RALEIGH, NC - OCTOBER 08:  DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish is forced out of the pocket and tackled by Kentavius Street #35 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the game at Carter Finley Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Raleigh, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina State


The tar and feather crowd has their ammo. They watched Notre Dame’s seventh-year coach stick to his guns as a literal hurricane blew through town.

They watched a coaching staff with so much offensive acumen—the assistant strength coach has 20-plus years of offensive coordinating experience—fail to make any adjustments during an extended halftime lightning delay that featured swaying stadium lights and biblical rains.

But that’s the kind of season it’s been.

Change the defensive coordinator, the offensive breaks down. Insert a “safer” punt strategy, watch it cost you the game.

With the cyber-mob circling the gates, inside the Gug a search for answers continues. So with Stanford just days away, let’s get to the good, the bad and the ugly.



The defensive improvement. Notre Dame’s front seven held its own in the slop. The trio of Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage had strong games against the run, with Tillery played the game of his young career with nine tackles.

Again, this feels like a GOOD* considering the weather acting as a 12th man, but you’ve got to credit this group for taking another step forward. Greg Hudson’s rebuilt crew did all they could to limit NC State, giving up zero offensive touchdowns for the first time since last season’s opener.



Everything Else. Let’s just get that out of the way now. Pretty much everything else we watched—the offense, the special teams, the adjustments, the trenches, fit in here. (So does the decision to play in the eye of the storm and not delay the start of the game.)

But, since that’s not going to do, let’s get to some of the others:


Run-Pass Mix. No, the Irish offense shouldn’t have been chucking the ball non-stop.

New paragraph.

But Kelly all but hinted at the thought-process behind the decision—his team wasn’t going to win in the trenches—when he said this postgame.

“I think it was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football,” Kelly said. “When we did throw it, we just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”

That’s the part of the quote that should accompany Kelly’s bizarre statement that he didn’t second guess the run-pass ratio. Notre Dame’s head coach knew that his offensive line wasn’t going to win a fight in the slop.



Lack of adjustments. As we mentioned in the Five Things, as we mentioned in the lede, and as we mentioned just above, there were no offensive adjustment.

That’s a bad. That’s tragically bad.

Because we saw NC State get creative. We saw the Wolfpack use their dynamic running back in a variety of ways. We saw them use their backup quarterback as a wildcat runner. And Kelly acknowledged postgame that they probably should’ve tried something different, though a dose of Malik Zaire as a run-first wildcat likely wasn’t the answer.

“The offense could have been tweaked in that regard. But [Zaire]’s not really a wildcat guy… It was never a thought that we’d go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”

So the Irish offense stuck with the plan. And the trio of Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford likely spent the flight home and ensuing evening kicking themselves, underestimating the impact that Hurricane Matthew would have.

“I will say this. It was much more difficult throwing the football than maybe, I can’t remember many games where it was this difficult,” Kelly said. “But it was difficult for both teams. We don’t have any excuses, we were atrocious offensively.”



The decision to kickoff the game as scheduled.  The fact that this game stayed in the window it was played in made zero sense. Other than because it needed to stay in that window to stay on ABC in front of a national audience.

Because safety was a legitimate concern. Field conditions were atrocious from the first quarter on. And the elements had a far bigger impact on this game than anything either team did.

Kelly was asked about the decision to play the game when they did, and he made no excuse.

“There was never a conversation about it not being played,” Kelly said. “I was a little concerned obviously about the conditions, but they were the same for both teams.”

This wasn’t a Notre Dame decision. This was a decision made by the ACC and NC State, with the visitors only providing the suggestions we heard from Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame willing to delay the start all the way until Sunday at noon.

Each team did their best to counter the weather. Each team also made critical mistakes—NC State blowing a 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line and the Irish not getting anything from a 1st-and-goal of their own, a slick football and horrible conditions wreaking havoc all game long.

But Kelly was quick to credit the work the officials did to keep dry footballs cycling onto the field.

“I thought the officials did a great job of getting dry balls in. We used 36 balls and it’s generally an 18 ball rotation. They gave us 36. I thought from that standpoint it was managed terrifically.”



A 2-4 Football Team. Nothing turns quite as toxic as a bad Notre Dame football season. And with every loss (that’s four losses by a total of 21 points), things seem to get exponentially uglier.

