Keith Arnold

Irish expecting a four-quarter battle against Temple

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After a back and forth battle with USC, Notre Dame outlasted the Trojans with a strong fourth quarter. Against Temple, the Irish should hope to be in better position heading into the game’s final 30 minutes. Because the Owls have proven to be a very good second half team and even better closers.

The identity of Matt Rhule’s undefeated team is its toughness, led by a defense that’s among the best statistical units in the country. And buoyed by that performance, the Owls have showed an ability to finish games, playing solid football in the first and second quarter before separating from the pack in the second half.

Temple’s scoring margin in the first half is a respectable +16. But in the second half that number jumps to +108. Through seven games the Owls have given up a ridiculous 4.1 points on average in the second half while scoring nearly 20 points.

In a exciting road environment that’ll feature a sold out Lincoln Financial Stadium, getting off to a quick start is critical. It’s also been something absent in Notre Dame’s last four road contests.

Against Clemson and Virginia, the Irish only scored a combined 15 points in the first half. Last year’s two final away contests, against USC and Arizona State, Notre Dame only managed 17 first half points.

Slow starts and a difficult second-half opponent? That’s a scenario that deserves watching, and Brian Kelly is well aware that his team needs to come out of the gates ready to perform, especially against a team that’s evolved so much from the first squad Matt Rhule brought to South Bend.

“They play great second-half football. They won a lot of games late. Just have a really solid football team,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Again, one deserving of where they are, a top 25 football team. It will be a great challenge for our football team, going on the road, and one that we’ll have to play very well.”

Timing is everything: ND-Temple matchup great for both programs

Tyler Matakevich, Alex Wells
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That Notre Dame vs. Temple is the premier matchup of the college football weekend is amazing. But perhaps equally amazing is how the game found its way onto the schedule in the first place.

While Notre Dame is notoriously quiet about commenting on their scheduling decisions, the Philadelphia Inquirer talked with former Temple athletic director Bill Bradshaw about his work trying to get the Irish to play the Owls in football. The two-game series with Notre Dame—the Owls visited South Bend to open the 2013 season—had the twists and turns of a spy movie, all part of the complexities of scheduling football games in this era of college football.

Bradshaw’s first attempts to get Notre Dame to consider a game were far from successful. He couldn’t even get a phone call returned.

“I understood it, because I didn’t believe we gave any value,” Bradshaw told the Inquirer. “We weren’t a good win or a good loss.”

But the identity of the program began to change when Al Golden built the program’s profile. And as the years went by, Bradshaw kept on the Irish, knowing that Notre Dame had played 16 games in Philadelphia, but none since beating Navy in 1993.

Here’s the Inquirer’s Mike Jensen on the breakthrough moment:

“The brand started to get a little bit better,” Bradshaw said. “They said they could be interested.”

That eventually turned into talks about a single game in South Bend, Ind. (One source had Temple getting $900,000 guaranteed for the game.) Soon the conversation evolved into adding a home-and-home, with each side keeping the revenue from those two dates separate from the one guaranteed game in South Bend.

“It was really like a magic moment,” Bradshaw said of the announcement in 2011, “to say Notre Dame would come in.”

That was just the beginning for this game. The original Irish visit was set for last season, and talks of a third game evaporated after the ACC merger. Notre Dame’s buy-out number also worried Bradshaw, a $100,000 escape possible before an escalator clause.

But the schools made it work, even if it meant Temple’s visit to South Bend was pushed until 2013 and Notre Dame had to delay its visit to Philadelphia for a season, the same year Penn State would hit the Owls’ schedule.

“Nobody could have foreseen all of this,” Bradshaw said.

That goes for both sides of this matchup. While the game is being billed as one of the biggest in Temple football history, it’s also turning into an important one for Notre Dame.

With high-profile matchups against Texas and Georgia Tech fizzling after slow starts for both programs, the Irish also had to deal with the difficulty of USC not living up to its Top 10 billing (though a convincing win over No. 3 Utah certainly doesn’t hurt).

Needing some impressive wins to boost their playoff resume before a game with Stanford to close the season, the Irish getting a chance to play in front of a primetime national audience against an undefeated Temple team. That just isn’t a scenario that anybody pictured when they looked at the Irish schedule this summer.

