during the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Ohio State

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The end is here. If the Fiesta Bowl loss didn’t bring on that finality, then surely the quick decisions of C.J. Prosise, Will Fuller and KeiVarae Russell to move on to the NFL served as official notice.

For a season as thrilling as the 127th in Notre Dame history, the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t the type of lasting memory you’ll want to take with you. The Irish defense entered the game battered, bruised and suspended, never able to muster much of an opposition for an Ohio State attack that seemed to take what it wanted on the ground and threw just enough to keep things interesting.

After a shaky start, the Irish did find their footing. DeShone Kizer never looked fully comfortable after a month layoff, and the Irish running game was limited after C.J. Prosise tapped out after just three snaps. Throw in some uneven offensive line play and while the final offensive performance of the season wasn’t necessarily sterling, Notre Dame did put up the most yardage and score as many points as any other opponent the Buckeyes faced this season.

Recruiting continues, NFL decisions are still coming, and more unexpected changes are surely to come. But before we get there, let’s get one last good, bad and ugly in.

 

THE GOOD

Sheldon Day. Playing his final game at Notre Dame, Day showed the type of warrior that he’s become, battling through a foot the coaching staff believed was broken after a mid-week injury suffered in Scottsdale. It didn’t stop Day, who played another great game—13 total on the season.

Day added another TFL, forced a fumble and batted down two passes for the Irish, filling up the stat sheet and winning more battles than anyone else on the Irish defense. He did it at less than 100-percent, playing through an injury that he might not have been able to fight through in year’s past, putting a final exclamation point on a stellar senior season.

 

Josh Adams. His stat-line only included 78 rushing yards on 14 carries, but the freshman answered the bell, a critical piece to the offensive puzzle when C.J. Prosise exited after his ankle failed to respond from a severe sprain suffered against Boston College.

Adams’ freshman season now goes into the Notre Dame record books, a crazy thought when you consider he seemed like an absolute lock to redshirt this spring. He finishes the year with a school record 835 yards on just 117 attempts, a 7.1 yards per carry average that obliterates anything we’ve seen in recent years. More importantly, his solid play down the stretch is even more critical with Prosise’s decision to head to the NFL, leaving the freshman to carry the position group until Tarean Folston returns from his ACL injury.

 

Will Fuller. As I said in the Five Things, it was a fitting way for Fuller to end his Notre Dame career. The junior receiver will be remembered for the ridiculous amount of game-changing plays he was able to make, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons.

We’ll spend more time analyzing this in the offseason, but you can make quite an argument that Fuller may have had the best career of recent greats Michael Floyd, Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija. That alone should quiet Irish fans down when they worry if Recruit X or Recruit Y has enough stars or good enough scholarship offers. Fuller committed to Notre Dame as a three-star nobody, picking the Irish over a Penn State program that had just been nuked.

 

Red Zone touchdowns. Let’s give the Irish credit for converting all three of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns. It was a point of emphasis during bowl preparation and the Irish executed near the goal line, not an easy thing to do against the Buckeyes.

The Irish got a key rushing touchdown from Adams near the goal line. They got a great effort from Kizer before the half and a perfectly thrown fade to Chris Brown, proof that Notre Dame can execute a finesse throw in tight quarters.

 

Joe Schmidt & Jarrett Grace. We got to see Schmidt and Grace play side-by-side for much of the game after injuries took Jaylon Smith and Te’von Coney from the game. And while it wasn’t all good, you couldn’t ask for much more from the two fifth-year seniors, with Schmidt leading the Irish in tackles with 13 (including a TFL) and making an interception and Grace adding nine stops of his own along with a TFL.

Grace played out of position at Will, asked to chase down receivers and play in space, not his strong suit. But the senior did it without complaint, just another selfless act for a veteran who battled back from a career-threatening leg injury.

