Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: James Onwualu #17 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Nick Coleman #24 and Isaac Rochelle #90 after making a tackle for a loss against the Nevada Wolf Pack in the first half at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Talking Irish: Breaking down MSU with JJ Stankevitz

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A week after our spot-on analysis (kinda) led to a Notre Dame victory, we reunite and come to shockingly DIFFERENT conclusions about this Saturday’s matchup.

JJ and Keith chat, part two. Hope you enjoy.

 

JJ Stankevitz: Alright, so Michigan State: A top-12 team that we don’t seem to know much about. But we do know this, Mark Dantonio’s teams are 1) always going to play physically and 2) are generally pretty good. So what can you make of Sparty coming into Saturday night?

Keith Arnold: I’ve got nothing. And I’m not sure Michigan State fans do, either. I did my best to watch some of that Furman game — and asked Chris Vannini if it was one of those typical sleepwalk/smoke screens that the Spartans usually have before their September date with Notre Dame. He didn’t think so.
But I think that the DNA of the program is what it is. But the players filling those roles are still up for debate.

JJ: Well, outside of Malik McDowell and LJ Scott. But yeah, MSU is still going to press in coverage and try to force long, extended offensive drives. And their offense is going to be deliberate, trying to slow the pace of the game with four-yard gains and the occasional play-action pop. #B1G

We know opposing teams are going to pick on Nick Coleman — but how confident are you in A) Coleman’s ability and B) Michigan State’s ability to successfully challenge him?

KA: Coleman scares me. Kind of a lot. I have tweeted as much, but I think it’s only a matter of time before they hand this over to Donte Vaughn.

Now on the flip side of that, it wasn’t as if Tyler O’Connor was all that effective against Furman. But when you add suspect cornerback to very limited pass rush it doesn’t make me feel warm and fuzzy. What do you do about the ND pass rush?

JJ: Yeah, the lack of sacks is concerning.

KA: It’s kind of statistically insane.

JJ: And with an inexperienced corner, either Coleman or Vaughn, plus a freshman safety in Studstill, Kelly kind of alluded to it — you can’t run as many nickel packages as you would in normal circumstances. Which means putting the onus on getting sacks mostly on the front four and not on as many exotic blitzes, though it’s not like those have worked super well in the VanGorder era anyway.

I think this front four can be pretty strong against the run – especially if Jay Hayes cracks the rotation — but there isn’t that Day or Okwara on here who has a knack for getting to QB, at least not yet. And that is worrisome given the inexperience in the secondary. We saw it in 2012 – having a good D-line/front seven can do a lot to cover for an inexperienced secondary.

KA: BVG has his hands full. He’s already on the hot seat of every fan/writer/pundit, and now he’s forced to simplify things for a young secondary and generate a pass rush with a group that hasn’t shown that ability. I’ll ask you a rather rough question: Why is Notre Dame still running Andrew Trumbetti out there? Is it because Jay Hayes is still hurt? Or because they think he’s the best option?

JJ: Good question. I’ll say this: If the coaching staff thought Hayes was better and/or 100 percent healthy, he’d be out there. He took so many first-team reps during spring and preseason camp that it’s hard to imagine him not getting those as the season goes on.

KA: High Ankle Sprains.

JJ: They tend to linger.

KA: So impactful, even if BK had us thinking otherwise…

Notre Dame’s an 8-point favorite right now after opening at slightly less than a touchdown.

JJ: And S&P+ and FEI have ND winning, too, which surprised me a bit.

KA: Apparently those guys weren’t impressed by the Furman game, either. Is that hard to understand for you? What with the Spartans the higher ranked team — as high as No. 8 in the polls?

JJ: Yeah, but I think it goes to us not knowing much about Michigan State outside of that blah Furman game, and probably a public trust of the team with the better QB, which Notre Dame certainly has. Add in the home game and bam, you have a wildly high spread.

KA:  Put in order your trust of ND position groups:

A) Secondary
B) Wide Receivers
C) Pass Rush
D) Run Stop
E) Run Game
F) Pass Protection

JJ: 1. Run Game 2. Run stop 3. Pass Pro 4. WRs 5. Secondary 6. Pass Rush

And as an aside — run stop is so high because out of the 4-3, it’s actually been pretty good this year. Stick with base and it’s fine.

