Keith Arnold

DURHAM, NC - OCTOBER 08: Ahmad Bradshaw #17 of the Army Black Knights runs with the ball against the Duke Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
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And in that corner… The Army Black Knights

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Notre Dame heads to San Antonio, needing a win this weekend for any chance to make it to Brian Kelly’s seventh-straight postseason. And in the Black Knights, the Irish have a foe that’s fitting—a double-digit underdog, but one who presents some of the same challenges that made Navy so difficult.

Jeff Monken’s third Army team has shown considerable improvements. They’ve won big games, beating Wake Forest and Temple while hanging tight with Duke. But coming off a tough loss to Air Force that ends their chance at winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, The Black Knights come to the Shamrock Series hoping to spring an upset, the latest opponents to add to Notre Dame’s nightmare season.

In a crazy week, Sal Interdanto of the Times Herald-Record steps in and saves us. After doing three or four of the same Q&As, Sal pumped these answers out in the midnight hours, and corrected a few of my mistakes as well.


It feels like the Air Force loss took quite a bit from Army’s sails. Coming off an impressive win against Wake Forest, and after a really nice start to the season, can you give us an update on where the Irish find this Black Knights team?

The Black Knights have proved to be a very resilient team this season and I wouldn’t expect a hangover from the Air Force game. Army had to overcome the passing of Brandon Jackson, its best cornerback, to a car accident on Sept. 11. The Black Knights rebounded with its biggest win of the season at Wake Forest after a 17-point home loss to North Texas.


One thing that’s just striking is Army’s defensive success. Alex Aukerman and Andrew King are putting up really nice numbers with King grading out incredibly impressive against the run, too. What does defensive coordinator Jay Bateman do that’s so effective?

Bateman has mixed up defensive packages to fit his talent. Army will occasionally play with a lone defensive lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs. He’s moved Aukerman around as an outside linebacker, defensive end and over the center. Army also has some depth at defensive line where it can rotate fresh players, something it hasn’t done much of in the past.


Offensively, Army seems to be struggling lately, especially against their stiffer competition. For Irish fans who just saw Will Worth and Navy’s triple-option pitch what might as well have been a perfect game, what does Ahmad Bradshaw bring that makes this unit scary and what might be different?

When Army’s offense is rolling, Bradshaw is making all the right reads in the triple-option. Bradshaw is not a game-breaking threat. He has just three rushes of 20 yards or more this season. Bradshaw is a strong runner, who breaks tackles and moves the chains.

 

Jeff Monken is making strides. The defense is obviously vastly improved. Wins against teams like Temple, and Wake Forest are huge steps forward. But Army is 0-5 against fellow service academies. Is that the next step for Monken—beating Air Force and Navy? Two-thirds of the way through year three, does it feel like he’s on the right track?

Most Army fans would probably take a win over Navy in December breaking a 14-game losing streak to the Midshipmen over playing in a bowl game. The service-academy games carry that much weight. Army has improved its talent and toughness under Monken. The 31-12 loss to Air Force last week proves Army still has ground to make up amongst service academies.

 

The urgency for Notre Dame is obvious. You could say the same for Army. Is the formula different for a Black Knights win?

Army’s best chance for a win is to control the clock with its offense. Time-consuming touchdown drives are a staple in the triple option. When Notre Dame’s offense is on the field, Army needs to find a way to pressure DeShone Kizer. If Kizer has all day to throw, it could be a long day for the Black Knights.

Love, Tranquill on pace to play against Army

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Notre Dame lost defenders Julian Love and Drue Tranquill to head injuries against Navy. The freshman cornerback and junior safety will both return to practice, per Brian Kelly, though neither will be full contact yet.

“Tranquill and Julian Love, they will go to practice today,” Kelly said during his Tuesday press conference. “They will practice in a non-contact fashion. If everything goes well, they’ll be clear for contact tomorrow.”

Before being pulled from the game for precautionary reasons, Love was playing excellent football at cornerback. He was active in run support, and finished behind just Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan in tackles with eight, including one TFL. Kelly praised the way Love played, the freshman from Chicago a quick study against a difficult assignment.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen a true freshman play the triple option as well as he did,” Kelly said of Love. “He was really good before he got dinged. He was running to the football, playing off cut blocks, playing physical, playing smart, very, very good. In terms of assignments, in terms of physicality, in terms of tackling it was really good.”

While PFF had Tranquill leading the Irish with four missed tackles, he’s been a key contributor against the option (when healthy). And against an Army attack that’ll likely pressure the edges more than Navy, the junior will be asked to play a key role in slowing down Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw.

