Keith Arnold

Kelly restates his commitment to Notre Dame

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Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s football coach—a statement that many Irish fans only half-heartedly endorse as the team’s four-win season comes to a close. But athletic director Jack Swarbrick has already stated that Kelly will return for his eighth season and lead the program next season, and Kelly made it clear that was his intention after coaching the season finale against USC.

But even after making that commitment clear in his postgame comments (see the above video), it didn’t take long after the team bus rolled towards LAX to rev up the rumor mill once again.

Yahoo Sports’ Pat Forde got it started, with the following headline-grabbing report:

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has reached out through representatives to explore coaching options outside Notre Dame, sources told Yahoo Sports.

Not to be out-scooped, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy essentially repeated the same report, though used the following language:

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, through his representatives, is exploring options to possibly leave the Fighting Irish program, a source said Saturday.

McMurphy also went live on SportsCenter with the below report, as ESPN bottom line continually scrolled throughout the evening.

But not long after the team plane landed in South Bend, Kelly released another statement, via Sports Information Director Michael Bertsch:

“I felt that I was clear with the media following yesterday’s game at USC when I was asked about my desire to be back as the head football coach at Notre Dame, but in light of media reports that surfaced afterward, let me restate my position,” Kelly said in the statement. “I have not been, am not, and will not be interested in options outside of Notre Dame. I’m fully committed to leading this program in the future.”

Five things we learned: USC 45, Notre Dame 27

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LOS ANGELES — The end is here. And it looked, for the most part, like the rest of it.

Notre Dame’s 45-27 loss shared all too many similarities with their other seven defeats.  Special teams blunders. A devastating stretch before halftime that altered the game’s outcome. And a mostly gutty effort that ended with the Irish losing because they gave away much more than they took.

The Irish showed plenty of fight on Saturday. Unfortunately, they showed just as much charity. Two special teams touchdowns for Adoree Jackson. A DeShone Kizer gift-wrapped pick six. Add them together and three scores were just too many to spot the hottest football team in the country.

The Irish end their season with four wins. They leave behind many more unanswered questions. Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Adoree Jackson against Notre Dame’s special teams was an unfair fight. 

Notre Dame knew Adoree Jackson was one of the country’s most dangerous return men. They kicked to him anyway.

Jackson’s 55-yard punt return and 97-yard kickoff return were two more touchdowns given up by Scott Booker’s special teams, a fitting end to a nightmarish season where the five return scores allowed only covered a fraction of the damage done.

On a day where the Irish special teams needed to be clean, they were anything but. And when Jackson picked up a bouncing punt and sprinted to the end zone, he turned a field goal-game into a 10-pointer. And when Jackson answered his coverage blunder with a hurdling, highlight reel return touchdown, he all but ended the game.

“Unfortunately today, special teams was a huge deciding factor in the game and we gave up two touchdowns there to a very talented player,” Kelly said postgame. “But we knew how talented he was going into the game.”

That talent presented omnipresent problems, the Irish unwilling to kick away from Jackson when they knew playmakers like Ronald Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster awaited. And with Jackson’s lone catch going 52-yards for a touchdown, the All-American candidate left Irish defenders grasping at air as the all-purpose weapon scored three times—with Irish fans hoping they’ve seen Jackson for the last time with a stay-or-go decision coming soon.

(Speaking of those…)

 

DeShone Kizer may well be a high first-round draft pick. But before he makes his final decision, he’d be wise to look at all the information on hand. 

DeShone Kizer hasn’t made any decisions. That was the message from the quarterback after he faced a swarm of tape recorders, all hoping to get something from a football player far too smart to offer anything.

But if this is indeed it for Kizer, he’ll leave a resume far less convincing than the one he had entering the season. As NFL teams looks for a quarterback to change the future of their franchise, Kizer will need to prove that the player showing up on tape is the real deal, not a signal-caller who regressed in his second season as a starter.

Kizer’s final Saturday of the season was another mixed bag. His 17 completions included some throws that’ll make football men nod with approval. But his 15 misses included some head-shakers, none more confounding than Ajene Harris‘s interception, the throw into coverage breaking Notre Dame’s back.

