Michigan v Notre Dame

Pregame Six Pack: Wildcats in the winter


It’s a winter wonderland in South Bend. As an early snow covers the Midwest before the middle of November, it’s a wonderful reminder that FieldTurf has been installed in Notre Dame Stadium, allowing Saturday afternoon’s game to look more like football than broomball, as it has in the past.

That’s not a consolation prize for those of you out shoveling the driveway this week. But it will likely make the quality of the football a lot better on Saturday. And after playing one of their sloppiest games of recent memory last weekend in Tempe, the Irish can use any help they can get.

Also likely supplying some help is Northwestern. After having the Wildcats program playing some of their best football in over a decade, Pat Fitzgerald’s team has struggled through two sub-par seasons, practically in a freefall since last season’s tight loss to Ohio State.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

Northwestern enters Saturday 3-6 and losers of 13 of their last 17 games. And outside of their surprising upset win over Wisconsin this fall, the Wildcats have beaten just Illinois, Penn State and Western Illinois since beating Maine last September.

Still, in the first matchup between these two programs since Northwestern pulled off a shocking upset in 1995, on a wintery weekend in South Bend, anything can happen.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.



We’ll find out Saturday, but a big question remains: Just how bad is Northwestern?

There’s no snark in that question, as the Wildcats have put together a season that sometimes defies logic. For as bad as Northwestern has looked at times (“Embrace the suck,” Fitzgerald quipped), the Wildcats have two impressive victories over Wisconsin and Penn State (the Badgers more so than the Nittany Lions), and have lost four one-score games. A program that built a reputation for winning the close ones is now losing them.

The biggest culprit for those struggles? The offense. While the defense has played mostly good football, the offense has hit rock bottom this year. Behind a struggling line, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian hasn’t been able to stay healthy or be productive. And a lack of big-play threats has put the offense into a pretty damning statistical black hole.

Scoring Offense: 18.0 per game (122nd)
Total Offense: 322.7 yards per game (117th)
Rushing Offense: 109.9 yards per game (114th)
Passing Offense: 212.8 yards per game (84th)
Yards Per Play: 4.24 yards per play (125th)
Yards Per Carry: 2.88 yards per carry (123rd)

Notre Dame fans expecting those numbers to turn into an easy Saturday, pump the brakes. We’ve had countless weekends over the past few years where one-way battles turned into slugfests. And the fact that Northwestern was able to beat Wisconsin, a team that still could turn out to be the best in the Big Ten, means there’s some fight in this team.


After failing to play big against Arizona State, Tarean Folston has another opportunity to shine.

Last Saturday wasn’t the breakout performance I expected from Tarean Folston. While the Arizona State ground game was able to make its mark, Notre Dame’s wasn’t. Sure, a lot of that was because the Irish found themselves in a 31-3 hole after eight chaotic minutes of football. But Folston was kept off the field in favor of Cam McDaniel because of the senior’s pass-blocking prowess, a skill that often times comes down to effort.

Earlier this week, Kelly talked about Folston needing to up his game in that facet to become a complete back. The sophomore running back was clearly listening.

“They understand. They hear what we say. They listen to my press conference, too,” Kelly said on Thursday. “They hear me say Folston needs to be a complete back. He had it written on his tape on his wrist this week, ‘I need to be a complete back.’

“He was focused on blitz pick up. When it was blitz pick up drill he was wanting to be in there proving that he can be… Folston knows what he’s doing. This was more of a kick in the butt with him.”

On a Saturday where snow is still in the forecast, hopefully pass blocking isn’t the priority for the Irish running backs. Running the football should be.

So after a brief hiccup in his production, we’ll see if Folston returns to being the team’s featured back, and providing the production that made it an easy decision.


With their final month of college football in front of them, Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do what it takes to help the Irish secondary.

The back end of the Irish defense looked really young last week against Arizona State. With sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler playing cornerback, along with sophomore Max Redfield and junior Elijah Shumate playing safety, there wasn’t much experience on the field against the Sun Devils and their playmaking wide receiving corps.

But it looks like veterans Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do their best to return to the field this week, with both fifth-year seniors hoping to contribute in a limited fashion as they battle injuries.

Riggs sat out last weekend with a “stress reaction,” a foot injury that made matching up with All-American candidate Jaelen Strong a tough task. Riggs will be back on the field this weekend, working his way through the pain taking limited snaps.

