Author: Keith Arnold

Jaylon Smith

Optimal Offseason: What Brian Kelly needs to address before spring


With a Music City Bowl victory in the rearview mirror, the Irish can head into the offseason without the stench of November’s woes still clinging to the team. For a bowl game that felt of minimal importance when most assumed a loss, the Irish’s 31-28 victory certainly turned the tides.

For the next month, Notre Dame’s coaching staff can loudly trumpet their victory over one of the SEC’s premier programs as they try to conclude the recruiting cycle with a few more strategic signings. With the Irish continually trying to make in-roads into Louisiana — defensive end commit Bo Wallace comes from powerhouse program John Curtis — Brian Kelly acknowledged what the victory could do moving forward.

“It certainly allows us to continue to recruit down in this area without having to apologize for who we are,” Kelly said after the December 30th win.

Recruiting is just one focus of the next few months. Improving this team before spring practice is critical. For the players, that means work with Paul Longo in the weight room. But for the coaching staff, it means evaluating the 2014 season in all facets before moving into a critical spring for on-field development.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at some of the big offseason questions and drill down. How should Kelly balance his two quarterbacks? Is the Will linebacker position the best home for Jaylon Smith? What’s the best starting five along the offensive line? Can we expect any spring position switches?

Do you have a big-picture question that you think the Irish coaching staff needs to address or a position battle you think will be crucial to Notre Dame playing up to its potential in 2015? Drop it below in the comments.

With the transition to 2015 officially started, the games on the field are finished. But with Signing Day just weeks away and spring practice just around the corner, there’s still plenty to talk about.

Counting down the Irish: Final grades, Top 5

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

To read the rationale for our final rankings, see 25-2120-16, 15-11 and 10-6.  To see our preseason rankings, check out the Top 25

With an unexpected eighth win in the Music City Bowl, we can officially close the book on 2014. While injuries and the Irish’s November spiral cost them the opportunity to be a great team, the victory pushes Brian Kelly’s team into 2015 on a high note, with even bigger expectations ahead.

Before shifting our focus, let’s finish off our final grades for the 2014 season.



25. Christian Lombard (RT, GS)
24. Malik Zaire (QB, Soph.)
23. Romeo Okwara (DE, Jr.)
22. Drue Tranquill (S, Fr.)
21. Nyles Morgan (LB, Fr.)
20. Max Redfield (S, Soph.)
19. Steve Elmer (RG, Soph.)
18. Ben Koyack (TE, Sr.)
17. Elijah Shumate (S, Jr.)
16. Greg Bryant (RB, Soph.)
15. C.J. Prosise (WR, Jr.)
14. Isaac Rochell (DL, Soph.)
13. Nick Martin (C/LG, Sr.)
12. Cody Riggs (CB, GS)
11. Jarron Jones (DT, Jr.)
10. Matthias Farley (DB, Sr.)
9. Corey Robinson (WR, Soph.)
8. Sheldon Day (DT, Jr.)
7. Everett Golson (QB, Sr.)
6. Cole Luke (CB, Soph.)


Notre Dame v Syracuse
Notre Dame v SyracuseChris Chambers/Getty Images


5. Ronnie Stanley (LT, Jr.): Perhaps the toughest grade I had to give, slotting Stanley at fifth almost feels like a disappointment, especially considering his flavor of the month status by NFL draftniks everywhere who have decided that Stanley deserves to be perhaps the first offensive tackle in the 2015 NFL Draft. And to think, this spring we wondered if he was good enough to start at left tackle.

But for as good as Stanley could be, it’s hard to say he’s there yet. While he’s a natural in pass protection and put together an excellent final two games with his work against USC and LSU, there’s a strength component that’s not there in his game. And while his athleticism is spectacular and will be catnip for NFL evaluators, just two seasons into his playing career, the body of work isn’t.

After seeing how Harry Hiestand whipped the Irish offensive line into shape during their month off, Irish fans have to hope Stanley returns, if only to see how good this front five could be with him anchoring the left side. An unexpected leadership role that Stanley took before the bowl game surprised Kelly. Maybe that’s a sign he expects to lead the team in 2015.

