Pregame Six Pack: Return of the Spartans

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It’s a return to the familiar this weekend, with Michigan State and Notre Dame back together again on the football field. A rivalry that’s one of Notre Dame’s oldest and most established returns after a few seasons away, and brings with it plenty of tradition—and even more intrigue—with Saturday night’s kickoff just around the corner.

Fifty years after waging war in a 10-10 tie that’s among the sports most talked about games, Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly return to battle, a big game that should reveal plenty about both teams.

With a 7:30 primetime kickoff on NBC ahead, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

As with every game against Michigan State, a physical battle is expected. But so Kelly’s young team keeping its poise.

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that Michigan State plans to bully the Irish around. Because he expects his team to hold up quite well in a matchup that should test the Irish’s physicality.  

“Our entire offensive line are all physical guys. Josh Adams is a physical player. Drue Tranquill is a physical player, Te’von Coney,” Kelly said. “All of our guys like the physical contact. They’ll rise to the occasion of what the game calls for and the mental toughness to match what Michigan State is all about.”

Michigan State is usually about running the football, and LJ Scott is certainly capable. They’re about a stout defense, a unit that’ll be led by All-American candidate Malik McDowell and defensive captains Riley Bullough and Demetrious Cox.

But Kelly knows matching the Spartans strength and toughness is only one piece of the puzzle. Doing that while keeping your wits about you is the other.

“This is not a boxing match,” Kelly said. “This is not UFC. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to catch the football. What we can’t get caught up in is the emotion of a game like this. Where words turn into poor actions.

“I’ve talked to our guys about being poised and doing their job. If they do that, our team is strong enough and physical enough to match up with anybody.”

Torii Hunter Jr. may be a little bit rusty. But he’ll be ready to go against a Michigan State secondary that will challenge the Irish. 

After taking the week off against Nevada, Notre Dame’s senior captain Torii Hunter Jr. will be back out leading a young receiving corps. And while the team’s medical staff played things safe last week, Kelly said Hunter is ready to go, though he needed to play a little bit of catch-up this week to get ready for a critical match-up against the Spartans’ physical secondary.

“You take a week off in our offense where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit,” Kelly said. “So it was kind of getting the kinks out. Today he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”

That return makes things much easier for DeShone Kizer—and the entire Irish receiving rotation. Because with Equanimeous St. Brown locked in at the W and C.J. Sanders doing very nice things in the slot, bringing Hunter back to the wide side of the field and allowing Kevin Stepherson and Corey Holmes to play supporting roles will get Mike Denbrock’s young position group back in sync.

It’ll also allow us to see if Hunter is capable of attacking an opponent down the field, something we’ve seen in pieces (like the Blue-Gold game), but yet to see in a big-time match-up.

“They’re going to see if their DBs are tougher than our wide receivers,” Hunter said this week. “So it’s going to be that type of game. We’re going to have to make plays and they’re good at what they do.”

While Brian Kelly has expressed confidence in Nick Coleman and his young secondary, he’s pushing to get junior Nick Watkins back from injury. 

With Shaun Crawford’s season finished after an achilles tear, Nick Coleman will once again be given a chance to rebound from a tough first few weeks. Even as freshmen like Donte Vaughn and Julian Love find their footing, Kelly is hoping that junior Nick Watkins can make some progress as he continues to recover from a broken arm.

“He practiced very hard this week. He was in a lot of football this week,” Kelly said.

Watkins looked like the frontrunner to be the team’s starter at cornerback before a broken forearm took him out of commission. And while Kelly mentioned that a medical redshirt is potentially in the cards for Watkins if his training staff can’t stimulate enough bone growth, the fact that the team is practicing him hard enough to monitoring him with their GPS tracking system points to the hope of getting him back to buoy a questionable position during a stretch run.

“He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the Bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape, his volume was really good in practice,” Kelly explained. “We just need to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position to hurt himself.”

Not much is known about Michigan State’s fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor. But he’s already won a pretty big football game. 