“He’s gonna play. He’s not gonna play the whole game,” Kelly said. “But he’ll be able to contribute and play some. He practiced this week. We’re not gonna put so many snaps on him that we lose him next week. We’ll be smart with him.”

Also doing his best to get back on the field is Collinsworth. The fifth-year senior captain has only been able to make an impact in the locker room this year, with knee and shoulder injuries robbing him of his starting job just 48 hours before the season was set to begin.

Collinsworth is medically available, though how long his shoulder will last remains to be seen. That’s a big reason why Kelly isn’t willing to play him on special teams.

“I’m not going to lose him on special teams. Not in this situation,” Kelly said. “Here’s a kid, he’s given us everything to even get back out there. I’m not going to lose him on special teams.”

Ultimately, it’ll come down to Collinsworth being able to provide Shumate or Redfield a breather, or finding a situation where he’ll be able to succeed — perhaps along the goaline.

“I think just a coaching decision, he’s not holding himself back,” Kelly said. “He’s practicing. He’s able to play if we decide to play him. There’s no holding back on his part. He wants to get back in the game.”

After watching USC’s offense last night throw the football all over Cal, taking it easy on Riggs’ foot until Thanksgiving weekend would be wise. And if Collinsworth is able to help communicate and keep the Irish defense in the right position, giving him some snaps at safety would be well worth it.


As Pat Fitzgerald has upped the profile of his football program, Notre Dame and Northwestern have battled for more and more football players. 

You’re likely to recognize more than a few names on Northwestern’s roster. And it’s not from watching the Wildcats on Saturdays. Rather, Notre Dame and Northwestern’s coaching staffs have done a fair bit a battling on the recruiting trail these past few years, with Pat Fitzgerald doing a nice job winning his fair share of battles.

While it’s not necessarily true that Kelly and his staff view Fitzgerald in the same way they see Brady Hoke (for now) and Urban Meyer, LakethePosts took a nice look at the past five recruiting classes and found quite a bit of overlap.

In the last five recruiting classes, there have been a total of 51 recruits (according to rivals.com) who committed to either Notre Dame or Northwestern while being courted by the other school. This includes both players who received offers from both school, or players who merely received interest from both schools. Of those 51, 35 committed to Notre Dame, of whom the average rivals star rating was 3.5. Northwestern took 16 with an average star rating of 3.1.

Credit the writer for including some obvious caveats that come with culling your data from a recruiting website. And as the Irish coaching staff have adjusted their offering process to stay up to pace with the demands of the recruiting world, it’s difficult to say with certainty that “Notre Dame lost out on Matt Alviti” or that the Irish simply moved on to a better prospect.

All that being said, with a handful of Chicagoland prospects on both rosters, and recruits (especially in the 2016 class) still considering both programs, this paragraph from LTP is especially true.

This is why the NU/ND game might mean more than just one win or one loss. If Pat Fitzgerald can find a way to knock off one of his chief recruiting rivals, he immediately has a new pitch. When you beat the guy you’re recruiting against, it gives you an awfully clear edge. Meanwhile, if Northwestern goes into South Bend and loses gets blown out (the line right now is ND by around 17), challenging Notre Dame gets a lot harder. Not only do you not have any concrete edges from an institutional standpoint, now you’ve gotten smashed in a head-to-head. If you’re 17 or 18 years old, it might be that much harder to turn down one of the most historic teams in sports in the Fighting Irish.

In a game that may be one of the less intriguing on the schedule, this is a storyline worth tracking.


Looking for something important? How about getting Notre Dame’s young defense back on track. 

The stats listed above are a large indicator why we might expect better from Brian VanGorder’s young defense. If you’re looking to get your confidence back, no Power Five offense might be a better option than the one Northwestern is trotting out there right now.

With question marks at every position except maybe running back, where true freshman Justin Jackson is doing his best to keep the ground game afloat, the Irish defense should be able to right the ship after Notre Dame has given up 42 points a game over the last four weeks.

Yesterday, we talked about the struggles with Sudden Change defense and in the red zone. But after wondering if this group would lose confidence after a few bad outings, Kelly had nothing but good things to say about a young defense that desperately wants to improve.

“They are so engaged. They are so anxious. It’s probably a poor analogy, they wanna do so well they’re like hunting dogs. Just looking up at you, ‘What can I do?'” Kelly said Thursday.