While Schmidt has had enough coverage to last another four years, he held the Irish defense together, leading a M.A.S.H. unit with his acumen and toughness. The good news? There are better athletes to replace both veterans. But the leadership both exhibited will be sorely missed, and each player is a tremendous example of what you want out of a teammate and a Notre Dame student-athlete.

 

Three Losses. No, it doesn’t make sense to put three losses in the good section. But when you consider that Notre Dame will finish the season with a 10-3 record with their three losses to Top 5 teams by a total of 20 points, this season starts to compare to some of those Lou Holtz squads that Irish fans keep wanting Brian Kelly to replicate.

Certainly, a lot of you will want to put up a “10-3 is not good enough” banner in the weight room. And I think Kelly appropriately rejected any notion that this year was as good as it gets.

But with the insane body count that tested this team’s depth to no end, it’s pretty miraculous that the Irish nearly pulled off a win against Stanford in the regular season finale and battled back from two early uppercuts that the Buckeyes threw at them. Match up the Irish with Iowa in the Fiesta Bowl instead of Ohio State and it’s likely the Irish are sitting here as an 11-win team and a top-five ranking.

 

THE BAD

DeShone Kizer. If we’re going to spend time each week praising the sophomores maturity and poise, we need to point out when he doesn’t play his best. Kizer completed 22 of 37 throws for 284 yards, a completely solid stat-line taken at face value. But Notre Dame needed Kizer to play better, and too often the young quarterback was flustered in the pocket, unable to make a quick decision or fully comprehend what the defense was doing to him until it was too late. He was also oddly inaccurate with some deep balls, showing a rare lack of touch on throws he looked great on all season.

Kizer threw an ugly interception when he didn’t notice a linebacker drop underneath his intended target. He threw another bad one that was nullified by Joey Bosa’s targeting penalty. His poor accuracy stemmed from sloppy fundamentals, short-hopping some quick throws like he did early in the season before smoothing out his mechanics.

Unequivocally, Kizer’s season was a resounding success. (Just look at how Oregon played with their backup quarterback in the Alamo Bowl.) As a redshirt freshman he went from a spring spent as the No. 3 quarterback to a starter who looks like a building block of the program. He’ll face a huge fight this spring when Malik Zaire is fully cleared to participate and Brandon Wimbush returns. Kizer just didn’t play as well as was needed in the Fiesta Bowl, and it’s a reminder that a starting job in 2016 is far from secure.

 

The battered front seven. Jaylon Smith was lost after 11 plays. Coney lost after just seven. Greer Martini battling through a broken hand, playing just four snaps as the linebacking corps was decimated.

Up front, no Jerry Tillery compounded the issues that limited Daniel Cage to just six snaps on a badly sprained ankle. Jarron Jones impacted the game—his deflection and pocket push led to Joe Schmidt’s interception—but he was limited to just 14 plays.

With no defensive tackle opposite a severely wounded Sheldon Day, the Irish were forced to slide Isaac Rochell inside and play Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end. It was a recipe made for disaster. Jonathan Bonner took up the extra snaps at defensive tackle, nearly doubling his season-high for snaps. Trumbetti did the same, on the field for 80 of 86 total plays.

The cumulative effect of these changes were a killer. While Trumbetti flashed a few times and made some impactful plays, he’s a poor run defender, especially against an offensive line like Ohio State’s. Okwara, usually a weakside defensive end, was neutralized playing the strongside. Asking Bonner to do more than hold his own isn’t fair. Nor is Rochell anywhere near as impactful in the trenches.

Taking away Jaylon made J.T. Barrett’s job much easier. As a scrambler, Grace and Schmidt were no match. As a thrower, the underneath routes were now being covered by a 250-pound linebacker who taught himself to run again last year, not a linebacker who plays like a gazelle.

At full strength could this defense have held up? We can’t be sure. But this was closer to the personnel the Irish played against USC with last year than the full-strength group the Irish needed, and once the totality of the injuries showed itself, the Irish defense was pretty much always fighting an unwinnable fight.