But if this is it for Stanley, he had a nice, emerging 2014. While he didn’t receive a first-round grade, an impressive testing season could push him up draft boards before beginning what should be rock solid professional career ahead.

Preseason: 6th. Final: 5th.


Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images


4. Joe Schmidt (MLB, Sr.): We know the story. We love the story. But it still completely detracts from the football player that Joe Schmidt is. Notre Dame’s MVP was exactly that this season, the heart, nerve center and soul of the Irish roster.

Schmidt is an undersized middle linebacker, but has the athleticism and instincts needed to play the game at a high level. That he’s no longer buried behind players like Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox is a bright spot to Brian VanGorder’s debut season in South Bend, giving us a good first look at what this team can be with a healthy middle of the defense.

While Jaylon Smith (deservedly) earned All-American honors, he has Schmidt to thank for them. And it’s not unrealistic to see a monster 2015 season from Schmidt, who has the skills to be ridiculously productive in this system, especially if he’s properly protected by his defensive line.

Assuredly back for a fifth year, Schmidt’s recovery time is the only question left in his game. But what the Irish linebacking corps looks like with everybody healthy is a fun scenario to ponder. Does Nyles Morgan shift positions? Can the Irish get anything from Jarrett Grace? Is Smith going to play inside again in 2015?

All of these scenarios are made possible by Schmidt as the defense’s unequivocal leader.

Preseason: 24th. Final: 4th.


Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Franklin American Mortgage Music City BowlAndy Lyons/Getty Images


3. Tarean Folston (RB, Soph.): There’s no smoother operator on the Irish football team than Tarean Folston. The sophomore led the Irish in rushing, running for 889 yards and six touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Folston also gave the Irish an option in the passing game, catching 18 balls for 190 yards and one more touchdown.

While his statistical impact doesn’t knock you over, that’s hardly on Folston. His 175 rushing attempts check in at 70th in the country and his 68.4 yards per game is just as pedestrian, coming in at 84th. If there’s a referendum to be held on the offensive distribution, Folston’s underuse might be the leading vote-getter.

When given the opportunity, Folston took games over. He broke 100 yards in four out of five games, nearly missing a fifth when he ran for 98 yards on 18 carries against North Carolina. Only against LSU did Folston run for less than 5.3 yards per carry when he got more than a dozen attempts.

A natural talent who seized control of the team’s starting job, Folston also started to show the leadership needed to become an alpha dog. With Cam McDaniel graduated and right now only three scholarship running backs slated for next season (expect the Irish to pick up at least one more before Signing Day), Folston will be given every chance to lead this team in 2015.

Preseason: 5th. Final: 3rd.


Rice v Notre Dame
Rice v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images


2. Jaylon Smith (LB, Soph.): In his first season playing on the inside, Smith was the defensive bell cow of the Irish. He led the team with 112 tackles, his nine tackles for loss were also a team best. His 3.5 sacks were just a half sack behind Romeo Okwara. And he did all of this while still learning what he’s doing.

Named a second-team All-American by the AP, Smith’s sophomore season was a indisputable success, though it was still one that featured some growing pains. For every play Smith showcased his incredible athleticism, he took another snap where he exposed his youth. In the games after Joe Schmidt was injured, Smith’s play suffered, a step slow mentally more so than physically.

The good news? Smith was still Notre Dame’s best defensive player, with a close second lost for the season after a broken ankle suffered against Navy. And while Brian Kelly has joked about Smith’s baby steps towards handling the presnap responsibilities of diagnosing opposing offense’s schemes, Smith has another nine months of learning in VanGorder’s laboratory before he takes another snap.

This spring, it’ll be interesting to watch where Smith goes. He very easily could be the team’s best edge rusher if the Irish staff desires, with a combination of Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan playing the interior allowing Smith screaming off the edge if the Irish need to get to the passer. That’s likely his NFL destination, though surviving on the inside will only help his skillset.

Preseason: 1st. Final: 2nd.


William Fuller, Kendell Beckwith
William Fuller, Kendell BeckwithAP Photo/Mark Humphrey


1. Will Fuller (WR, Soph.): Fuller’s season was a historic one at Notre Dame. He set records for catches, yards and touchdowns for a sophomore, emerging as one of the most electric pass-catchers in college football. Fuller’s touchdown against LSU on the opening drive tied Golden Tate and Jeff Samardzija’s single-season record with 15.

