Texas wide receiver John Burt (1) runs from Notre Dame defensive back Nick Coleman, right, during a 72-yard touchdown reception in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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

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The sun came up in South Bend Monday morning. But likely well before that, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff were in the office—a day behind on preparations for Nevada, with an unexpected loss already on their resume.

Moving forward is the only option for a young Irish football team who showed plenty of character on Sunday night, though none of that adds up to a victory. And while there’ll be plenty of opportunities to diagnose all that ails this football team, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Sunday night’s 50-47 double-overtime loss.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played exceptional football, throwing for five touchdowns and running for another against the Longhorns. With Kizer at quarterback, the Irish scored six touchdowns… leading us into a discussion everybody (or at least the one typing this) is already sick of.

Kizer’s poise has improved from his redshirt freshman campaign. His ability to stand tall in the pocket and throw is unmatched. And for as good as we all believe Malik Zaire to be as a runner of the football, Kizer’s Football IQ and comfort making split-second decisions make him probably at least Zaire’s equal when it comes to the lethalness of the zone read.

He wasn’t perfect. With the game on the line and more than three minutes remaining, the Irish couldn’t do anything more than go three-and-out. But Notre Dame’s part-time quarterback just because a Heisman Trophy candidate, making the decision to pick a starter all but academic.

 

C.J. SandersNotre Dame’s slot receiver and return man was a dynamic piece of the puzzle for the Irish. His 25-yard score in overtime made things easy for the Irish offense. His dazzling 40-yard punt return helped set the Irish up as well.

With no depth behind him at slot receiver other than former walk-on Chris Finke, Sanders needed to play big. And he did.

 

Equanimous St. Brown. It’s interesting to look at the expectations of a sophomore receiver with one catch to his name. Especially after most in the media forgot about his potential breakout after seeing others step to the forefront.

“Well he’s a stud. We expected it out of him,” DeShone Kizer said after the game. “We treated him as if he was a veteran because quite frankly, all the reps he got last year as well as all the things he did this year, he is a veteran. So we’re relying on him to make big plays just like he did today.”

Two touchdowns in game one was a nice way to start.

 

Isaac Rochell. Notre Dame’s veteran defensive lineman was about the only guy up front who consistently held his own in the trenches. He tallied nine total tackles and made 2.5 TFLs, graded out by PFF College as the team’s best defender.

With the Irish struggling to find a good fit in their odd front, Rochell moved inside and out as Brian VanGorder looked for a solution. Rochell was a consistent force up front, and also a workhorse, playing a ridiculous 87 snaps.

 

Nyles Morgan. While I was tempted to keep him out of the good category after he took a 15-yard personal foul penalty, Morgan made 13 tackles from his middle linebacker spot, leading the Irish defense. Nine of those stops were solo.

In a brawl that required Morgan to play big and go head-to-head with not just a 250-pound running back or quarterback but also interior offensive linemen, Morgan did a nice job holding up under pressure.

 

Quick Hits: 

It was great to see Tarean Folston back on the field, his 54-yard run on the first series of the game a nice reminder that Folston didn’t forget how to play the position.

What a great knack for blocking kicks Jarron Jones has shown. The length and power the fifth-year senior brings to the point of attack is a true weapon.

Justin Yoon‘s consecutive field goal streak ended when his 36-yarder was blocked. But he made a clutch kick in overtime and did a nice job with four touchbacks on six kickoffs.

Notre Dame’s offense made it through the game without a turnover. That’s the first time the Irish have lost without committing one, Kelly now 19-1 in games where the Irish put up a goose egg in that category.

Those worries about Devin Studstill not being up for it turned out to be unfounded. Studstill played 47 snaps, doing a nice job as Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive back, per PFF College.

 

THE BAD

The Defensive Front. If there’s a surprise for most Irish fans, it’s the battle Notre Dame’s defensive line lost to the Texas front. Even with three of the five Longhorn starters battling nagging injuries, Texas won the war at the point of attack, scoring five rushing touchdowns and running for 237 net yards.

The decision to start Andrew Trumbetti is one that’ll look questionable when the tape goes on. No doubt it was a move necessitated by the injury to Jay Hayes, who didn’t play, but Trumbetti was overwhelmed as a run defender and no better as a pass rusher.