“But they’re young. There’s mental errors and mistakes that we have to clean up every day with them. You ask Coach VanGorder and for him it’s great because you have such captive group that they just want to learn, but there’s a lot of learning going on. Every day it’s something new for them.”

That includes freshman Nyles Morgan, who’ll get a chance to find his footing against an offensive that’ll try to move quickly, but won’t much resemble the one he saw in Tempe. And after playing a poor game up front, don’t think Kelly’s comments earlier this week weren’t heard by the defensive line, who should have ample opportunities to get sacks against the Wildcat offensive line.


If the Irish want to win out, Everett Golson needs to take a big step forward. 

As you might expect, all eyes were on Everett Golson this week after his five turnover game. And while we’ll find out tomorrow whether or not Golson has remedied his problems, he’s certainly impressed his head coach this week.

“I think what I’m most pleased with is we got great leadership from Everett this week,” Kelly said after recapping the week on Thursday. “He’s got an immense amount of pride and I really enjoyed coaching him this week. It was a fun week in the growth department from that perspective. Nobody likes to be that guy that is singled out for their play, but he’s the quarterback at Notre Dame and he embraces that and took control this week of practice.”

Golson said as much earlier this week, when he told the local media he wasn’t going to change his mentality. But he’ll need to change his habits if the Irish are going to win three-straight regular season games and finish with ten wins before a chance to win a bowl game.

Even with Northwestern this weekend and Louisville losing starting quarterback Will Gardner, the odds are against a clean finish. Football Outsiders views the Irish’s shot of winning out at just 10 percent, a surprisingly low number, but one that’s been radically effected by the turnovers.

On a wintery day, ball security will have to once again be the priority. And sometimes the biggest play Golson will make will be the one to check down and take something small. Golson admitted to relying on his athleticism too much to try and get out of trouble. Saturday he’ll have some short routes available against Northwestern, especially if the Wildcats decide to bring pressure.

Kelly talked about that part of Golson’s evolution, and how he’s looking to get more from his quarterback.

“When you have an athletic quarterback that knows he can make a play with his feet, dropping it down to the back is, ‘Well, I can do that,'” Kelly explained. “What we really want him to do is through his progression, utilize if you’re in trouble and you can’t get out of it with your feet, find out where you outlet is. We felt there were a couple instances where there was an impending crisis that he couldn’t get out of and he tried to get out of it.”

“I don’t want to change him, I want him to use his feet. I want him to try to get out of some things, but you can’t get out of everything. So I think the process there is, you can’t get out of everything, understand that. What you can’t get out of it, find your release and get the ball out. That’s gonna be a process.”




High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts

Joe Schmidt

Heading into the season, questions surrounded Notre Dame’s defense. With key starters gone at every position, the strength of Brian Kelly’s previous four teams would need to replace a cast of characters that played a lot of really good football.

Add to that the departure of Bob Diaco, and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not only taking over a depth chart with really limited experience, he’d be teaching that group an entirely new system, a complex scheme that developed over the past 10 years, mostly in the NFL.

Through nine games, the results have been a mixed bag. There have been high-water marks: The first-ever shutout of Michigan.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

There have been struggles: North Carolina’s up-tempo attack and Navy’s triple option. But for the most part, the play of the defense — a group that lost key starters Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell in training camp — has been impressive.

That Notre Dame’s rush defense would rank 38th in the country after losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from the front four (from a defense that finished 71st in the same category in 2013) should have just about every Irish fan jumping for joy. Especially when you look at the youth up front — only Sheldon Day and Justin Utupo are the only upperclassmen (from an eligibility perspective) in the regular rotation.

Even the Irish secondary is holding its own. Playing a man-heavy coverage scheme that’s put in high-leverage situations as VanGorder utilizes multiple blitz looks to get pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has held up. The loss of Russell, expected to be an All-American-caliber player, crushed the depth at cornerback.

Injuries to captain Austin Collinsworth, safety Nicky Baratti, and most recently cornerback Cody Riggs, haven’t helped either. (Also add in the suspension of Eilar Hardy until last week and the likely redshirts of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, two seniors who’ll probably finish their football careers elsewhere in 2015.) Ranked a respectable 61st in the nation, the Irish are giving up 226 yards a game through the air, with their 13 interceptions nearly matching the 14 touchdown catches they’ve allowed.

So what’s been the problem exactly? Why did a team that gave up just 12 points a game through the first five Saturdays of the season turn into a group that’s given up 42 points a game in the next four?