After winning a tiebreaker in voting to even crack our Top 25 in the preseason, Fuller took advantage of his opportunities when DaVaris Daniels was suspended, emerging as a clear-cut No. 1 receiver for the Irish. He more than doubled Corey Robinson’s yardage output, while tripling Robinson’s touchdown catches, with Fuller emerging as a bonafide scorer and playmaker.

The best part of Fuller’s game is that he’s only scratching the surface. Similar to Jaylon Smith, for every mesmerizing play Fuller made in 2014, he provided a dozen more opportunities where mental lapses and youthful mistakes left you scratching your head. The drops and bobbles of easy passes show just how much higher Fuller’s ceiling is, especially when you see the sophomore attack a deep ball or come down with a tremendous catch.

Among the biggest home run threats in the country, Fuller also provided an electric option in the quick game, capable of taking a screen pass to the house. With the entire receiving corps set to return in 2015, Fuller will likely be the frontman to the best Irish receiving corps in history. Expect to see Fuller on most preseason All-American teams come the summer, with the opportunity to rewrite Michael Floyd’s records if he stays on campus long enough.

Preseason: 25th. Final: 1st.

Irish recruits taking part in All-American games

Cleveland Plain Dealer

Just because the Irish finished their season with a victorious Music City Bowl doesn’t mean the football is over. A large contingency from the 2015 signing class is taking part in various All-Star games over the holiday weekend, including the two flagship events: the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and the Under Armour All-American game.

Let’s walk through the participants and get everybody up to speed:


Under Armour All-American Game
Friday, Jan. 2 — 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2

LB Tevon Coney (Early Enrollee)
CB Shaun Crawford
QB Brandon Wimbush
K Justin Yoon

It appears that all four Irish commitments are doing well for themselves in Orlando. While rumors are continually popping up on social media that Coney is still sniffing around Florida, the linebacker has called himself 100-percent Notre Dame multiple times.



Meanwhile, cornerback Shaun Crawford is looking better and better. While the diminutive cornerback can’t do anything about his height, he certainly doesn’t lack for game. If I’m making any silly predictions, it’s that Crawford is going to see the field early and often next season, especially against teams that like to spread it out.



Conventional recruiting wisdom is that Brandon Wimbush is competing to earn a fifth-star. While it’s all essentially meaningless come Signing Day, Wimbush’s ascent after a very impressive senior season should have Irish fans excited. (This is a cool video.)



In the specialist category, Kyle Brindza’s career at Notre Dame came to a fitting conclusion on Tuesday afternoon. So that means Justin Yoon likely steps foot on campus as the team’s starting placekicker. Even as he recovers from a back injury that short-circuited his senior season, he doesn’t look short of any range as a kicker.



Other Recruits ND is in the mix for:

One of the elite players in the country, Iman “Biggie” Marshall is looking the part in Orlando. Notre Dame got an official visit from the Long Beach star, but this one is going until Signing Day, with Michigan now getting a visit with Jim Harbaugh’s hiring.

Conventional wisdom has Notre Dame No. 2 for Soso Jamabo, the big back out of Texas. But Jamabo told’s Andrew Ivins that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Notre Dame is definitely one of the top schools, still is, and always will be,” Jamabo told Rivals. “They have been there since day one, and I’m still high on Notre Dame, as well as UCLA. Texas is moving in a little bit. But I wouldn’t say there is a UCLA lock. No, not at all.”

Notre Dame wants to land a back, and would prefer to do that sooner than later. They’re in for a potential commitment as soon as game time with Ronald Jones II reportedly picking between Notre Dame and USC. Rivals’ Mike Farrell thinks ND lands him. 247 Sports’ Crystal Ball predictions have USC in the lead with the Irish trailing (including both Tom Loy and Steve Wiltfong.)

Finally, Equanimeous St. Brown seems to have returned to the elite prospect many thought he was all along. After a rollercoaster season from a “recruitnik” perspective,’s Bryan Driskell likes what he sees.



