EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 01:  The Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate the win over the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium on October 1, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Syracuse Orange 50-33.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, Syracuse 33

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After making the most decisive move of his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly’s team responded. And while the 50-33 win over Syracuse wasn’t pretty, there’s no need for a 2-3 team to display style points.

The Irish won with an offense that marched up and down the field and with a defense that did a good job—after a very rough start—of limiting the damage the Orange offense could do. They won by scoring on special teams, by making explosive plays and by getting some critical red zone stops.

With a month that may have been one of the worst of his coaching career, Kelly challenged his team and they responded, beginning October on the right track, earning an absolutely critical win that gets the Irish out of a funk.

“I just liked the way the kids played and prepared all week. It was a tough week. They came out here with a purpose and that’s a tough team to prepare for, when you make a change as we did on defense,” Kelly told ESPN after the game. “I’m proud of the way our guys played today, in particular, the basics of football were held up. We’ve got to do some things better in special teams and finish off some drives, but all in all it’s good to get a win.”

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

The defense found its footing. 

It didn’t start out pretty. Syracuse marched down the field on its first series, scoring a touchdown on just eight plays in just over two minutes, covering 75 yards in big chunks. Making things worse, star receiver Amba Etta-Tawo made Julian Love his latest victim, the Orange matching Notre Dame score for score as the 72-yard touchdown catch had fans bracing for the worst.

But the defense recovered. And even after Devin Studstill was ejected on a questionable targeting call, the young Irish defense rallied. They forced punts on five of the next six possessions. They got after quarterback Eric Dungey. And they made Syracuse earn their yards and points, holding up in the run game.

Greg Hudson provided a needed spark and the Irish came out in the second half looking like a different unit. They held the Orange to just seven second-half points, a shocking performance that helped make the victory feel downright comfortable. After battling back from the fast start, the mental toughness displayed by the defense was absolutely impressive.

 

Equanimeous St. Brown broke the game open. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver made the game’s first five minutes feel like a track meet. Taking his first two catches to the house, St. Brown’s afternoon was one of the most explosive in school history—and he didn’t catch a ball in the second half.

The lanky sophomore continues to emerge as the team’s go-to receiver, with Kizer targeting St. Brown in one-on-one coverage and making Syracuse pay. With good enough deep speed to get behind the Orange defense, St. Brown continues to develop his skills, all while building some much-needed chemistry with his starting quarterback.

St. Brown and Kevin Stepherson supplied three touchdowns of 54 yards or longer, two underclassmen providing the deep-threat firepower to a passing attack that is finding its footing without Will Fuller in that role. The ability to score quickly—something St. Brown is showing he can do—will be key to the team’s success moving forward.

 

Dexter Williams provided the game’s big play on the ground, and avoided what could have been a big injury. 

A week after Kelly credited Williams for being the only player on his roster who was playing with passion, the sophomore back took another step forward when he made a game-breaking run midway through the third quarter. The 59-yard touchdown was the longest of his career, and showcased his ability to make something from nothing, not to mention some elite speed as he ran away from the Syracuse defense and into the end zone.

Williams earned the No. 2 job at running back, taking over for senior Tarean Folston. He also avoided what looked like a potential big leg injury, walking off the field under his own power and even returning to the game, avoiding anything major.

While Josh Adams did have a 100-yard afternoon, it was Williams that helped make the ground game more than just okay. And in doing that, he showed his teammates that the coaching staff was willing to award opportunities to the players who earn them.

 

Even putting up 50 points, the Irish offense left a lot on the field. 

Coaching hard after a win is much easier. So expect Brian Kelly to do just that this week, knowing that his team managed to gain 654 yards of total offense and still didn’t look all that efficient.

Notre Dame failed to punch in a touchdown inside Syracuse’s two-yard line. They settled for three Justin Yoon field goal attempts. And the Irish’s struggles on third down were masked by their four explosive touchdowns.

Even quarterback DeShone Kizer sounded like a guy unsatisfied, crazy considering he threw for 471 yards and three touchdowns.

“It’s the sloppiest 50 point performance I’ve ever been apart of,” Kizer said postgame.

Brian Kelly spent most of his time this week working with the defense, a rare appearance on the other side of the LaBar practice fields. With a true road game set for next weekend in Raleigh, expect Kelly to wander back to the offensive side of the ball, with Irish offense needing to be more efficient.

 

After a bold program-shaking weekend, Notre Dame’s head coach proved he can still pull the right strings.

Last weekend’s press conference outburst had many wondering how the Irish roster would react. Could a team already sporting a major confidence problem withstand a leadership shakeup on the defense and a head coach who took dead aim at his players?

The answer turns out to be yes.

Because any worry that Kelly could’ve lost his roster by speaking critically of their effort was eliminated when the Irish went out and played like a different team. The passion was there. The excitement was as well. And the team rallied around Greg Hudson, the new full-time assistant earning the game ball at his alma mater, an honor that reportedly had him so proud that he was near tears.

To think that Kelly, a man who built this program brick by brick, would misread his team’s response was kind of silly from the start. But after seeing the team get big plays from players young and old, from his offense, defense, and special teams, it’s clear that Kelly’s rare public outburst, one that likely was rooted more in frustration and candor than any motivational tactic, hit its mark.

Because his roster responded. And probably more importantly, his defensive tweaks paid off.

The Irish flashed their depth, with previously underutilized defenders like Jay Hayes, Asmar Bilal and Elijah Taylor seeing plenty of time. In the secondary, the Irish continued to get younger, yet came together after a rough start, holding the Syracuse offense to just 4.3 yards a play on the Orange’s last 52 snaps after giving up a harrowing 14 yards a play on the first 11.

One winning Saturday certainly doesn’t fix everything, and there’s more work to be done. But with a scheme that had already exposed the flaws in Brian VanGorder’s system and a must-win game on the line, Kelly rode his roster hard and they responded.

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.”