Two critical areas: Sudden Change Defense and Red Zone Defense.

To be clear, this isn’t just a defensive problem. And all the focus on Everett Golson and his turnover struggles have made that abundantly clear. Those turnovers have forced a young group into some high-leverage situations, and when the stakes have been at their highest, VanGorder’s defense just hasn’t been able to get the stops.

Let’s take a closer look at two reasons why the Irish have been giving up more points. After being stout in these two critical areas the past two seasons, Notre Dame’s opponents are cashing in at a far better rate.



Our measurement of sudden change defense looks at the drives coming right after a turnover. For simplicity of statistics, we’re counting interception and fumble returns for touchdowns as sudden change scores, another indicator of the shared blame between the offense and defense.

A quick look at the last three seasons shows just how far the Irish are lagging behind in this critical measurement. Through nine games, the Irish have already turned the ball over 19 times, that’s more than last season’s total of 17 and more than the 15 turnovers the Irish had during their 2012 run to the BCS title game.

Just as critically, the Irish’s response to those turnovers has been far worse than the previous two seasons. Notre Dame has given up scores on 12 of those turnovers, with 11 of those coming as touchdowns. In no game has this stat played more prominently than against Arizona State. The 28 points the Irish gave up off of turnovers is the main reason Notre Dame won’t be competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Reaching a conclusion on why this change has occurred would be a lot of guess work. Young personnel could be playing tighter in critical situations. An abundance of scheme might make it difficult to play-call in the immediate aftermath of a turnover.

Practice priorities for VanGorder, who is still likely installing and coaching up the basics, might limit the time this group has for these moments during the week. Or it could just be rotten luck and good execution by the opponent. (That, and there is no defense for a pick six.)

In the moments following the loss to Arizona State, I asked Kelly what the change has been in Sudden Change situations.

“Couldn’t tell you,” the coach replied.


Sudden Change Opportunities





Where the struggles have been the most obvious are in the red zone. Put simply, once an opponent gets inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line, they’ve scored far more often than in years past. After being among the best defenses in the country the past two seasons in the scoring areas, the exact opposite has taken place this season.

Notre Dame is an awful 97th in traditional red zone defense. That number gets even worse when you look at touchdowns, where the Irish rank 114th in the country.

Again, the reasons for these difficulties are puzzling. Notre Dame’s rush defense is better on whole than it was in 2013, yet that certainly turns inside the 20. And while Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base scheme often gave opponents a little to prevent giving them a lot, once the field shrunk, Diaco’s defense stiffened considerably.

In the red zone, the margin for error drastically drops. Perhaps this is where the learning curve is most distinct. With young players along the defensive front, attacking linebackers still understanding the fundamentals of their responsibilities, and a secondary playing new starters across the board, it doesn’t take long for a mistake to turn into a touchdown.

We’ve heard Kelly continually talk about the need for communication. There’s no doubt that this is one of those places where communication is key. It’s also worth looking at the personnel construct of this unit. After playing large, big-bodied defenders all across the front seven, the 2014 defense is the opposite. Joe Schmidt (and now Nyles Morgan) and Jaylon Smith give up quite a bit of heft to Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace. The freshmen playing along the defensive line won’t be mistaken for Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

Drawing too many conclusions about scheme change or coaching mistakes without taking into full consideration just how different the personnel is between this year and last isn’t necessarily fair. But regardless of the reason, the drop off in the red zone has been startling.


Red Zone Defense



Reaching Conclusions

If anything, looking at the numbers from the past few years should give you greater appreciation of the units the Irish have featured. When put into difficult situations, the defense carried this team — and no time more obvious than in 2012.

Notre Dame’s sudden change defense was as outstanding as their success in the red zone. While limiting their turnovers to just 15 with a first-year quarterback behind center, what the defense did once the offense turned the ball over was nothing short of astounding.

Against Navy, Everett Golson’s first interception was immediately followed by Stephon Tuitt’s fumble-return for a touchdown. Against Michigan, the Irish pushed the Wolverines back 15 yards in three plays before Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal. Golson’s second interception was negated when Manti Te’o picked off Denard Robinson.

You can go on and on.Somehow, Notre Dame’s defense continuously took an opponent’s opportunity at a momentum swing and turned it into one for the Irish. Bennett Jackson picked off a pass after Golson fumbled against Stanford. The Irish forced a punt on another Golson fumble against the Cardinal, only allowing a score because Stanford’s defense put up the seven points after sacking and stripping Golson in the end zone.