No, the win over Furman doesn’t count—even if O’Connor’s 13 of 18 performance and three touchdown passes was a nice 2016 debut.

It was O’Connor’s work behind center when the Spartans took down Ohio State last year, pulling off a 17-14 victory that nobody saw coming. A windy and rainy Saturday (not to mention Ohio State’s defense) made it tough to show muche statistically, but O’Connor completed 7 of his 12 throws, adding a touchdown and no turnovers. He also carried the ball eight times—including a few critical 4th down conversions on a game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

So after going into Columbus and leaving with a victory, don’t expect the stage to be too big for O’Connor in South Bend. Named a team captain (something Connor Cook never did) even though it’s only his first season starting, the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder comes to Notre Dame with a lot of confidence.

“We can go out there and do anything that we decide to do and what we put our minds to as long as we go as one,” O’Connor told the Detroit Free Press. “When we have that chemistry and mind-set that we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not going to be stopped, we do feel unstoppable.”

Six years later, Mark Dantonio breaks down Little Giants. 

In a rivalry that’s seen plenty of drama, Mark Dantonio broke down perhaps the most dramatic finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, sketching for ESPN the overtime, fake field goal that the Spartans pulled off to win 34-31 in East Lansing back in 2010.

A game that sent Dantonio to the hospital after—he suffered a minor heart attack—remains a sore spot for Irish fans, many convinced that the play clock had hit zero before Michigan State got the snap off.

That win might have kickstarted the Michigan State’s program. Because the 2010 season began a historic run for the Spartans, with Dantonio going a ridiculous 64-16 since then, winning at least 11 games in all but one season.

But he hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since.

Brian Kelly isn’t worried about the lack of sacks. But he does need to figure out how the Irish will make Tyler O’Connor uncomfortable on Saturday night. 

Brian Kelly did his best to tell us that he thinks sacks are overrated. And even if that’s a tough one to believe, the Irish head coach expanded on what his pass rush needs to do to impact Tyler O’Connor. Because if Brian VanGorder’s front seven is going to protect his young secondary, the Irish need to find a way to make things difficult for the Michigan State passing attack.

“You saw how quickly the balls come out the last couple weeks. We’ve harassed the quarterback the last week, forced him into some bad throws,” Kelly said. “What you want to do is, you want the quarterback to feel uncomfortable back there and to be pressured into making some poor decisions and poor throws.”

That happened against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack’s quick passing game ineffective with Tyler Stewart connecting on just 10 of his 23 throws. And while allowing a team to get the ball out quickly and earn their way down the field feels like a great problem for Notre Dame’s defense to have, getting more defenders in the mix who can impact the pass rush is certainly also a priority.

Kelly talked about working junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes into the mix. He also mentioned true freshmen Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones.

So far the weakside defensive end job has been Andrew Trumbetti’s. A high ankle sprain has slowed Jay down, while Daelin is still learning on the job—though he should be motivated to make an impact against a team he once committed to as a recruit.

Kelly’s confident that’ll happen.

“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said. “I’m very confident that you’re going to see both the Hayes play more football.”

***

For your listening pleasure, John Walters and I talk about this weekends game and if a win against Michigan State can serve as a launch point. 

 

Swarbrick discusses the state of Irish football program

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Jack Swarbrick spoke extensively about the state of the Notre Dame football program. Released last Friday and a part of Swarbrick’s weekly podcast, the Irish athletic director covered the laundry list of hot-button issues, including Brian Kelly’s status, the NCAA order to vacate wins that Notre Dame is appealing, and the challenge of winning football games in today’s environment.

The entire 25 minutes are worth a listen, as Swarbrick and Nolan cover just about every question and complaint that’s out there. And in case you don’t have that time, here’s a quick breakdown:

 

Swarbrick on the 2016 season. 

“It was an extremely disappointing year. Every player, every coach, myself, other administrators involved in the program, we all share the same view. There’s no way around that conclusion. It’s not bad breaks, it’s not a play here, a play there. We didn’t do what we need to do. So we do start from that perspective.

