Keith Arnold

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Army

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The Shamrock Series was a snoozer. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t refreshing. After all, that’s what a good nap does. Recharge the batteries, unplug for a moment, and wake-up refreshed and ready to tackle what’s ahead.

Let’s hope that’s what Army does for this Irish team. Because what’s ahead looks daunting, even if Virginia Tech had its own problems with the triple option.

With two weeks left in the regular season and Notre Dame needing to sweep weekends with the Hokies and that scrappy upstart in South-Central Los Angeles, a postseason bowl berth may only get the Irish an extra handful of practices before a tier-two destination, but the reward will be much greater.

Because in a year like this, that’s enough to feel good about the season—at least from a momentum perspective. (Relax, everyone—just from a momentum perspective.)

So with the Hokies preparing for South Bend and Senior Day ahead, let’s take a look at the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Army.

 

THE GOOD

James Onwualu. This might be one of those seasons that gets overlooked because of the performance of the team as a whole. But Onwualu’s senior year is everything you could’ve asked for from the captain, leading the defense in TFLs and just a single pass break up behind the team leader, his diversity on display both on the stat sheet as well as on the field.

On Saturday, Onwualu led the Irish in tackles with 13 stops and also made a few key plays behind the line of scrimmage. He was comfortable in coverage and chasing down the quarterback. He played like a natural at a position that was hardly his first stop.

Onwualu came into Notre Dame as a wide receiver after playing everywhere on the high school field. After starting games as a freshman (mostly for his blocking), he moved across the line of scrimmage and immediately found his way onto the field, starts in all four seasons in one of the more impressive developmental trajectories we’ve seen in the Kelly era.

 

Durham SmytheLooks who’s getting at home in the opponent’s end zone? Smythe, a senior we’ve waited to see break loose for the better part of his four seasons, did so against Army, two catches and two touchdowns.

End zone safety valve is a much better place to be than thanking quarterback DeShone Kizer for saving his rear end after his goal line fumble against Miami very nearly put the game at risk. And after two-straight games with scores, Smythe is on his way to getting some of that missing tight end production back.

Smythe had his big game a few hours from his hometown, scoring twice in front of family and friends. And while he won’t become the next Tyler Effect or Kyle Rudolph, Brian Kelly praised the veteran for carrying the load this season, especially after losing Alizé Jones before the season.

“Durham is a veteran. He’s seen a lot of things, played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “I’ll tell you his biggest contribution is he’s a guy that has to do a lot for us, whether he’s blocking or running vertical routes or option routes. He’s asked to do a lot. He’s a committed player. He’s high character and well-respected by his teammates.”

 

Julian Love. Notre Dame’s freshman earned himself a heap of praise postgame and I was ready to anoint him the next big thing in the Irish secondary, too. Even if his stat-line didn’t wow you—three tackles (half a TFL) and an interception—his ability to step in at safety and play strong in support gives you a taste of just how cerebral Love is as a football player.

Love led the Irish defense from a PFF grading perspective, a credit to his job in coverage as well as his steady run support. And after the game, he earned a whole lot of praise from his teammates.

“If he can keep it up and still have the off-the-field traits and still work hard, I think he definitely has the potential to be a captain,” fellow cornerback Cole Luke told Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson.

“To a lot of people football is important but it’s not everything. To Julian football is important and it’s damn near everything. It’s very close. He shows it in practice, he shows it on the field too.”

There isn’t anything that Love does that jumps out at you. He’s not the biggest, fastest, or freakiest guy on the field. But as this secondary looks for a new foundation next season, Love might be a key piece, capable of playing just about anywhere.

 

Quick Hits: 

Another option opponent, another monster game by Greer Martini. His two-play sequence essentially shut down an Army red zone appearance, with Martini stuffing back-to-back plays for the Black Knights in scoring range.