Kizer’s receiving corps was undermanned, with Corey Holmes struggling in a featured role and Chris Finke supplying most of the playmaking. Add in challenging weather conditions, and it was difficult to tell if Kizer struggled or merely fought an uphill fight.

“There were some good things that he did. At times, he didn’t get the support that he needed,” Kelly said postgame. “There were some balls that could’ve been caught. It could’ve been a little bit better of a throw, a little bit better of a catch. It was kind of a mixed bag.”

Notre Dame has submitted paperwork for an NFL evaluation, a key factor in Ronnie Stanley deciding to return after his third season. While Kizer is a favorite of the mock draft community, he’d be wise to make sure the reality matches with the perception before making any final decisions.

 

Two nightmarish minutes told the story of the season. 

In the second quarter, Justin Yoon trotted onto the field, hoping to even a game at 10-10. Instead, the sophomore kicker’s miss triggered a two-minute run that was the beginning of the end for the Irish.

Technically, the Irish defense delayed things, forcing the Trojans to punt in just four plays. But with the Irish down just three points and hoping to take some momentum into half (Kelly deferred possession until the third quarter), they imploded—going backwards before the Irish threw away some good luck on special teams (Scott Daly’s high snap that blew through Tyler Newsome’s hands was erased by the officiating crew), trading a safety for a touchdown as Jackson’s magic act starting with just over 90 seconds remaining.

Two players later, Kizer’s interception turned a tight game into a 17-point deficit. And with 63 seconds left in the half, Notre Dame was lucky to get to the break without any more damage—even though the game was essentially done.

Kelly has often talked about the lapses this football team has shown, a season marked by streaks of poor football that too often contributed to a critical loss. That was evident once again.

“We just have not been able to sustain performances for four quarters,” Kelly said. “We’ve shown a propensity of self-inflicted wounds.”

 

The mistakes covered up a gutty performance by an Irish team that went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. 

Notre Dame wasn’t blown off the field. They weren’t outclassed. And while an eighth defeat and the end of a season eliminates any opportunity to find silver linings, the fact that Notre Dame kept Sam Darnold in check and out-scored the Trojans offense is certainly something most didn’t see coming.

Neither was Josh Adams’ afternoon, a 180-yard performance the high-water mark of the season. While Ronald Jones broke loose for a long touchdown and Jackson got one of his own, the defense—playing many young players—will take this momentum forward.

“I liked a lot of things that we did today. The toughness that I was really looking for,” Kelly said. “We had a lot of inexperienced players out there so they learned a lot from it.”

Julian Love’s nine tackles end his season on a high note. Elijah Taylor’s surprising play gives a clue as to how the Irish will move forward without Jarron Jones. Kevin Stepherson left Jackson in his wake as he caught his fifth touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown‘s late touchdown catch from Malik Zaire might have come in garbage time, but a ninth score is a big number for the sophomore.

If Brian Kelly is indeed going to lead this team forward, he’ll need to find a way to begin that transition to 2017 now.

 

The coaching carousel doesn’t look like it’ll include Brian Kelly. But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming—and maybe sooner than later. 

As Jack Swarbrick watched from the side of the cramped interview tent, he didn’t look like an athletic director about to make a cataclysmic move. So unless a plot twist befitting the final scenes of the Godfather takes place over the next 48 hours, Notre Dame will move forward with Brian Kelly atop the football program.

But that doesn’t mean big changes aren’t coming.

Kelly will return to South Bend to take stock of his program. He’ll talk to his outgoing players—not to mention his boss—and forge a path. And that likely means some significant changes to a coaching staff that’s already looking or a defensive coordinator.

“Everything is on the table. I have to evaluate a lot of things within the program,” Kelly said. “There are some really good things in place but I’ve always felt that the blend of continuity and change is the sweet spot. And for me, we need to clearly look at where that is because it was off. And so I have to clearly look at where that mix is of continuity and change.”