One position where things don’t look quite as optimistic is defensive tackle. Junior Daniel Cage is set to meet with a concussion specialist after leaving the Miami game with a concussion.

“He’s made some progress, but anytime that somebody’s in their second week and has not fully gone through the stages as we see them, we’d like to get a second opinion and make sure that everything is good,” Kelly said.

That leaves the Irish needing more from the position, with Jarron Jones being the likely answer there. Jones played just 12 snaps against Navy, a decision that looked preventative more so than strategic, when you consider the fact that the Irish defense forced a stop in both series that the fifth-year senior played. When pressed for details on Jones’s absence on Tuesday, Kelly sounded like that might change in a must-win scenario like this Saturday.

“I think he wants to play a lot this week,” Kelly said, steering away from specifics when pressed. “We’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and we’ll see what happens.”

Kelly hopes experience can help turn close losses into wins

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As Notre Dame’s season gets darker and darker, the calls for change grow louder. So whatever happens these next three games, Brian Kelly—if Jack Swarbrick hasn’t changed his mind—will likely face the biggest offseason of his coaching career.

He’ll need to find a new defensive coordinator. He’ll have to address other potential coaching changes. And after yet another week where Kelly’s game management came up short in a tight game, the head coach will also have to evaluate his own in-game thought process.

But even as the Irish rack up their sixth loss in nine tries, even as Kelly’s record in South Bend tumbles closer and closer to .500, the seventh-year head coach believes that improvement will come from making progress doing the things they’re working on, rather than making wholesale changes.

“If you look at the six games that we’ve played, what needs to change is a little bit better play calling here, maybe a little bit better execution there, and players just maturing,” Kelly said on Sunday. “All these guys pretty much are going to be back. And when they are put into similar situations that we have all grown from them, and we flipped six very difficult losses into six wins, and we are sitting in a better position.”

Finding ways to flip those games from losses to wins isn’t very hard. But believing that experience will be what cures those ills—than another year will simply solve the problem–is a much tougher pill to swallow. So whether it’s a message Kelly’s sending just to keep his players and coaches on task or his actual belief, Kelly feels confident that the close games will turn once his team learns how to win.

“Look, if we’re losing 31-0, then changes are made or you’re playing younger players, and you know, that’s how you handle those situations,” Kelly said. “But when you know that your nucleus is maturing and getting better and is going to be the group that you’re playing next year, you’re just working on the finer details during the course of the year and during the course of your preparation.”

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Navy

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 05:  Will Worth #15 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for a touchdown during the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at EverBank Field on November 5, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida.  (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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In a game decided by a single point, when the two team’s offensive totals nearly duplicate themselves, the outcome is expected to hinge on one or two plays. And down the stretch, with the game on the line, it was Navy that made the plays, and Notre Dame that did not.

Because the afternoon played out to the script that Ken Niumatalolo needed. Quarterback Will Worth executed the offense flawlessly. The Midshipmen’s defense got the red zone field goals they needed. And the Irish—even if the letter of the law shouldn’t have allowed it—made a critical mistake with their 12-men on the field penalty, allowing Navy’s offense back onto the field and eventually into the end zone.

With another painful one-score loss in the books, let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE GOOD

Greer Martini. Back after a concussion last weekend, Martini led the Irish in tackles with 11, adding a TFL as well. It’s the type of production you come to expect from Martini, a highly intelligent football player who has become a bit of an option specialist for the Irish.

In his four games against option teams (three against Navy, one against Georgia Tech), Martini is now averaging more than nine tackles a game. That’s the type of play that’ll come in handy next weekend against Army and likely against Virginia Tech and USC as well.

 

Torii Hunter Jr. Notre Dame’s senior captain had a career high in catches (8) and yards (104) to go along with a touchdown in a losing effort. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and maybe more important than the statistical output was the fact that he bounced back after what looked like it could’ve been a serious knee injury.

Hunter hasn’t become the breakout performer we expected this season. A TJ Jones senior season has actually been more like Jones as a junior—steady, not spectacular, but usually reliable. That’s not enough. But you’ve got to give him credit for taking advantage of the matchup against Navy’s undermanned secondary.

 

Sam Mustipher. After putting up some ugly statistical games, Sam Mustipher was tied for the team’s highest grade along the offensive line with a +2.8. That’s a rebound after a tough few weeks for the Irish center, and his shotgun snaps all found their correct home as well.

 

Third Down Conversions. You wouldn’t know it, but the Irish actually out-converted Navy on third down, making nine of their 13 chances while the Mids only managed eight. And while there are still the third downs that got away, there was plenty of good on this crucial snap, like Equanimeous St. Brown‘s gritty catch and run along with DeShone Kizer’s shoulder-lowering scramble.