U.S. Army All-American Bowl
Saturday Jan. 3 — 1 p.m. ET on NBC

LB Josh Barajas
LB Asmar Bilal
S Nicco Fertitta
C Tristen Hoge 
(Early Enrollee)
OT Jerry Tillery 
(Early Enrollee)

The early word on Barajas is good, though at 215 pounds he’s got some heft to add before he’s ready to play linebacker in the box. (His official height is just shy of 6’2″.) But in his first national spotlight, Barajas is intent on making an impact.

“I want to prove that I can hang with these guys,” Barajas told “I’ve never been to a camp or anything like that, so I never really competed against competition like this. I want to show that I can hang with these kids.”

As the nation’s top center recruit, Tristen Hoge is holding his own. He’s also getting a jump start on what to expect on Saturdays, matching up with the best DT in the country in Kahlil McKenzie. Hoge seems to be holding his own, though McKenzie going to Tennessee looks like an immediate impact player for the Vols.



Another linebacker a little shy on heft is Indianapolis’ Asmar Bilal. Athletically, he seems to fit the mold of what Brian VanGorder is looking for, and the experience in San Antonio will be a good one. Bilal measured 6’2″, but weighed just 204 pounds at check in.

The same goes for Nicco Fertitta, who is participating even with a broken hand. Fertitta delivers a punch that you wouldn’t expect from a 175-pounder who is a shade under 5’9″. I’m excited to see how quickly he wreaks havoc on special teams.

Then there’s Jerry Tillery. If you’re looking for a guy to get you excited, Tillery looks the part. He’s a legit 6’6″. He weighed in at 308 pounds. And while he’s playing right tackle right now, Tillery hinted that the coaching staff will kick the tires on him as a defensive lineman, too.


Other Recruits ND is in the mix for:

Notre Dame is after running back Jordan Cronkrite, who is another option if the Irish don’t land Jamabo or Jones. They’re also after Fertitta’s teammate, Alize Jones, who looks every bit the part of a freak athlete we’ve heard about.

Per 247’s Steve Wiltfong, both Jones and Cronkrite chatted with Notre Dame’s coaching staff after the big Music City Bowl win.


Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl
Sunday, Jan. 4 — 9 p.m. ET on FS1

WR Miles Boykin
DT Micah Dew-Treadway (Early Enrollee)
S Pretince McKinney
WR CJ Sanders
DT Brandon Tiassum




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

C. J. Prosise, Nick Martin, Cam McDaniel

On second viewing, Notre Dame’s victory over LSU still happened. After watching the Irish find ways not to get it done all November, Brian Kelly’s team handled adversity — and a leaky defense — and executed down the stretch, sending the Tiger faithful (not Notre Dame’s) into the offseason grumbling about the foundation of their program.

A two quarterback system work. So did a ball-control offense. The defense may have started taking on water, but it did enough to get things done. With players young and old making key contributions, let’s run through the final good, bad and ugly of the season.



Malik Zaire. What a gutty performance by the young lefty in the first start of his career. As a ball career, Zaire is a load — a 235-pounder that may serve as the team’s power back. As a passer he was more than competent, showing nice accuracy in a still-developing, complementary part of his game.

But if there’s a reason to fall in love with Zaire after roughly six quarters of football, it’s the presence he cuts almost immediately as an offensive leader. There was no fear in Zaire when he took the stage. Not as a runner, nor as a passer.

That’s not to say it was all perfect. He made mistakes — a fourth-down keep that went for nothing, when Tarean Folston knifed easily through the line for what would’ve been a first down. The overthrown deep ball down the middle into double coverage that got him quickly pulled in the two-minute offense. But it’s tough to get mad at a kid for calling his own number in crunch time.

Zaire’s personality took over the offense, and the young sledge hammer seemed to drive the physicality of the offense.


The Offensive Line. Giving Zaire credit for the physicality is only partially fair. The play up front was outstanding, with Harry Hiestand’s maligned offensive line showing up and taking charge.

In his first start at right tackle, Mike McGlinchey held up just fine. Even better, we saw some nastiness from the young sophomore, unafraid to get into the face of LSU middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith after a run play.