A defensive coordinator is the first step forward, a national search that likely needs to reach a conclusion before the team’s year-end banquet set for mid-December. A change on special teams is also probably mandatory, Scott Booker leaving few who believe he’s a viable option for any longer.

In the past, Kelly has leaned on his own coaching network to find answers. The optics of that alone lead you to believe that will be off the table. But heading into his eighth season, a reinvention is in order.

Whether Kelly can accomplish that or not remains the unanswerable question. But change better come quickly. Because a September schedule that features a visit from Georgia, four bowl teams, and Mark Dantonio will be here before we know it.

Pregame Sick Pack: Tackling the Trojans

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs for a 26-yard gain against the USC Trojans in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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When the 2016 season began, most had the finale as the marquee game on Notre Dame’s schedule. But few imagined its importance would be one-sided, USC the only team capable of improving its postseason fate.

For the Irish, motivation is internal. With no postseason bowl possible, the chance to salvage something—or play spoiler to the Trojans—is all that’s left. And just days after the NCAA did its best to embarrass the Notre Dame football program, anything less than a wholehearted effort in Los Angeles could bring the same result.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview and an afternoon kick set for just after high-noon (local time) in Los Angeles, let’s crack open the final pregame six pack.

 

Sam Darnold may steal all the attention, but USC’s ground game could be the real weapon on Saturday. 

We’ll get to Darnold in a bit. But if the Irish are going to find a way to win on Saturday, they’ll need to slow down a USC rushing attack that’s on fire lately. Since Arnold was inserted into the starting lineup, the Trojans’ running game has been explosive, averaging 240 yards a game and being held below 175 yards by just Washington.

Ronald Jones has been the heavy-hitter lately, starting the season slowly but looking like the home run threat that the Irish recruited heavily out of Texas as well. Jones has seen his numbers explode since mid-October, scoring 10 of his 11 touchdowns in that span, averaging 137 yards a game.

Senior Justin Davis was slowed by an ankle sprain, but looks to be healthy as well, giving the Trojans two explosive rushers who’ll challenge Notre Dame all afternoon, running behind a veteran offensive line anchored by seniors Zack Banner and Chad Wheeler.

 

Notre Dame’s receivers must make plays downfield against USC’s secondary. 

Last year, Will Fuller landed a haymaker on Trojan star Adoree Jackson. Without Fuller, can the Irish find a receiver capable of landing that punch?

Torii Hunter practiced this week, though his availability for the season finale isn’t clear. That leaves Kevin Stepherson and Equanimeous St. Brown on the outside, both putting together nice seasons, though each have only reminded Irish fans just how special Fuller’s 2015 campaign really was.

Notre Dame knows the Trojan starters at cornerback well, having recruited both Jackson and Iman “Biggie” Marshall before both ultimately decided to stay home. And while Jackson’s reputation as one of college football’s biggest playmakers is deserved, he has been more susceptible to the big play than you might expect.

On the season, Jackson’s given up five touchdown passes. He’s ranked just 130th at his position by PFF when measuring the opponent’s passer rating when targeting him, a surprise when you consider Marshall’s ranked just 121st. PFF’s evaluations across the board don’t matchup with Jackson’s reputation, giving credence to the idea that the young and unproven Irish receivers have a chance to do some damage in the season finale.

 

Can Notre Dame start fast and also finish strong?

We’ve seen the Irish get off to a quick start. We haven’t seen them mirror that with a strong fourth quarter. Brian Kelly talked about those struggles on Tuesday, clearly understanding the difficulties that have hit his football team in the fourth quarter, when so many of these games are still on the line.

“We’ve been outscored 51-16,” Kelly said, focused on the team’s fourth-quarter results. “You’ve got to look at everything. You’ve got to look at structure on defense, you’ve got to look at structure on offense.

“You’ve got to look at your special teams. You’ve got to look at conditioning. You’ve got to look at everything. You know, fourth quarter — we’ve scored 46 points in the fourth quarter this year. At this time last year we’ve scored 106. So we’re down 60 points in the fourth quarter.”