Good job, good effort.

 

THE BAD

The Safety Play. Drue Tranquill had built a reputation as one of the team’s top option defenders. But Tranquill had a poor game tackling in space, missing a handful of big tackle before he was taken out of the game for what looks to be a concussion.

Tranquill had been building on some strong play of late, so this step backwards was a surprise. Certainly more so than the challenges Devin Studstill had, the freshman safety struggling to react to the counter option and get quickly into his run responsibilities.

Put simply, Tranquill was a guy the Irish defense desperately needed to play well if they were going to get the stops they needed on defense. He didn’t and the entire Irish defense paid dearly.

 

Learning on the job. The play won’t hold a spot in the history of this rivalry like Ram Vela’s flying game-winning stop, but Troy Pride being flattened with a bone-crushing block as the Midshipmen converted a 3rd-and-long for a game-changing touchdown certainly is the lasting image from the game.

The freshman cornerback was knocked to eternity on a gigantic block right after fellow freshman Julian Love was also caught on a crack block. The two hits opened the sideline to Navy’s Calvin Cass who rumbled in for a gigantic, game-changing 37-yard touchdown.

The youth movement didn’t stop this week just because of the triple-option. And in a game that hinges on the Irish defense reading and reacting as quickly as possible, the freshmen seeing and doing things for the first time came up just a bit short, though did gain valuable in-game experience.

Donte Vaughn played 46 snaps, Studstill 39, Julian Love 36 (before he went into concussion protocol), Jalen Elliott 30, Pride 19, and redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal 12. All will hopefully carry that knowledge into the Army game next weekend.

 

Jarron Jones. A week after playing the game of his career, Jones played just 12 snaps. It’s a decision that made little sense on Saturday and not much more after Kelly explained the rationale on Sunday afternoon during his conference call.

“It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because, you know, he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility,” Kelly explained. “If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So you could take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive, and so it really neutralizes players like him and when you play a team like Navy.”

 

Nick Coleman. I was a fan of utilizing Coleman more against the option, the aggressive sophomore cornerback capable of playing run support better than coverage. But with the game on the line and a critical third-down passing play dialed up, Coleman ran through the back of the Navy receiver and handed the Midshipmen a free first down.

Coleman was expected to be the team’s third cornerback, a key piece of the puzzle especially after Devin Butler went down and then was suspended. His season has been a disaster.

 

A Misinterpreted Replay Ruling. 

Brian Kelly expanded on what he said postgame, namely that the replay officials shouldn’t have gotten involved in the call for 12-men, nor should they have made it.

A photo of the snap shows Devin Studstill within a step of the sideline, close enough that Kelly believes a flag shouldn’t have been thrown—let alone replay called in to reverse things.

“The rule clearly states that if he is one step from the sideline, then it is not a reviewable play,” Kelly said Sunday. “Very similar to when I had asked earlier in the game for a review on a Tarean Folston run, I was told by the official on the field that it was not reviewable because his forward progress was deemed stopped, so it could not be reviewed. This would be a similar situation where the play could not have been reviewed if he was within one step of the sideline after the ball being snapped.”

With an American Athletic Conference on-field crew and an ACC replay crew, there was obviously some miscommunication. And Kelly hopes that there can be a national standard set so this type of thing doesn’t happen moving forward.

“[There’s] really a need for uniform and nationalized replay when you have different conferences with different ways of looking at specific plays,” Kelly said. “We’re the only sport that doesn’t have that, so I hope that affect the some form of conversation that we can get to a nationalized replay situation.”

 

Having too many players on the field. Mechanics and blown calls aside, that this is even an issue is ridiculous. As I mentioned in the Pregame Six Pack, a special teams blunder would be catastrophic. Especially against Navy.

And sure enough, this time it was because the Irish didn’t have enough time to go from their regular defense to their punt safe team.

“They are a team that obviously goes for it quite a bit on fourth down. So we had our base defense. We were in a safe punt situation,” Kelly explained. “So you’re keeping your defense out there till the very last second and they raced their team out there quickly and we should have obviously not cut it as close as we did.”

 

THE UGLY

Never getting the ball back. Kelly better explained his rationale for taking the three points off of Justin Yoon’s foot rather than attempting to get the first down on 4th-and-4.

“Look, here is my way of thinking. I kicked into the wind in the third quarter for a reason, and that was to take the wind in the fourth quarter with a thought that the field goal would win the game in the fourth quarter.