Let’s thankfully put to rest the Jarron Jones doesn’t like playing against the option. (What defensive lineman does?) The fifth-year senior played 20 snaps—a handful of them with the game well out of reach and he was productive in run support. He only made two tackles, but he graded out as the team’s second-best front seven player in run support.

The postgame, he won with this tweet.

DeShone Kizer‘s completion percentage was only a shade above 60 percent, but he seemed better on the possession throws and once again was rock-solid on third down. Watching Kizer work through his reads and get to both sides of the field was a nice benefit to the offensive line holding its own.

He certainly doesn’t have that next gear, but Tarean Folston sure looks smooth running the football. He’ll be an interesting fifth-year candidate, a year of eligibility remaining but uncertain to win any more carries.

What we see from Folston these next two weeks is anybody’s guess. But it’d be great to see him pick up some critical carries, and even better if he’s able to add a spark.

It was very good to see Malik Zaire out there running around with the football. Well deserved, even if he didn’t get a chance to air it out.

Welcome to the starting lineup, Mark Harrell. The fifth-year senior finally earned a start and backed it up with a strong performance in the trenches. At this point, you almost have to think that Harrell will get the chance to do it again against Virginia Tech, the right guard job up for grabs it appears.

C.J. Sanders. Can’t ask to start a football game any better.

 

THE BAD

For the first time this year, nobody stands out for solo billing. But let’s run through a few (mostly ticky-tacky) issues I spotted:

Center Sam Mustipher had another clean game snapping the football. But he had his hands full with nose tackle Andrew McLean. Mustipher graded out really poorly per PFF, giving McLean his best game on the season by a multiple of four.

Kevin Stepherson looks like the real deal on the outside. But if he wants to emulate Will Fuller, letting sure touchdowns slide through his hands is the one part of Fuller’s game he could ignore.

I liked the fact that Jon Bonner got a ton of snaps on the interior of the defensive line. I’d have liked it better if he played a little bit better against the run.

 

UGLY

Glad to leave this empty for a week. Especially glad not to include those Shamrock Series uniforms. They might have been my favorite of the group.

 

Five things we learned: Notre Dame 44, Army 6

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In a season filled with unpredictable results, Notre Dame’s one-sided victory fit the bill. Because even if the Irish had the Black Knights over-powered and out-manned at every position, their 44-6 blowout victory wasn’t one many saw coming.

But a week after Navy’s triple-option kept the Irish offense off the field, Notre Dame’s defense responded. And lined up against the nation’s No. 6 defense, the Irish physically dominated with a 38-point first half that made for a extraordinarily comfortable final 30 minutes.

In a Shamrock Series game that lacked any distinguishable storylines, the Irish—to their credit—made sure this one featured no drama. And after C.J. Sanders took back the opening kickoff for a 92-yard touchdown, the Irish forced a punt, scored on their next drive, and were on their way.

In a much-needed easy win, the Irish got their fourth victory of the season. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Army isn’t Navy. But the Irish did a much better job of dictating terms. 

Fast starts are the name of the game against a triple-option opponent. And with C.J. Sanders spotting the Irish an early special teams score and the Notre Dame’s defense breaking serve on the first series, the Irish made sure they didn’t allow last weekend to repeat itself.

Of course, playing Army helped. So did a few early yellow flags—thrown against the Black Knights but kept in the referees’ pockets against the Midshipmen.

But credit is owed to the team who sprinted out of the gate and ended this football game before halftime. And scoring on all six first-half drives (five touchdowns) while forcing Army to punt on their first two touches made certain that the latest Shamrock Series game in San Antonio was just as one-sided as the series debut back in 2009.

 

DeShone Kizer’s confidence is growing just in time for two games that’ll test him the most. 

We knew Army’s defense hadn’t played many tough offenses on their way to a statistically dominant season. But that doesn’t take away from DeShone Kizer’s impressive afternoon. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played another efficient game, throwing for three touchdowns while completing 17 of 28 throws and running for 72 yards as the Irish offense rolled.

