Keith Arnold

Five things we learned: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

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Behind center and ready to play a hero, Malik Zaire awaited the snap. Little did he know the clock was already running.

Seven of the 13 precious seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ticked off the field as the senior surveyed the field, the Irish still needing a nice gain to make a game-tying field goal even possible. And after Zaire left the pocket looking to make a play, even a completion wouldn’t have made a difference. He was out of time.

A fitting final snap of the season in Notre Dame Stadium if there ever was one.

Notre Dame’s fast start and 17-0 lead were not enough, as the Irish fell for the seventh time this year, with Virginia Tech rallying to win 34-31. After scoring on four of their first five drives and exploding for 24 first-half points, DeShone Kizer and the offense cooled off, punting on six of their next seven series as the Hokies offense rallied for the win.

A young Irish defense fought valiantly but gave up four scoring drives in the second half. Kizer’s couldn’t replicate his first-half success.  And any hope of stealing a bowl appearance with two wins against the season’s toughest back-to-back is finished.

So as the lights go out on Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this season, let’s find out what we learned.

 

A gutty effort by DeShone Kizer wasn’t enough to get it done. 

In what might have been his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, DeShone Kizer showed plenty of heart. But he didn’t play well enough to win the game.

Kizer completed 16 of 33 throws for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing attempts with 16, earning all 69 yards he gained. But when the Irish needed to move the chains and win the game late, the Irish came up empty twice.

Of course, not all of that is on Kizer. A strong wind made accuracy a major challenge. The offensive line that protected him well for the majority of the game, struggled down the stretch. And a perfect deep ball that Kizer lofted down the sideline slid through Equanimeous St. Brown‘s hands, a game-changing catch that never was.  On a Saturday where the Irish offense needed to carry the team to victory, Kizer was just three of 15 in the second half, with Bud Foster’s defense shutting down the Irish in the game’s final 30 minutes, save Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run.

Kizer was unwilling to discuss his future postgame, only that he had a decision to make after the season. But he reportedly hung around on the field after the loss, perhaps taking things in one last time before declaring for the NFL Draft, a decision the smart money already thinks is made.

After taking two clear head-shots that deserved personal foul calls, Kizer clearly left it all on the field. Unfortunately, there were a few missed plays out there as well, and they ended up costing the Irish.

 

Notre Dame’s young secondary couldn’t keep pace with Virginia Tech’s talented receivers. 

Someday a few years from now, Notre Dame fans will look back at the challenge Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Julian Love faced on Saturday and reminisce that games like this helped forge the unit into something better. Until then, it’ll just be called growing pains.

Asked to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the best trio of receivers they’ll face all season (or at least until next weekend), the young defensive backs had some tough assignments, with Isaiah Ford catching seven of his 10 targets for 86 yards and Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges bringing in touchdown catches. Add in a long catch and run by slot man C.J. Carroll that went for 62 yards and the Irish were unable to make a big play against the Hokies passing attack—other than the gift-wrapped interception that bounced through the hands of Phillips and into the arms of Drue Tranquill.

The Irish defense had multiple opportunities to go out and win the game, but came up short. After holding the Hokies to just 135 yards in the first half they gave up 284 yards in the second, with 206 of those coming through the air. (That doesn’t count the 15 yards that came on a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke, a play that Kelly thought Luke played perfectly.)

 

We knew the young secondary would have its hands full. Ultimately, it was the Hokies that won the aerial battle.

 

Once again, a fast start can’t make up for a soft finish. 

As we’ve seen far too often this season, Notre Dame’s fast start wasn’t enough. And after being one of the best coaches in America when playing with a lead, the Irish have been disastrous this year, blowing a 17-zip start and a 10-point halftime lead.

Asked to put his finger on the issue, Kelly couldn’t identify one thing.

“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”

It helps that Virginia Tech got its act together. After Jarod Evans gave away a fumble and the Hokies stumbled out of the gates, head coach Justin Fuente rallied his team—even as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost his team an offensive series. Evans led the charge, the massive quarterback the most effective ball-carrier for the Hokies run game, a challenging personnel matchup especially with a fullback on the field that forced the Irish out of their preferred five-man secondary.

For Kelly, it’s another tight loss. A coach who built his reputation on winning games late and doing the job in November is now struggling to find solutions at a critical time of the year. A loser of just 13 one-score games in his first six seasons, he’s lost seven in this season alone.

This one as painful as the rest, his young team giving up the game’s final 13 points to go home a loser.

 

It should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s offensive leadership. 

Last season, the Irish deftly handled the trio of Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford atop the org chart on the offensive side of the football. This season? Quite the opposite.

Because after another hot start to the game—triggered by some pretty impressive Xs and Os and play scripting—it was Virginia Tech that made all the winning adjustments, with Notre Dame’s offensive trio unable to counterpunch after the Hokies game back from halftime.

