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

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At this point, most will believe what they want. So whether you want to fire your coach now or batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, one thing is clear—with five losses (close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, I’ve been reminded), Brian Kelly has a program in crisis; each loss feeling like another sledgehammer to the foundation that seemed close to unbreakable as recently as August.

But as the defeats pile up, Kelly’s search for answers continues. And even if every loss hinges on a different culprit, they all point back to the man atop the program.

With a week off and fall break upon us, the distance could provide some introspection. Not just for the head coach, but for the administrators in charge of overseeing the school’s most visible outlet.

There’s no good in this scenario, not with a campus transformation doubling down on a football program that has turned the stadium into the literal centerpoint of campus. But with an off week before returning to action, it’s hard to find much good in where this season has taken us.

But that’s the gig.

So let’s take an analytical approach to the good, bad and ugly this week—merging our eyeballs with the grading system at PFF, who breaks down every snap of every college football game across the country.

 

THE GOOD

James Onwualu. Notre Dame’s senior captain played a complete game, leading the unit with a +3.6 grade on the evening, notching five solo tackles and playing exceptionally in coverage with three pass breakups.

The senior leader of the defense limped off the field late in the game, tweaking something that had him still walking gingerly into his postgame comments, where he said all the right things as one of the leaders of this football team.

“I’m mean, it’s difficult. I’ve never been in this position before, and a lot of people in the locker room haven’t,” Onwualu said. “But we’re just going to keep pushing and working through this adversity.”

 

Andrew Trumbetti. I’ve been harder on Trumbetti than maybe every defender on this roster, so it’s only fair that I put him up top for the effort he showed Saturday night. With the Irish needing a pass rushing presence, Trumbetti showed that he was actually capable of getting after the quarterback, generating three quarterback hurries by PFF’s count, though he was only credited for one in the official scoring. Trumbetti also drew a big holding penalty when he was tackled coming around the edge.

Playing 22 snaps, Trumbetti generated a +2.4 grade as a pass rusher but a negative grade on the 10 snaps he had against the run, a reminder that small doses might be the best way to get the most out of the junior.

 

Mike McGlinchey & Quenton Nelson (as Run Blockers): Notre Dame’s vaunted left side blocked like the maulers we expected to see all season. At least in the run game.

Both dominated at the point of attack as the Irish found early success on the ground, keyed by a quick start, and the hulking duo physically imposing their will. It wasn’t quite as easy against the pass, as both McGlinchey and Nelson gave up a sack and graded out as barely breaking even.

We’ll save the rest of our commentary for later sections—an idea of where this group goes wrong crystal clear after second viewing.

 

Cole Luke & Drue Tranquill: The veterans still remaining in Notre Dame’s secondary played good games. Cole Luke came up with a clutch interception and had what looked to be the game’s defining play taken away by an early whistle—a strip and score blown dead by a Pac-12 ref who had an obstructed view of the great play Luke made on the receiver.

Tranquill looked at home playing downhill, leading the defense with eight tackles, and doing all of his damage as a run defender. Regardless of scheme, Tranquill is never going to be any better than just adequate against the pass, but the junior is playing at a much more consistent level, perfect timing as the second half of the season will include option attacks like Navy and Army, and run heavy opponents like Virginia Tech.

 

Torii Hunter & Tarean Folston: We may have expected too many big things from this duo, but on Saturday night they both provided a nice spark. Hunter made a handful of big plays and Folston showed the type of vision and hard-running that made him trusted by Brian Kelly before his knee betrayed him.

Getting Folston back healthy and in the mix was a great development. Hunter caught four of his seven targets, getting loose in the secondary when he was given a chance to catch and run.

 

 

THE BAD

The Other Offensive Linemen (Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin, and Alex Bars): Let’s leave snapping out of this for a moment. Sam Mustipher’s challenges weren’t just making sure his shotgun snaps hit their targets. Mustipher gave up a sack and also struggled terribly in run blocking, the interior of the offensive line having zero answers for Stanford’s Solomon Thomas.

Bivin was no better. He was flagged for two penalties, he struggled with both run and pass blocking, and the senior hardly looking like the answer as the first man in for injured guard Colin McGovern, who sat out with a concussion.

Bars’ struggles are part of any first-year starter’s learning curve. But playing next to two other first-year starters, the right side is clearly struggling to hold up against both good pass rushers and disruptive defensive fronts.

 

DeShone Kizer. Criticize the decision to look elsewhere in the fourth quarter (especially in hindsight). But don’t forget that Kizer’s play was what made the move even a consideration.

From jump street, the junior’s game seemed off. His first drive started with Kizer air-mailing a throw over Kevin Stepherson’s head and then missing badly on a crossing route to Torii Hunter after failing to set his feet. And it didn’t really get better from there.

Both interceptions Kizer threw were back-breakers. And they were hardly the only mistakes he made. Kizer missed some open receivers, struggled with Stanford’s pass rush and looked uncomfortable against a defense that gave up a ton of points the last two weeks. (Worth noting: The Cardinal welcomed back a few key starters on the defensive side of the ball.)

Player development rarely happens in a straight line. And while we all worked ourselves into a frenzy when Kizer lit up Texas, that’s looking less and less impressive by the week. And while there’s every chance that Kizer’s NFL potential is still as sky high as most of us believe, the reality of the situation is that it’s much harder throwing to this group of young receivers —behind this offensive line—than it was to Will Fuller and company.

“I think that everybody’s got to improve around him. I really don’t think it’s just about DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said Sunday. “We have got to protect him better, I think we have got to run more precise routes. I think the play calling has to improve. I just think it’s always the quarterback is going to be the center of the storm and that certainly comes with the position.”

So while some will call this (another) indictment on the head coach as a quarterback developer, or wonder if the shine is gone from Mike Sanford, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s tasked with more on his shoulders this season, and it’s showing.

 

THE UGLY

The Rest of it.

This could be 1,000 words or 100, the result is the result: Losing stinks. And it takes down an entire autumn in South Bend and the good will of Notre Dame nation is long, long gone.

So the week off comes at a perfect time. It allows some separation, maybe even some perspective. Not just for a young team that’s in desperate need of getting out of the spotlight. But for a coaching staff that needs to catch its breath.

Watch the Irish play and you don’t see a team that’s quit or a team that’s getting blown out. You see something even more frustrating, a team that finds different ways to lose, each falling within a close enough margin to magnify a coaching decision here or there, with the head coach struggling to push the right buttons on a young team too inconsistent to close out games.

But with school out and five games remaining, this journey isn’t over. So instead of looking at the depths this season could continue to plunge, Kelly hopes his young team takes a few days to hit reset and return to the battle.

“I just want them to get away and then when they come back fully committed with a great attitude, ready to prepare and to get over this slide that we’re in in terms of finishing out football games,” Kelly said. “We have got to be able to get through this and that’s going to require great attitude and great preparation. So that’s really what I focused on. Get away, avoid the noise as best you can, come back ready to go, reenergized, and ready to win every game that we play over the next five weeks.”

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.”