Once again, Kizer played distributor. This time, with the Notre Dame offense without senior captain Torii Hunter, he spread the ball around to 11 different receivers, as Hunter’s replacement, freshman Kevin Stepherson, paced the attack with five catches for 75 yards and a touchdown. (That number would’ve looked a lot better had Stepherson reeled in a well-thrown deep ball that went through the freshman’s hands.)

A second-half red zone interception ruined an otherwise perfect day, but Kizer continues to make improvements, with the offense incredibly efficient on third downs, converting 10 of 13 as Notre Dame won the possession battle, controlling the ball for over 34 minutes.

“He’s maturing as a quarterback. He got the game ball,” Kelly of Kizer postgame. “I liked his leadership all week. I liked his toughness.”

 

An additional week of preparation and a simplified scheme helped the Irish slow down Army’s triple-option. 

The chess match that Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper won last week flipped the other way this weekend. And simplification of the defensive scheme might have helped. Postgame, Army coach Jeff Monken said the Irish played them with just one coverage scheme and alternated between two fronts. That’s down from the five different looks that Monken saw Irish throw at the Midshipmen on tape.

Some of that was because Army quarterbacks Chris Carter and Malik McGue can’t throw the football like Will Worth. The Irish surviving in man coverage all game certainly helped the front seven. A big part of that was the trust the staff continued to put in freshmen like Julian Love and Donte Vaughn.

Love slid to safety and delivered another solid game—a goal-line interception and a tackle for loss highlights for the true freshmen. Vaughn did a nice job not being noticed (always a good feature for a cornerback against an option team), tipping a ball that Cole Luke nearly intercepted on one of Army’s eight passing attempts.

More important than the play of the young secondary was getting off the field. A week after Navy kept possession of the football by converting 12 of 18 third and fourth-down attempts, the Black Knights were just four of 14 on the same two critical downs.

Postgame, captain James Onwualu, who led the Irish with 13 tackles and a sack, was asked about what made the difference. Familiarity was a big key.

“I think it’s more of just getting guys used to it,” Onwualu said. “Having that back to back helped a lot.”

 

Don’t look now, but Notre Dame won the special teams battle. 

We’ve been tough on Scott Booker’s special teams unit. But Saturday it was the Irish who preyed on a deficient third phase. So between the opening touchdown and taking advantage of Army’s inability to kick and punt, Notre Dame had a rare win in all phases of the game.

Sanders opening touchdown was a nice start. But don’t discount the Irish learning from their previous mistakes, with Durham Smythe routinely fair-catching an Army pooch kick that tried to catch the Irish napping was a win.

So a nice day by Chris Finke returning punts, no attempts by Tyler Newsome and the Irish routinely winning the field position battle all added to a rare clean day on special teams.

 

It wasn’t flashy. But a win in the Shamrock Series lets the Irish continue to fight for their postseason life. 

There are no grand declarations after a victory over Army. Especially in a game where Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken pointed out the obvious—these two teams don’t really belong on the same field. But as the university puts to rest (temporarily) their annual barnstorm, a win over Army on Veterans Day weekend reminds everybody—on a week where sports certainly took a backseat—that games against the service academies have a different importance as well.

“We play these games for a reason,” Kelly said after the game. “Navy and Army are tough teams to play. But when you’re done playing the game, there’s just a natural respect for how they do their business. In the classroom, out of the classroom, their preparation, their sacrifice. And then to go on the football field and compete against them and share in signing the alma mater together, it makes it a special event.”

A fourth win at least guarantees that this won’t be a historically terrible season. And getting out of the game healthy ensures that Notre Dame will be ready next week to battle a Virginia Tech team that just saw how difficult it is to stop the option themselves.

The win does little to advance any cause—big or little, macro or micro. But it does allow a young team the chance to build confidence against the option for next year and go into Senior Day with some positive momentum.