Jarron Jones only logged 26 snaps and Daniel Cage only played 33. That’s not going to get it done for the Irish when they need those big bodies in the trenches, especially considering how impactful Cage was when he was on the field.

 

The big plays. Nick Coleman won’t want to watch this tape again. Asked to play three deep against Texas’ receiving weapons, Coleman got torched multiple times, unable to run with John Burt, who got vertical on the Irish defense.

“We were in cover three when we got beat. We weren’t even man-to-man,” Kelly explained, a surprise to most. “The inability to play cover three requires better coaching on our part.

“I thought we put ourselves in a tough position when we let the ball get thrown over our head. That’s one thing were the game changed a little bit.”

Texas took dead aim at Coleman until Shaun Crawford was moved outside and Julian Love came in at nickel. Drue Tranquill also subbed out, Studstill taking his reps while Sebastian stayed on the field. The loss of Nick Watkins loomed large on Sunday night, an additional cover corner needed, especially if Coleman is going to commit a defensive back’s cardinal sin.

 

Missed tackles. Sure, it’s easy to call it a missed tackle when you’re trying to take down a 250-pound bowling ball. But there just wasn’t enough sure tackling when Notre Dame had a chance to slow down Texas’ runners—and it consistently blew up in the Irish defense’s face.

An unofficial tally revealed some key misses by Avery Sebastian, inserted into the lineup because of his ability to do the little things and know the system. He was hardly alone—Morgan missed a handful, Jerry Tillery ran through a few TFLs, including one that came on the game’s final play.

Greer Martini’s debut at Will had him playing like a guy learning a new position—understandable since he moved there late in training camp.

 

Tyler Newsome. Notre Dame’s eccentric punter has a booming leg. But he had a case of the shanks on Sunday night—not the first time the young specialist has struggled on the big stage to flip the field.

Newsome’s first punt was a bomb. The rest? Not as much. And while his 24 yarder late in the game didn’t come back to bite the Irish, Newsome needs to sharpen up his mental approach to get past this tough outing.

 

Torii Hunter’s missed targeting call. At this point, it’s over. Notre Dame can expect acknowledgment of the mistake, but it’s not changing the game. Watching the hit again, the ball looked tucked into Hunter’s arm and possessed before he was hit in the head—a blow that we’ve seen called so often, especially with a newfound emphasis on the penalty.

Perhaps the refs just missed it. Perhaps the replay officials missed it too, with ESPN’s cameras so focused on Torii Hunter’s reaction in the stands to the critical timing of the penalty.

However it happened, it was a brutal no-call, especially with Notre Dame’s history of having these flags go against them.

 

The Offensive Line. I’m hesitant to fully call the offensive line play “bad,” but I’m going to do it. Notre Dame did run for 206 yards, but take away the 83 yards on two carries (Folston & Kizer) and it’s 2.8 yards per carry. That’s just not good enough—not against a Texas defensive front that was overwhelmed last season and lost its best interior players.

Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are expected to be All-American caliber players. But the right side of the offensive line struggled and Sam Mustipher got called for a snap infraction in a critical situation. Most importantly, when the Irish needed to move the point of attack and get the ground game going late in the game they couldn’t do it.

Sure, Texas brought a ton of heat. But I have a very high bar set for this group and they didn’t live up to it.

 

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. Nobody expected to be calling for the defensive coordinator’s head after week one. And while I certainly didn’t go easy on VanGorder, it’s worth pointing to the personnel the Irish have playing—a reminder that even Bob Diaco would struggle if you take away guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and Aaron Lynch.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse anything. But if you thought Kelly was going to scrap the plan for the season after one tough weekend, think again.

Here are his comments when essentially asked to evaluate his defensive coordinator:

“I mean it’s the first game, and you go into the first game and — first time starters, and we have a lot of young guys that got their first start,” Kelly explained.  “We’ll critically evaluate and I think everybody needs to tap the brakes and relax.

“This is a football team that showed great resolve, took the lead down 17 points in the fourth quarter up 35-31, and we needed to come up with one more stop or one more better offensive possession, you know, to win the football game and we didn’t do that.

“So this narrative about it’s all the defense’s fault is, you know, just Monday morning quarterbacking. If we get a better punt, if we flip field position, if we make a catch or a throw we’re talking about some different things.”