Those 60 points are enough to change the balance of just about every defeat this season, when you consider that Notre Dame’s seven losses have come by a combined 32 points. And it’s a big reason why Kelly is going back to the drawing board this offseason to root out the issue.

“I don’t think there’s any stone that you leave unturned when you go to the fourth quarter and not have the success in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “Also, there’s experience and not being experienced and not handling the mental end of things, and so there are a number of different factors that are involved in there.”

 

Sam Darnold has been dynamic. So the Irish need to take advantage of the mistakes he’s still making. 

Brian Kelly’s appreciation for what Sam Darnold does for USC’s offense was apparent from the very start of his comments on Tuesday.

“Obviously the big difference there, Sam Donald, when he’s been inserted into the lineup, that’s been a transformation for that football team offensively,” Kelly said. “He’s as good as I’ve seen in a long, long time. His escapability, his ability to throw on the run, his accuracy. I don’t see anything there that is anything short of brilliant in terms of the way he’s playing right now, and of course he’s got a great supporting cast.”

That’s high praise from a coach who certainly sets a high bar for quarterback praise. And now Kelly and his staff need to figure out how to slow down Darnold, a guy who is dangerous as a thrower and runner, and plays as aggressively as any quarterback the Irish have seen this season.

That aggression is where the Irish need to take aim.  Because while Darnold’s completing 68.3 percent of his throws, he’s still giving a few back to the opponent. He has six interceptions in the past four games, the only black marks on a stretch of football that has the Trojans playing among the best in the country. (He’s doing all of that while still completing 70 percent of his throws in those four games.)

 

Can the Irish show heart after all that has gone wrong?

Notre Dame is a 17-point underdog on Saturday. Against USC. And that’s usually a very, very bad sign for the Irish.

Will this game get ugly? History isn’t on Notre Dame’s side. Because as Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated points out, Notre Dame in the roll of a heavy underdog against the Trojans usually ends with the Victory March getting played on repeat.

But this Irish football team looks different. And if we’re to believe the players and the head coach, they’ll perform differently, especially considering the mulligan we gave this team the last time they went to the Coliseum and got hammered—with a defensive depth chart that was decimated.

Injuries won’t be a factor on Saturday. Pride will. So Notre Dame will need to buck the trend if they’re going to be able to surprise the oddsmakers.

 

 

DeShone Kizer is poised to be an early first-round pick. But if this is it, can he deliver a big victory on his way out?

Quarterback DeShone Kizer is expected to leave Notre Dame after the season and head to the NFL. But before he does, a big victory on his resume may help his cause.

Kizer has had a ton hoisted on his shoulders this season. And while he’s done a ton of good things in a very trying season, an upset victory and a big-time performance would certainly help both his personal draft stock and the Irish’s exit plans.

After a really strong debut season, Kizer’s trajectory has been a little flatter than most expected. His touchdown passes are up and interceptions are down, but his overall quarterback rating is below last season’s and his completion percentage has dipped below 60 percent. Against good defenses those numbers are down even farther, Virginia Tech the latest to hold Kizer in check, joining Stanford, NC State (with the assist of a hurricane), and Michigan State.

Sure, a young set of skill players has been a major part of this. Throwing to three first-year starters as opposed to Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle will do that.

But if Kizer’s ready to be the hope of a future NFL franchise, he’ll find a way to play a great game on Saturday, where the weather is supposed to make a turn for the worst as the game rolls on. Because a win against one of college football’s hottest teams might be a heckuva way to make a first impression.

And in that corner… The USC Trojans

PASADENA, CA - NOVEMBER 19:  Quarterback Sam Darnold #14 of the USC Trojans eludes the rush from defensive lineman Takkarist McKinley #98 and defensive lineman Boss Tagaloa #75 of the UCLA Bruins during a 36-14 Trojan win at Rose Bowl on November 19, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The end is here. And now we’ll see if Notre Dame puts up a fight with their intersectional rival, or limps to the finish in a season that everyone would be happy to forget.