That special season continued in the red zone. It was a product of great personnel playing a scheme that demanded — and received — assignment correct football.

Even with Alabama going five-for-five in red zone touchdowns, the Irish finished third in the country in touchdowns allowed in the red zone. Their final regular season numbers were incredible, just eight touchdown in 33 red zone appearances. Numbers like those are a large reason why that defense will go down among the best in school history.


There are still four more games in 2014, giving the depleted Irish defense plenty of opportunities to improve in the season’s final quarter. That gives VanGorder and Kelly not just the next three weeks to get better, but the month of bowl preparations, a huge developmental time for a team looking to do even bigger things in 2015.

Next season can wait. For this young group to make progress, they’ll need to do a better job of coming up big in the critical moments.



And in that corner… The Northwestern Wildcats

Wisconsin v Northwestern

Coming off a difficult and frustrating loss to Arizona State, Notre Dame welcomes Northwestern to town, a second opportunity at an eighth victory. For as difficult as last Saturday was for Irish fans, it’s been wash, rinse and repeat for those following the Wildcats this year.

Last weekend’s failed two-point conversion against Michigan was just the latest gut punch to Pat Fitzgerald’s squad, falling to 3-6 on the season and in real danger of missing a bowl game for the second consecutive season. After building Northwestern into a program that was seemingly in contention to win at least eight games a season, it’s been a deep dive since Northwestern let victory against Ohio State slip out of their hands early last season.

Taking us through the misery is the always wonderful Lake the Posts. The editor and founder of Northwestern’s friendly sports outpost (serving a daily dose of Wildcataganda since 2007) he hit this one out of the park.

This might be my favorite Q&A of the year. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


You okay? As a fanbase, it feels like Year 2 of the slide hurts a lot more than last season’s collapse. Leaving the fandom’s pain aside, can you give us a look into a program that’s now lost 13 of its last 17 football games? (Yikes.)

Short answer – “no”. We are not OK. We’re somewhere between full blown panic mode or worse – resignation. Despondent, frustrated, furious, cursed…you get the gist. One of the many beautiful things about being a Northwestern coach is that despite the rhetoric, we hold ourselves to a different standard (“hey look over here, have you seen our APR lately”?!!!). Most Northwestern fans are a forgiving lot. However, in part because Pat Fitzgerald’s five year run from ’08-’12 had conditioned fans to “a bowl game” as the floor, this two year skid, in years eight and nine of his tenure are particularly tough to swallow.

Heading in to this season on the heels of the union debate-filled off-season, most fans were willing to write off 2013 as an outlier. Now, it’s hard not to look at the past five seasons and point to the 10-win 2012 season as the outlier. The win totals have followed a disturbing trend in the past seven seasons – 9,8,7,6,10,5,3 (so far). Therein lies the issue.

There are so, so many issues it’s hard to know where to start. When you start looking back game by game over the past several years, the program that had become synonymous with pulling out close games has flipped the script. Starting in 2012, we became an increasingly conservative team. We’d sprint out to leads and try to hang on for dear life. All 3 losses that year involved significant 4th quarter leads that we lost. 2013 started a really disturbing trend of injuries that I’m blaming on Iowa, just because, but this off-season it became almost laughable. We couldn’t hold full scrimmages because we had so many people out for spring practice. Then, on the same day, our most explosive player – All-American Venric Mark transferred and our best WR Christian Jones blew his knee out and was gone for the year. The injuries have racked up to epic proportions (three defensive players including a captain have had to retire from football due to injuries). But, every team has injuries. The injuries have exposed some depth issues. The real issues run much deeper.

Here are my top three:

1) The offense has been anemic – 5th year QB Trevor Siemian is actually a decent passer, but he’s been wildly inconsistent. Our wide receivers have been bottled up for two straight seasons now, in part, b/c when we don’t have a mobile QB threat, it makes it much easier for opponents to defend us. We’ve got no one who can beat man coverage downfield (who isn’t injured and we’ve got 4-5 WRs out with injury consistently), Trevor holds on to the ball too long and the play calling has been beyond puzzling. It’s a perfect storm of a mess.

