Keith Arnold

PALO ALTO, CA - SEPTEMBER 17:  Christian McCaffrey #5 of the Stanford Cardinal carries the ball against the USC Trojans during the first half of their NCAA football game at Stanford Stadium on September 17, 2016 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Recalibrating expectations for Irish

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The College Football Playoff isn’t in the cards. Not with two early-season losses. Not with the type of defense the Irish are playing. And certainly not with a young roster still learning on the job.

But the season is far from over.

So while some will continue to call for Brian VanGorder’s head or search the head coach’s Twitter likes for the next big off-field controversy, Brian Kelly and his young team have a season to play.

Nobody throws in the towel in mid-September. And there are plenty of ways to turn this season into a success—though it’ll require some recalibrated expectations. Consider this an exercise in that.

With three games of data in hand, let’s take a look at the rest of the Irish schedule, projecting how this season could break week by week.

 

CATEGORY ONE: GOTTA WINS

Duke (1-2): No, not just because it’s the next one. But because Duke’s season was derailed in late August when quarterback Thomas Sirk reinjured his achilles tendon, ending the senior’s year before it even started. That’s taken some punch out of Duke’s offense and put too much pressure on the team’s undermanned defense. It should be a good Saturday to get a bad taste from the Irish’s mouth.

 

Army (3-0): This is no cupcake, as Army has been in year’s past. Just look at the damage Army has done in its opening three games, laying it on Temple in the season opener, beating Rice handily and then waxing UTEP. That doesn’t mean that the Shamrock Series game isn’t a must-win, but after watching this defense, you can’t be sure that the Irish will have their option game on point just because they did last season. With a young defense still learning things on the fly, this game is far scarier than ever imagined.

 

CATEGORY TWO: SHOULD WINS

Syracuse (1-2): Dino Babers’ team isn’t ready for primetime. And they aren’t going to have a true home field advantage. Moving the game into the Meadowlands will take away any of the benefits of the Carrier Dome, though Babers’ hyper-speed offense might have found its footing by then and could make for a long weekend for the Irish.

Any other season and I’d have chalked this game into category one. But after watching the defensive performance against Texas and Michigan State, this one has me worried, especially with a noon start just announced.

 

Navy (3-0): Ken Niumatalolo is rolling along, even if he’s had to replace starting quarterback Tago Smith. The Midshipmen pulled off a huge upset of Bob Diaco’s UConn team and they keep winning, beating Tulane last weekend to move to 3-0 as well.

They’ll have a week off before playing Air Force, the first of five tough tests before playing the Irish. The game comes just a week after the Irish host Miami, and is a really-early 11:30 kickoff in Jacksonville. The first of back-to-back option games, Navy is almost a game that’ll put immense pressure on both the offense and defense, with the Midshipmen limiting possessions and forcing the Irish defense to take them off the field.

 

North Carolina State (2-1): I very nearly put this into the 50-50 category, but am keeping it here because of the Wolfpack’s suspect schedule strength. Boise State graduate transfer quarterback Ryan Finley looks like he’ll be a handful for the Irish, already sporting a shiny 6:0 TD:INT ratio. Throw in a big running game and the fact that Dave Doeren is still looking for a big win three years into his run at NC State, and you get the feeling that the Wolfpack faithful will have this one circled on the schedule.

 

 

CATEGORY THREE: COIN FLIP

Virginia Tech (2-1): New coach Justin Fuente has started life after Frank Beamer off quite nicely for the Hokies, winning twice in his first three games, including an absolute beat down of Boston College 49-0. It helps that he’s found his quarterback, junior Jerod Evans, a juco transfer who has shaken things up immediately. The Hokies defense seems to be doing good things, with holdover Bud Foster still in Blacksburg. And the mix of attacking defense and opportunistic offense hasn’t felt like a good matchup lately for the Irish.

 

USC (1-2) This only stays as a coin flip because the Trojans have been the biggest dumpster fire in the country this season. After opening up with an embarrassing stomping at the hands of Alabama, things haven’t gotten much better for Clay Helton. He’s dealt with off-field distractions both serious (sexual assault chargers) and self-inflicted (JuJu Smith-Schuster fighting his teammates), as well as terrible self-discipline on the field. At 1-2 with two lopsided losses already, the hiring of Helton instead of trying to get a fresh start is looking dumber and dumber.