You?

KA: Pass Pro, Run Game, Wide Receivers, Run Game, Run Stop, Secondary…

In case you can’t tell, I’m still a bit wishy-washy on the whole defense, and I can’t shake that shock from watching a beat-up Texas OL stomp the Irish front seven.

JJ: Which is fair! It’s hard to trust this defense after that Texas game. But if we’re searching for positives, holding James Butler to 50 yards on 17 carries was pretty good, and Michigan State might try to run half the plays Texas did.

KA: I think the slo-mo offense will be huge for the Irish. But I also think you can’t look at Notre Dame’s defense (if you’re Michigan State) and not take a shot or ten at Nick Coleman and the young safeties. Add in a veteran (but reshuffled) OL, and a QB that’s got a lot of time in the system, and I think there’s some serious issues that still need to be solved. At least compared to Nevada.

JJ: It would, quite frankly, be irresponsible for them not to. It’s like when a pitcher is injured a bit – you bunt against them to make them prove they can field their position.

KA: I read something last week about Lane Kiffin / Nick Saban finding the weak link and just attacking it. Worked pretty well against USC for Bama. And expect MSU to do the same thing.

JJ: I’m guessing we won’t see Brian Kelly ripping Mike Denbrock/Sanford a new one if they’re up by 28 points with 43 seconds to go, though.

KA: Ha. No, think that one is safe.

JJ: But your point is exactly right – MSU has this offensive profile, but any good coach (which Dantonio is) is going to ID a weakness and try to exploit it.

So with all this being said — what’s your prediction? I went first last week, so you’re on the spot.

KA: Can you remind me how we did last week? I thought pretty good considering a goose-egg in the first quarter.

JJ: Pulling it up now…

KA: A pro’s way to buy time, obviously.

JJ: hahahaha. So last week we settled on Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24. Guess we gave Nevada too much credit and Notre Dame not enough. But we pretty much nailed the margin of victory! So at least there’s that.

KA: I’ve got this one: Notre Dame 27, Michigan state 17

JJ: I’m going to take Michigan State by a hair: MSU 27, ND 26.
/ducks

KA: Bold! What makes you go that way?

JJ: I think it’s just that general distrust in the Irish defense unless they prove otherwise.
And I think Michigan State is able to dictate the tempo both offensively and defensively that’ll ultimately be beneficial in the end. But if Notre Dame does win this one, you can bet I’m going to be picking them pretty frequently from here on out.

KA: The man in the black hat: JJ Stankevitz.

JJ: I hear there’s a sale on pitchforks at Lowe’s.

KA: Win and it’s 5-1 and a really big evening against Stanford.

JJ: Yes sir.

KA: Lose, and I’ve got no clue what’ll happen — but it’ll be less toxic than USC, that’s for sure.

JJ: Well, pretty much everything is.

KA: Well – there you have it. Another chat down, and KA going duckies and bunnies and sunshine and rainbows while JJ is the merchant of death. Or something close to that – not sure if I’m taking creative license or not.

JJ: Hey, picked ND to lose in Week 3 last year, and things turned out pretty great.

KA: I’ll direct all feedback to your personal email account.

JJ: Just not twitter. My mentions have already been on fire once from Texas Twitter and I’d prefer to avoid anything similar.

KA:  Unless you’d rather share your parents’ home phone number.

JJ: Of course! Feel free to reference this and throw it back at me if ND does win.

KA: Until next week my friend! Thanks for the good chat.

Dantonio ready for another rivalry game with Notre Dame

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Mark Dantonio is ready for Notre Dame. With just one game under his belt and six weeks of practicing since opening training camp, he’s ready to measure his Spartans against an opponent he hasn’t faced since 2013.

Even with a gap in the rivalry, there’s familiarity. Whether it be the common path the coaches took or the geographical connection that comes with sharing a border and a recruiting base, Dantonio knows Notre Dame as well as the Irish know Michigan State.

And that should make for an interesting weekend for the Spartans head coach, as he sees how ready his young team is for a big challenge.