“We had many chances to get off the field. We had 3rd-and-9s, 3rd-and-7s, 4th-and 6. We had our own chance to pick up a first down on the offensive side of the ball. They are easily disputed, but I think it was the right call to make it 28-27 with a field goal and the wind to your back to win the game in the kind of game that we played.”

The defense didn’t get off the field, with all those conversions—and all three of Notre Dame’s timeouts—still not getting the ball back with 7:30 of game remaining. So even if you can understandably argue Kelly’s point of view, it doesn’t make it any better.

Two games this season, Kelly has bet on his defense getting a stop and lost. And at this point, it’s hard not to notice the trend of the head coach’s 50-50 decisions going against him and the Irish. That’s likely to happen when you see a team find so many different ways to lose close games, but if this team is going to learn how to win their head coach needs to coach to win, too.

 

Five things we learned: Navy 28, Notre Dame 27

Navy players celebrate after defeating Notre Dame 28-27 in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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It looked like just another careless mistake—this one only caught by replay officials during an extended commercial break. But the result was another Notre Dame special teams calamity that ends up being the difference between a win and a loss.

The Irish’s 28-27 loss to Navy has many culprits, but none more striking than the 12th man on the field for Scott Booker’s special teams. And of all the catastrophic special teams blunders that have infected this season, this time it was Notre Dame’s inability to field a properly-sized unit that re-routed the football game.

Beause the 4th-and-6 mistake caught after a long TV timeout turned a Navy punt into a five-yard penalty, returning the Midshipmen to the field as they converted the 4th-and-1. That gift allowed Navy to put together their longest scoring drive of the season, a 16-play, nine-minute opus, a clock-eating, game killer that gave the Midshipmen just enough points to pull off the upset.

As the Irish fall to 3-6 and lose their first game to Navy since 2010, let’s find out what we learned.

 

When push came to shove, Notre Dame’s defense couldn’t get off the field. 

With the game on the line and the young Irish defense asked to get a stop, they couldn’t do it. Navy made all the big plays down the stretch, converting third and fourth downs to win the football game.

The Midshipmen converted eight of 13 third downs. They converted four of five fourth downs. And those chain-moving plays allowed Navy to hold Notre Dame to just six offensive possessions, the lowest in a college football game since 2008, when the Midshipmen held Northern Illinois to the same number.

At no time were those conversions more critical than in the fourth quarter. After Notre Dame’s special teams gift, the Mids capped off their nine-minute drive with a 27-yard rushing touchdown by Will Worth, a 3rd-and-7 conversion that began a string of clutch plays for the Navy offense.

After Brian Kelly decided to kick a field goal to pull the game to within a point, Navy ate the game’s final 7:28, never giving the Irish the ball back, even as Kelly used all three of his timeouts to try and control the clock.

The defense had their chances. After getting a break on Donte Vaughn’s downfield coverage, Navy drew a pass interference flag on Nick Coleman, the sophomore out of the doghouse after Julian Love left the game with a head injury. Coleman had a chance to make a play on the football, but instead ran through the receiver, moving the chains on third down with a pass interference penalty.

From there, the Navy did it again and again, gaining six on 3rd-and-7 before converting a Worth sneak on 4th-and-1.

Even as the Irish managed to get Navy behind the chains, the Mids fought their way out of it. With the Irish burning their timeouts and turning 2nd-and-9 into a 4th-and-6 for the ball game, Worth found senior receiver Jamir Tillman for the game-clinching catch. It was Navy’s fourth conversion on fourth down that afternoon, a brutal back-breaking efficiency that allowed Navy to end the game in victory formation.

 

With just six opportunities to score, DeShone Kizer missed one too many times. 

Early in the second quarter after the defense turned over Navy with a fourth-down stop, DeShone Kizer missed his chance to go for Navy’s throat. The junior quarterback got the matchup he was looking for—freshman Kevin Stepherson against a linebacker. But Kizer air-mailed the throw, missing long when Stepherson had nobody close to him, turning an easy touchdown into an incompletion. Two plays later, the Irish would punt.

Kizer did a lot of good things on Saturday afternoon, completing 19 of 27 throws for 223 yards and three touchdowns. But being accurate with the football wasn’t one of them.

With the Navy secondary beat up and the Midshipmen defense selling out to stop the run, Kizer missed early and often with some easy possession throws. While he fought his way through the tough afternoon by converting a few critical third downs with his legs, it was missed pitch and catch opportunities—and blown reads—that ended up costing the Irish.

Kizer spoke earlier in the week about the need to convert opportunities. And even if the Irish only punted once, two of those six drives ended in field goals, the inability to get seven points costing the Irish in the end.