 

Miami (3-0): Entering the season, this felt like a game the Irish should win, with Mark Richt transitioning the Miami program after finally cutting bait on the Al Golden era.  But with Brad Kaaya throwing the football and the Hurricanes taking care of an admittedly cupcake-ish start, consider me a pessimist that the young Irish defense can find a pass rush and good coverage by then.

Again, things will reveal themselves over the next month. For the Irish, they can right the ship. For the Canes, their true talents will be revealed. But the Irish defense will be in the crosshairs that Saturday, with Kaaya the best quarterback on the Irish schedule.

 

CATEGORY FOUR: SPRING AN UPSET

 

Stanford (2-0): The Cardinal have been tested early this season and passed swimmingly, grinding out comfortable wins against Kansas State and USC. They feature college football’s best all-around running back and a defense that’s only getting better. They’ll bring a physical attack to South Bend, one that’s much better than the Spartans offense that bludgeoned the Irish in the trenches.

Of course, Notre Dame found a way to slow down Christian McCaffery last season, only to lose when Kevin Hogan lit them up through the air. The Cardinal have three Pac-12 opponents—at UCLA, at No. 9 Washington and Washington State—on the slate before the night kickoff in South Bend, giving us a chance to see just how good new quarterback Ryan Burns is. But the Cardinal defense looks like its back to its stingy ways, and the Irish will need to play a great football game to win this one.

Behind the Irish: A look at Michigan State-Notre Dame

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The return of the Notre Dame-Michigan State rivalry brought the Megaphone Trophy back into play for the first time since 2013. And the 36-28 loss has put Notre Dame in a tough place, their year-end goals adjusted with their playoff hopes running away from them like LJ Scott on Saturday night.

But before we turn the page to Duke (more on that later), NBC took an inside look at the rivalry, what it means to both teams, and some of the big moments in the long-running rivalry.

The Megaphone is back in East Lansing for the first time since 2010.  And Mark Dantonio got his first win against Brian Kelly since Little Giants.

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

Michigan State running back LJ Scott (3) leaps over Notre Dame linebacker Nyles Morgan during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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The Megaphone returns to East Lansing. And Notre Dame goes back to work.

On a weekend that served as a separation Saturday of sorts, contenders and pretenders emerged. Unfortunately for the Irish, they’re on the outside looking in, a familiar formula costing Notre Dame in a game that played out with all too much familiarity.

A porous defense, an inconsistent offense and bad special teams. Let’s get through the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing 36-28 loss.

 

THE GOOD

Fourteen minutes (roughly): That’s the amount of time the Irish were playing at full octane. From the moment they took the football over with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter and went all-in to storm back.

You saw DeShone Kizer cut loose. You saw the offense stress the Spartans vertically. Defensively, the Irish managed to get stops. No, they still couldn’t get off the field quickly time—though they forced three-straight punts.

On a Saturday when everybody should be looking for building blocks, this is the best place to start.

 

Quick Hits: 

* Lost amidst the loss in the trenches was a nice game by Quenton Nelson. The junior was rock-solid in his assignments on the inside, grading out as the best player for the Irish, per PFF College.

* Brian Kelly said postgame that this wasn’t just going to be DeShone Kizer bailing the team out. But he sure tried. Kizer wasn’t perfect and his discomfort in the pocket led to some accuracy issues. But with the game on his shoulders, he roared the team back.

Notre Dame has now scored 15 touchdowns. All but two of them have come from either Kizer’s arm or legs. While some are ready to throw in the towel for the season, Notre Dame’s coaching staff just needs to find some sense of competence from the defense, or risk wasting a historic season by Kizer.

* For the first time in his career, the elite athleticism and tantalizing promise of Jerry Tillery finally showed through. The sophomore flashed those dominant traits, making two TFLs and proving to be disruptive at times in the trenches, a much-needed development if the Irish defense is going to stop that flaming tire from burning down the defense.

* Nice to meet you, Chase Claypool. That’s one athletic dude streaking down the field. Can we find a few more opportunities for the young man?

* Most of his catches came after the Irish had to play catchup, but nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. come back and look healthy, too.