Because two programs that measure themselves against each other are trending in opposite directions. And as the Irish spend the offseason searching for solutions, USC will ride a hype train right back to the top of the college football scene.

That’s what happens when you win seven straight games. And that’s what happens when you find a quarterback like Sam Darnold. Since the redshirt freshman took over, the Trojans have looked like the team that had many believing they were one of the most talented in the country.

As the Irish fight for pride, we’re joined by Shotgun Spratling. A writer and photographer for USCFootball.com, Spratling took time out of a busy, busy week to put together our final preview of the season.

Enjoy.

 

* Let’s start with the obvious: How did this team turn it around? Is it as easy as saying, “Sam Darnold?”

Yes and no. Sam Darnold is definitely the No. 1 factor, but not the only factor. The offensive line was porous early in the season. Ronald Jones II struggled early and has now averaged over 150 yards and two rushing touchdowns for the past month.

The defense had big-play busts that helped turn the Alabama game from close battle for a little over a quarter into a rout by halftime. The players all talk about how the trust that has grown in the locker room. They have faith that the guy beside them is going to do his job and that gives the entire group confidence.

 

* Staying with Darnold, the redshirt freshman has been incredible to watch. While he’s certainly made some mistakes, he’s also played with a reckless abandon that I can’t remember ANY of the great USC quarterbacks playing with. It’s probably silly to start this comparison game — especially as you consider the Heismans that Palmer and Leinart won and the elite prospect that Sanchez was — but can you give Irish fans a player comp for Darnold — a guy that they might see now for the next three years?

I will first admit that I am terrible with player comparisons before saying that it’s hard to pinpoint one for Darnold. He has uncanny pocket presence and creativity when being pressured that has a hint of Texas A&M Johnny Manziel, yet similar to Russell Wilson, Darnold has the ability to run, but prefers not to. He has great arm strength and a gunslinger mentality, which is equal parts positive (Brett Favre) as it is negative (Jeff George).

The comparison that gets thrown around some among the media members covering the team is that Darnold is a better version of Stanford’s Kevin Hogan in terms of big, but mobile youngster that took over for a redshirt junior in the middle of the season.

 

* Clay Helton went from a guy who nearly had a revolt on his hands to a coach who might be earning a reputation as a big-game hunter. Is it safe to say that this run ghas helped Helton turn the tide — or is his job security only as secure as his team’s ability to win games. With a new AD (Lynn Swann) in charge, what are the long-term prospects of Helton as the man atop USC’s football program?

Anyone that meets Clay Helton thinks he is a good guy, including Lynn Swann. He’s genuine with everyone, which people appreciate after the last two USC head coaches. But as is the case most anywhere, it’s all about the wins and losses. Helton looks really secure right now, but USC could still finish the season 8-5 if USC were to lose to the Irish, make the Pac-12 championship and lose and also drop their bowl game.

The luster would definitely be gone. In baseball, your prospects are only as good as your next day’s starting pitcher. In college football coaching, your prospects are only as good as your last big win.

If Helton were to get on the hot seat again in the next year or two, Swann becomes the wild card since he didn’t hire Helton. If things aren’t going well and he decides he wants to put his stamp on the athletic department, the football coach is one thing that will do that with a quickness.

 

* Defensively, this team has really started to play impressive football, holding opponents to season-low point totals in 6 of the last 7 games. What’s been the difference, and who has stood out for Clancy Pendergast’s unit?

Cohesion. Much like the team, the defense had to get a feel for the new defensive system being implemented (re-implemented for a select few upperclassmen) and have turned the corner during the season and are progressing week by week.

Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been able to be ultra-aggressive bringing pressure whenever he wants because of the ability of the secondary, particularly future NFL cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall. The addition of 25-year old Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, a graduate transfer from Utah, helping to shore up a major concern in the defensive line coming into the year can’t be overlooked either. He has brought a maturity to the entire team and his work ethic has rubbed off on former five-star defensive lineman Rasheem Green, who has been playing lights out the last few weeks.