This loss feels different than others. In a vacuum, a hurricane usually requires at least the thought of a mulligan for a coaching staff—acts of god often finding their way into customary exclusions.

But not this season.

Because Kelly himself acknowledged the difficulty of this defeat, a game that falls square on the shoulders of the team’s braintrust—something the head coach pointed out, though hardly anybody noticed.

“I feel terrible we let them down,” Kelly said. “We let them down in the sense that they were prepared for another noon start, they had great energy, they played with great heart on defense.”

He expanded on those thoughts later, a nine-minute media session that reminds you of the toll that this job puts on coaches.

“They were excited to play today. You want to be there for them.  You want to make the right call, you want to put them in the right position,” Kelly said. “You second guess yourself. Maybe we should’ve been in a three-man wall there, instead of rugby. You second guess yourself in games like this, when your team is ready to play and excited to play.”

Those are hardly the explanations that make critics happy, not when Kelly is barking at his center for rifling a shotgun snap past the quarterback with the game on the line.

“He thought he heard something,” Kelly said postgame about that fateful fourth down. “We were trying to scan the play and get a peek at what it was, and he heard something and the ball got snapped.”

But that’s what losing does. It takes over everything.

And after being just two plays away from an undefeated season in 2015, some are calling for Kelly’s head. And that’s before he leads his troops into the meat of his schedule.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told ESPN.com.

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.

How we got here: The Defense

05 September 2015:  Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder stands with his players in action during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

The first of a multi-part series as we look at the 2-5 Irish at the bye week. 


Notre Dame’s season was sunk by Brian VanGorder’s defense. That sentence is much easier to write after seeing the unit without its former coordinator. But it was just as clear after watching the Irish play their first four games of 2016 that Brian Kelly needed to make a change. The Irish gave up a combined 124 points in their three September defeats, a season-high for either yards or points (against FBS competition) for Texas, Michigan State and Duke.

For many VanGorder detractors, the move came four games too late. The Irish were plagued by big plays and schematic breakdowns throughout 2015 (and before), a fatal flaw of a defense filled with talented personnel that too often underperformed.

How did the Irish get here? Any why did Kelly make the decision to hire VanGorder—a decision that has already impacted his legacy in South Bend?

Let’s look back.



When Brian Kelly tapped VanGorder to replace Bob Diaco, he was hiring a coach who seemed like an evolutionary next step. While Diaco’s 3-4 base and point prevention philosophies were the perfect tonic for improving a team that was wrecked by the Tenuta era, Alabama undressed the Irish at the end of the 2012 season, a simplicity in Notre Dame’s scheme that received a few comments from Alabama players in the postgame glow that likely had Kelly wondering if they’d hit their ceiling.

That’s an important factor to remember when Kelly was hiring Diaco’s replacement. Because the foundation of the defense was well established. Kelly needed someone to build on top of it.

That likely made VanGorder’s pitch music to Kelly’s ears. Because while Diaco relied heavily on his base set, VanGorder’s DNA included sub-packages, complementary parts, Rex Ryan-inspired blitzes, and a philosophy that no throw would be conceded— underneath or otherwise.

Add to that Kelly’s personal relationship with VanGorder. Kelly had watched his former Grand Valley State colleague from the beginning of his career. He had seen him work with young players and believed in him as a teacher (something he referenced multiple times when he introduced VanGorder to the local media) before blazing his own trail, earning a head coaching opportunity at Wayne State, a high-profile coordinator position at Georgia and eventually making his way to the NFL—for a long time, farther up the food chain than Kelly.

Perhaps that was enough to dismiss his chaotic year at Auburn, when the Tigers season—and defense—went up in smoke as Gene Chizik was fired and VanGorder’s defense gave up 63 to No. 20 Texas A&M, 38 to No. 5 Georgia, and were blown out 49-0 to Alabama—after after mid-October.

But for a variety of reasons, likely his success turning to coaches with a personal connection, Kelly once again did so, hiring an NFL position coach who was a few years removed from being an elite-level coaching target for a vacancy that was a high-profile national opening.



