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

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What a difference a week makes. Brian Kelly’s post-Texas proclamation to “relax” seems much easier now than last Monday. That’s what an easy notch in the win column does for you. And a defense that looked much better playing in its base set than trying to slow down Texas.

While a true test of what this team looks like won’t come until next Saturday night against Michigan State, a 25-point second quarter—and some big plays by Brian VanGorder’s defense—made sure that the sky wasn’t falling.

Let’s put the win against the Wolf Pack behind us as the preparations turn towards Sparty. The battle for the Megaphone awaits.

 

THE GOOD

Red Zone Offense. What a difference a year makes. At least so far. Notre Dame’s offense clearly lacks the explosiveness of last season’s. That’s to be expected when you lose freaks like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise. But the Irish efficiency is much improved, a credit to DeShone Kizer and the Irish red zone offense.

The Irish were six for six again this week, scoring five touchdowns in their drives inside the 20-yard line. (And memo to the RTDB Crowd: Justin Yoon’s field goal came after three-straight runs inside Nevada’s 10-yard line.) The biggest change? Kizer’s accuracy.

A tweet from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated laid it out best: In 2015’s regular season, Kizer went 17 of 40 in the red zone, throwing nine touchdowns and five interceptions. This season, Kizer’s already completed 7 of his 10 throws, with five touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

 

The Run Defense. Things aren’t necessarily broken up front for the Irish, with Notre Dame’s under siege front seven limiting Nevada to just 99 rushing yards on 30 attempts. The strength of the Wolf Pack offense was the ground game, and the Irish withstood a few wrinkles—including a dose of triple option—to keep Nevada’s offense offtrack.

A return to base defense certainly helped. So did a strong performance for Te’von Coney, making his first start at Will linebacker, replacing Greer Martini in the lineup. But once the Irish found their footing on the opening series, the unit built on that crucial 4th-down stop and played very good football.

“We still have a lot of work to do, but we came together,” Daniel Cage said postgame. “We got on each other and took over the game.”

Cage’s knifing stop on fourth down triggered that. So did a very nice game by James Onwualu, who chipped in two TFLs from the Sam linebacker position. Throw in an impactful game by Jonathan Bonner, who almost doubled his snap count from a week earlier, and the front seven is evolving and finding its footing in time for another stiff test.

 

The Kids. There were a lot of firsts for the Irish on Saturday. Catches for receivers Corey Holmes, Kevin Stepherson, Chris Finke and Chase Claypool. Starts for Te’von Coney and Devin Studstill, and appearances for young players Jamir Jones, Khalid Kareem, Tristen Hoge and Trevor Ruhland.

Just as important as any debuts was deepening the rotation. Cornerback Donte Vaughn is a key piece of the puzzle now with Shaun Crawford lost for the season. Julian Love is now the team’s starter at nickel back. And if Nick Coleman continues to struggle, don’t be surprised if Jalen Elliott finds his way onto the field more as well.

Last season’s defensive rotation was almost nonexistent. That won’t be the case this year, as Kelly commented on how he thinks his defense can improve with more players taking on key roles.

“I think it makes us a better defense. I think moving forward you’re going to see a combination of more guys instead of maybe just one or two guys in that rotation.” Kelly was talking specifically about the linebackers in that comment, though it clearly applies to all pieces of the defensive puzzle.

 

Quick Hits: 

Sure, it was a slow start. But Notre Dame’s second quarter explosion had the Irish scoring 25 points, the most in a quarter since the Irish scored 28 against Pitt in 2005, Charlie Weis’ debut.

Brian VanGorder’s defense has usually featured a playmaker at Sam linebacker. Senior captain James Onwualu is quickly becoming one, his two TFLs very impactful. (He nearly had three, but crashed a bit too far inside on a Nevada end-around.)

No, the interception didn’t count. But it was a really nice play by Cole Luke, who was his steady self on Saturday, and also very good against the run.

Great hands by Kevin Stepherson, who took a big hit, but held on to his first touchdown. That’s a lot of trust in a freshman in the red zone.

Nice hands by Jarron Jones, too. Snagging that screen pass that set up an Irish score.

“I think I have great hands,” Jones said postgame. “These hands aren’t big for nothing. I know I can grab a ball.”

A week after Greer Martini earned the starting job at the Will linebacker spot, it looks like Te’von Coney took it back. The sophomore tied for the team lead with five tackles, including one for loss.

 

THE BAD

Pass Rush. With Nevada chasing the Irish after a big second quarter, the Wolf Pack needed to go to the air to try and mount a comeback. So while Nevada quarterbacks Tyler Stewart and Ty Gangi threw 26 times, the Irish defense didn’t get a single sack.

Adding in the Texas stats and the Irish defense has yet to sack the quarterback on 53 passing attempts. They’ve statistically gotten seven quarterback hits, with only Isaac Rochell notching more than one (he has three).

While Jay Hayes continues to recover from a high-ankle sprain, Andrew Trumbetti is manning the weakside defensive end spot. And for the second-straight week, Trumbetti hasn’t mounted anything close to a pass rush, locked down by offensive linemen and generating a second week of negative grading in the pass rush category by PFF College.

We saw young players get their shot at generating a pass rush. Khalid Kareem took a 15-yard personal foul for a late hit (announced during the broadcast as Jay Hayes), while Jon Bonner, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones also played.

But the Irish need to find a way to get a pass rush. Especially to support a secondary that’s going to be learning as they go with Crawford down and freshmen Julian Love and Devin Studstill playing key roles.

 

The Slow Start. I had a hard time finding a more frustrating first 15 minutes in recent memory than Saturday’s. Whether it was the offense committing penalties to slow themselves down or the opening drive for Nevada, it was an ugly start to a game where I’m sure the coaching staff stressed “start fast.”

Some of that could be attributed to Shaun Crawford’s injury. Some to the new wrinkles from first-year Nevada offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey. But whatever the cause, it took some time for the Irish to settle in, something that won’t make next weekend easy.

 

THE UGLY

Shaun Crawford’s season-ending injury. We talked about the on-field implications. But watching Shaun Crawford go down after making another big play was devastating.

After the game, Cole Luke talked about moving forward without him.

“Shaun’s a great player. He’s just a freak of nature and one of those guys who loves the game,” Luke said. “He comes out to work every single day. That’ll be hard to replace, but we’ll try to lock that in on the young guys.

“You never know when your last play or rep will happen, so you have to treat it like your last. We have a lot of great young guys who will step up and try to fill that role.”

Expect Brian Kelly to reveal more on the time frame of Crawford’s surgery and recovery later today and this week. But we’ve already heard from Crawford on social media—and his response is incredible.

 

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.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”