2) Special teams – This is the most overlooked issue by outsiders. We’ve been a train wreck. Fitz is the special teams coach and it has been awful. Last week’s Michigan 1-point loss is a perfect example. Michigan’s lone TD came as a result of a fumbled punt at our own 20, we missed a chip shot FG and a platoon of punters averaged less than net 30 yards on the day as they fielded ground ball snaps all day. Our punt coverage team had a gimme to down the ball at the Michigan one and let it bounce of their leg in to the end zone. That in a nutshell has been a weekly occurrence.

3) The team has zero identity – Fitz-coached teams in the past seemed to feed off of his energy. This team has been lifeless at times and it started in the season opener when we got throttled in the first half. The players went to Fitz and asked to be coached harder and held more accountable after the NIU loss and it worked – for a few weeks. We’ve seemed to try and be something we’re not at times and the days of scrappy, smart play have been replaced by massive inconsistency in execution, failures in in-game adapting and an overall lifelessness that has the fan base howling.


Staying big picture, is it fair to say the shine is off Pat Fitzgerald? I’m not insinuating he should be on the hot seat in Evanston, but are you viewing Fitzgerald (the coach) differently after this slide? If you were in his shoes, what’s the first thing you change?

Yes. Fans want to love him and want him to succeed. A pervasive thought I’ve heard among fans is that he is the “best coach in America Sunday through Friday”. What’s been disheartening to many fans is Fitz’s defensiveness with the media during the slide. It has been more combative than empathetic. Look, there are a ridiculous amount of injuries and adversity, but Fitz will be the first to tell you that is expected. The back-ups have simply not been prepared. There are only so many post game losing speeches when you can hear “it starts with us the coaches, we have to do a better job” before you start to get numb to it.

Personally, I think Fitz is the right guy for the job, I’m a fan of his and respect the heck out of him personally. I’m not one to call for people’s specific heads during a season, but I can tell you based on the sea of disgruntled comments and emails that fans are not happy with OC Mick McCall and the offensive position coaches in general (with the exception of RB where Justin Jackson has shined).


Let’s stay with the not-so-happy stuff. The offensive line. This summer you told me that the NU offensive line is 19th in the FBS in returning career starts, usually a good sign. This group hasn’t been good. Injuries? Bad players? What’s the deal?

ESPN analyst Ed Cunningham was excellent in his assessment of the line during the Michigan game which I believe you can extrapolate over much of the losing skid. He outright called out Mick McCall for putting Trevor Siemian in deep drop backs b/c our line is weakest at pass protection that requires any length of time. It stems from the fact that unlike the spread of NU’s past, we have no threat of mobility and opponents know it. We’re actually pretty good in run blocking schemes and when we go with the quick, up-tempo rapid fire approach. Right tackle has been an eyesore all year and the revolving door approach hasn’t solved for it. It’s been really, really disappointing.

Fans have clamored for 4-star QB dual threat RS freshman Matt Alviti to offer the run threat and he finally made his first appearance of the season last week for all of three snaps. I expect to see him a ton on Saturday. This has been the head-scratcher. The running threat on 3rd and 6-8 was a staple of success for years and without the run threat, we’ve just been crushed.


Defensively, this team is pretty solid, especially when you consider how much the offense has put on them. The Wildcats secondary has been really solid, and they’ve got more interceptions than touchdowns allowed. How will Fitz and DC Mike Hankwitz handle the Irish’s talented wide receiving corps and the turnover prone Everett Golson?

The “D” has actually been exceptional other than 8 quarters (2 vs Cal, 2 vs Nebraska, 4 vs Iowa) this season. When you’re season scoring average is under 20 you’re doing something right. When you consider just how bad we’ve been in spotting the opponents ridiculous field position, you get a sense that this unit could be very good. Mike Hankwitz should get credit. We’ve been crushed with injuries and unlike the offense, the young talent has stepped up. We have an NFL-level safety with Ibraheim Campbell who has been sidelined most of the year and his replacement Godwin Igwebuike has been great. We’ve got a ton of freshmen (both true and redshirt) that have been huge. LB Anthony Walker has had to replace senior captain Collin Ellis and he brings the lumber. The future looks very bright for the defense if they can eliminate those 8 quarters of inconsistency. This is where the uptick in recruiting has been most evident.

The pass rush has been inconsistent and Hankwitz is a highly conservative play caller. We’ve yet to face a dual threat QB with Golson’s skill set this season, so I expect him to have his way through the air as we likely won’t go all out on blitzes knowing he can kill us with his feet. We do have guys who are incredible athletes and can make individual plays. The “D” will pick off Golson if he’s careless on his throws and his carelessness with the rock is something you can bet our guys will be aware of and be looking to ballhawk. I really like our “D” with the exception of the team that kidnapped our team in Iowa City.

