DeShone Kizer

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Pregame Six Pack: Into the storm

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As Hurricane Matthew hits the Southeast, the Irish head to Raleigh. And after a week of contingency plans and storm tracking, the focus now changes decidedly—winning a football game that’ll present a new set of challenges for the Irish.

We’ve seen monsoon conditions. We’ve seen must-win weekends. And we’ve seen the Irish try and play good football in hostile environments. And even if nobody is going to confuse Carter-Finley Stadium with Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, the 50-year anniversary of the home of the Wolf Pack will have the NC State faithful ready to make things difficult.

A week after moving on from Brian VanGorder and emergency installing a game plan for Syracuse, Brian Kelly and his young team face another big challenge. Finding a way to even their record to 3-3 on the road against a team with plenty of talent.

Let’s get to the pregame sick pack.

 

Can the young Irish secondary play mistake free and still challenge Ryan Finley and the NC State passing game? 

Notre Dame’s secondary made some sweeping changes last week, a relative youth movement in effect with Troy Pride, Julian Love and Donte Vaughn sliding in at cornerback. And after a tough start against Syracuse, the unit settled in and played solid football, re-emerging as a basic-concept unit that went back to the basics to beat an offense that moved quickly and challenged vertically.

But that type of tweak won’t be enough against NC State. Not with Ryan Finley completing 72 percent of his passes and the Boise State transfer still to throw an interception. Not with Eli Drinkwitz’s tweaked scheme.

So after making it out of intro-level installation, the big question will be Notre Dame’s ability to make progress while also guarding against mental mistakes—not to mention an advanced offensive scheme.

“They’re a spot-passing team. They’re really good at getting into open spaces. They have really good concepts that stress your defense,” Kelly explained this week.

“You can’t be a vanilla coverage team. You have to show them different looks. Or they’ll just wear you out. You can’t get off the field. You can’t just line up like ducks or you’re going to be on the field all day.”

Last week the Irish were pressed into a tight situation when freshman Devin Studstill was ejected for a controversial targeting call. That forced Nicco Fertitta onto the field for his first substantial playing time, the diminutive sophomore holding up as a two-deep safety.

But if the Irish want to take their next step forward defensively, they’ll need to incorporate a few strategic wrinkles while also protecting the freshmen that’ll inhabit just about every high-leverage position on the field.

Julian Love thinks they’re ready.

“I think our confidence is growing each day,” Love told CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz. “At first we were nervous but now when we step on the field, we feel natural and it’s something that we’ve all worked for and we’re building off each other.”

 

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that his offensive line is struggling. 

While Notre Dame’s struggle in the trenches against Syracuse was noticeable, the results were never in doubt. That’s because the Irish posted 50-points, moving the ball at will through the air as DeShaun Kizer had the school record for passing yards in his sights before taking his foot off the gas.

It was easy to ignore some inconsistency in the ground game when Josh Adams and Dexter Williams broke long runs. So when Kelly was asked what’s ailing a running game that most expect to be more dominant, Kelly didn’t just look at the five starters up front, he looked at the massive roster turnover on the offensive side of the ball.

“We got seven new starters. There’s a lot of new pieces,” Kelly said.”I guess there’s definitely inconsistencies, but I wouldn’t throw it on the offensive line. I’d throw it on perimeter blocking, I’d throw it on decision making; coaching. There’s a lot of factors there.

“The right side is evolving. Half or two-thirds there are still coming together. They’re getting better. Those are two really good players on the left side, I think everybody knows that. One guy or two guys don’t make an offensive line.”

Colin McGovern will be back in the starting lineup, his high ankle sprain healthy enough. And while there’s certainly credence to the moving pieces that Kelly references, a tough war in the trenches will be on display as the Wolf Pack’s defensive front is the most disruptive the Irish have faced this season.

 

DeShone Kizer, from an opponent’s perspective. 

Mike McGlinchey has pledged to return for 2017. DeShone Kizer has made no such declaration, an NFL evaluation still evolving, and a choice that might be too hard to turn down.

