Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) leaps over Notre Dame linebacker Nyles Morgan during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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The Megaphone returns to East Lansing. And Notre Dame goes back to work.

On a weekend that served as a separation Saturday of sorts, contenders and pretenders emerged. Unfortunately for the Irish, they’re on the outside looking in, a familiar formula costing Notre Dame in a game that played out with all too much familiarity.

A porous defense, an inconsistent offense and bad special teams. Let’s get through the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing 36-28 loss.

 

THE GOOD

Fourteen minutes (roughly): That’s the amount of time the Irish were playing at full octane. From the moment they took the football over with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter and went all-in to storm back.

You saw DeShone Kizer cut loose. You saw the offense stress the Spartans vertically. Defensively, the Irish managed to get stops. No, they still couldn’t get off the field quickly time—though they forced three-straight punts.

On a Saturday when everybody should be looking for building blocks, this is the best place to start.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Lost amidst the loss in the trenches was a nice game by Quenton Nelson. The junior was rock-solid in his assignments on the inside, grading out as the best player for the Irish, per PFF College.

* Brian Kelly said postgame that this wasn’t just going to be DeShone Kizer bailing the team out. But he sure tried. Kizer wasn’t perfect and his discomfort in the pocket led to some accuracy issues. But with the game on his shoulders, he roared the team back.

Notre Dame has now scored 15 touchdowns. All but two of them have come from either Kizer’s arm or legs. While some are ready to throw in the towel for the season, Notre Dame’s coaching staff just needs to find some sense of competence from the defense, or risk wasting a historic season by Kizer.

* For the first time in his career, the elite athleticism and tantalizing promise of Jerry Tillery finally showed through. The sophomore flashed those dominant traits, making two TFLs and proving to be disruptive at times in the trenches, a much-needed development if the Irish defense is going to stop that flaming tire from burning down the defense.

* Nice to meet you, Chase Claypool. That’s one athletic dude streaking down the field. Can we find a few more opportunities for the young man?

* Most of his catches came after the Irish had to play catchup, but nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. come back and look healthy, too.

* Durham Smythe helped the Irish tight ends out of witness protection. After nearly entering the doghouse with a critical penalty that took a touchdown off the board.

* It’s hard to say how well Nyles Morgan is playing, especially when the Will linebacker position continues to struggle. But Morgan is a tackling machine, adding 10 more and eight solo stops.

 

THE BAD

Cole Luke. Upon further review, Luke’s evening was just as bad as it was in real-time. The senior cornerback’s struggles make no sense, though his confidence is likely bruised and he’s certainly pressing. That makes a smart football player do some less-than-intelligent things—Luke’s mental mistakes just as head-scratching as the physical, one-on-one losses.

There’s no need to harp or pile on, though it’s a game Luke will need to quickly forget. Especially with the Irish in need of getting on an upswing before Stanford comes to town in three weeks.

 

The special teams. The bar has been raised for Scott Booker’s special teams unit. And they didn’t come close to clearing it on Saturday night. A game-changing start by CJ Sanders was erased by Jalen Elliott’s holding. Miles Boykin’s mistake was a Pop Warner error if there ever was one. That’s as much on Boykin as it is on Sanders, Booker and everybody else that should be looking for the football.

Tyler Newsome was pumped up after he drilled a 71-yarder. And while his 50.3 yard average and three punts inside the 20 will look like a successful game, Newsome once again botched his first kick, failing to flip the field when the Irish needed him to do so.

Throw in Nicco Fertitta’s bone-headed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after making a nice block and it was amateur hour in a phase of the game that Kelly talked about this week as being critical.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame expected Drue Tranquill to play a key role in this defense. Instead, he’s been a huge part of the problem.

Tranquill was a liability again Saturday night, a key defender that was counted on to be a sure-tackling strong safety. And as intelligent, hard-working, and well-respected as Tranquill is, he’s killing the Irish defense with his inconsistencies.