But thanks to the play of Matt Rhule’s team, the work of an administrator like Bradshaw and some fortuitous scheduling luck, Notre Dame vs. Temple is essentially the national game of the week.

Who saw that coming?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ESPN’s College GameDay coming to Philly for Notre Dame vs. Temple

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 26:  ESPN College GameDay announcer Lee Corso dons an FSU headress as co-announcers (l to r) Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit comment during the NCAA football game between Notre Dame and Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 26, 2002 in Tallahassee, Florida.  The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Florida State Seminoles 34-24.  (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)
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The only game of the weekend featuring ranked opponents means that ESPN’s College GameDay will be at a Notre Dame game for the second time this season. Already announced as a primetime, ABC broadcast, Temple will host ESPN’s signature pregame show this weekend, their first since GameDay kicked off over 20 years ago.

ESPN made the announcement via Twitter Monday morning, mulling over their options before pulling the trigger on a trip to Philadelphia instead of heading cross-country to Pullman, Washington, where Mike Leach’s Cougars are hosting No. 8 Stanford.

Once looked at as the eleventh or twelfth most-important game on Notre Dame’s schedule, Saturday could very well be the most important game in Temple football history. It comes at a perfect time for the Irish, who need wins over ranked opponents as they try to distinguish themselves from a pack of other one-loss teams jockeying for College Football Playoff consideration.

Notre Dame opened up 10-point favorites over the Owls, who have one of the nation’s best statistical defenses. The Irish are 6-1 coming off an extra week’s rest under Brian Kelly, their lone loss to USC in 2011.

Bye week snapshot: Secondary

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On paper, Notre Dame’s secondary appeared to be one of the strengths of the team. Veterans at every position. Senior KeiVarae Russell returning to the field. Yet the collection of talent has struggled to play to its potential.

That’s been evident in the up and down play of Max Redfield and the rust on Russell. While Brian Kelly praised the play of senior Elijah Shumate last week, junior Cole Luke has had some uneven moments and injuries have forced Matthias Farley back into the safety rotation, away from the slot cornerback spot he had so much success in last year.

While there have been mistakes that have showed up immediately on the score board or in the stat sheet, the secondary’s performance against USC was a great step forward, and hopefully an indication that a strong home stretch is on the horizon. As Todd Lyght’s defensive backs hope to make November their best month, let’s finish up our bye week snapshots.

 

MVPs (So Far): KeiVarae Russell & Elijah Shumate. 

While most people have spent plenty of time talking about the things that KeiVarae Russell hasn’t managed to do this season, it’s worth pointing out that Notre Dame’s senior cornerback has as many solo tackles as All-Universe linebacker Jaylon Smith. So while Russell’s had some struggles in coverage an waited until USC to make his biggest, most impactful plays of the season, he’s been solid in other facets of the game.

For Shumate, Notre Dame’s strong safety is a key component to stopping the run. Whether it’s crashing down into the box or being a key piece of the plan to stop Georgia Tech and Navy, Shumate’s play has earned him admiration and praise from his head coach, who at times in the past likely wondered if he’d ever see the mental and the physical match up with the New Jersey native.

 

Best Still to Come? Max Redfield & Cole Luke. 

Notre Dame’s two junior starters have the chance to turn the 2015 season into a good one if they finish the year strong. For Redfield, an early-season thumb injury against Texas likely derailed his offseason momentum. (So did trying to tackle the quarterback against the option.) But inserted back into the lineup against USC, Redfield played better than Farley, and gave Notre Dame the athleticism on the back end that they needed against a team of playmaking receivers.

Luke has had some mental lapses in coverage this season—and we saw one of those mistakes cost the Irish defense seven points when he fell for another trick play against USC. But the junior’s game will build with confidence, and given the opportunity to match up and cover on the outside, he’s going to win more battles than he loses.

Both Redfield and Luke can get better, especially if they use the adversity to grow. Luke thrived in coverage last season against a slate of tremendous receivers and he’s capable of making plays that impact football games. The same goes for Redfield, who has been better in coverage than he gets credit for and if he’s on his game he’s capable of impacting the game against both the run and pass.