But as we sort out the superlatives that have come from the mock draft community and an echo chamber that sometime’s runs away from reality, Wolf Pack head coach Dave Doeren had this appraisal of the Irish’s third-year quarterback.

“Well, he’s got really good talent around him, to start,” Doeren said. “They protect him well. He’s only been sacked twice. He’s got an offensive system that is well run. They give him a lot of opportunities to throw the ball down the field and guys make plays for him.

“As far as him personally, I think he’s a very accurate deep ball thrower. He’s tough, he takes some shots, but puts the ball right on the money. And he’s competed on a big stage for a long time, so I think he’s got good poise.”

 

 

The defensive basics will start by slowing down running back Matt Dayes

If beating Syracuse felt like scheming against an option attack, stopping NC State may sound easier, but it presents a bigger challenge. Namely, Wolf Pack running back Matt Dayes.

After having a big 2015 season derailed by injuries, Dayes is back. He’s gone over 100 yards in three of four starts and is the focal point of Kelly’s as his defense tries to master its musts.

“They’ve got a really diversified offensive scheme. I think, number one, you can’t give up big play runs,” Kelly said. “I think Matt Dayes is a game breaker. I think he can definitely be a difference maker in this game.”

That means the focus is on Notre Dame’s front seven, and the work we’ll see from Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones, Nyles Morgan and Isaac Rochell will set the tone.

Because slowing down Dayes is the start. The Irish also need to find a way to limit Stephen Louis in the passing game. The 6-foot-2 sophomore has made some big plays, averaging more than 25 yards a touch against East Carolina and Wake Forest and is very difficult to tackle.

“I think those two guys are really key to their offense,” Kelly said. “Finley is very smart and a very good quarterback. But Dayes and Louis are the guys that we have to focus on.”

 

 

Can the Irish defense shut down a competent quarterback?

All respect given to Dayes and Louis, but Notre Dame’s defense has made a lot of mediocre quarterbacks look like All-Americans. And Ryan Finley is no mediocre quarterback.

The Boise State transfer came east with offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz, both leaving the Broncos to join Dave Doeren. And after both his freshman and sophomore seasons were ruined by injuries, Finley—who graduated in three years from Boise State—now has three years of eligibility in Raleigh.

“He is a great manager,” Doeren said last week, according to Blue & Gold. “He knows Coach [Drinkwitz], he understands why he does what he does and does a good job managing that part of the offense.

“He puts us in the right place a lot of times. I’ve said it many times. He throws a very catchable ball and he gets it out quick and allows his players to make plays. That’s the best thing a quarterback can do is get the ball to the right people quickly and let them do their thing. He’s done that repetitively and he’ll continue to get better because he’s a critic of himself and he works out it.”

Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford knows both Finley and Drinkwitz from his year in Boise, though Kelly downplayed any help that might give the Irish staff. But winning might require the Irish defense to make Finley play down this weekend, something we haven’t seen from an opposing quarterback too often these past two seasons under Brian VanGorder.

 

Rain + Special Teams + Turnovers = All causes for concern. 

No, that’s not an exact equation. But any time rain—and multiple inches are forecasted—is part of a football game, it’s time to restate the obvious. Mainly, the Irish need to make sure that the weather doesn’t impact their game.

That means taking great care of the football. That means being clean on special teams. And it means making sure that any huge game-changing plays are forced, not suffered.

Rewind back to last year at Clemson and the Irish didn’t get out clean. The Irish had four turnovers, with three fumbles lost, in a game where only two points made the difference.

With Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome off to a slow start, with CJ Sanders making some big plays but Scott Booker’s coverage unit giving up a few as well, the basics are going to be a big part of the story.

Even if Hurricane Matthew’s impact isn’t going to be as bad as first feared, heavy rain is almost guaranteed. And on natural Bermuda grass, expect a sloppy track.

So the Irish, a 2-3 team that has struggled to do the ordinary things well, needs to play cleaner than the Wolf Pack to win.

