can’t throw that ball, not into a wall of guys wearing the wrong jersey. After implementing some slick play-action passing against Pitt near the goal line, the Irish somehow thought it was a good idea to go toe-to-toe in the trenches with B.C. Not sure if that was character building or what, but let’s just say that this team has plenty of character, but not a ton of ability to push around a run-defense like the Eagles—and that was before Adams fumbled.

This might feel like piling on. And it very well could be. But it’s much better to be tough on players in victory than it is after a loss. (For those who say a late season performance like this is unacceptable—go check out how some SEC teams played during their pre-Thanksgiving FCS “Cupcakes.” Then go relax. It’s over and the Irish won.)

 

 

THE UGLY

Losing C.J. Prosise & KeiVarae Russell. Keeping the focus on next Saturday, not having Prosise is a crippling blow to the offense. While he didn’t look like the same guy we saw through the first two-thirds of the season even before he rolled his ankle, Prosise’s game-breaking speed and dual-threat ability would’ve been huge against a Stanford defense that’s a shadow of the units we’ve seen over the past few years.

Russell’s loss also forces the Irish to do some serious shuffling. While Kevin Hogan doesn’t have the game-breaking receivers he’s had in the past, finding a cornerback who can play in Brian VanGorder’s man-scheme hasn’t proven easy. Now he’ll have to make things work with a trio of guys he hasn’t trusted outside of garbage time.

For Russell, if this is the end—and he sure seems to point to it being the end—it’s a sad finish for him. But we need to tip a cap to the cornerback who showed a lot of fortitude, handling his business back home in Washington before returning to Notre Dame to earn his degree and play a key role for a very good football team.

Was he perfect this year? No. But his confidence was the type of leadership and self-belief that had to infect this team, considering the amount of man-hours lost to injury and the ability to step in and continue winning. He didn’t have a ‘C’ on his jersey, but there might not have been a better leader on this team, especially considering the big, game-defining plays Russell made against USC and Temple.

***

Here’s what Russell posted along with this photo:

“All I ever wanted to do when coming to Notre Dame was WIN.. As a starter I was apart of 31 games WON out of the 37 I started, so I can say I’m a winner. Sucks to end for me when we are so close! But gotta keep a high head and be the best teammate possible from the sideline. During war some individuals must go down. And still, the motto of the soldiers must remain the same. To my ND bros, #AccomplishTheMission!
#CollegePlayoffs #Top4 #OneMore #TheReturnPT2 #Adversity #NEEDaRing #Thejourney”

 

 

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.