The challenge with VanGorder’s struggles always seemed to be the caveats. Injuries decimated his first defense, a group that shutout Michigan and stymied Stanford, but crumbled by the end of the season, with USC naming a number and the Irish tumbling after giving up big, ugly scores to Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and USC.

The 2015 defense had strong moments—dominating Texas, holding Clemson to 24 points and nice wins over option opponents Georgia Tech and Navy—but obviously imploded late against Stanford and never stood a chance against Ohio State, with injuries once again leveling the depth chart.

But there were improvements. Between 2014 and 2015 VanGorder’s unit got a better handle on up-tempo attacks. An offseason committed to stopping the option saw those goals achieved with successful defensive performances against Georgia Tech and Navy. And even if VanGorder’s veteran-heavy 2015 unit was mostly moving on (the talent exodus is staggering now that you look at it), most had talked themselves into believing that Year Three would have better institutional knowledge for all, a depth chart ready to step in and perform.

[A necessary footnote: Luck certainly wasn’t on VanGorder’s side. Injuries, transfers and suspensions certainly didn’t do him any favors, either. Whether it was the disappearance of edge rushers—Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams, Bo Wallace—or the loss of KeiVarae Russell and Max Redfield, injuries to Jarron Jones, Shaun Crawford, Nick Watkins and Drue Tranquill, there was always the defense VanGorder hoped to put on the field… and then the one that he actually did.]



Austin, Texas. Opening night, 2016.

The Irish defense was exposed against the Longhorns, shredded by both the power running attack and freshman Shane Buechele’s passing. It was an all-systems failure: Scheme, blown assignments, questionable personnel decisions—all pointing back to a game plan that required a bunch of assumptions (new offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert was difficult to scout), but nonetheless was a disastrous start.



Even if Kelly gave the staff’s performance a passing grade, by noon after the loss to Duke, the decision was made to relieve VanGorder of his duties.

“This is a difficult decision,” Kelly said in a statement. “I have the utmost respect for Brian as both a person and football coach, but our defense simply isn’t it where it should be and I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes.”



While Kelly won’t likely go any deeper into the decision to make the change than he’s done in a few media sessions, it’s telling just how different the defense is organized with VanGorder out the door.

Full-unit meetings have been turned into position group teaching sessions. Depth chart’s have been reshuffled, resulting in major personnel changes. A base three-man front has taken over as the status quo. And the defense has stopped giving up points and big plays, especially after they found their footing against Syracuse.

Where Kelly goes from here is anyone’s guess—especially considering he’s still trying his best to get this season under control. But after tapping into his personal coaching network to fill a premium vacancy, don’t expect Kelly to settle on the familiar—or for Swarbrick to allow it—when his roster is loaded with young talent and in need of a fundamentally sound plan.

CB Elijah Hicks commits to Notre Dame

Irish 247

Just hours after one member of Notre Dame’s 2017 class stepped away, another took his place. Southern California defensive back Elijah Hicks committed to the Irish. The four-star prospect, an all-purpose defender who can play safety, cornerback and contribute in special teams, pulled the trigger just days after taking his official visit to South Bend.

He made the news official via Twitter and recorded a commitment video with Irish 247’s Tom Loy. And even as Notre Dame’s season continues in the wrong direction, Hicks bought in to the message being sold by the Irish coaching staff, picking Notre Dame over programs like UCLA, USC, Michigan and Washington.

A year after stocking up the secondary—Hicks gives the Irish a nice piece to pair with Paulson Adebo and all-purpose athlete Isaiah Robertson. And as we watch Troy Pride, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Devin Studstill might a quick impact on the back end, Hicks compares favorably to that quartet, another prospect with elite offers who will come into South Bend ready to fight for a spot in the two-deep.

Hicks told Irish247.com why he pulled the trigger now:

“I chose Notre Dame because on my official visit I felt comfortable and it felt like home,” said Hicks. “One of my favorite quotes about Notre Dame is, ‘Other teams play college football, Notre Dame is college football.’ Coach Lyght, I feel like he could give me the tools that’s necessary to make it to the NFL and have a long career. Also, they have a rich tradition and great academic support.”

Hicks plays for La Mirada High School, the same program that produced reserve Irish tight end Tyler Luatua. He returns Notre Dame’s 2017 class to 18, a Top 10 group by any evaluation.