And in that corner… The North Carolina State Wolf Pack

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Notre Dame is off to Raleigh on Friday—hopefully ahead of Hurricane Matthew. The Irish look to square their record at 3-3 and do so against a talented North Carolina State team that suffered a disappointing early-season loss to East Carolina.

A game that this offseason may have had the makings of a trap no longer has a chance at being overlooked, not with every weekend vital and not with the major midseason changes already taking place in the defensive team room. It’s also taken a huge turn towards the Wolf Pack, who opened as three-point underdogs but now appear to be field goal favorites in Las Vegas.

To get us ready for Dave Doeren’s team, we welcome in Daniel Lacy. A senior at North Carolina State who is majoring in sports management and minoring in journalism, Daniel writes for the student newspaper, the Technician, and is in his second semester as the sports editor.

I asked and Daniel answered. Hope we all enjoy.

 

 

When Tom O’Brien was replaced by Dave Doeren four years ago, NC State brass wanted to take the football program to the next level. Yet after two stellar seasons at Northern Illinois, Doreen’s success in Raleigh has been far more modest.

What are expectations for this year? And how stable do you think Doeren is as he gets into the meat of his 2016 schedule — a daunting stretch run?

Last season, expectations were sky-high, with some talks of NC State being a 10-win team. It fell well short of that, partially due to the midseason losses of its two star running backs — Shadrach Thornton before ACC play after he was kicked off the team and Matt Dayes in the eighth game of the season against Clemson after he sustained a season-ending foot injury. Therefore, expectations were not nearly as high coming into this season, especially with a more formidable nonconference schedule that features Notre Dame and ECU rather than last year’s slate that featured all cupcake games in Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama. Based on the tough schedule and loss of a few key seniors, expectations are that the Wolfpack most likely won’t surpass last season’s 7-6 record, and that six wins would be optimal for the team.

As for Doeren, I haven’t personally heard anything about his job being on the line other than the upset fan base after the loss to ECU. But if I had to guess, I would say that his job is safe for now, especially if the team goes .500. You’re absolutely right about the schedule though, it is a tough road ahead for the Pack. It faces Notre Dame, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State in four of the next five weeks before closing the season against Miami and UNC. Getting to .500 will not be as easy as it might sound on the surface, or as it has been in the past two seasons for this team.

Ryan Finley certainly has to be viewed as a nice surprise this season, the Boise State transfer flashing an impressive 9:0 TD:INT ratio, while completing 72 percent of his throws. What’s the Wolfpack offense look like with Eli Drinkowitz at the helm? How much trouble do you think they’ll give a Notre Dame offense that found only modest success last weekend with interim coach Greg Hudson at defensive coordinator?

The offense under Drinkwitz has looked much more efficient and moves at a faster pace. He has done a good job of working to his players’ strengths, and Finley has really thrived in his offense up to this point.

It also seems to features the wide receivers more, as Stephen Louis already has over 300 receiving yards on the season, while last year’s No. 1 wideout, Jumichael Ramos, finished with only 457. As long as it gets its playmakers involved, namely Dayes, Louis and Jaylen Samuels, this could end up being a high-scoring game.

 

Irish fans might not realize it, but this Wolfpack defense has a good looking front seven and a talented defense — featuring Josh Jones, Arius Moore, Kentavias Street and Darian Roseboro.

While the schedule hasn’t featured an offense as good as Notre Dame’s, how good can this defense be? And where do you expect the Irish to try to attack it?

The defensive line is definitely the strength of NC State’s defense, with the two guys you mentioned paired with the other three starters — juniors Bradley Chubb, B.J. Hill and Justin Jones — forming a rock-solid unit. It held Wake Forest to under 70 rushing yards and has nine sacks in the last two games, so as long as the D-line keeps performing at this level, it makes the whole defense better.

That being said, Notre Dame will surely attack the defense through the air. NC State’s pass defense struggled last year, and the loss of two starters in the secondary from last season — Juston Burris, a fourth-round draft pick, and Hakim Jones — hasn’t helped to start this season. It has improved marginally on the surface, but will undoubtedly be tested over the next few weeks.