I fear we’ll overcompensate on “D” and do too much sitting back trying to contain Golson which will lead to deep ball success b/c no team can give you 5-10 seconds and not expect to get burned by your highly talented receiving corps.


It sounds like the quarterback position has gotten ugly. Matt Alviti saw a few snaps last week against Michigan with Fitz promising more of the same this Saturday. What’s a realistic split? Is Trevor Siemian on his way out? Is it really his fault?

I feel really bad for Trevor. I will likely get piled on for this statement, but I believe he’s a good QB. The weak offensive line play and the man to man press coverage on our receivers have given him little to work with. Plus, for the first time that I can ever remember, we’ve been terrible at catching passes. There have been countless times that guys have dropped wide open passes. Trevor has been more inconsistent as well, missing open guys from time to time, something he rarely did in years past. The Alviti question is a good one. He was heavily recruited by Notre Dame and NU won out in a head to head, so you know he’ll be gunning to go.

Alviti’s lack of playing time has been one of the most popular topics of the year. Insiders have told me that he wasn’t ready for the field, which has been puzzling since he was one of the most sought after QB recruits we’ve ever landed and he’s had a full redshirt year and now this season to play. The pervasive thought among fans has been “how could it be any worse than the current offense”? I expect to see him about 15-20% on Saturday depending upon how he does early on in the game.


How impressive has freshman Justin Jackson been? Is he the key to Saturday for the Wildcat offense? What needs to go right offensively for Northwestern to win?

He’s beyond outstanding. When you consider opposing teams have essentially laughed at our passing game and stacked the box, he’s been brilliant. Up until Michigan shut him down last week (only 35 yards) he had been cranking out 100+ yard games on a weekly basis against Top 20 run defenses all year long – Penn State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Minnesota – he’s got that extra something about him that he turns 2-yard plays in to 7-yard gains by just his motor. He’s got the mix of power and grace and with any kind of a consistent passing game and deep threat, he’d be averaging 125 per game (He’s averaging just under 90 ypg). The one thing he hasn’t been able to do is bust big plays. That’s the next level for him – to break that 50-yarder. However, he’s on pace for 1,000 yards this year in a train wreck of an offense and should he stay healthy his arrow is pointing to making a run at the all-time rushing record for NU. He’s just a joy to watch.


For as ugly as this season has been, my brother (a Wisconsin grad) continues to talk about Northwestern’s ability to big-game hunt. Notre Dame has either faced the best effort of their opponents or played down to them, depending on how full or empty you view the glass. Should Irish fans be on upset alert?

Not based on what I’ve seen. The irony is not lost on Wildcat fans who’ve been clutching ND bragging rights for 19 years, that we’re returning to the site of the program slingshot game in 1995. Fitzgerald’s then coach, Gary Barnett, had coined the phrase “Belief without Evidence” heading in to that season and that motto holds true now. Any belief in an upset would be not based on any evidence in 2014 other than a 2-week span to open B1G play when we throttled a weak Penn State team in Happy Valley and upset Wisconsin at home.


For a variety of reasons, some Notre Dame fans are taking pleasure in seeing Northwestern struggle. In large part, because of comments from Fitzgerald back in 2009.

“Even though we’re similar academically, we’re in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been consistently winning since 1995. They’re still saying they can do it, but we’re doing it.”

I took issue with both Fitzgerald’s remark — and Mandel’s writeup — back then. Looking at this week’s game notes, it points out something that’s been fairly obvious for a long time: Northwestern is 28-11 in August and September (non-conference time) and just 30-41 from October on. Put harshly, you can argue that Northwestern build their “winner” based on cupcake non-conference victories.

I don’t blame you. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be crushing us if I were Notre Dame fans. We’d be regaling in Notre Dame’s misery if you were going through a tough time as well and I’m not afraid to admit it. I’d be disappointed if ND fans didn’t!! We deserve it.

In fairness though, I think context is important. At that point in 2009, ND was entering uncharted waters of bad times as Charlie Weis was rounding out a torch-inducing tenure with consecutive win totals of 7,6 and 3 while NU was arrow up to a 9-win season after and 8-win season. We still had the 3 Big Ten titles to point to, but didn’t want to acknowledge that we were well on our way to tying ND for the mutually notorious bowl losing record (9 straight).

