Keith Arnold

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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Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Army

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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.

Talking Irish: Shamrock Series (and more!)

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After a few very busy weeks, CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz returns for some chatter. Enjoy. 

 

KA: Last we chatted the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series, America didn’t have a new president-elect, and Brian Kelly hadn’t lost to Navy. So… Do you feel like things in South Bend are any worse now than they were a couple weeks ago?

JJ: Not really, honestly. The Navy game played out like a lot of this year’s games have played out: A special teams mistake (that shouldn’t have been called, but still), a questionable coaching decision, some poor execution here and there and voila, a narrow loss.

To paraphrase the late, great Dennis Green, the Irish are who we thought they were.

KA: I think you’ve hit on it. The loss to Navy wasn’t bad in my mind. It was what it was—a good football team playing a perfect game and beating a more talented (but bad) football team that made a crucial mistake. It was just that the team was Navy, and that, historically, means something very bad.

JJ: The biggest issue here is that Notre Dame played good football against Navy and lost by 1. In previous years, playing good football against Navy meant a 40-point win or something along those lines.

KA: That’s a good point. I don’t know if I call it good football. They forced half-a-punt and kicked 2 FGs in red zone opportunities.

JJ: Maybe not good football, but it certainly wasn’t *bad* football, of which we’ve seen a lot this year. And part of that is the strength of Navy’s program — Ken Niumatalolo is a top-10 coach in this country — but still.

KA: I think you can honestly make the argument — on the football side — that this is the worst rivalry Notre Dame has. Zero upside to it. You win, you should. You lose, you’re mocked.

JJ: From that standpoint, yeah. I love it from a historical standpoint, but I also double-majored in history at Mizzou, so.

KA: I’ll ask you a question I asked John Walters on our podcast. Staying with the election theme — What do you do to make Notre Dame football great again — if you’re Jack Swarbrick?

JJ: First and foremost, better offensive line play and a healthy stable of running backs.
And a renewed commitment to running the football.

No. 2, stop with the mind-numbing special teams mistakes.

No. 3, a COLLEGE-level defense that has a clear identity that’s easy for young players to pick up and cycle through the system.

Those are mine. Yours?

KA: So those feel like things BK needs to do. Is that the same thing as Swarbrick?

JJ: Ah, I see what you’re saying. I only ask because I think those are the principles that we should all agree with, but at the same time, i think you have to make some changes to the staff and program at a macro level to do that.

JJ: If I’m Swarbrick, you can’t be shy about another million-dollar coordinator.
But you better make sure your coach gets the right one.

KA: Completely agree.

JJ: And I think you have to push back if Kelly really is serious about not needing significant changes from this season.

KA: I think the loss to Navy essentially killed the Greg Hudson / in-house DC solution.

JJ: Which is probably a net benefit they don’t even consider that.

KA: I’m at the point where ANY big-picture topic that BK talks about at this point, it’s merely just doing the least amount of damage possible and just trying to get to the offseason.

JJ: Which is entirely fair.

KA: Here’s one for you: Over/Under on number of snaps played by Jarron Jones against Army?

JJ: Hmmmmm. It can’t be 12! Kelly said, without coming out and directly saying it, that Jones had a bad week of practice leading up to Navy. But with Daniel Cage still out with that concussion, Notre Dame really needs him in there for more than a couple of series to have a shot at stopping Army’s offense with any consistency.

So I’ll say 20.5. Which is still low, but probably one or two more series than he had against Navy.

KA: Notre Dame actually did okay against the fullback against Navy, all things considered. And I do expect the safety play to be much, much better after learning on the fly.

Does Army scare you as much as Navy?

JJ: Not at all. Statistically they’re a better matchup for ND, which given last week’s one-point loss, *should* result in a win on Saturday. But we’ve seen this before, with games that should be wins turning into losses, so who knows.

KA: I’m in agreement on that point. I think the lack of explosive plays from Army leads you to believe that they’re less dynamic running the offense, but then again, their defense has been no joke.

***

KA: I’ll leave you with this: As we approach the second Shamrock Series in San Antonio, against an opponent like Army, where do you stand on this peculiarity of ND’s schedule? Is it worth taking this gig on the road? Or does it necessitate a good opponent and an interesting venue?

JJ: It’ll be good to hit the reset button on it in 2017. I think the opponents need to get better for it, more like ASU in 2013. Otherwise, it stops being a showcase game. I mean this year, ticket prices on the secondary market are looooooow. Like Tampa Bay Rays in the midst of a losing season low.

I’m interested to see locations and opponents for it starting back up in 2018. Maybe it goes international?

KA: Ireland (not a Shamrock Series game) was an incredible experience. And ND traveled to Dublin about 25x better than any of the schools to follow.

JJ: The American owners of AS Roma want Notre Dame and BC to play at their new stadium with the pope flipping the coin, so…  (**That was a few years ago they said that…)

KA: Rome would be awesome. Sign me up for that assignment. But little things like Toronto or Mexico City don’t sound terrible, either.

JJ: Yep yep yep. Or Vancouver. That would be great. Just so we could all go to Vancouver.

KA: I am driving the Vancouver bandwagon. No better city to visit and lots of fun to be had. Just find me the Under Armour tie-in to Notre Dame and Canada and funky helmets.

I’ll start you with the predictions. I told Sal Interdonato that the Irish would win 31-20.

JJ: Notre Dame 33, Army 24 Pretty close!

KA: Great minds. Look forward to us being equally right or wrong. Last tip before you travel. Just remember — There’s no basement in the Alamo.

***

With the election all anybody can talk about, John Walters and I dipped our toes in the water, before asking if Brian Kelly could make Notre Dame football great again?  (Warning: It’s not all football.) 

 

Monken, Kelly meet on different terms

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jeff Monken of the Army Black Knights stands with his players and sings the teams fight song following their 17-10 loss to the Navy Midshipmen at M&T Bank Stadium on December 13, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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When Army battles Notre Dame on Saturday, Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken will be looking across the field at a head coach he knew a long time ago. And it can’t help but trigger a trip down Memory Lane.

Because before Monken climbed the ranks at Navy and Georgia Southern, before he was given a chance to take over the program in West Point, he was a young coach trying to find a job.

The Times Herald-Record’s Sal Interdanto has a great story on the beginning of Monken’s career as a college coach. And it features a young graduate assistant being driven by his mother three hours for a job interview with young head coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State.

From Interdanto:

Monken hopped in a car, driven by his mother, Nancy, for the three-hour ride east of their Joilet, Ill. home.

“I was so thankful for that opportunity,” Monken said on Tuesday as his Army team preps for Kelly’s Notre Dame squad. “I had never been up there, He’s a terrific football coach and a great guy. I didn’t get the job and that’s OK. I wasn’t ready at the time. I’m sure he found a very qualified coach.”

While Monken didn’t get the job, his ties to Kelly still go back. He played college football at Millikin, the same program that produced former Irish offensive coordinator and Miami-Ohio head coach Chuck Martin. His cousin Todd Monken, who coached Southern Miss for three seasons, worked with Kelly at Grand Valley, before leaving for Notre Dame and a graduate assistant job.

So as we dive into subplots that were sure to come out this week, Monken’s job interview—and likely runner-up finish—is a fun product of the backroads of coaching in small-college football.