 

From a playmaking perspective, running back Matthew Dayes has already broken 100 yards in three of the first four games. Jaylen Samuels seems like a unique weapon as well, with seven offensive touchdowns already.

Is this the best offensive personnel (excluding Jacoby Brissett) Doeren has had in Raleigh since he’s taken over?

This is a tough one. In 2014, NC State had a three-headed monster (Tony Creecy, Thornton and Dayes) in the backfield to go with Bo Hines at wideout and David Grinnage as a good red-zone target. Last year, Thornton, Dayes and Samuels all looked terrific at the beginning of the season, but as I previously mentioned, Thornton and Dayes weren’t playing by the end of the season. It also lost three starting offensive linemen from last season. If everything stays intact, this could end up being the best group of offensive playmakers in the Doeren era.

Dayes and Samuels might be the two most talented players on the entire team. Dayes has been a workhorse and the team leans on him for success. Samuels is listed as a tight end, but can line up just about anywhere on offense and is particularly dangerous on jet sweeps, shovel passes or swing passes where he has space to operate, and as you mentioned, he is great in the redzone, with seven touchdowns so far this season and 16 last season. Finley and Louis have both been nice surprises, but Notre Dame will be their biggest test yet.

 

Notre Dame opened as slight favorites, with the line moving in NC State’s direction. With an early kickoff and the Irish off to a disappointing start, this game doesn’t necessarily have the high profile nature both problems probably hoped for. How important is this visit for Wolfpack fans, only the second time these programs have played, and the first since the 2003 Gator Bowl?

This is a very important game for fans. NC State will be wearing throwback uniforms as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the team playing in Carter-Finley Stadium. Like you said, these two teams have rarely played each other in the past, so this could be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Wolfpack fans and I’m sure they’d love to top off the experience by seeing a win.

 

If the Wolfpack win, give me a reason on offense and defense why it happens. If they lose, same thing.

And if you’re feeling generous, do you have a prediction?

If it wins, on offense, it will have needed contributions from all of its playmakers. Finley continues to be consistent and careful with the football, Dayes rushes for over 100 yards, Samuels gets a pair of touchdowns and Louis gets around 80 receiving yards.

Defensively, its pass defense can’t allow DeShone Kizer to get going. Part of the reason the Wolfpack lost to ECU was because Philip Nelson completed 33 of 43 pass attempts for 297 yards. It needs to limit Kizer and maybe force a couple turnovers.

If it loses, it would be because the Wolfpack couldn’t get Dayes going on offense. As I said previously, the team leans on him for success. Last week, Wake Forest cut the lead to 10 and had the momentum leaning in its direction going into the fourth quarter. This was largely because Dayes only got one carry in the third quarter, causing the offense to sputter and open a door for Wake to climb back into the game. It can’t afford not to get Dayes involved against a much better Notre Dame team.

Defensively, it would’ve allowed Kizer to get going both through the air and on the ground. NC State has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks in the past couple years, namely Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, UNC’s Marquise Williams and Boston College’s Tyler Murphy (back when the latter two were still in school), particularly against the zone-read. NC State has yet to face a dynamic dual-threat quarterback, but it could be the deciding factor in each of its next three games as it faces Kizer, Watson and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson in the next three weeks.

Score Prediction: 41-31 Notre Dame. Both of these teams were expected to enter this game undefeated, but neither has been good as expected. Because of this, NC State has a shot at keeping it close, but simply hasn’t fared well enough against teams of Notre Dame’s caliber in the past few years under Doeren to convince me that it has a shot at the upset.

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

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After a miserable September, the Irish kicked off October in a far more fitting fashion. Their 50-33 win, a much-needed victory after a week of chaos inside the Gug, hopefully served to settle down a program that has had to restructure its coaching staff and revise its goals before the season’s first month was finished.

While it’s a short-term band-aid if there ever was one, the victory gets the program back on course. It makes a bowl appearance more probably than not, and it gives a young Irish roster some positive affirmations.

So before we turn the page on the Orange, let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Equanimeous St. BrownNotre Dame’s sophomore receiver is building confidence by the bushel. At least he should be. Because at a position where most expected the W to be the weakness, St. Brown is the Irish’s No. 1 receiver.