“I think we have to learn a lot about our football team. I don’t think there is any question about that. We’ve only played one game,” Dantonio said. “We’ve been working for six weeks, one game. You don’t know a lot about it.

“You know there is going to be growth. You have some people that are going to fail, some people are going to be successful in this game. I mean, that’s the nature of it. That’s what football is.”

The Spartans have failed three-straight times against the Irish, their last victory courtesy of the Little Giants fake field goal game-winner in 2010. And while Irish fans remember very clearly a play clock that had struck zero, Michigan State faithful remember the unfriendly penalty flags that helped buoy an Irish offense in 2013, when the Spartans defensive backs were called early and often as Tommy Rees tried to attack Michigan State downfield.

It took Dantonio a split-second to recall that game and Notre Dame’s game plan of throwing the ball vertically. Twenty times, per Dantonio’s count.

“From my perspective, we made plays. You know, flags came out a little bit, but from my perspective, we made plays on the ball,” Dantonio said, ten total flags and four pass interference calls not withstanding. “Sometimes those are bang-bang type situations… But at the same time, regardless of what happens, you need to move on and play the next play. I think that’s the most important thing.

“I think we did do a good job of that. We held them to 17 points, I think it was 17. That was a positive. So we need to continue to play like we do. We need to be who we are, too. We can’t let somebody take us out of who we are.”

The Spartans identity under Dantonio is well established. The players asked to step into those defining roles are still to be determined.

Because both programs are at different stages than where they were in 2013. And a year after earning an invite to the College Football Playoff, Dantonio’s program will face their first challenge of the season.

“I think we have a good football team. I think we’ve got players,” Dantonio said.  “We’re looking forward to this opportunity.”

 

 

And in that corner… The Michigan State Spartans

EAST LANSING, MI - SEPTEMBER 02:  Head coach Mark Dantonio of the Michigan State Spartans takes the field with his team prior to a game against the Furman Paladins at Spartan Stadium on September 2, 2016 in East Lansing, Michigan.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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After a brief hiatus, the rivalry with Michigan State resumes. For the first time since 2013, the Irish and Spartans will do battle for the Megaphone Trophy, the return to Midwestern smash mouth football—and a three-game Notre Dame winning streak—a perfect early-season test for both teams.

There’s still much to be learned about the Spartans. Ranked 8th in the Coaches Poll and 12th by the AP, we’ve only seen an ugly win against Furman from Mark Dantonio’s squad, though there’s plenty of talent left from the Spartans’ Big Ten championship squad and College Football Playoff participant.

To get us up to speed on the Spartans, Chris Vannini joins us. A graduate from Michigan State, Vannini is the Managing Editor of CoachingSearch.com, as well as the host and producer of “The Only Podcast,” covering Michigan State sports and the Spartan football team.

One of my go-to experts on all things Sparty, Chris drops plenty of knowledge on a Michigan State team that’ll be answering many questions this weekend as well.

 

Coming off a playoff appearance, Michigan State has lost a ton of talent. How different is this team than the one that won 12 games, The Big Ten and earned a spot in the College Football Playoff?

It’s a lot different in terms of the star power. Connor Cook, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin, Jack Allen and Shilique Calhoun are gone. Those were guys who carried the load for a few years. The faces replacing them have been around, but not in the spotlight, like QB Tyler O’Connor, LB Riley Bullough and RB L.J. Scott. So there were a lot of questions coming into this season — questions that are still unanswered. How will this team handle a big moment? A big game? A tough road environment? A bad call going against them? We still don’t really know. All we know is that it’s a different group at the top.

 

What do you make of that performance against Furman? Ironing out the kinks? A young team developing? A smoke screen to confuse Notre Dame?

Definitely not a smokescreen. That’s something MSU fans like to say a lot, explaining bad non-conference performances by saying MSU was holding everything back. I’m not going to say they didn’t hold anything, but when you’re still battling a bad FCS team in the second half, the problem is the execution, not the playbook. There were certainly kinks being ironed out with a young team. Again, it’s a lot of guys in situations they haven’t been in before. It’s essentially an entirely new receiving corps and big OL changes. MSU teams do improve as the season goes on. There’s a lot of room for growth after one game.