After reluctantly giving up play-calling last season and seeing the team put up its most explosive numbers ever, this football team’s schizophrenic nature has to be driving Kelly crazy. And after leaning on NFL talent like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, this team just hasn’t been able to find the right formula for clutch, late-game play.

When asked about the offensive coaching structure and the decision to give-up play-calling, Kelly steered clear of any second-guessing.

 

“I’m trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play-calling and the execution quite frankly is part of that,” Kelly explained. It’s play-calling, it’s execution, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.”

With his career at a crossroads, expect the head coach to reevaluate the hierarchy. And if you were a betting man, you’d have to assume that Kelly will go back to betting on himself.

 

 

There’s a young team with a promising future in South Bend. But finding a way to shake off this nightmarish season will be Brian Kelly’s largest challenge. 

Eventually it sounds like a broken record. Even the head coach acknowledged it after the game.

“These kids are wonderful kids. I’m just at a loss for words as to what to tell them,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a difficult year. They’ve worked so hard. They play so hard. They’ve been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, it’s just one of those years. I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach. It just hasn’t gone their way.”

Like we’ve seen all season, the positives have been there. Big plays from Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Huge games from young defenders like Te’von Coney and veterans like James Onwualu and Jarron Jones.

But as the Irish look for the successful recipe for winning football, they too often have come up just short—with a different culprit seemingly each week. Missed blocks. Ten penalties (and a few crucial ones missed.) Red zone miscues that turn seven points into three. And a crunch time mistake that turns into a fatal mistake.

“I just love our kids. I love the way they battle. We’re going to wake up from this nightmare,” Kelly said, before joking that he hoped he’ll wake up 11-0.

He won’t. And any relief from this nightmare won’t come this November, not with a trip to Los Angeles next weekend that’ll require his players to provide the motivation, now that Notre Dame’s bowl dreams are dashed.

But beyond that, this will be on the head coach. And after assuring himself his first losing season since he rebuilt Central Michigan’s football program, the focus will be on the man on charge. Because he’s got a talented group of players. Now he desperately needs to teach them how to win.

 

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

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It’s the final home weekend of the season. And if you aren’t in front of the TV and at home to watch the NBC broadcast, we’ve got options for you. See the below links:

WATCH NOTRE DAME vs. VIRGINIA TECH HERE

CLICK HERE FOR THE NOTRE DAME BAND HALFTIME SHOW

CLICK HERE FOR THE POSTGAME PRESS CONFERENCES FOR BRIAN KELLY & JUSTIN FUENTE.

Pregame coverage starts at 3 p.m. ET live on NBC with Countdown to Kickoff, with Liam McHugh and Dhani Jones. Kickoff is at 3:30 with Dan Hicks, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen on the call. Former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen will join as a guest analyst at halftime. You can watch all of that here or on the NBC Sports App on your mobile phone or tablet.

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: One last Saturday at home

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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It’s Senior Day in South Bend. And while it wasn’t the year—or the group—that Brian Kelly wanted to be saying goodbye to, it’s still another season in the rearview, a fall that went by way too fast.

So as the Irish welcome Virginia Tech to Notre Dame for the first time, the Pregame Six Pack gets a little nostalgic. Because for most of this season, we’ve talked about this team’s youth. And this time, it’s time to tip a cap to the seniors.

As usual, there’s plenty of great reading out there. For my money, it starts at The Observer, who continued their tradition of profiling every senior in the class, from Josh Anderson to Malik Zaire.  So let’s get to it. With the weather winter coming, maybe as soon as tomorrow, let’s focus on six seniors key to a Notre Dame victory.

 

JARRON JONES

He survived the triple-option, protected by his head coach who took more than a few bullets for the fifth-year player. Now Jarron Jones needs to pay the favor back, winning in the trenches and blowing up the pocket to make things uncomfortable for Jerod Evans.

Jones has a favorable matchup against Hokies center Eric Gallo. He’s playing his last home football game with his brother, with Jamir coming on strong as a special teams force. And after making it out of Navy and Army unscathed, Jones isn’t sure where he’ll end up next year—he’s heard everything from first rounder to undrafted—he’s just appreciative that he’s one of the last men standing in his class.

“I am just happy I made it,” Jones told IrishSportsDaily.com on Wednesday. “It’s just been a great five years here. Having the met the guys I have met, playing with the guys and coaches I have, everything has been great. Being here the past five years has been some of the best of my life.”

When he wants to, Jones is one of the most dominant players on the football field. You have to assume tomorrow’s special to Jones, a good thing for the Irish defense.

 

SCOTT DALY

It might be the kiss of death for a long snapper, but there’s a ton of love floating around for Scott Daly, who has spent five years on campus staying below the radar. That’s the best sign of a great career you could ever ask for.