That leap was something that some saw coming after hints during a freshman season where St. Brown’s practice exploits were rumored. But a slow spring and the ascent of Kevin Stepherson in the spring had few talking about the sophomore. But with six touchdowns and 541 yards through four games, St. Brown is on track for a monster season.

 

Donte Vaughn. The true freshman cornerback led the defense in snaps, playing all 78 for the Irish. And for the most part he acquitted himself quite nicely.

The lanky, 6-foot-2 coverman spent a large portion of the afternoon matched up against Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo, and for the most part he held him in check. That was a battle Brian Kelly seemed fairly comfortable about the freshman’s ability to hold up—so good that they slid Cole Luke inside to the nickel and kept Vaughn matched up with Syracuse’s most dangerous weapon, a guy putting up All-American numbers through the season’s first quarter.

Vaughn might have solidified a starting role for the remainder of the season.

 

Te’von Coney. Moved around the field, Coney was at his most impactful on Saturday afternoon, making seven official tackles and multiple times blowing up a play at the point of attack.

Schematically it was wonderful to see Coney moved all over the field, at times lining up over a wide receiver in a bunch formation, destroying blocks as the Orange tried to beat him with a few quick throws, all of which Coney did a great job covering.

Given the chance to start for Brian VanGorder after Greer Martini played a tough Texas game, Coney has struggled with consistency since then. But against Syracuse, he looked like the kind of “in space” linebacker who had very high expectations before this season.

 

Dexter WilliamsGiven the chance after a nice game against Duke, Williams made the most out of his opportunity—his 59-yard touchdown run a gain that salvaged the rushing attack.

It also turned the running back race on its head. Williams continues to move up the depth chart, likely closer to being the starter than the third-stringer at this point. And Kelly gave Williams credit for the development he’s shown on and off the field.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger and faster, but where I see it is off the field. He’s grown in maturity, and I think that that’s translated itself on the field,” Kelly said on Sunday.

“He comes to practice every day with great energy and enthusiasm and I think that that has a lot to do with him being very comfortable here at Notre Dame. But let’s not mistake the fact that he’s also put on about 15 pounds. He’s explosive, and that’s all because he’s made that commitment to obviously Notre Dame and himself.”

 

The Big Chunk Offensive Plays. Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Kevin Stepherson all took big plays to the house. And those four scores did plenty to erase some of the other inefficiencies in the offensive performance.

A year after the Irish had the most explosive offense in school history, big plays won the day. And they were a sight for sore eyes. Even better? All three of these playmakers are underclassmen.

 

Quick Hits: 

* When Jay Hayes began to emerge as a starting candidate for the weakside starting defensive end position, it always seemed like a curious fit. That explains why Hayes was used differently this weekend, and still found a way to notch nearly two dozen snaps.

“He did some pretty good things. He’s a big physical kid,” Kelly said.

Kelly talked about Hayes’ challenge as a “tweener,” not quite a three-technique, and not really a weakside defensive end, either. But with the Irish needed to be tougher at the point of attack, Hayes gave them a boost.

* I’ve probably set the bar too high, but you’ve got to include DeShone Kizer in the “good” if he throws for the third-highest yardage total in school history. It wasn’t a perfect afternoon in the offense, but he made some really nice throws and he played a second half that Kelly really liked.

* The run defense took a nice step forward, limiting big plays and featuring some impressive work by Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, James Onwualu and Coney.  Making Syracuse one-dimensional was key and credit the Irish front seven for doing that.

* Jarron Jones is the best kick blocker I’ve watched. His ability to both get a push and use his length to elevate sure is a nice luxury. That two-point swing was huge.

* You can’t get done with the good without mentioning Greg Hudson. It must’ve been a great week for the former Notre Dame linebacker who did a great job being a team player this week.

 

THE BAD

The Slow Start on Defense. It looked like things were headed in a very bad direction after watching the defense the first two series. Quick strike touchdowns. Free runners streaking vertically through the secondary. And whatever changes dialed up midweek looked like bad ideas.