“I think there’s a danger in overreacting to any one piece of information that you get in the course of the evaluation of football programs. That begins with, it looks one way from a this-season perspective, but it feels a little different to me from a two-season perspective.”

 

Swarbrick on the evaluation process: 

“I’m looking at the program. Wins and losses are a huge indicia of where the program is, but it’s not the only one. More important to me, frankly, is the experience of our students. My interaction with them and what their interactions with the coaches, and the environment and are we meeting their expectations. Now, we clearly didn’t meet their expectations competitively this year, because they want to win, too. But on many of the other things, the program elements are in good shape.”

 

On the off-field issues, and the challenges that faced the football team this fall. 

“I don’t want to do anything to minimize the disappointments, whether they’re competitive or unacceptable behavior in the last game at USC by one of our players, obviously, which just isn’t acceptable, it isn’t okay. The disciplinary issues we had to deal with at the front of the year, none of those are acceptable, all of those go into the evaluation, but those are the only ones that sort of get the public scrutiny. I’m dealing with the other 120 young men who are for the most part like my co-host James (Onwualu), doing everything right, making every right decision, having a real positive experience. You’ve got to look at it all, not just isolated elements of it.

 

Discussing the disappointment of the NCAA’s ruling to vacate wins and why the university is appealing: 

“If you’d merely expelled the students, you wouldn’t get this penalty. But because you went though an educative process and kept them in school and adjusted credits and made those things, you subjected yourself to this penalty. That seems like a bad message to send, but that’s one that we’re continuing to advocate for down the road.”

 

On the challenges of winning in today’s college football, as opposed to 30 years ago. 

“I think undoubtedly it is harder. Now, people from that era may have a different view. But there are things that make it harder. But it doesn’t make any difference. It’s harder to win basketball games than it was back then. It’s harder to do a number of things.

“We don’t treat any of that as an excuse or a reason to have different goals. I sort of embrace that. Some of those things that you might view as obstacles are ultimately the things that we have to offer young people. It is the eliteness of the institution and the quality of the education. You can’t say it’s an obstacle and then talk about how great it is because it helps you. That’s the way it is. I wouldn’t trade anything for the circumstance we now compete in. I think it is exactly what it should be. We have to do a better job with it, that’s all.”

Report: Corey Holmes set to transfer

Irish Illustrated / Matt Cashore
Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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Receiver Corey Holmes is transferring from Notre Dame. The junior, who has two seasons of eligibility remaining, will look for a new program after earning his degree this summer, Tom Loy of Irish247 reports.

Holmes told Irish247:

“It’s just the best decision for me. I’m graduating this summer and I’m just going to find the best fit for me to finish things up.”

Even after a strong spring, Holmes saw little action this season, though he played extensively against USC in the season finale. He had four catches against the Trojans, a large part of his 11 on the year, also his career total.

That Holmes wasn’t able to find a consistent spot in the rotation is likely a big reason why he’s looking for a new opportunity. After opening eyes after posting a 4.42 40-yard dash during spring drills, the Irish coaching staff looked for a way to get Holmes onto the field. But after losing reps at the X receiver on the outside, Holmes bounced inside and out, never finding a regular spot in the rotation, playing behind Torii Hunter Jr. and Kevin Stepherson on the outside and CJ Sanders and Chris Finke in the slot.

Holmes has two seasons of eligibility remaining, redshirting his sophomore season. Because he’ll earn his degree this summer, he’ll be able to play immediately next year. Irish 247 reports that Holmes is looking at Miami, UCLA, Arizona State, Arizona and North Carolina, though he’ll have a semester to find other fits.

 

Mailbag: All about BK

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 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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Welcome to a fairly action-packed Mailbag. Why didn’t one of you guys remind me to do these more often?

This one, as the title suggests, is all about Brian Kelly.