You can only win one game a Saturday. And in a season where the Irish have found new and depressing ways to lose them, a win is a win is a win. And with the triple option behind them, Onwualu said it best postgame to Kathryn Tappen.

“We’re going to have to get back to playing normal football.”

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Army

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 04:  DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks to pass the ball during the second half against the Texas Longhorns at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Shamrock Series is here. Notre Dame will be wearing their annual alternate uniforms, a tribute to the history of the university and their close ties to the military. On the field, the Irish will be fighting for just their fourth victory on the season, looking to keep their postseason dreams alive against their second-straight triple option opponent.

As usual, if you can’t tune in on NBC, we’ve got you covered. Click the link below for all coverage, provided with DVR capabilities, HD quality and bonuses cameras.

CLICK HERE TO LIVE STREAM NOTRE DAME VERSUS ARMY

We’re down to three Saturdays left in the regular season, so consider this a reminder that even disappointing football is better than no football.

Pregame Six Pack: Another option opportunity

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The Shamrock Series is here. With the university essentially picking up and moving to San Antonio for the weekend, there’s more than just a football game on Saturday afternoon planned, as presentations from university faculty and researchers, a 5k run/walk, and a mass all on the docket.

Brian Kelly’s dance card isn’t as full, but his objectives are more pressing. Namely, find a way to keep the season alive for another week. Because winning against Army feels beyond mandatory, and there’s also a hope that the team finds a spark before returning to South Bend for another postseason elimination game against Virginia Tech.

The mission is clear, and it is critical. Win a football game, or stare a school record for futility straight in the eyes.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

 

It feels like a lifetime ago, but Kelly’s first win over Army in a Shamrock Series game was a gigantic one. 

After suffering a humiliating defeat against Navy, Notre Dame rebounded in a big way to beat Army, a 27-3 victory in a game that Brian Kelly’s young staff absolutely needed to have. Playing in Yankee Stadium and giving up a 17-play, 78-yard opening drive that ended with a Black Knights field goal, Bob Diaco’s defense stiffened the rest of the way, stopping Army’s fullback and knocking quarterback Trent Steelman, not giving up another point.

Watching from the Yankee Stadium press box that night, you could see the emotion on the field after the victory. Coaches hugged as they went to the locker room, Diaco embracing Paul Longo after the defensive performance.

Kelly’s message postgame sounds an awful lot like the one he’s delivering to his wayward team these days.

“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said on that chilly November evening. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”

 

DeShone Kizer added another wrinkle to what will soon be a very interesting off-season. 

Most expect DeShone Kizer to leave Notre Dame after this season, a projected first-round draft pick with the chance to sign a very lucrative NFL contract. But Kizer spoke this week about the future, and his comments certainly leave things much more open than most expect.

When asked about sophomore Brandon Wimbush, currently redshirting and preserving a season of eligibility, Kizer spoke about an upcoming position battle—something that would be music to Irish fans’ ears.

” I look forward to competing with him whenever that time does come,” Kizer said. “I think there’s going to be three guys here who all have the ability to throw the ball with the best of them. There’s going to be three guys who have had the experience in game, and that competition is going to be very interesting.”

Kizer clarified that those three quarterbacks were indeed Kizer, Malik Zaire and Wimbush. And that answer is surprising, mostly because the smart money pointed at a depth chart that had just Wimbush at the top with both Kizer (NFL) and Zaire (graduate transfer) moving on.

So even if there’s no decision from either veteran quarterback on their fate after 2016, consider this another interesting wrinkle in an offseason that’ll be filled with big news.

 

Expect more time for young talent in the secondary. 

Drue Tranquill and Julian Love are both cleared for Saturday’s game, two key pieces of the Irish’s secondary against Army. But even with Tranquill’s return, and his usually stellar play against the option, expect to see more from the young Irish secondary, with safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott earning time at safety and Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn continuing to eat up reps at cornerback.