 

It’s another season, which means it’s another good Spartan defense, right? Malik McDowell is back. But walk me through the rest of the crew that’ll make things difficult for Notre Dame on Saturday night.

McDowell is certainly a star and made his presence felt against Furman, but the rest of the defensive line struggled. This group lost several players in the offseason to dismissals, transfers and the like. If not for adding some transfers, there could be even more issues. Furman was consistently getting to the linebackers in the run game. The good news for MSU is that the linebacker group is stacked — and they finally got Ed Davis approved for a sixth season. The All-Big Ten linebacker tore his ACL in 2015 fall camp. It sounds like he’s expected to play some against ND, though it’s been more than a year since the public saw him play, so I’m not sure what to expect yet. This is a front 7 that will have a strong rush defense, but I question if they’ll be able to rack up TFLs and sacks like in years past. The defensive backs are a veteran group, but a group that has questions at every spot. CB Vayante Copeland has been hyped up by coaches, but he only played in 1.5 games last year before a neck injury ended his freshman season. The other three starters (CB Darian Hicks, S Montae Nicholson and S Demetrious Cox) all got burned several times last year. Hicks was hit with two pass interference penalties on deep balls against Furman because he didn’t turn his head around. We know how often ND threw deep when these teams met in 2013, and this secondary isn’t near that level.

 

Conversely, the offense didn’t look all that impressive against Furman. LJ Scott is back, putting up a relatively easy 100-yard game. But what did you see from Tyler O’Connor and the rebuilt offensive line?

Something like 75 of Scott’s 100-ish yards came after contact, so his numbers were because of him, not the offensive line, which was OK, but not great. Madre London didn’t do much in the running game. O’Connor was mostly accurate in his first start as The Guy, but he had a big problem not looking off his intended receiver. If that guy got open, O’Connor was able to hit him, but if he wasn’t, O’Connor struggled to move to other reads and threw a bad interception after staring a guy down. The fifth-year senior knows everything in the playbook, but he’s going to need to work on his reads. A big question was going to be big plays. This team barely got any big plays in the run game last year, and now they have a new passing game. They had only 5 plays of at least 20 yards, including just 3 such passing plays, and one was a bubble screen. Can this team make plays down the field? Texas did against Notre Dame. I don’t know if this MSU team can.

 

For a long time, Michigan State’s identity included a large chip on their collective shoulder for being overlooked. Does it still exist, considering the Spartans ascent nationally, and the fact that they’ve essentially dominated the Big Ten — winning two of their last three against the Buckeyes and seven of eight against Michigan?

This is a program that is respected much more nationally than it is locally. You just have to look at the polls to see that. But locally and regionally, they’re always dealing with Michigan, Ohio State and Notre Dame coverage, so that chip can be easier to find. When Jim Harbaugh dominates a summer of media coverage, Michigan gets (deserved) preseason hype and Dantonio’s name gets misspelled in a magazine or two, MSU doesn’t have to look far. BTN’s “Green & White Days” camp series showed some players talking about Michigan’s hype, so they’ve got a chip. When it comes to Michigan, they’ll always have it.

 

The Notre Dame – Michigan State rivalry is one of the underrated battles in college football. It’s been a couple years since the two teams have played, and after a dominant run by the Spartans, Brian Kelly and the Irish have had Michigan State’s number. Are Spartan fans happy to be resuming the battle for the Megaphone?

Yes. This is a series that has so much history, and was a big part of MSU even getting into the Big Ten in the 1950s. It’s more of a friendly respect rivalry than the hatred you get with Michigan-Notre Dame. MSU fans love having non-conference series like Oregon, Boise State and others on the schedule (and being friendly with those fans). Since they only get 3 non-conference games now, I’m not sure if MSU-ND has to be every year, but it’s something that shouldn’t have long droughts.

 

Notre Dame fans have their keys to the game — none bigger than Brian VanGorder’s suspect defense. What are the keys for a Michigan State victory? What do the Irish do that worry you?

MSU needs more big plays on offense, both on the ground and in the air. That’s what Texas was able to do against a suspect ND defensive backfield. Can MSU make those plays? I don’t know. On the other side, it’s similar. Is Brian Kelly just going to throw deep ball after deep ball? Against this MSU defensive backfield, it may just work again.