But the Irish found their footing and actually had a pretty impressive outing, especially in the second half. But what a crazy start to the football game—with points hitting the board like a pinball machine.

 

The Run Blocking. It’s going to be an important week for Harry Hiestand’s troops. Because North Carolina State has a solid defensive line—much better than Syracuse. And take away two big runs and the Irish ground game was really mediocre, getting no push in the trenches and failing to win as they attacked the edges of the Orange defense.

Colin McGovern tapped out as he tried to fight through a high-ankle sprain. Hunter Bivin was the next man in and struggled at times. Alex Bars got noticed a few times for the wrong reasons, too.

If this season has done anything, it’s served as a reminder that last year’s offensive line was incredible and that the Irish miss first-rounder Ronnie Stanley and second-rounder Nick Martin.

 

The False Start Penalties. The next guy to jump offsides on 3rd-and-less-than-five should get stuck carrying the dirty laundry back to campus. Notre Dame’s defensive front—certainly a group eager to impressive—wasn’t all that sharp on Eric Dungey’s hard count.

New Rule: If you can pass admissions at Notre Dame, you should be able to watch the football and not bite on the hard count on 3rd-and-short.

 

The targeting penalty. Devin Studstill getting thrown out of the game—after a replay official triggered the review—was all the worst parts of a rule that seems to be good sense, but rarely gets properly enforced.

Listening to Kelly postgame, you could hear a head coach who was clearly frustrated, with the loss of Studstill a huge impact on an already young and inexperienced secondary.

“He was definitely not targeting. I don’t understand the rule,” Kelly said.

 

 

THE UGLY

That was one ugly win. And that’s a good thing. Because for the past few seasons we’ve had a hard time remembering that an ugly win is a good thing, and too often we’ve gotten wrapped up in style points as most struggled to enjoy Saturdays where the Irish sang the fight song postgame but didn’t play up to their potential.

Well, one terrible September goes a long way toward a remedy.

With next weekend’s kickoff set for noon, the Irish dodge a primetime bullet that usually comes with a highly-ranked Irish team going on the road. That’s mostly a good thing, especially if the Wolfpack—and their fans— find themselves a little slow rolling out of bed.

But at this point, there’s no such thing as a bad win. So good, bad, or ugly—any way to get it done will be good enough for this crew.

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.

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the beginning

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With the Irish heading east to New York, Notre Dame faces a true big-city conundrum—sink or swim. Because this season is on the brink. And with a defensive coordinator already out the door, there are no other anvils for Brian Kelly to pull off of his ankle.

The Irish need to win on Saturday. They need to find a way to stop a Syracuse offense that’s moving at hyper-speed, while also taking advantage of an Orange defense that’s allowed offenses to do the same.

More than anything, this team needs to find stability. Whether it’s from the enthusiasm of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson or from the head coach pulling the strings on a defense that is beyond in need of a rebound, Kelly has steered this program out of rocky waters before, and his athletic director has given him the clear message that he trusts he’ll do it again.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Because at 1-3, let’s face it—we need one. Here are six solutions that the Irish could use before high noon in the Meadowlands.

 

When in doubt, play aggressive. If there was a true sign that Brian VanGorder’s time at Notre Dame was up, it was the fact that as the veteran coach tried to seek a solution, he went further and further away from the things that gave his defense a chance to be successful.

As this unit found new and painful ways to give up points, they also threw gasoline on the fire. Because as they tried to protect against the big play or the painful drive, the defense spent more time on their heels and less time attacking.

There isn’t a world where this group will stop giving up big plays. Not with the young, inexperienced players learning on the job. And not with Syracuse moving so fast that even gutting the playbook’s inventory won’t stop the Irish from getting caught in some bad looks.

So if you know that, you might as well embrace it. You might as well hope that your defense can create some chaos in addition to absorbing it.