Getting some distance from the loss, Kelly’s confidence is understandable, especially considering he knows his personnel—and their limitations—better than anyone. But the margin for error this season is zero. And seeing the deficiencies in this defense against Texas, expect opponents to pounce.

Brent’s transfer makes sense for both sides

Justin Brent, Devin Butler
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Justin Brent’s pending transfer makes sense on the surface if for no other reason than his complete lack of game action in the last two seasons. A slightly-deeper look, however, explains the move even further.

The rising senior running back had no logical path to playing time at Notre Dame given the performances of some of his peers. Both in the backfield and at receiver, younger players shined this past season while Brent rode the bench.

RUNNING BACKS

– It may have taken four games for rising junior Josh Adams to find the end zone, but he finished the season with 933 yards on 158 rushing attempts, carrying the ball at least eight times in all 12 games. Most notably, Adams finished the season with 350 yards and three rushing touchdowns over the last three weeks. That strong close shows Adams was not worn down in his second season of consistent use (2015: 13 games, 117 carries, 869 rushing yards, six touchdowns) and can be expected to provide the same bellwether output next season.

– Adams’s classmate, Dexter Williams, has not had the same success, but he did provide some relief throughout the season – most notably against Nevada (eight carries for 59 yards) and Syracuse (eight for 80 and a score) – on his way to 212 yards and three touchdowns on 39 carries.

Between Adams and Williams, combined with NFL-bound Tarean Folston’s steady output and quarterback DeShone Kizer’s mobility in the past and the possibility of Brandon Wimbush’s in the future, there were not carries for Brent to showcase his potential. This is before even factoring in rising sophomores Deon McIntosh and Tony Jones, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility in 2016, or any incoming recruits.

WIDE RECEIVERS

– Rising junior Equanimeous St. Brown proved worthy of learning to spell his first name in 2016, catching 58 passes for 961 yards and nine scores, but St. Brown looks to be far from alone in the receiving corps moving forward. Classmates C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin each found the end zone this past season, despite competing with senior Torii Hunter, Jr., for both snaps and targets. Sanders finished with 24 receptions for 293 yards and two touchdowns while Boykin caught six passes for 81 yards and a score.

– Rising sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool add to the depth at the position. Stepherson scored on an even 20 percent of his 25 receptions for 462 yards. On a personal note, he did not actually reach the end zone on his 53-yard catch-and-dash against Miami, but I will still never forget that particular play because the accompanying roar convinced my nine-year-old niece it was well past time to leave Notre Dame Stadium to watch the game on a television where the noise would not be so surprising.

Finke chipped in 10 catches for 122 yards and two scores, and Claypool caught five passes for 81 yards.

– Again, this listing does not account for players such as rising sophomore Javon McKinley who saw action in seven games but has not yet contributed to the passing game or any incoming recruits. (We’ll get to the recruits later in the week, and even more so next week when, you know, they have signed.)

It should also be noted: Brent enrolled early at Notre Dame, and thus, he has already completed six academic semesters, not to mention time spent in class each summer as is typical of most, if not all, of the football roster. If he does indeed graduate from the University this spring, he will be eligible to play elsewhere immediately thanks to the NCAA’s stance on graduate student transfers. More than that, though, he will have two years of eligibility remaining.

Admittedly, such a confluence is rare and certainly adds reasoning to Brent’s maneuver, whether it result in him playing at UCLA, Miami, Arizona State, Indiana, Purdue or Ohio State, as he indicated to the South Bend Tribune were his top choices. Notre Dame does face Miami on Nov. 11.

Lament Brent’s decision if you must, but it was a logical decision by him, and Notre Dame’s shortcomings last season were rarely where Brent would have aided. Nor will the Irish appear to be wanting in those spots in 2017.

Report: Justin Brent to transfer

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Justin Brent has not seen the playing field since Notre Dame faced LSU in the Music City Bowl back in December of 2014. That now looks like it will be the last time Irish fans see him in a Notre Dame uniform, as well. Reports indicate the rising senior running back will transfer.

Irish 247’s Tom Loy broke the news, soon confirmed by Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

A consensus top-100 pick out of Indianapolis (Ind.) Speedway High School, Brent arrived in South Bend with high expectations, but will depart without an official statistic aside from snaps in nine games his freshman season. He recorded no catches, carries or tackles.