 

The Offensive Line. This starting five will be remembered as one of Notre Dame’s best since Joe Moore was coaching the guys in the trenches. With Ronnie Stanley likely a first-rounder and Nick Martin sure to get drafted as well, the Irish also have future building blocks in Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, while Steve Elmer has another year to play up to his potential and Alex Bars will certainly benefit from the snaps he took this year as he likely moves into the left tackle job.

That said, this line struggled against ultra-aggressive fronts. We saw it against Clemson and again against Temple. Boston College limited what the Irish were able to do on the ground as well, following a similar blueprint to those that had success before them.

Even without three starters—including Joey Bosa, whose targeting ejection made life easier for the offensive line—Kizer was under siege for most of the afternoon. Perhaps asking for the living-room comfort that Kizer has had in the pocket for much of the season was too much, but winning in the trenches wasn’t. Notre Dame’s running game wasn’t able to get going, less about in-game circumstances and more about the one-on-one battles. And the passing rhythm was off, taking away some of the big-play opportunities.

Again, this was a tremendous offensive line. They allowed both C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams to put up incredible seasons. But in short yardage and red zone situations, this group struggled. That’ll be a point of emphasis this offseason as Harry Hiestand, who also needs to find a replacement at center.

 

THE UGLY

Jaylon Smith’s injury. Nothing seems less fair than Smith going down with a major knee injury. While we don’t have the specifics yet, a few reports point to both ACL and MCL injuries. That means considerable rehab ahead for Smith, and it could impact his decision to head to the NFL, which seemed like a certainty beforehand.

That said, it appears Smith was protected. ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported over the weekend that Smith has a $5 million insurance policy that protects him if he slides out of the first round. It’s a similar policy to the one UCLA’s Myles Jack has, another star junior linebacker who decided to declare for the draft even as he recovers from surgery.

In all likelihood, Smith will be just fine. The NFL was well aware of his prodigious skill-set, something he won’t have to prove at the scouting combine, but rather just have teams turn on game tape. And if the injury allows Smith to come back to Notre Dame and play out his eligibility while he earns his degree, he’ll likely be protected by an insurance policy as well. That’s a choice Smith very well could make, if he believes he’s capable of returning to Top 5 status, not Top 20.

It’s hard not to wonder if seeing Smith go down impacted the decision made by C.J. Prosise or Will Fuller. For all of us, it was a stark reminder that football is a dangerous game, where one snap can alter a career.

We saw that all too often this season. Notre Dame needs to—and likely has already started—a full-scale investigation into why the injury bug has now decimated two-straight teams. Nothing should be off limits as this group tries to find a formula to limit the season-ruining injuries that capped this team’s ceiling at 10-wins.

From preseason camp to the bowl game, the Irish were faced with key injuries that required the team to pick up and move on without some of their key personnel. Ultimately, that did the Irish in. Not just in the Fiesta Bowl, but against Stanford and Clemson as well.

But that’s football.

 

 

 

Talking Irish: What comes next?

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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Another week, another chat with CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. Let’s jump in.

KA: So JJ – Last we chatted, we weren’t all that comfortable speculating on the dismissal of Brian VanGorder. 12 hours after the game ended, he’s out of a job.
Any final thoughts — that you haven’t already covered over at CSN Chicago — on the move and the timing?

JJ: I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly came out Saturday and said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching, then fired BVG on Sunday.
The tape of that game was awful, of course, and maybe he didn’t realize Jay Hayes didn’t play a single snap right after the game. But that seemed like an interesting 180. Kelly said he doesn’t like criticizing individual coaches publicly, which he didn’t do with VanGorder up until the release that he fired him. What were your thoughts on that whole process?

KA: I talked about this with John Walters, but I actually completely follow BK’s logic. I think after he watched the tape, and he saw his defense do the same things wrong — he had to pull the trigger. I just don’t think a coordinator can survive that Duke offensive explosion. And there’s absolutely no explanation for the way he allocated snaps and game planed 400 levels deep, when that game could’ve been won with vanilla.

