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


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.



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 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 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.”

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


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

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.