Kelly credited left tackle Ronnie Stanley for getting the team fired up — the junior a vocal leader before the game, something that has yet to happen in his career. Stanley looked the part of a dominant blocker as well, with a stay-or-go decision that’ll likely determine just how good this group can be next season.


The Coaching Staff. You want fired up? Rewatch Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand jawing after LSU lands a big hit on Everett Golson. For those that thought Notre Dame’s bowl game was an exercise in futility, good thing the staff didn’t treat it that way.

As mentioned last night, Kelly flat outcoached Les Miles. An LSU staff with one of college football’s elite defensive coordinators and a Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator came up short to a staff that many fans wanted to see rebooted.


The Moxie. A team that came in as losers of five of six and four-straight had no business being as confident as they were. Yet this Notre Dame team found a way to live under a rock this month, not falling into the echo chamber that escalates from simmering discontent to four-alarm fire.

Do you want to see safeties Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield talking trash? Probably not. But it’s much better than seeing them play with their tails between their legs. Does it make sense for a first-time starter at right tackle to mix it up with one of the SEC’s best linebackers? Not really. But that’s the exact attitude needed to win and the Irish displayed the confidence of a champion.


Quick Hits: He didn’t play perfectly, but it was nice to see Max Redfield active and aggressive as a tackler. The pop pass that got behind the secondary may have been on Redfield, but mistakes of aggression are a lot better than late reactions.

* Converted wide receiver James Onwualu went head-up with Leonard Fournette and lived to tell about it. Making that tackle is all about attitude, and says quite a bit about Onwualu’s evolution as a linebacker. It’ll be fun to watch that position group evolve in Year 2 of BVG.

* Downhill running by Tarean Folston is a thing of beauty. His numbers may not have been that impressive, but everything Folston does is.

* An active game by Jaylon Smith reminds you that Smith falls second to no athlete, even the best of the SEC. Now he’s got to learn how to take on blockers against a downhill scheme.

* Good for Kyle Brindza. I probably would’ve given the game ball to Malik Zaire, but what a great honor to a senior leader who struggled mightily this year.

* The more I watch C.J. Prosise, the more I wish I ranked him even higher in my final rankings. He’s going to be a dynamic weapon next season.

* This should get Irish fans pumped up:





Big Plays Given Up. It’s hard to poke at Brian VanGorder’s Scotch Tape defense, but the big plays very nearly sunk a really admirable effort.

The Irish defense played with a lot of heart, but a long touchdown run by Leonard Fournette and a broken coverage touchdown pass to open the second half could very well have been back-breakers.

(I’ll lump Fournette’s 100-yard kickoff return here as well. That might have counted in a two-hand touch league as well.)

As the Irish move into 2015 mode, finding a middle ground is a necessity for this group. Splashes of dominance won’t matter if the big plays continue to haunt. Playing on a tight rope and contesting everything will remain a part of this defense’s DNA. But situational awareness is a key to development.

It’s Over. We’ve got nine months until Notre Dame hosts… TEXAS!



It’s hard to find anything to complain about after Notre Dame’s stunning victory. As mentioned in the Five Things, this is as much of a season-salvager as you could ask for.

Beating a name-brand opponent from the SEC West. Doing it by playing a physical brand of football that the SEC wants to monopolize. Watching a group of young players emerge as team leaders for 2015, adding to a strong veteran group.

Notre Dame started 13 true underclassmen in the victory. Kelly incorporated the future as well, getting in tight ends Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua along with a non-stop rotation of young defenders.

Just as important, Kelly showed the blueprint for successfully mixing and matching quarterbacks Malik Zaire and Everett Golson, opening up the offensive inventory and giving opposing coordinators nine months of headaches in the meantime. While two quarterbacks seems to scare everybody else, the duo the Irish have brings you back to 2006, when Urban Meyer matched Chris Leak and Tim Tebow to win a national title.


Five things we learned: Notre Dame 31, LSU 28

Kyle Brindza, Malik Zaire, Jalen Collins

The snickering started early. After choosing to receive, Notre Dame fumbled the opening kickoff. They burned their first timeout before running a play. And when Malik Zaire got tracked down in the backfield on his first attempted run, a tidal wave of social media chatter left the Irish for dead.