With just four games left in Kizer’s season, the talk with only amplify about the junior’s stay-or-go decision at year-end. And while most pundits see Kizer as a first-round talent and the prevailing wisdom around the program leads you to believe this will be at for him at the college level, there’s an awful lot of tape that leads you to believe that Kizer isn’t ready to step in at the NFL level—especially when it comes to accuracy.

Completing 70 percent of your throws is hardly the game to make this point. But in four of nine games this season Kizer has completed less than 60 percent of his throws. Add last year’s games at sub-60 percent against Clemson, Boston College, Stanford and Ohio State and that’s enough film to punch holes in the narrative that Kizer’s a premier quarterback, ready to change an NFL franchise’s fortunes.

That’s not to say Kizer won’t be the Irish quarterback to break Notre Dame’s cold streak at the next level. But before anybody punch’s the Toledo native’s ticket into the first round, he’ll need to show that his accuracy is ready for the challenge of the next level.

 

 

 

In an evenly matched football game, Scott Booker’s special teams let the Irish down. (Again.) 

 

Each team had 21 first downs. Two yards separated the two teams offensive totals. Third down conversions, red zone attempts and yards per play were all closely aligned.

That’s what makes Notre Dame’s latest special teams nightmare so maddening. And that’s what makes the decision to keep Scott Booker in charge of this unit so difficult to contemplate moving forward.

Brian Kelly won’t likely fire his second assistant mid-season. But a week after watching C.J. Sanders give away a touchdown and Jalen Elliott brain-cramp in the middle of an onside kick attempt, Devin Studstill’s 12-men penalty is the latest self-inflicted mistake to cost the Irish dearly.

Kelly said after the game that two referees told him that Studstill had gotten off the field in time. The replay booth disagreed. And the head coach made it clear that he didn’t hold the referees accountable for the momentum changer.

“Navy won the game. I’m not here to cry over that call,” Kelly said.

So even if the rest of the special teams performance was fairly anonymous—it was Chris Finke in for Sanders on the punt that didn’t count—it still found a way to change this game. And at this point, we’re running out of excuses to make for Booker’s unit.

 

Another tight game, another coaching decision that went the wrong way for Brian Kelly.

With the Irish facing a 4th-and-4 and down four points in the fourth quarter, Kelly decided to trot out Justin Yoon to kick a 31-yard field goal. That brought the game to within one point, and necessitated the Irish defense to get a stop—one they couldn’t get.

After the game, Kelly was asked about the decision to take his offense off the field and put the game on his defense’s shoulders.

“I certainly thought about going for it. In hindsight, we didn’t get the ball back,” Kelly said in his postgame comments. “Even if they scored a touchdown we’d still have the opportunity to score and get the two-point conversion.”

That logic seemed understandable in real time, considering Kizer’s struggles and the Irish ground game’s modest production. But even without the benefit of hindsight, another conservative coaching decision gives you the feeling that maybe even the head coach has become gun-shy during this nightmarish run.

Notre Dame’s sixth one-possession loss follows the trend of coin-flip sequences that haven’t gone Notre Dame’s way. But at this point, you’ve got to wonder what Kelly is waiting for—the stats to change, or his team to go out and seize the moment.

Not going for two against Texas in overtime of the season opener is one thing. Not trying to rip back the lead in the middle of a mostly meaningless November game against Navy is another.

So if the head coach’s edict for his team is to play fast, play loose and play to win, it’s time for the coaching staff to do the same thing. And with a chance to take the lead and play aggressive, Kelly went the other way—and lost.

 

One team executed their game plan. The other team goes home with their sixth loss.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo won his third game against Notre Dame, clinching a bowl bid for the Midshipmen with the clutch victory. And after the game, all the kind things Kelly could say about his teams effort and passion were eclipsed by his praise for the Midshipmen.

“They executed flawlessly. It’s what we expect every time we play Navy,” Kelly said. “They made the plays necessary late.”

Those plays took the ball out of Notre Dame’s hands. That flawless execution included an incredible 12 of 18 conversion rate on third and fourth down. And with the Mids doing everything right and the Irish doing just enough wrong, the loss adds another black mark to a season that most wish would just end already, a bowl berth now requiring the herculean task of beating Army, Virginia Tech and USC.

Just days after putting the emphasis on a strong November, the Irish now go back to the drawing board. They’ll need to fix their safety play against the option to beat Army. They’ll need to get their offense on track to keep up with Virginia Tech and USC. And they’ll need to make all the right moves on the coaching front to get Kelly’s program back on track after this multi-car pileup.