 

Thanks Keith, Now Dear Readers…

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish takes a hand off from DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on November 19, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Virginia Tech defeated Notre Dame 34-31.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Dear “Inside the Irish” fans, “Inside the Irish” foes and, of course, my parents –
Dear curious purveyors, my stand-alone predecessor and Tim Raines –
Mostly, dear Notre Dame fans, Notre Dame spectators and college students enjoying any and all hallowed traditions –

Yes, unfortunately for you and fortunately for me, Keith tossed me the keys to this 1971 Volkswagen Beetle known as NBC Sports’ “Inside the Irish” blog. Don’t worry, I know how to drive stick shift.

If I were feeling corny, I would tell you I first reported on Notre Dame football in the fall of 1996, shouting out the garage window to my father as Allen Rossum returned Purdue’s opening kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. If we are ignoring sentimental childhood stories, however, then it would be more accurate to call 2009’s home-opener against Colin Kaepernick’s Nevada my beginning on the beat.

Over the last few days I reached out to a few of you readers whom I know, asking why you enjoyed Keith Arnold’s coverage. So as to keep them honest, I neglected to tell them I would be stepping into this spotlight today.

Repeatedly, I heard buzz words such as readable, reasonable and realistic. Those will be my goals, as well. My predecessor at The Observer no longer dabbles in journalism, but I still trust his view on most things. His response strikes me as an admirable objective.

“We are smart, informed sports fans with an irrational passion for ND football, and appreciate writers who share those traits but are professional enough to step back from the irrationality and put things in perspective… We like a realistic take, not a knee-jerk reaction.”

On that note, you will not see me give a recruiting update with my every breath. You will also not see me dispense as much cinema advice as Keith did. I am simply not the film-nik he is, though I am listening to the “La La Land” soundtrack as I write this. You will find jazz increases your words per minute rate.

I will often speak of gambling terms, but not to encourage the vice. Rather, I find those odds to be a thought-provoking and informing means of evaluating things. Today, various books strongly expected President Trump’s inauguration speech to last longer than 15 minutes. Thus, I figured it would last longer than 15, but not by all that much since such was the over/under mark set. I could step away from the computer and watch it without losing too much of my day. It lasted 16:18.

I will try to be conversational, especially in these Friday letters/news-dumps/updates/recaps, should they become a recurring piece.

I intend to keep many, but not all, of Keith’s recurring features, as daunting as many of them seem. If I am to make this place my own, some will have to change. It’s okay, we’ll get through that together.

So ask questions, state your wonderings and pitch story ideas. This very format was a seed watered by one of you early this morning. Admittedly, prior to suggesting this he referred to me in terms I refuse to post publicly, but old drinking buddies have earned that right.

It’s late Friday afternoon. Grab a drink, and don’t you dare leave it unfinished.

– Douglas.

And in that corner… Introducing Douglas Farmer

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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It’s time to turn over the keys. On a day where our great nation makes a peaceful transition, so does our humble blog.

I’d love to say I was smart enough to time my departure for the same day as inauguration, but as they say, it’s better to be lucky than good. And I was lucky to get the gig, and happy to turn it over to someone who I believe is a better-than-good writer: Douglas Farmer.

Douglas was Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when he was a student at Notre Dame. He’s worked for old media—earning a byline at the Los Angeles Times and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He’s worked the ND beat, not just at the school paper, but at Blue & Gold. And now, I’m very happy to say, he’s taking over Inside the Irish, a transition that I think will go wonderfully.

To give you an idea of who Douglas is, I milked one last column gave him the And in this Corner treatment.

Hope you enjoy. And, one last request—Be Nice.

 

Douglas, you graduated from Notre Dame in 2012, and last covered the Irish on a day-to-day basis in the 2014 season. What has you excited to come back to the beat?

Douglas Farmer: Given Notre Dame’s past season, I would say I am most excited to take an in-depth look at how the Irish respond — and perhaps rebound — in 2017. It has been awhile (nearly a decade, more accurately) since Notre Dame has needed to do that, so it is one area of football there is not much institutional knowledge to rely upon.

Aside from that, the general engagement with a fan base so devotedly-interested in its topic is always something to look forward to. Even during a 4-8 season, that fan base does not waver in its curiosity and thirst for information.

 

A nice perk is also getting paid for the addiction that is Notre Dame Football, no?