But the next 59-and-a-half minutes told a different story.

Notre Dame’s 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl may have only pushed the Irish to 8-5, a slightly better than mediocre finish to a season that started with such high hopes. But after Kyle Brindza’s field goal tucked inside the left upright after Les Miles attempted twice to recall the ghosts that haunted the Irish’s senior kicker throughout most of the season, the outpouring of emotions from a young Notre Dame team told a much different story.

The Irish won perhaps the most important eight-victory of a season in recent memory, sending Notre Dame into the offseason on a high note as they prepare to mount a playoff run in 2015.

Let’s find out what we learned.


With Notre Dame’s offense needing to win in the trenches to have any chance at victory, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line carried the day. 

Much has been said about the up and down performance from Notre Dame’s offensive line this season. After losing Zack Martin and Chris Watt from the 2013 unit and reshuffling the starting five in September, the front five hasn’t played with the aggression many expected from a young but talented group.

That wasn’t the case on Tuesday afternoon.

Against the SEC’s top defense, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line helped the Irish possess the football for an astounding 37 minutes, controlling the clock, the football and dictating terms to one of America’s most physically impressive defenses.

Notre Dame ran for 263 yards against LSU, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That’s a number that would’ve been assuredly a typo had you not seen the game, but behind 51 attempts — both Malik Zaire and Tarean Folston breaking the 20 carries — the Irish offensive line showed a physicality that took even the broadcast crew by surprise.

“Say what you want about Notre Dame failing against the SEC and the SEC being too physical,” ESPN’s Rod Gilmore said. “Not up front with this offensive line today. Notre Dame’s offensive line has been dominant with the big boys of the SEC.”

After the game, Notre Dame’s head coach said it best.

“We dictated the outcome by controlling the football,” Brian Kelly said.


Who cares about what comes next? Paired together, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson found a way to win the football game. 

Want an idea of how much this game meant? After leading his teammates to victory in his first start, Malik Zaire brushed away tears as he did his first postgame interview as a winning quarterback.

Zaire talked about those emotions after the game.

“Just the whole season, being a little bit frustrated in terms of pondering my place on this football team,” Zaire said, when asked about his mindset as he basked in the victory. “Being able to still stay focused, still stay tuned in even when things around me weren’t going the way that I felt I could contribute to the team.

“Life is about these opportunities that we get each and every day and taking advantage of them. I’m thankful for that lesson and I didn’t want to ruin it for this football team coming off the losses we have.”

While Golson certainly took a backseat to Zaire on a chilly afternoon in Nashville, he played a critical role in the victory as well. The senior returned to the field to help drive the Irish offense to a game-winning drive, returning to the field after taking a nasty hit on a wild third-down conversion to Will Fuller that required a medical injection to help numb the pain.

“I thought Everett was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Nobody really knows this, he got hit pretty hard on the play that he made. He had to go in and get a shot, the first time he’s ever done that since he’s been here at Notre Dame. To come back out and play, I was really proud of him.”

While the idea of a soap opera-like quarterback controversy is catnip to a media that needs something to talk about over the next nine months, it’s worth taking what Kelly has said for the past month at face value: He built a game plan to beat LSU.

“This really was just about this game,” Kelly said. “Playing both of them, my focus was about winning this game. And we’ll figure out the quarterback situation come January.”

That was made possible by both quarterbacks putting the team first and trusting the guy that brought them to South Bend.

“I thought they played very well and I thought they played well because they played together and they played unselfish,” Kelly said. “They trusted what we called. The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there. I thought that was pretty evident from Everett and from Malik.”


While it wasn’t always pretty, Brian VanGorder’s defense got the stops it needed and helped win the football game. 

After getting sliced and diced by just about every offense it faced since Florida State, Notre Dame’s much-maligned defense did enough to win the football game. Held together by duct tape and glue, Brian VanGorder’s young unit made enough big plays to help the Irish emerge victorious.

Every little play mattered. An opening three-and-out after the Irish scored first? Critical in winning the time of possession. Getting a big stop before halftime? Game defining (even if it seemed mighty close on replay).