* Durham Smythe helped the Irish tight ends out of witness protection. After nearly entering the doghouse with a critical penalty that took a touchdown off the board.

* It’s hard to say how well Nyles Morgan is playing, especially when the Will linebacker position continues to struggle. But Morgan is a tackling machine, adding 10 more and eight solo stops.

 

THE BAD

Cole Luke. Upon further review, Luke’s evening was just as bad as it was in real-time. The senior cornerback’s struggles make no sense, though his confidence is likely bruised and he’s certainly pressing. That makes a smart football player do some less-than-intelligent things—Luke’s mental mistakes just as head-scratching as the physical, one-on-one losses.

There’s no need to harp or pile on, though it’s a game Luke will need to quickly forget. Especially with the Irish in need of getting on an upswing before Stanford comes to town in three weeks.

 

The special teams. The bar has been raised for Scott Booker’s special teams unit. And they didn’t come close to clearing it on Saturday night. A game-changing start by CJ Sanders was erased by Jalen Elliott’s holding. Miles Boykin’s mistake was a Pop Warner error if there ever was one. That’s as much on Boykin as it is on Sanders, Booker and everybody else that should be looking for the football.

Tyler Newsome was pumped up after he drilled a 71-yarder. And while his 50.3 yard average and three punts inside the 20 will look like a successful game, Newsome once again botched his first kick, failing to flip the field when the Irish needed him to do so.

Throw in Nicco Fertitta’s bone-headed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after making a nice block and it was amateur hour in a phase of the game that Kelly talked about this week as being critical.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame expected Drue Tranquill to play a key role in this defense. Instead, he’s been a huge part of the problem.

Tranquill was a liability again Saturday night, a key defender that was counted on to be a sure-tackling strong safety. And as intelligent, hard-working, and well-respected as Tranquill is, he’s killing the Irish defense with his inconsistencies.

It’s easy to take some of the bad that comes with Tranquill in coverage if he’s a sledgehammer against the run. But the junior who has heroically returned from two major knee injuries has been really suspect, when the team needs him to be a rock as they break in Devin Studstill. He led the Irish in missed tackles on Saturday night, the only defender who graded out (per PFF College) worse than Luke.

Tranquill is still a young player, injuries essentially robbing him of a full season—and two key springs—of development. But the junior needs to find his rhythm quickly, or Notre Dame needs to push Avery Sebastian into a much larger role.

 

The pass rush. That’s three weeks and no sacks. And while the Irish did manage to make things slightly uncomfortable for Tyler O’Connor, the Irish are the only Power Five team not to have tackled the opposing team’s quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.

Spin it any way you want, and that’s a big problem. Especially when you’re trying to help a young secondary.

 

The defensive personnel. Perhaps some of the comfort that comes with calling for Brian VanGorder’s head is that it ignores the other possibility. Namely, that Notre Dame’s defensive personnel just isn’t that good.

Yes, it’s becoming more and more obvious that VanGorder isn’t a good fit. (Yes, I know that’s an understatement.) But it’s also becoming more and more obvious that the Irish just aren’t that good on defense.

It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame’s staff has swung and missed on the defensive side of the football, all those high-profile recruits struggling to live up to their ranking. It’s also clear that you can have a handful of talented players on the field, but they’re quickly erased if one or two aren’t doing their job.

The Irish can’t rush the passer. That’s less on VanGorder’s exotic schemes or Keith Gilmore’s teaching techniques than it is on Andrew Trumbetti or the rest of the personnel that can’t win their one on one battle, especially a few seasons of recruiting misses at defensive end.

 

 

Freshmen are freshmen. They’re seeing and doing things for the first time. And right now, Notre Dame is relying on too many of them, young kids and inexperienced talent trying to hold up their end of the bargain while Morgan, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu play better-than-average football. That the Irish don’t have any other veterans capable of beating out the kids shows you how difficult it is to transition systems and do so while upgrading talent.

Running a high-priced and unsuccessful coach out of town is always an option—and it looks like that’s the way this will end up. But when you think about Kelly’s fiery comments from postgame, through the subpar personnel lens, this comment feels a little bit different.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,’” Kelly said.