“I think maybe that is the best compliment,” Brian Kelly said. “When you do not talk about your long snapper for four years, that’s a pretty remarkable thing. To be that efficient, to be that consistent over four years is pretty amazing, what he’s been able to accomplish here.”

Daly came into South Bend with the best recruiting pedigree you could ask for, named by Chris Rubio as the nation’s top long snapper. He’ll leave it with a legitimate chance to take those talents to the NFL.

A great career by a snapper who now has to deal with more stories written about him this week than his entire career combined. No pressure!

 

JAMES ONWUALU

The latest Cretin-Derham Hall product to come through South Bend has done all that’s asked of him, an unlikely defensive leader considering he entered this season as the most seasoned receiver on the Irish roster. With multiple positions and four-seasons of starting experience under his belt, Onuwalu has tried his best to cherish these final moments before the next challenge.

“I try to once a week, just on Sundays to go down to the Grotto,” Onwualu said this Wednesday. “Just kind of spend some time to think about how lucky I am to be at a school like this and to have accomplished all that I did and have the opportunities that I have.”

While a career in finance will be waiting for him, Onwualu has shown enough this season to have a chance at continuing his career on the field, both as a open-field linebacker as well as a special teamer, something Brian Kelly talked about and Onwualu reluctantly discussed.

“I definitely do desire to play in the National Football League, and it will be something that I’ll be chasing here in a few months,” Onwualu said. “But as of now just trying to finish up the career on a high note.”

 

 

COLE LUKE

After a nightmarish start to the season, Cole Luke has successfully rebooted his year, reminding everybody that he’s every bit the playmaker he was as a sophomore. When Greg Hudson took over and Todd Lyght went back to coaching up his secondary, the move to slide Luke inside freed him to be what he was—an instinctive cover-man who finds his way to the football.

That’s been apparent the past few weeks as Luke has found ways to impact the game over and over. And that challenge will be even more apparent this weekend, with Evans the most efficient quarterback the Irish have faced by a wide margin. Even after throwing two interceptions against Georgia Tech last weekend, Evans’s TD:INT ratio sits at an impressive 22:4, a threat with his legs as well as his arm.

That leaves Luke opportunities in his final home football game to steal the spotlight, maybe the role he was always destined to play.

 

MIKE MCGLINCHEY

Notre Dame’s starting left tackle isn’t going anywhere, announcing his planned return earlier in the season. But before he turns his lens to 2017, there’s a big challenge coming from Bud Foster’s defense, potentially from former Irish recruit Ken Ekanum.

Virginia Tech’s senior edge player made some headlines when he accused the Irish staff of pulling his scholarship offer when he was injured during postseason all-star play before picking a college. Kelly responded by denying the charge, but did acknowledge that his spot might have filled. (There’s reason to believe Kelly here.) Putting bad blood aside, McGlinchey, who has struggled with some mental lapses surrounding the snap count, could be put to the test by the Hokies best pass rusher.

But Saturday is an opportunity for McGlinchey to continue improving, putting behind him the lapses that take away from his spurts of dominance. After Irish fans have been spoiled by years of Zack Martin and Ronnie Stanley, Saturday with be another important datapoint in McGlinchey’s evolution.

 

MALIK ZAIRE

If Saturday goes according to plan, Zaire might not even see the field. But the fact that he was able to blend into the scenery, and do so when things didn’t go his way, is a testament to the veteran quarterback—who’ll have a choice to stick around for a fifth year and compete for a job or explore his options as a graduate transfer.

Zaire’s not Notre Dame’s best quarterback—no shame considering the ceiling that DeShone Kizer possesses. But if this is it for him, he’ll have left a lasting impression on Brian Kelly’s program, both as a competitor and in his few moments of brilliance.

Zaire’s season-opening start against Texas was as close to a statistically perfect game as possible. His win against LSU in the Music City Bowl may go down as Kelly’s most unlikely victory. And his passion on the field against USC in a lost-second half showed the type of leader he had become.

So while he wasn’t able to provide a spark this season with his limited opportunities, he did all that was asked of him. So just because he finished on the wrong side of one of the most competitive position groups we’ve seen in years, doesn’t mean he should be any less proud of these four challenging years.

 

Behind the Irish: Worldwide support

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You didn’t need to be in Dublin to kickoff the 2012 season to understand the reach of Notre Dame football. But our final “Behind the Irish” for the season takes a look at the global support the Irish football team receives, thanks to a passionate group of fans that cover the entire globe.

Listen to current Irish players like Malik Zaire, James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan and Josh Adams talk about the support they receive from one of the largest fanbases in all of sports.