Sheldon Day returned to recover a critical fumble. Max Redfield emerged from the doghouse and made a team-high 14 tackles. If the defensive performance was about finding a way to win, then getting too wrapped up in Leonard Fournette’s dominant performance is missing the point.

The defense made the plays they needed to make, keeping an opponent under 30 points for the first time since VanGorder’s unit led the Irish to victory over Stanford in early October. And the return of Day and Cody Riggs, a month off — not to mention a change in coaching strategy — clearly helped.

“We were beat up and tired late in the season. Getting a break really rejuvenated our football team, particularly our defense,” Kelly said. “And quite frankly, we kept our defense off the field. We did a better job, I did a better job coaching. And I think that helped in this respect, we didn’t have to put our defense in some tough positions.”


Brian Kelly outcoached Les Miles. 

While some Notre Dame fans spent the day pining for Michigan’s new head football coach, the guy roaming the Irish sidelines put together one of his finest performances since coming to South Bend. Brian Kelly pulled a rabbit from his hat, putting together a masterful game plan as the Irish completely outfoxed Les Miles and his coaching staff.

Kelly hit every right note en route to the tight victory, utilizing multiple personnel sets on offense, two quarterbacks perfectly and a game-winning drive that reframes the next nine months completely. While Irish fans spent December wondering if a mutiny was on the horizon, the football team they had left for dead pulled out a victory against a team that took Alabama to overtime and didn’t lose a football game outside of the SEC West.

While the massive adjustments to the schematic game plan came too late to salvage 2014, those that wondered what Notre Dame could possibly get from playing in a bowl game saw clearly just how well the much-maligned staff prepared their football team.

“That’s all we talked about. We really talked about this more being a life lesson for handling adversity,” Kelly said about preparing his team. “We had some adversity. Everybody was down on Notre Dame and our kids and we can’t do this and we can’t do that. I said, ‘That’s going to happen in life.’ You just have to believe in yourself, believe in what you’re doing, stick with it and trust what you’re doing.’ And if you do that, you’re going to be okay.”

Against a college football coach who has done a better job than anyone assembling talent outside of Tuscaloosa, Brian Kelly reminded all those who hadn’t already left him for dead that he didn’t forget how to coach.


After a season of heartbreak, a win in the Music City Bowl feels like poetic justice for the 2014 Irish. 

If you’re looking for a perfect season finale, even the end of Breaking Bad doesn’t have anything on the ending of Notre Dame’s 2014 season. In letting Kyle Brindza boot the game-winning field goal after struggling so mightily throughout this season, an Emmy-winning writers room couldn’t have scripted a better finish for an 8-5 season.

Nothing came easy for this team. Not even summer school.

But while this team might not have known well enough how to win, it certainly didn’t know how to quit. And the victory over LSU was proof of that.

And while most eyes turn immediately to 2015, it’s worth tipping your cap to a senior class that did the little things needed to make sure Kelly got an eighth victory, making him Notre Dame’s first head coach to win eight or more in his first five seasons.

In his final collegiate game, Cam McDaniel’s one carry came on a blown audible by Malik Zaire. But you saw the senior captain going head up with Leonard Fournette on kickoff coverage, making a tackle early in the game by stepping in the way of a freight train.

Ben Koyack finished his career as well. After struggling as a blocker at times this season, Koyack held his own in the trenches when the Irish desperately needed him, then came through with a clutch third-down conversion to move the chains with under two minutes left in the game.

Cody Riggs returned for a game that could only hurt his professional chances. But there he was nearly intercepting a pass with one hand on the opening drive and making one of the underrated plays of the game, tracking LSU’s John Dairse across the field in man coverage and forcing him out of bounds before the goal line with seconds remaining in the second quarter. (The Tigers would fail to convert their fake field goal attempt.)

Christian Lombard gave his health to this football team. So did Austin Collinsworth. Justin Utupo went from bottom of the depth chart to the bottom of the pile after being called to action as the defense lost man after man.

A four-loss November and dropping five of six to close the season is still difficult to conceive. But this team deserves every bit of celebration tonight in Nashville, closing out the year with the most improbable of wins.