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Give Chris a follow @ChrisVannini on Twitter and check out the podcast at The Only Colors

Spartans next big challenge for young Irish team

In this Sept. 4, 2016 file photo, Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, right, celebrates with teammates after catching a 19-yard touchdown pass during during an NCAA college football game in Austin, Texas. The wide receiver is living up to his name. St. Brown said his father, John Brown, a two-time Mr. Universe, gave him his first name because he liked the word equanimity, which the dictionary defines as the quality of remaining calm, undisturbed, especially under tension or strain. (AP Photo/Eric Gay File)
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Brian Kelly was happy with his team’s progress from Week One to Week Two. He’ll be even happier if his team makes the same leap in their third game.

That’ll likely mean Notre Dame retains the Megaphone Trophy. It’ll also mean the Irish found a way to take the next step in the evolution of a young team that’s showed the same type of resiliency that powered last year’s team to ten wins.

But to do that, the Irish will need to keep improving. And they’ll need to beat one of the most consistent programs of the last decade. Kelly acknowledged that on Tuesday, his weekly press conference as much about a look inward as Michigan State.

“I think the next step for this team is to play in all phases of the game at a higher level,” Kelly said. “We’re going to get that this week against a very good Michigan State football team.”

The phase that most wonder about are getting coached up this week by Brian VanGorder. Hopeful to build on a nice performance against Nevada, the Irish will face significantly upgraded personnel, but a team still finding its footing—the Spartans running out a veteran, but reshuffled, offensive line, an inexperienced receiving corps, and a new starting quarterback.

Of course, Notre Dame’s not without its challenges. A secondary that’s being rebuilt on the fly, linebackers facing another physical challenge, and a defensive front that desperately needs to get to the quarterback. But there was plenty of progress last weekend. And now that progress will need to take hold against a program that’s lost its share of frontline talent but certainly has shown an ability to rebuild.

Offensively, Michigan State’s defense will always be a challenge. Especially with a star like Malik McDowell. But the Spartans secondary isn’t the group that touted its No Fly Zone the last time the Irish took on Michigan State. And while the young Irish receivers will certainly be facing their stiffest challenge this season, Kelly had some simple advice for them.

“Run! Just keep running,” Kelly said, before comparing this young group favorably to the one that last played against the Spartans. “I think we’re in a better position. If they want to press us, we just need to run, run our routes, do what we do, and we’ll make enough plays.”

Putting all the pieces together is the next step. In front of a home crowd that’ll be far more excited than last weekend, Notre Dame has a chance to go toe-to-toe against a team that’s viewed as a Top 10 program. Exit with a win and they’ll go a long way towards rebuilding the momentum that escaped in double overtime against Texas.

 

Can Notre Dame rebuild its secondary on the fly?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Ahki Muhammad #3 of the Nevada Wolf Pack gets tripped up by Cole Luke #1 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the second half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Shaun Crawford is done for the season. Max Redfield didn’t make it to the season opener. Nick Watkins is still waiting on a broken arm to heal. Devin Butler is suspended indefinitely and wearing a walking boot.

A talented depth chart went from stockpiled to bare bones in two weeks, a nice reminder that you can never have enough talent on a roster.

So the Irish move forward, likely junking their latest contingency plan to try and find a way to stabilize the back-end—all while teaching a remarkably young group of defensive backs to grow up quickly. It’s a challenge that nobody saw coming entering the season. But it’s one that’s par for the course as Notre Dame continues to battle tough luck on the defensive side of the ball.

It’s not all bad news. Especially when you consider that Michigan State and Duke are still breaking in young quarterbacks, with Syracuse, NC State and Stanford not much more experienced.

But how can the Irish rebuild a secondary that’s already showed holes? A few humble suggestions below.

 

STICK WITH STUDSTILL

Devin Studstill played every snap of the Nevada game, a toss into the proverbial deep end if there ever was one. Studstill held up just fine, likely making the Irish coaching staff wish they’d have trusted the talented youngster more against Texas, when the staff chose to lean on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian instead of the true freshman.

It took less than a half of football in Austin to understand that wasn’t going to work. And now two games into the season it’s Studstill or bust at free safety, a choice that gives the Irish defense a look towards the future while also best serving their present-day goals.