JJ: Oh man, you’re just TEEING me up for the Bob Diaco reference.

KA: GO FOR IT!

JJ: Here’s something I can picture him saying: “Say you’re tasked with baking a cake. You need the cake to taste good. But you decide to get fancy and start throwing all these different ingredients in there and try to make a seven-layer cake. Maybe you accidentally grab the green chilis and throw them in there, and all of a sudden, people you don’t like your cake. And if you just went with the simple vanilla cake with regular chocolate frosting, people might’ve liked your cake.”

…Is that what you expected? Bobby D loves his cake analogies.

KA: Bob literally went with a cake reference on Jim Rome the week before the season.

JJ: He gave us the cake/green chilis reference after Manti left too!

KA: And man — I thought Tim Prister hit it right when he was talking to BK this week — he essentially asked him, “aren’t you describing (when talking about what he wants in a defense) a Bob Diaco defense?”

JJ:  Pretty much. And Diaco played Syracuse last week (and lost). I gotta imagine when Kelly says he’s going to draw from certain parts of the inventory, it’s the simplest, least complex elements of it. So maybe you won’t see D-linemen dropping into coverage as frequently on Saturday?

KA: I hope I never see another defensive lineman drop into coverage. I mean, it stops being a surprise when it happens every game.

So let’s go to a question…

What do you expect to see from Greg Hudson. Because when BK described what he needed from him, he essentially said, “Enthusiasm.” And “love of Notre Dame.” That sounds like, “I don’t want to move my entire defensive staff, I want someone who can implement my ideas and organize them.”

JJ: Pretty much. I think Mike Elston will be relied upon heavily for planning the scheme along with Kelly, given Elston’s pre-BVG experience.

KA: Agree.

JJ: I don’t think Kelly wanted to throw DC duties onto Elston given he’s already the recruiting coordinator (and doing a good job at that).

KA: Yeah, and I also don’t think Elston wants to earn a DC job by doing it through an interim tag.

JJ: So to answer your question, if Hudson is the guy that can effectively communicate the defense, that’s a positive.

KA: Let’s finish this coordinator talk with this question: Do you think there’s an internal promotion possible — do you think it’s Hudson, or Elston? Or are you fairly certain ND is going national to bring someone in?

JJ: I think they gotta look nationally to a current college coordinator.

KA: Me, too. More Mike Sanford hire, less BVG hire.

JJ: So with Les Miles out, and that whole situation in flux, you gotta make your first call to Dave Aranda.

KA: I’m guessing they probably already did. And if they were paying BVG a reported 900k, Aranda’s $1.2 isn’t that hard to swallow.

JJ: BVG made over a million in 2014, per ESPN, so yeah.

KA: Good gig if you can get it.

JJ: The offense is in such a good place right now, even if Sanford were to leave for a coaching job, that you expect it to be pretty good to great next year.
But if the defense doesn’t get fixed, BK’s tenure will be defined by almosts instead of successes.

KA: So what do you think the personnel changes are? Playing more depth? Kicking Trumbetti from the starting lineup? Any other bold predictions?

JJ: If I can shill for a second, I wrote about seven players who could see more time going forward on CSN. But yeah, Jay Hayes is near the top of the list. I’m guessing you’ll see some Asmar Bilal, too, along with Jalen Elliott. And they gotta get Daelin Hayes on the field.

KA: We’ll pause this chat momentarily for you guys to read…

JJ: [plays jeopardy music]

KA: And we’re back. I agree with Elliott, Hayes and Hayes.

JJ:  You got anyone you want to see?