 

* Notre Dame fans are calling for Brian Kelly’s head. USC may be the hottest team in the country. An afternoon kickoff reminds people of the bloodbath that took place at the end of the 2014 season, the last time these two teams met in the Coliseum. Is that your expectation as well?

It could quickly go that way if USC plays clean football, but that hasn’t been the case very often this season. Even in the midst of their winning streak, the Trojans have been prone to penalties and turnovers.

They are averaging more than nine penalties and nearly 72 yards the last five games and Darnold has thrown seven interceptions in the last six games, including four the last two weeks. However, those two games were on the road. At home in the Coliseum, he’s been much better throwing 15 touchdowns to only three interceptions this season, so I’m not expecting it to come down to the final snap.

NCAA wrong to erase Notre Dame’s recent history—both good and bad

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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What does vacate mean, anyway?

That’s the question I’d ask myself if I’m Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Because the NCAA made their ruling. And nobody paid attention to the fact that the Irish football program was left alone.

No scholarships were taken. No wrongdoing assigned—not to Kelly, nor any of his assistants, or the team within the athletic department that actually rooted out the problem.

In terms of penalties, the stiffest the NCAA levied on the program was a $5,000 fine—practically  the going rate of three-nights in a 2-star hotel on a home football weekend, or the minimum buy-in for the latest and greatest season tickets in the remodeled house that Jack built.

So what’s really the big deal?

Perception.

Because being lumped in with the two decades of institutional dishonesty in Chapel Hill isn’t sitting quite right for the proud folk under the golden dome. Neither is the all-too-easy connection between Catholics and convicts, the Irish now apparently lumped in with Nevin Shapiro and that pyramid of cash he was shoving into the pockets of players and administrators alike.

Because the biggest fight we’ve seen from the football program this year came in the form of a 420-word statement attributed to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins. And while those six paragraphs cut to the core of why Notre Dame doesn’t believe the punishment levied on them is fair, there’s a better chance that the NCAA will eat its own words before anybody actually changes their opinion on this one.

Because we’ve already seen people connect the dots. Vile, disgusting ones—revealing much more about the people capable of bringing up the tragedies of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan as they find a corollary in a half-dozen college kids who took a few academic shortcuts.

Maybe that’s what has Kelly so ready for a fight. Even after watching his coaching reputation swirl down the drain as the losses pile up this season, Notre Dame’s football coach played the role of indignant innocent bystander on Tuesday, even if it played right into the hands of those who hold the most contempt for him.

So fight what you want to. But it’s not going to change opinions. Not the ones that are running wild, certain that this is finally the proof that Notre Dame’s really is just like everyone else.

But even if the university’s appeal is denied, it won’t erase the memories—of that magical 2012 season. And also that next one, ruined by the first academic scandal of the Kelly era.

Remember that year? A 2013 team poised for greatness but derailed when a university and football program tossed its star quarterback for a semester for utilizing his peripheral vision on an accounting exam?

That was Notre Dame putting its honor code and integrity before winning football games. Something they did a year later when they held five football players from team activities as they dug through 95,000 documents in search of the truth, leading us to the current mess we’re in.

So maybe Kelly is right. Even if you hated to hear him stick up for himself amidst a football season most find indefensible.

But run the guy out of town for losing football games. Not for standing up for his program, who just survived a two-year investigation and came out just five grand lighter, an invoice that likely came with “For Appearances” in the memo line.

So as the NCAA kicks the can down the street for North Carolina, Florida State, Ole Miss and Baylor, the smoking gun of it’s 21-page document revealed that a former Notre Dame student athletic trainer typed out school work on behalf of a student-athlete.

Maybe that’s why the wins are so important. To Kelly. To Jenkins, who finally said something about the investigation, a bizarre lack of leadership shown by an org chart that’s rarely shied away from big moments.

The games matter. They were history. Highs. Lows. Good moments and bad. All part of the record Notre Dame’s trying to protect as sports’ biggest bureaucratic laughingstock takes dead aim at Notre Dame for doing, at least in the NCAA’s eyes, just about everything right.