Kelly already praised Love’s play at corner, earning high marks for his ability to read and react to Navy’s option. But outside of a few tough plays, Studstill, Elliott and Vaughn all held their own as well.

Kelly especially liked Elliott’s play, the type of instinctive football they saw on tape when they recruited him—and certainly a different player than the one who froze up on an onside kick a few weeks ago.

“He had to settle into the game a little bit, but once he did, we started to see his ability to run and put himself in the kind of positions that were really what we saw from him coming in to Notre Dame,” Kelly explained.

 

Expect another big afternoon for Greer Martini. 

Notre Dame’s “option specialist” is much more than that. And after leading the Irish in tackles against Navy, expect that number to go up. Because Ahmad Bradshaw will be challenging the Irish on the edge of the defense, and Martini will be there waiting.

After starting his career as a young player who struggled to control his emotions and the highs and lows of on-field success, Martini’s taken big strides since a really disappointing game against Texas, allowing his football IQ to take over, something that pays off against the triple option.

“He had a good sense in high school of defending it and understanding it. He plays the game that way,” Kelly said Thursday. ” He’s a very cerebral kid, very smart. He attacks the football but in a real controlled manner. He’s never out of control. That’s really the most important thing. You have to attack the option, but you have to be in control, and he does that well.”

 

This defense needs to get off the football field. 

Army isn’t Navy, not when it comes to moving the chains. But the Black Knights are still a Top 35 offense when it comes to converting third downs, no slouch, but not up to the task with the Midshipmen, a top 10 unit.

So as we look back at the Irish performance last weekend, the lack of offensive possessions was a direct response to the struggles to get off the field on D. And the challenges come when a triple option attack is willing to risk it on 4th-down, stressing the defense for another down.

“I think the strain comes from 4th-and-1. That’s where the strain comes from. And so that’s why it’s so important that when it’s 3rd-and-5,” Kelly explained.  “Where we started to do a really good job in the fourth quarter is we started bending back the runners. There were a couple of occasions where we didn’t bend back runners in the third quarter.

“They were falling forward, so instead of 4th-and-3, it’s 4th-and-1. And so that’s where it becomes mentally a little bit more difficult when it’s 4th-and-1. You get them 4th and 4, now go ahead. Let’s see what you got. It’s the 4th-and-1s where you’re really — you’re not successful on third down when it’s 4th and 1.”

Army doesn’t have Will Worth. But they do rely on their fullback quite a bit more than the Midshipmen, meaning the Irish defense (maybe even Jarron Jones), will need to slow down 220-pound sophomore Andy Davidson, a converted linebacker who plays physically.

 

Paper tiger or difficult matchup? We’ll find out soon about Army’s defense. 

On paper, Army’s success on defense is startling. The Black Knights are giving up just 18.1 points a game, good for 13th in the nation. Their rushing defense is in the Top 25 and their passing defense is No. 6 in the country, allowing just 166 yards per game. That success is incredible, especially when you consider the physical mismatches the Black Knights face on a weekly basis.

But digging deeper into those numbers requires you to look at Army’s opponents. And Notre Dame’s offense, even as inconsistent as its been all season, is the best the Black Knights will face.

Only Air Force, who scored 31 and racked up 444 yards against Army, is ranked in the Top 60. And Rice, UTEP, Buffalo, North Texas and Wake Forest are all ranked below No. 90, with UTEP, UNT and Wake 107th or worse.

So while Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is sure to throw some exotic looks at Notre Dame’s offensive line and Alex Aukerman and Andrew King have wreaked their fair share of havoc, it’s a different type of test for Army this weekend.

 

Behind the Irish: Notre Dame captains set the bar

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Notre Dame’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. But the effort and leadership that captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter Jr., James Onwualu and Isaac Rochell have put in isn’t to be dismissed.

This week’s Behind the Irish looks at the buy-in of Notre Dame’s four captains, each bringing something different to a young team that leaned heavily on its seniors.