KA: I do — on both sides of the ball. I’m 100% on board with the youth movement. For me, that means Donte Vaughn at CB, Daelin Hayes at DE, and then seeing if KJ Stepherson can ascend at the X. I know it’s probably an unpopular opinion, but I’m still waiting to see if Torii Hunter can do anything beyond ordinary. Us expecting a TJ Jones senior season out of him might have been setting the bar WAY too high. He doesn’t challenge anybody down the field.

JJ: Perhaps, but he’s the most reliable guy out there when you need a first down.  Though I’ll say this, the TD catch Stepherson made vs. Duke…he doesn’t catch that ball five months ago. (Literally, he doesn’t. He dropped an over the shoulder pass in the spring game from Kizer.)

KA: Agree. That’s why I like sliding him inside as opposed to being way out wide. Don’t want him off the field, just want him off the island. Stephenson’s TD catch felt like an embodiment of BK’s early comments on him — how well he tracks the ball.

JJChase Claypool deserves an extended look, too.

KA: I was disappointed that Claypool didn’t make more noise, especially after flashing against Michigan State.

***

KA: So you had a chance to talk to the players made available on Wednesday.
Play psychiatrist for me. How did they respond? Did they look like a group ready to play better football? Or a team that’s still in a funk?

JJ: They kept saying how much fun practice was Tuesday and Wednesday.
Which, for a team that’s 1-3, maybe is good?

KA: Was that burned into their brain or do you think it was legit?

JJ: I’m very skeptical of a fun practice equaling better play. But maybe a little of both. Maybe players having fun = better tackling? I’m really just grasping at straws, though. It’s one of those for sure.

KA: Okay – so I’ll defend our picks last week by saying that we both were scared to death of the defense. But ND is a double-digit favorite against Syracuse. I don’t know if I even think they should be favored. How are you feeling about this one?

JJ: I’m like one of the 10 undecided voters in this country, just slipping back and forth on my prediction. But I came to Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 42.
I do think Syracuse is the worst defense Notre Dame will have faced this year, which is enough to overcome this offense.

KA: I actually think the scoring is going to be slightly lower, but I was thinking ND 41, Cuse 38. But my confidence in ANY OF THIS is zero. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the offense bottoms out and only scores like 28, too.

JJ: Oh yeah, if this were a confidence pick’em, I’d put about 2 points on this one.

KA: I’ll leave you with this one: Are there moral victories for this team now?
As in, what would you see this week that’d make you happy — or is it only a win?

JJ:  How emphatic can I say no?

KA: (With ALL CAPS)

JJ: They’re 1-3 and I don’t see an easy path to bowl eligibility. FINE THEN NO (shouts into computer)!

KA: It’s an ALL OUT WAR for Bowl Eligibility. Because those 15 practices are critical to the mission and to salvaging next season, too.

JJ: Especially for a young roster. And Brandon Wimbush. Plus, it’d be a massive, smoldering crater to not make a bowl game this year. That just can’t happen at Notre Dame. And if it does, it puts the coach squarely on the hot seat.

KA: I’m looking at the schedule and it’s pretty much razor-thin margin of error right now. So when I used to think back on the bear hug I watched between coaches from the Yankee Stadium press box in 2010, when they beat Army to clinch a bowl bid, I thought we’d never be back there.

Yet… Here we are.

JJ: S&P+ gives Notre Dame a 32% chance of being bowl eligible this year. Donald Trump has a better chance at becoming president than Notre Dame does at reaching a bowl at this exact moment.

(braces for the STICK TO SPORTS yelling)

KA: How appropriate that the Irish are in New York* this weekend then. But hey — I’m actually excited about a 1-3 team and what they can do, something I thought I’d never type.

JJ: There’s the positivity!

KA: So there you go. Leave it on a high note. Once again, we’re both picking a shootout victory for the Irish — one last leap of faith, at least for me.

JJ: Same here.

KA: Thanks buddy. Enjoy the game. Catch you next week.

JJ: Have a good one.

***

If you want more state of the program talk, John Walters and I dove into the state of the Irish on our Blown Coverage podcast. 

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.