 

THE UGLY

Another loss against a quality team. If Notre Dame wants to measure itself against the best, they won’t like what they see. The Irish have lost four of their last five, Nevada the only win. That type of slide during the seventh season of a head coach’s tenure isn’t a datapoint you want to see.

Of course, there’s context for everything. The Irish lost 10 players to the NFL. They’re breaking in an unprecedented amount of new starters—three more than the worst team in Notre Dame history. And that was before preseason and injury attrition hit.

It might be our fault for believing this team could reload and compete for a playoff berth. Because only Ohio State and Alabama have proven they’re up to that task. But adjusting expectations in mid-September is an ugly place to be. And yet that’s where we stand, with Notre Dame finding another way to shoot themselves in the foot when taking on a team that’s capable of matching up with them athletically.

So the focus shifts. And while some Irish fans might check out for the fall, it’d be a surprise if Kelly’s team did. Especially a young roster that’ll now get younger and younger, the goals more incremental now than ever.

“The focus just becomes on what I just talked about: each individual getting better, each individual improving from week and week,” Kelly said on Sunday. “The focus being really much more smaller in a sense. All we’re looking for is to find a way to win and beat Duke. That’s really the goal that’s in front of us.”

It’s been a few years since Irish fans saw their postseason dreams ruined in September. But for the players and coaches who put in a year-round commitment, there’s been too much work put in to abandon things now.

“This is work. We’ve got some work to do. But we got a group that will fight and compete. I’m proud of the way they go out and represent Notre Dame on the field,” Kelly said. “We got to clean up a lot of things. We’ll continue to work with a lot of young players. I’m confident that we’ll be a better football team in November than we are in September.”

Five things we learned: Michigan State 36, Notre Dame 28

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Brian Kelly’s football team isn’t ready for primetime. Not when the offense lays an egg and the special teams implodes. Not when the defense gives up plays big, small, and everywhere in between.

But the Irish have heart. And after it looked like Notre Dame was going to get run out of its own stadium in the most disappointing loss of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, they didn’t—gallantly marching back and bringing the home crowd to life, as Michigan State’s seemingly insurmountable late third-quarter lead of 29 points was down to just one score with enough time for some late-game magic by DeShone Kizer.

But the Irish lost their second game of the season, falling to Michigan State 36-29. And while there are no prizes for good efforts, they never got closer than the ball in DeShone Kizer’s scorching hands with under four minutes to go and the Spartans’ on their heels.

But instead of rolling the dice on Kizer and the offense on 4th-and-7 at their own 32-yard line, Kelly punted with 3:37 left, putting the weight of the game on his defense. And from there, Brian VanGorder’s unit did what it has done for much of his tenure in South Bend—put themselves in a position to succeed, only to implode— a broken coverage on 3rd-and-7 icing the game for the Spartans.

The loss is a dagger for the Irish. With their playoff goals officially dashed, it’s back to the drawing board for Kelly and his young team.

Here’s what we learned:

Notre Dame’s touted offensive line got handled by Michigan State’s front seven. 

Before the Irish offense went up-tempo and vertical against the Spartans, they tried to go toe-to-toe in the trenches. And it didn’t work.

Notre Dame’s running game was nonexistent on Saturday night, the Irish picking up just 57 yards on 25 official attempts. A week after Josh Adams looked like he was on the ascent, the Spartans had him stuck in neutral, just 29 yards on 12 carries.

The Irish offensive line, a group that some thought was the best in the nation heading into the season, had its lunch handed to them by Malik McDowell and the Spartans front seven. Kizer was harassed early and often, the pocket collapsing and several blitz pickups missed.

Three games in, Notre Dame’s offensive front is still searching for its identity. And after struggling in an unfriendly environment against Texas, they were exposed on their home field on Saturday night.

Another good opponent, another big score against Notre Dame’s defense. 

With 36 points allowed to Michigan State, the Irish defense let another quality opponent put up a big number on them. Add in Texas’ 37 in regulation, Ohio State’s 44, Stanford’s 38 and Pitt’s 30, and only Nevada, Boston College and Wake Forest have failed to hit 30 since the Irish held Temple to 20 points last Halloween.