It’s easy to take some of the bad that comes with Tranquill in coverage if he’s a sledgehammer against the run. But the junior who has heroically returned from two major knee injuries has been really suspect, when the team needs him to be a rock as they break in Devin Studstill. He led the Irish in missed tackles on Saturday night, the only defender who graded out (per PFF College) worse than Luke.

Tranquill is still a young player, injuries essentially robbing him of a full season—and two key springs—of development. But the junior needs to find his rhythm quickly, or Notre Dame needs to push Avery Sebastian into a much larger role.

 

The pass rush. That’s three weeks and no sacks. And while the Irish did manage to make things slightly uncomfortable for Tyler O’Connor, the Irish are the only Power Five team not to have tackled the opposing team’s quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Spin it any way you want, and that’s a big problem. Especially when you’re trying to help a young secondary.

 

The defensive personnel. Perhaps some of the comfort that comes with calling for Brian VanGorder’s head is that it ignores the other possibility. Namely, that Notre Dame’s defensive personnel just isn’t that good.

Yes, it’s becoming more and more obvious that VanGorder isn’t a good fit. (Yes, I know that’s an understatement.) But it’s also becoming more and more obvious that the Irish just aren’t that good on defense.

It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame’s staff has swung and missed on the defensive side of the football, all those high-profile recruits struggling to live up to their ranking. It’s also clear that you can have a handful of talented players on the field, but they’re quickly erased if one or two aren’t doing their job.

The Irish can’t rush the passer. That’s less on VanGorder’s exotic schemes or Keith Gilmore’s teaching techniques than it is on Andrew Trumbetti or the rest of the personnel that can’t win their one on one battle, especially a few seasons of recruiting misses at defensive end.

 

 

Freshmen are freshmen. They’re seeing and doing things for the first time. And right now, Notre Dame is relying on too many of them, young kids and inexperienced talent trying to hold up their end of the bargain while Morgan, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu play better-than-average football. That the Irish don’t have any other veterans capable of beating out the kids shows you how difficult it is to transition systems and do so while upgrading talent.

Running a high-priced and unsuccessful coach out of town is always an option—and it looks like that’s the way this will end up. But when you think about Kelly’s fiery comments from postgame, through the subpar personnel lens, this comment feels a little bit different.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,’” Kelly said.

 

THE UGLY

Another loss against a quality team. If Notre Dame wants to measure itself against the best, they won’t like what they see. The Irish have lost four of their last five, Nevada the only win. That type of slide during the seventh season of a head coach’s tenure isn’t a datapoint you want to see.

Of course, there’s context for everything. The Irish lost 10 players to the NFL. They’re breaking in an unprecedented amount of new starters—three more than the worst team in Notre Dame history. And that was before preseason and injury attrition hit.

It might be our fault for believing this team could reload and compete for a playoff berth. Because only Ohio State and Alabama have proven they’re up to that task. But adjusting expectations in mid-September is an ugly place to be. And yet that’s where we stand, with Notre Dame finding another way to shoot themselves in the foot when taking on a team that’s capable of matching up with them athletically.

So the focus shifts. And while some Irish fans might check out for the fall, it’d be a surprise if Kelly’s team did. Especially a young roster that’ll now get younger and younger, the goals more incremental now than ever.

“The focus just becomes on what I just talked about: each individual getting better, each individual improving from week and week,” Kelly said on Sunday. “The focus being really much more smaller in a sense. All we’re looking for is to find a way to win and beat Duke. That’s really the goal that’s in front of us.”

It’s been a few years since Irish fans saw their postseason dreams ruined in September. But for the players and coaches who put in a year-round commitment, there’s been too much work put in to abandon things now.

“This is work. We’ve got some work to do. But we got a group that will fight and compete. I’m proud of the way they go out and represent Notre Dame on the field,” Kelly said. “We got to clean up a lot of things. We’ll continue to work with a lot of young players. I’m confident that we’ll be a better football team in November than we are in September.”

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.”