And in that corner… The Virginia Tech Hokies

BLACKSBURG, VA - NOVEMBER 12: Quarterback Jerod Evans #4 of the Virginia Tech Hokies carries the ball against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the first half at Lane Stadium on November 12, 2016 in Blacksburg, Virginia. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s ACC partnership yields a new opponent this weekend, as Virginia Tech and the Irish meet for the first time. After Frank Beamer took his alma mater to unparalleled heights and a national profile on the football field, he turned the program over to Justin Fuente, and the former Memphis coach has done big things in his first year in Blacksburg.

With transfer quarterback Jerod Evans behind center, Fuente has the Hokies offense back on track. Inheriting long-time defensive coordinator Bud Foster keeps Virginia Tech’s defense among the most aggressive and stingy in the country.

To get us ready for this weekend’s game, I’m joined by Faizan Hasnany, the sports editor for the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech. Born in Pakistan and raised in Northern Virginia, Faizan is a senior studying Business Information Technology with a passion for sports analytics.

In the middle of a chaotic week and a packed course load, he took some time to get us educated on the Hokies. Hope you enjoy.
* The change from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente appeared (from afar) to be one of the best transitions from coaching legend to new leader. Can you speak to the job Fuente has done so far, and how he’s handled taking over for the guy who essentially built the Hokies into what they are?

Justin Fuente has done an incredible job so far taking over for Frank Beamer, and has really won over the fanbase at Virginia Tech. It was definitely a very smooth tranistion for him, since Beamer left behind so much returning talent on both sides of the ball and since the Hokies did retain Bud Foster at defensive coordinator.

The one thing that sticks out to me about Fuente is that he doesn’t show a lot of emotion particularly after wins and losses. He is a firm believer in going 1-0 in each week, a statement that is echoed by him and his players numerous times in every press conference.

 

* Jerod Evans is having a big season. His two interceptions against Georgia Tech doubled his season total and he’s thrown 22 touchdown passes while being the Hokies leading rusher. There were great expectations for the JUCO transfer before he arrived. Has he exceeded them?

Surprisingly, with Jerod Evans, despite being such a highly touted JUCO recruit, nobody was truly certain until the season started that he would be Tech’s starting quarterback. Evans and redshirt-senior Brenden Motley, who filled in as the starter for Michael Brewer most of last season, split first team reps throughout the entire offseason.

That being said, Evans undoubtedly exceeded expectations, and is on his way to surpassing Tyrod Taylor’s record for most passing touchdowns in a season of 24. He has also led the Hokies in every rushing category with 608 yards on 132 attempts and six touchdowns on the ground.

 

* Hiring Fuente felt like a coup for Virginia Tech. But getting Bud Foster to stay as defensive coordinator may have been even bigger. How has that relationship been, considering some people expected Foster to be the guy who took over for Beamer when he hung them up?

Retaining Bud Foster as defensive coordinator was huge for Virginia Tech. In addition to his abilities as a defensive coordinator and recruiter, Foster has also been important by just giving the Hokies continuity and easing the transition between head coaches.

The relationship between Fuente and Foster seems great so far, with Fuente granting Foster the freedom to just keep doing what he has been all these years as the main defensive playcaller for the Hokies.

 

* Tremaine Edmunds and Woody Baron are wreaking havoc behind the line of scrimmage for the Hokies, a combined 31 TFLs and 9 sacks between them. What do they do so well that allows them to be so disruptive? What other defenders will be key in slowing down DeShone Kizer and the Irish offense?

Both Woody Baron and Tremaine Edmunds are exceptionally athletic and quick at their positions, allowing them to get in the backfield with ease. Baron is very explosive off the ball and has great hands and technique.

Another player on the defensive end who will be a key in slowing down Kizer and the Irish offense will be Tremaine’s brother, Terrell Edmunds. Terrell has 61 tackles this year along with three interceptions and six passes defended and is extremely versatile at that rover position.

 

The lopsided loss to Georgia Tech seemed to be a huge let down. Was that a product of facing a triple-option opponent—something Irish fans know well—or an inconsistent team still learning how to play under a new head coach?

The loss to Georgia Tech showed on full display something that has plagued the Hokies defense consistently in recent years. Not specifically the triple option, but just mobile quarterbacks in general that the Tech defense has struggled with.

 

* Vegas has Notre Dame slightly favored at home on Senior Day, yet the Hokies are tied for 1st in the ACC Coastal division while the Irish are fighting for postseason eligibility. In the first ever matchup between these two programs, how big of a game is this for Hokie fans, and what does VT need to do to earn their eighth win?

This is definitely a big game for the Hokies being that it is the first matchup between the two and they don’t want to drop two games in a row at this point in the season, though it is probably a bigger game for the Irish, fighting for postseason eligibility. Since it is an out of conference match-up this game won’t have any implications on Tech’s chances at winning the division. Tech will need a consistent offensive performance up front from its line. Last week they allowed five sacks and were unable to create holes consistently to get the run game going.