 

Wait Until Next Year: Shaun Crawford, Nick Coleman and Drue Tranquill

We didn’t get a chance to see what Crawford could do, as the nickel back tore his ACL in preseason camp. But the Irish coaching staff all but scrapped their nickel package once Crawford went down, an alignment that likely would’ve been a base alignment against passing opponents and on third down. That tells you quite a bit about what the staff thinks it has in the diminutive cover man, who’ll be ready to make up for lost time come spring.

Coleman has played most of his football on special teams, though is getting an occasional look in coverage. Another freshman, the converted high school running back has been a nice surprise, fighting his way into the mix even with established defenders like Devin Butler and Nick Watkins ahead of him. Don’t be surprised to see more of Coleman after the off week, especially if the Irish put more defensive backs on the field.

Tranquill’s freak injury came half-way into a breakthrough performance against the option. The sledge-hammer safety was a perfect linebacker in the dime package or a specialist against the triple option. We saw the Indiana native make an immediate impact against Georgia Tech before going down before halftime.

With Shumate gone after this season and Russell likely heading to the NFL after earning his degree, these three defensive backs will play a huge part of next year’s secondary. So while they each got something completely different out of this season, the pieces are in place for each to make a move in 2016.

 

Bye week snapshot: Linebackers

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s most athletic group of linebackers in years has been led by All-American candidate Jaylon Smith. Just as he did last season, Smith has filled up the stat sheet, while also managing to make that the least impressive thing he’s done on the field.

Behind him, the play has been good and bad. Captain Joe Schmidt may very well be the nerve center of the Irish defense, but he’s struggled at times making tackles and being in position. James Onwualu and Greer Martini have exceeded expectations.

Against the option, the Irish turned to Martini, who played incredibly productive football in a difficult situation. While Onwualu has shown himself once again to be the type of dependable athlete that the Irish staff can count on in space. But even he was subbed out for Jarrett Grace when the Irish needed to add some bulk against Navy, the fifth-year senior getting a shot after nearly two years of recovery time.

This group’s best football is still ahead of it. For Smith, that’s a scary proposition. For the rest of the linebackers? It’s playing to the bar this coaching staff has set for them. Let’s take a closer look at Mike Elston’s position group through seven games.

 

MVP: Jaylon Smith

No, it’s not particularly close. Smith has answered most of his critics by doing a much better job in the trenches and being a tremendously sound tackler. That’s allowed him to use his cheetah-like athleticism to run down plays and also be PFF’s No. 2 rated OLB in a 4-3.

Smith hasn’t made the impact as a pass rusher that we maybe thought he would earlier in preseason camp. But that’s mostly been because he’s been so useful in pass coverage. A key prospect in the eyes of NFL personnel men, Smith might be playing his final half-dozen games in a Notre Dame uniform. If he is, let’s hope Smith goes out on top.

 

Needs to Improve: Joe Schmidt

All the wonderful leadership attributes and mental abilities don’t take away from what the game tape is telling us (or at least PFF). Schmidt’s struggles have been notable, and he’s having one of the worst graded seasons of any inside linebacker in college football.

There’s more to it than just the numbers. Schmidt hasn’t had the easiest assignments with two option teams mixed in with athletic offenses like Clemson and USC. Add to that the physical limitation that comes with playing through a broken thumb.

But with Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace all on the sidelines, Schmidt needs to clean up his game. As it’s been mentioned a few dozen-too-many times, Schmidt’s physical limitations make it imperative that he plays as close to assignment perfect as possible. That hasn’t necessarily been the case and the results have hurt the Irish.

 

Sneaky Productive: James Onwualu & Greer Martini

If you were surprised that Jaylon Smith graded out as the No. 2 OLB in a 4-3 system in college football you’d be really  surprised that not that far down the list behind him was James Onwualu. The second-year linebacker, who started his freshman season as a wide receiver ranks as PFF’s No. 15 OLB. That’s really impressive for a guy most had pushed out of the rotation.

Martini’s game just gets better the more you watch him play. He’s an instinctive guy who knows how to do his job. You see that as he thrives against option competition. Physically, he’s got the type of skills that fit in the middle of the defense. It’ll be quite a competition in life after Smith and Schmidt as the next group of defenders fight for starting jobs in 2016. While most assume Nyles Morgan slides inside, Martini is too good of a football player to stay off the field.

Stay tuned.