DF: I prefer to subscribe to Hurricane Carter’s opinion on addictions: Do not be addicted to anything “they” can take away from you.

 

Well put. As I thought about the decision to move on, I came to the conclusion that there’s no perfect time to ever do so. That said, other than the head coach, this is as close to a reboot as you can ask for. Do these next few months get you excited, especially as an almost entirely new staff take charge?

DF: Just had to slip in a reference to removing the head coach, didn’t you?

Bouncing back from a rough season is the most appealing story line in sports, in anything really. Take a look at any movie you have ever watched (or, in your case, perhaps even been involved in). The hero experiences conflict just before redemption. Now, I am not saying Notre Dame is the hero. I am saying watching the team, the program, try to rebound has me very interested.

The staff turnover is an added wrinkle, and will only increase the work ahead for the program. Before the players can learn the plays, they have to learn the staff. Before that, the staff has to learn about each other.

 

So what’s the plan with the blog? You plan on getting to know the characters below the fold in the comments? Keep the A-to-Z series rolling? Do a better job proof-reading?

DF: I do not intend to outright abandon any institution or established series you have devoted years to. Thus, I would expect A-to-Z to continue in some form. But we will see. That is an easy thing to say when I have not yet reached the misery that must be “Q, R, S, …”

I would like to engage with the readers, but only so far as logic and rational conversation will allow. I have no interest in devolving to who knows what depths. Proof-reading, well, I want to say I will excel at that, but that just sets me up to eat a lot of crow when I miss a letter in April.

 

Smart. Will tell you about the A-to-Z… This roster is a front-loaded one, alphabetically, at least.

DF: All of high school I had a locker next to a Favre. (Not really related.) I understand the luxuries the alphabet can provide.

 

Let’s go rapid fire for a second: Favorite game you saw in person at Notre Dame?

DF: Either the 2012 Stanford game or the 2011 South Florida game. I realize how absurd that latter answer sounds, but that is part of why it stands the test of time. It was such a unique experience. Plus, being allowed to go back to the dorm for an hour at halftime made the whole day more entertaining.

 

Best road game experience?

DF: 2010 Army in Yankee Stadium jumps to the top of the heap, though I suppose technically not a road game. Go ahead and score against me for this, but I am a lifelong Yankees fan. That was a big one for me.

(KA note: The Observer must not have had the $$ to send the editor to Dublin…)

(DF note to KA’s note: I graduated in May 2012. The Observer did manage to send four staffers to Dublin the following September. Sometimes I wonder if I would not have been better off if I had taken two years to get through fifth grade.)

 

Favorite player to watch during your time as a student?

DF: Golden Tate could have walked around the football field as Maximus, for all I’m concerned, given how entertaining he often was. Though Lou Nix also holds a lofty place in my regard.
I lived a door down from Lou for two years, part of the reasoning there.

 

Favorite villain of the Irish from your time watching/following Notre Dame football?

DF: Pete Carroll runs away with the award. His candidacy is enhanced by my Wisconsin-bred Packer fandom.I do not like disliking Pete Carroll. I very much wish I could be indifferent toward him. The Falcons granted me that luxury for nine months.

 

Part of what has me excited about this transition is that I actually thought you’d be a good person to turn the keys over to, as I enjoyed reading your stuff when you were at The Observer and covering the Irish in your post-graduation years. What’s the most exciting part for you about taking over the blog? And what do you look forward to doing with it?

DF: I am most excited for the chance to write, and the chance to write about something on which I consider myself relatively knowledgeable. I look forward to seeing where the blog environment takes me. The open-ended aspect of it presents all sorts of possibilities.

Theoretically, I can be more freewheeling than elsewhere, get in-and-out quicker of some pieces, spend more time on others. I know Notre Dame fans of all varieties — the obsessed, the apathetic, pessimistic, optimistic, etc. — including some who have yet to decide how they feel about Tommy Rees. (Feel positively about him. It’s that simple.)

My sample size is certainly representative of the fan base as a whole. That wide swath is what makes covering Notre Dame enjoyable, and very well may provide the blog some direction and material on its own.

Oh, and I appreciate those kind words, Keith. I’ll Venmo you $20 later tonight.

 

Sliding a final question into my lightning round. What’s your handle on NDNation? (Kidding!)

DF: I will take my right to not incriminate myself, otherwise known as the Fifth.