 

@chrise384: Do you think that silence from Swarbrick this week means anything or do you think it’s status quo and BK is back in ’17?

I think Swarbrick’s been silent because there’s nothing else to say. He made his comment to ESPN that Kelly would be back in 2017. Why would it benefit him to say anything else?

Kelly also made comments—10 feet away from his boss—that he’d be back and doesn’t want to go anywhere. So other than releasing a 2:37 a.m. tweet reiterating Kelly’s intentions—and essentially calling B.S. on the reports that BK was looking to get out—there’s no reason to respond to the noise, when there’s a ton of work to do and big decisions still to make.

Speaking of those…

 

Domer521: Keith – The banquet is next Friday evening. Do you expect any announcements regarding recruits or DC/assistant coaches before then?

I don’t. For a variety of reasons, I think Kelly is waiting to make any formal moves on his staff until after that evening. And in reality, any college assistant that’s going to come to Notre Dame is probably coaching in a bowl game, and won’t leave his program until after that game is played.

(That doesn’t mean that BK isn’t lining things up. I expect that he is.)

So while the idea of getting a coordinator on hand now might be ideal, the reality of the situation is that you need someone ready to hit the recruiting trail after the New Year, taking the world by storm for that final month and closing stretch until Signing Day.

 

@GhostAKG: Many are saying Charlie Strong for our new DC. Is that good/realistic? And what are some of the names you’ve been hearing more?

I was one of the people to speculate, but the more you think about it the less it makes sense. Charlie Strong is a head coach. And a good one. Any return to South Bend would feel incredibly temporary, with the circus following every job vacancy that opens up—with fans and media speculating, “Is this the one to get Strong back to the head job?”

That’s not a headache BK and company would want to deal with, especially when you consider how much this collective fanbase sweats out coordinator hires or parallel moves.

(Remember when Tony Alford left after Signing Day and it felt like someone died around here?)

Charlie Strong is a good man and a good coach. But that’s the wrong type of hire for ND. I think he’ll probably take a year off to examine the landscape, continue to cash those fat checks coming from Austin, and then get back into it next year.

 

irishwilliamsport:

Keith, I know this is an exercise in futility but I’ll ask a mailbag question… What would you guess BK’s combined job approval rating is among all fan bases ?

You’ve got me. No clue. Does anybody have a good job approval rating?

At this point, I don’t think anybody’s approval rating is all that high at 4-8, to the point that Jack Swarbrick—a guy who might be the most powerful and intelligent athletic director in the country—has seen fans turn on him as well.

I wasn’t quite sure what you were getting at with your question about “all fan bases,” but maybe you were talking about the perception of Kelly both inside and out of the program? If so, I thought Colin Cowherd’s take on Kelly, at least from a national perspective and a guy who watches a lot of college football, is interesting. (It’s a perspective that’s pretty common, I must say.)

 

codenamegee: 

What has Brian Kelly done to make you think he can win a championship at Notre Dame. Looking at his FBS coaching resume his teams have never beaten a top 5 team. I just don’t get why everyone thinks he’s a good coach. Notre Dame is poorly coached (too many mental breakdowns), offense lacks imagination (Running plays are too predictable, no tail back screens, no delay draws, lack of counters and traps). Yet all I hear how Brian Kelly is this great coach or Brian Kelly is a great offensive mind. If he is, he hasn’t showed it since he’s been in South Bend.

Well, first off—and this is a biggie—he played for one. So let’s not ignore that. And he was maybe one play away from getting invited to playing for another last year, a game-winning, last-second field goal against Stanford knocking the Irish from the playoff.

Now I get that playing for one isn’t the same as winning one. And when it comes to comparing this program to Alabama’s, frankly I don’t think Notre Dame has a chance to get to that level until Nick Saban retires… or the NCAA finds something illegal in his program. So if that’s the bar you’ll set, I’m not sure he can get there. And I’m not sure Notre Dame is willing to do what it takes to get there. And frankly, that’s something I’m okay with—especially as you

Last point for you—have you really heard anybody calling Brian Kelly a good coach lately? Is anybody following Notre Dame saying Kelly’s done a good job this season? Has the coach himself even said that? Have I?

