Keith Arnold

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly speaks during media day for the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football game, Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Notre Dame plays Ohio State on New Year's Day. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
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Kelly hoping to continue ascent with Fiesta Bowl win

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Brian Kelly has already said that a Fiesta Bowl victory would be the team’s biggest win of the season. But on Wednesday, he put into context what a victory over Ohio State would mean to his program, three seasons removed from its BCS title game drubbing against Alabama.

I think every bowl game, it’s a playoff game now. Somebody is going to finish fifth in the final polls. That’s a springboard for next year,” Kelly said Wednesday morning. “These are important games, you’re also measuring yourself in this game. ‘Where are we?’

“We measured ourselves in 2012, found out we were a little short. Now we’re back here in ’15-’16 and get a chance to measure ourselves again.”

That challenge will come against an Ohio State team that’s playing for history. A victory on Friday would make 50 wins over four seasons—tying the FBS record for the most by any senior class.

The Buckeyes could also provide validation. While the Irish weren’t up to the challenge against mighty Alabama in Kelly’s third season, Ohio State managed to slay the dragon last year. Toss away a late-season loss to Michigan State and a cupcake schedule done no favors by its weak conference opponents, the Buckeyes could easily make a case they’re more qualified to be a part of the four-team showdown than the mighty Alabama or an Oklahoma team that lost to Texas.

But Friday’s consolation matchup could be for more than just the No. 5 ranking. In a game that’ll have a load of NFL talent on both rosters and two of college football’s finest tacticians engaging in a chess match, Notre Dame won’t get a chance to play for the national title, but they will take center stage on college football’s grandest day. That’ll allow Kelly to finally go head-to-head with a coach many feel is the era’s best, as his injury-plagued team goes for its 11th victory against, just the second time it could accomplish that feat since 1993.

A Fiesta Bowl win would serve as more than just a springboard for the Irish in 2016. It could also silence—once and for all—any of the nonsense that “almost” is as good as it gets in South Bend.

“We want to win the game,” Kelly said, noting just how unique “Team 127” was as it battled through a challenge-filled year. “It will be a satisfying season that we overcame a lot of things to get to this point. Probably for me the most enjoyable, with the group of kids that we had that just didn’t let anything get in their way. They just kept moving forward.”

 

 

VanGorder talks inconsistencies and the challenge still ahead

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Brian VanGorder saw the same things you did this year—except the Showtime series.

VanGorder didn’t watch the 13-part documentary (extended for an extra episode to cover the Fiesta Bowl), but he did see his defense play frustratingly inconsistent football. At times dominant, the Irish defense forced three-and-outs at one of the best clips in the country. But at other times, the group was inept, prone to giving up big plays and struggling in the red zone, two key ingredients to turning a promising group into an underwhelming unit.

VanGorder talked about those struggles on Tuesday, when asked to evaluate the team’s performance this season.

“Inconsistent, I guess, is probably the best word,” VanGorder said. “We’ve played a lot of good football. We’ve had some plays that you just shake your head, both player and coach, when it’s all said and done.”

VanGorder pinned some of those struggles on youth. That may be tough when you consider the veterans in this group, but even Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate are in just year two of VanGorder’s system.

“These are young players. You’re constantly pushing on the idea of developing. They all develop at a different rate, a different process for all of them,” VanGorder said. 

“A lot of those things come down to also focus. That’s, again, part of the development, part of the process, for somebody to focus through some 65 to 85 plays, for some it’s a challenge. That’s player responsibility, coach responsibility through a game to make sure we maintain a great concentration and a great focus. To be quite frank about it, it hasn’t been always where any of us want it to be.”

We’ve seen those lapses—whether they be garbage time touchdowns like Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh scored, or in crucial situations against Temple or Stanford. But before the Irish coaching staff takes a step back and considers whether VanGorder’s scheme and its complexities are part of the problem, the focus will be confined to another healthy challenge—slowing down Ohio State and Urban Meyer’s offense.

VanGorder talked about the skill players that’ll challenge an Irish group that’s often times its own biggest opponent. With Ezekiel Elliott playing through legal citations and J.T. Barrett coming off a big performance against Michigan, the defense has its hands full.

They’re difficult to defend. The whole offensive philosophy and makeup of it makes you defend a lot of players,” VanGorder explained.

While the scheme isn’t too far removed from what the Irish show in practice every day, the personnel the Irish will face will likely be the best that they’ll play all season. True, the Buckeyes have struggled to play up to their potential this season. But they had a breakthrough against the Wolverines, scoring 42 points and running for 369 yards against one of the Big Ten’s best defenses.

A lot of people have good scheme, maybe not the good players. They have a bunch of great players that are going to play in the NFL.”

Max Redfield sent home from Fiesta Bowl for rules violation

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Max Redfield‘s disappointing junior season will end on a fitting note. Notre Dame’s starting safety was sent home after violating a team rule in Arizona, leaving the Irish without another defensive starter against Ohio State.

Brian Kelly announced the news Tuesday, a move that’ll likely force fifth-year defensive back Matthias Farley into the starting lineup one last time in his final collegiate game. Kelly also revealed that junior Devin Butler broke his foot during Monday’s practice, taking another projected starter out of the Fiesta Bowl lineup. Sophomore Nick Watkins will make his first start at cornerback, the third starter at the position after KeiVarae Russell‘s broken leg.

Redfield’s season started off with promise. After playing a strong Music City Bowl against LSU to end the 2014 season, the former 5-star recruit was named to Phil Steele’s first-team preseason All-American team and he played well against Texas. But Redfield tried to play through an early-season broken hand that might have contributed to some poor play, as he took limited snaps against UMass, Navy and USC before playing nearly every snap to close out the season.

Redfield is expected back in 2016, a projected starter along with Cole Luke in the secondary. There is no timetable yet on Butler’s foot injury.

UPDATE: Redfield released the following statement on Instagram:

Suspended license and car crash won’t keep Elliott out of Fiesta Bowl

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Ezekiel Elliott had an eventful departure day to Arizona. The star Ohio State running back was the at-fault driver in a car crash in Columbus, where he was cited for driving under suspension, driving without a license and failure to control after a crash around 1:30 in the afternoon on Sunday.

“He was the at-fault driver,” Columbus Police spokesman Denise Alex-Bouzounis told the Columbus Dispatch.

NBCSports.com’s Craig Calcaterra broke the news Monday morning, a tipster filling him in on the events that seemed to put the star running back’s final college game into jeopardy. But an Ohio State spokesman quickly ended that speculation, with the running back’s status for participation unchanged.

The Buckeyes are already without starting defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, who was suspended for the Fiesta Bowl after being arrested for soliciting an undercover police office posing as a prostitute. That charge is a first-degree misdemeanor, subject to similar penalties under Ohio law as Elliott’s violations, Calcaterra points out.

Eleven Warriors has done the digging into what likely got Elliott’s license suspended in the first place—an unpaid speeding ticket and a failure to show up at court.  Those fairly innocent mistakes have snowballed into another somewhat embarrassing situation for Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer, especially considering his more than dubious history of handing out punishments to his star players. Meyer has yet to discuss the incident.

Campus Insiders: Key Fiesta Bowl Matchups

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Fiesta Bowl game week is finally here.

To give us an early look at some of the key matchups as Notre Dame and Ohio State prepare to face off, Cris and Austin Collinsworth hop into the PFF Studio and talk about some of the serious star power that’ll be on the field in Phoenix.