The Spartans put up 501 yards of offense. They ran for 260, averaging five-yards a touch. They owned the time of possession, holding the ball for just shy of 38 minutes. And they converted third downs, with Notre Dame failing to get off the field in the first half before breaking down completely in the third quarter.

With most doing their best to discount Texas’ success in the trenches to scheme or tempo, Michigan State spent a few plays playing with pace before settling down and slugging it out. And they won going away, the handful of nice stops made by Irish defenders erased by bad run fits or schematic breakdowns.

It’s a familiar song, but one that still haunts. Another good opponent, another big number put up against the Irish.

A young secondary needed Cole Luke to step up. Instead he might have played the worst game of his career. 

Notre Dame’s young secondary fought hard. But their leader struggled, and Cole Luke’s tough Saturday night ultimately doomed the Irish defense.

The best defensive back on the Irish roster didn’t play like it Saturday night. And after two weeks watching Nick Coleman wear a bullseye, the football seemed to find Luke, often times ending in a big Michigan State play.

The Spartans flipped the game’s momentum when Luke was beat on a long touchdown, Donnie Corley ripping the ball out of Luke’s hands, turning what looked like an interception into a touchdown. The senior missed a key open-field tackle in the red zone that turned into a touchdown for the Spartans and was a critical part of the blown coverage on 3rd-and-ballgame late in the fourth quarter.

There’s no replacing key pieces like Shaun Crawford or Max Redfield, two building blocks whose absence is certainly felt with true freshman now playing in their place. But Luke’s struggles, especially coming against a critical opponent, doomed the Irish, and now force the veteran to rebuild his confidence before the season goes sideways.

A team that needed to do the ordinary things well didn’t—and the mistakes proved costly.  

On a frustrating Saturday night where many Irish fans are throwing hand grenades and waiting for daylight to look for any real answers, Kelly probably encapsulated his team’s problems best.

“We’re sloppy as a football team. There is not a referendum on who’s got to carry who, or the defense can’t do that,” Kelly said. “We’re too sloppy overall as a football team… Two huge mistakes on special teams and the difference in the game was eight points. So we gotta clean up the whole deal. So this is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”

A kickoff return for touchdown overturned on a holding call. A blown punt return that one play later turned into a Michigan State touchdown. Those tend to be forgotten when the defense is giving up big plays and the head coach is deciding to punt instead of roll the dice with his quarterback.

The Irish aren’t good enough to win sloppy. And they proved it Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s not just playing for the future. This coaching staff will be coaching for their jobs, too. 

Brian Kelly isn’t going to address the status of his defensive coordinator. But in his attempts to repeatedly fall on the sword for his team’s loss, Kelly’s commentary on the blown assignment that allowed the defense to convert on third-and-long might as well have been directed straight at VanGorder.

“We’re in a position we gotta make that play, obviously. They got two verticals, pretty standard deal… and we’re not in good position,” Kelly explained. “That’s poor coaching. We’re not coaching it well enough.

“Obviously if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we’re not getting that done. So we’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job.”

Ultimately, Kelly’s the man in charge of his program. And he’s also the one who put his defense in VanGorder’s hands. And that decision hasn’t looked like a good one since VanGorder’s defense befuddled opponents early in his first season, with no game tape to prepare from.

But scheme is one thing, personnel is another. And even as the Irish reload a roster that lost more talent than any one team since the Holtz era, this staff will likely be evaluated—and retained–by its ability to teach and improve this young roster.

Because Kelly isn’t going anywhere. And while he’s yet to fire a coach in his time in South Bend, course correction isn’t something he’s afraid of.

“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,'” Kelly said emphatically.

“Those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke, and they’re going to have to make some tackles the following week against the next opposition. So we can cry all we want about what we didn’t do, but we gotta start doing it.”

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Michigan State

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It’s a primetime kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium. With the Irish and Michigan State set for a 7:30 p.m. ET start, we’ve got you covered if you can’t wait the game from your couch.

For links to our online coverage, see below:

STREAM THE GAME HERE

STREAM THE BANDS AT HALFTIME HERE

YOUR POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCES ARE HERE

You can also catch all of this on the NBC Sports App, where you’ll have full DVR functionality, HD coverage and bonus cameras. As the Spartans and the Irish battle for the Megaphone Trophy, get set to tune in from anywhere.