Listen, I get it. Losing seasons are terrible. They are really painful and this one came out of nowhere, making it worse. Then throw on top of that just how close the games were—each week a decision here or there, or a blown assignment or missed opportunity sometimes the singular difference between a win and a loss.

That all adds up. And it certainly will carry into next season, a direct reflection on the coach’s job status, regardless of the length of his remaining contract.

 

irishdog80: Can Brian Kelly truly survive and thrive as head coach at Notre Dame or is his best opportunity a fresh start at a new school or pro team?

I don’t think Kelly would’ve stayed if he didn’t think he could thrive. He could get another job if he wanted one. And I don’t think Swarbrick would’ve let him stick around if he didn’t have comfort that the football program—a team that he spends more time around than anybody outside the players and the coaches—was in good hands, and that this was a bad season, not a bad program.

That’s a really good question though, Irishdog. We’ve seen Bob Stoops rally. We’ve seen David Shaw bounce back, though neither pulled a four-win season. And for now, I think Kelly can, too. But it’s worth pointing out that the rumor everybody seemed to be fired up about, three-win & nine-loss Mark Dantonio, would be a huge coaching upgrade over Kelly is funny, considering Dantonio just took a College Football Playoff team and drove it off a cliff.

 

 

irishcatholic16: With reports that Brian Kelly is seeking job opportunities outside of Notre Dame then shortly after saying that he’s committed to Notre Dame along with him bolting Cincinnati in the same fashion (saying he would stay then leaving), do you think he will lose the trust of his team and could we see more decommits as a result? Will the team trust him knowing that he isn’t fully committed?

I have no belief that those reports are true. And I have no reason to think that Kelly’s team—seven years in—would have their trust of the man leading the program hinging on reports from national media pundits.

Are we still talking about the way he left Cincinnati? Because it sure looked to me an awful lot like every coach leaves their program—Tom Herman just the latest example of a coach left in an unwinnable situation, with the media ready to pounce by asking unanswerable questions.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt that Kelly’s agent was talking to teams. He was. He’s the same guy that reps Herman, and a handful of other top-shelf coaches. But that’s what agents do. They talk about their clients, 99% of the time without the client ever having any idea he’s doing it.

 

 

bjc378:

I’ll ask the obvious question. Sorry, I didn’t listen to the podcast.

Do you (still) think BK should be the Irish coach next year? If so, how long of a leash do you give him next year and what changes would you demand? If not, or if he decides to coach elsewhere, what’s your wish list look like?

No apology necessary, first off, on the podcast. It’s supplemental, but listen for John Walters’ wisdom, it’s basically like telling your friends you subscribe to Newsweek.

As for BK, yes I do think he should be the coach next year. I don’t think Notre Dame is a program that should fire someone for a single bad season—period. I didn’t like it when they did it to Ty (in retrospect it was the right thing to do), and I wouldn’t like it if they did it to Kelly, a year off a ten-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance.

(Also worth noting, they don’t do it in hockey, basketball, baseball, soccer, or any other sport.)

As for the leash? That’s hard to say. I think we’ll know quite a bit about this team at the end of next September. They’ll have played Temple (the potential AAC champ coached by one of the nation’s underrated head coaches in Matt Rhule), Georgia, Boston College, Michigan State and—don’t laugh—Miami (Ohio), who has got it going now under Chuck Martin. So if that month goes sideways and the season does too, I won’t have any problem with Swarbrick trying to upgrade and make a change.

As for the wish list? No clue. Not at this point. I’ll take Jon Gruden off of it, so cross him off before anybody asks me. And any other NFL head coach.

But I’d start by looking at someone like Willie Taggart, a young Harbaugh protege who coached at Stanford and has now done good work as a head coach at both Western Kentucky and USF.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.