Studstill wasn’t perfect on Saturday. But he was strong in run support and had no major hiccups in the passing game, already an athletic improvement over Tranquill and Sebastian, two in-the-box defenders asked to be too far outside their comfort zone in centerfield.

You never want to be breaking in a true freshman safety. But doing it now against quarterbacks just as green as Studstill is at least making the best of a bad situation.

 

GET NICK COLEMAN RIGHT… OR GET YOUNG AT CORNER, TOO. 

Nick Coleman has a bullseye on his back. And he will until he starts making some plays. Coleman knows that, Brian Kelly knows that, and everybody in Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night will know that, too.

“They’re going to keep going at Nick Coleman,” Kelly acknowledged. “We’re quite aware of that situation. But I think Nick has showed himself that he’s up to the task and he’s going to continue to work to get better at it. When you lose a player like Crawford, the guy that comes in, they’re going to pick on him. But I like the fact that Nick has made the kind of corrections necessary to go out there and compete for the football.

Some of those adjustments showed on the field against Nevada. Then again, so did Coleman’s downfield stumble, turning for the football but then losing his feet on an easy deep ball completion.

Assuming Ashton White is no longer in the head coach’s doghouse, he should be getting a look during practice. So should Donte Vaughn, the lanky freshman able to make up for some mistakes with his length and athleticism. Jalen Elliott and Julian Love are competitive, high-IQ football players. Give them a shot and see what happens.

The staff isn’t giving up on Coleman, nor should they. He’s a competitive kid, a good athlete and someone they think highly of.

But he’ll need to find a way to get his mental game straighten out quickly. Because opposing quarterbacks aren’t going to be looking at Cole Luke when they’ve got Coleman on the other side of the field.  And the ball will keeping coming at him until he starts making some plays.

 

KEEP IT SIMPLE.

Notre Dame’s 3-3-5 against Texas will likely go down as the bad-idea of the season, a move designed to give the Irish their best chance at winning, but one that could also be considered outthinking themselves. Of course, that’s ignoring the job Texas did in the trenches, the missed tackles by the players Notre Dame put in position to make the plays, and the deep throws that went over the top of a coverage scheme designed to guard against that very thing.

But that’s football. And a big reason why Brian VanGorder will now go back to the chalkboard, hoping to design a defense that allows his young talent to figure things out, but also gives his scheme a chance to make up for some glaring personnel weaknesses.

Even the best secondary can’t cover receivers forever. And with Notre Dame’s current pass rush, that’s the ask. (At least if they want to drop six or seven.) That same pressure is applied if the front seven can’t slow down an opponents run game—committing extra hats to the box should help, but it leaves a young secondary vulnerable and on islands.

With the heat already cranked up on VanGorder, it’ll be the long-time assistant’s job to find a happy medium, manufacturing confusion and heat on quarterbacks while also making sure the Irish can win on first and second downs.

None of that sounds simple. But of course, that’s what young players need—and why VanGorder’s paychecks have all those zeroes.

 

HAVE THE OFFENSE HELP OUT WHILE THE DEFENSE GROWS EACH WEEK.  

Don’t expect things to be solved on Saturday. But progress needs to be made, making sure that the team Notre Dame puts on the field in October is better than the one asked to survive September.

Brian Kelly has built a roster to his liking. He’s had a successful recruiting run. And he’s found defensive backs that fit the profile that VanGorder is looking for, man-coverage skills that should be able to hold up in space better than the Cover 2 players he inherited.

Now Todd Lyght needs to coach them up. VanGorder needs to keep designing sound schemes. And Kelly needs his offense to support the other side of the football—taking pressure off his defense by either scoring points by the bushel or keeping opponents off the field. (Preferably both.)

DeShone Kizer and the offensive line can be a big piece of the defensive puzzle. So can a three-headed running back position that can eat clock and limit possessions. With a quarterback capable of winning football games with his arm, his feet and—more importantly—his head, adjusting a game plan to pick up the slack for the defense shouldn’t be asking too much.

Because if it allows the defense to tread water for a few weeks as the kids get used to things, this defense can get better week to week.