It may sound simple, but every big play this defense can create will be one more than we’ve seen of late. And even if “live fast, die fast” isn’t exactly the most inspiring mantra for your team’s defense, this team is way better off gambling on the big defensive play this scheme was supposed to provide, knowing that if it backfires, it’ll be no different than what we’ve seen and if it succeeds it’ll get Syracuse behind the chains.

 

Get your best 11 players on then field. Kelly has talked about an idea this simple in the past, and likely pulled his hair out when he realized that the variety of sub-packages, scheme tweaks and mental computation essentially limited the personnel that VanGorder even got to put on the field.

That explains why Andrew Trumbetti played 57 snaps last week and Jay Hayes played none. That explains why Joe Schmidt led the defense in snaps last season and Nyles Morgan couldn’t get on the field.

Kelly is a coach who understands basic principles. He’s won using them, beating teams that had more with less—doing it routinely at Grand Valley, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. So think of this less as a cliche than a reminder that a little garage logic sometimes helps.

Get your best guys on the field. Because good players usually win the battle in front of them. And ultimately, you need to be able to do more than handle the mental load of VanGorder’s scheme.

 

Get a dominant game from your offense. For all the heat Kelly took last week in his “call out” of players, he had a point about DeShone Kizer‘s play. Notre Dame’s star quarterback is too good to make the kind of mistakes he made last weekend.

More over, the offense, on whole, was rather unimpressive. The ground game couldn’t dominate. The turnovers killed momentum. And the fits and starts were enough to get Kelly as aggravated as we’ve seen him in years.

Notre Dame is a double-digit favorite for a reason. Because its offense is one of the country’s best when it’s clicking, and its quarterback is an elite player when he’s on. Noon starts against mediocre programs is when an offense like this should dominate. Let’s see them do it.

 

Win in special teams. Two straight weeks the Irish have been on the wrong side of a touchdown. First, one taken away against Michigan State. Then, a return gifted to Duke that brought them back into the football game.

Hidden yards will be critical on Saturday. That means Tyler Newsome will need to get his first bad kick out of the way in warm-ups, no breakfast ball allowed on Ryder Cup Saturday. Justin Yoon will need to convert when he’s called upon. And CJ Sanders should have opportunities, it’ll be up to him to seize them.

It’s worth remembering that special teams has been a place where Kelly has tried to jump start his team before. Against Utah in 2010 it was with a punt block by Robert Blanton and a forced fumble on kickoff coverage by Kyle McCarthy. Kelly also stole a touchdown in the Tulsa game, hoping that excellent fake punt conversion would buoy a team that was still reeling from losing and the tragedy of Declan Sullivan that week.

So if the timing is right, expect Kelly to try and steal something on special teams this Saturday, especially if it can be a momentum builder.

 

Find some kind of consistency in the red zone. Want good news? Syracuse stinks in the red zone. The not so good news? So have Brian VanGorder’s defenses.

But VanGorder is out and a simplified scheme is in. And perhaps the best thing to ask for isn’t a new scheme or installation, but rather some calm before the snap, knowing an assignment for at least a few seconds before it’s time to do battle.

The Irish defense has been known to be the cure to the common red zone ills, but it’s critical to keep the Orange’s touchdown rate down at the mediocre levels where it currently exists. Getting Kizer and the Irish offense to punch in their scoring tickets for seven points and not three and you don’t need to be a math major to understand the Irish would easily win that shootout.

 

Play the game like tough gentlemen. Remember that slogan? Kelly all but co-opted it from Stanford back in the day, but it had a nice ring to it. And on Saturday, the Irish need to play like tough gentlemen—willing to win the battle in the trenches on defense and exert their will on offense.

This season that toughness got lost in the defensive ineptitude and also disappeared as Kizer found comfort in the quick throws and piloting the ground game with an extra hat in the numbers game.

But the “mental and physical toughness” that we heard BK mention a few hundred times over the last few years, that’s been missing. And after a string of losses that have this program feeling down, it’s time to return to the basic tenets Kelly tried to install those first few years.

Football is a violent game A true contact sport. It’s time for Notre Dame’s talent discrepancy to be matched by their size and strength advantage.  They need to dominate mentally and physically.