I would imagine that it is easy to love to hate Fitz from an outside perspective. I get it. I don’t mean that in jest.

There are lots of ways to slice the numbers (Fitz has a winning record in November and has gone 1-4 in bowl games), but the most important way to assess the body of work is the Big Ten record which isn’t good – 29-40, to your point. Northwestern fans used to tell you to look under the hood (last 3 Michigan games lost on final play, 2 Nebraska etc…) but that has now become the norm more than the exception. It is what it is.


In a Big Ten conference that’s far from its strongest, what does this program need to do to turn things around?

You hit on the double-whammy. We’ve downright stunk the last two seasons and as you’ve seen firsthand, this would’ve been the ideal time for NU to make a Minnesota-like surge to compete for the B1G conference title.

It’s hard to believe just last year we had ESPN Gameday visit when we were #16 in the country and seemed on the verge of knocking off #4 Ohio State. Since then it’s been a cliff dive. Fans are howling for assistant coaching changes and an overhaul in our philosophy. I think fans would love to see a Moneyball approach to NU football with a smart, analytically-driven approach that has us much more aggressive than we’ve been. I’ve talked to many former players who marvel at the current talent level – guys from 2008, 2009 and even 2012 – and they just don’t get it. There doesn’t seem to be that “refuse to lose” attitude and leadership on this team, but overall, we seem like a team that is telling itself a story while the rest of the league has us figured out to a tee.

I genuinely hope NU takes an honest assessment of the program top down and makes the painful and necessary changes at all levels. If there are no changes on the staff it will get as ugly as ugly gets in Northwestern circles, which means “not that ugly, but we think it is”. There is no doubt Fitz is a good leader and he’s going through the toughest stretch he’s faced. I feel bad for him, but I also know he’s the one who has the ability and the authority to do what he needs to do to get the right people in the right place.


Last one, I promise: Walk me through the winning formula for a Northwestern upset on Saturday afternoon?

Wow. After the ’95 game I’ll never, ever say “never”, but I feel like I’m in make believe. My colleague, Philip Rossman-Reich posted the three factors that when Northwestern wins at least two of them, NU has gone 3-0, when they fail to win two of them, NU has gone 0-6.

The three factors are 1)turnover battle 2)field position 3)big plays (20+ yards). We’ll need to win the first two to have a shot. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Northwestern isn’t an offense that has the horsepower to score in bunches (primarily because we have no big play ability). Our scoring drives are of the long, methodical 15-play variety. If Notre Dame gets out to a double digit lead early it could be a long day. The Wildcat defense will have to make multiple key takeaways with great field position for us to have a shot. There has yet to be a game where NU has had it click on all three phases so we are back to “Belief without Evidence”.


Special thanks to LTP for the A+ effort. There is a bunch of great stuff up over there right now looking at common recruiting battles and the long-dormant rivalry.  Follow on Twitter @LakethePosts

Playoffs or not, Irish get back to work

Notre Dame v Arizona State

Notre Dame’s playoff hopes are dead. But the Irish are not.

Head coach Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday for his weekly press conference, reminding everybody that there are still three very important games on the schedule.

“Look, we haven’t talked about playoffs since day one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “So there is no change from that standpoint. There is not one day where I went in front of them during the year and we said, ‘All right, need to keep winning if you want to go to the playoffs.'”

While fans of the Irish caught in the title wave of chatter about inclusion into college football’s first Final Four, the reality is quite a bit simpler for Kelly’s team. And while last weekend’s loss still stings, it’s on to Northwestern.

“The focus for us is about playing better football,” Kelly said. “You know we’re disappointed in the way we played last week, now we got an opportunity to do something about that, and we got a chance to do something at home against Northwestern.”


After another botched field goal attempt, Kelly acknowledged that he’ll be making a change at holder. Backup quarterback Malik Zaire will take over for Hunter Smith, hoping to solidify a situation that’s been shaky since the Irish’s narrow victory over Stanford.

“Malik will take over that responsibility. He will be our starting holder,” Kelly said. “We’ve had three drops. Three’s too many. Can’t take a fourth, so we’re going to make a switch at that position.”

Zaire’s move to holder isn’t one that Kelly took lightly. And while he stuck with Smith, a walk-on who works exclusively with long-snapper Scott Daly in practice, Zaire will still spend the majority of his time with the quarterbacks during practice before getting reps as holder during special teams segments.


For as miserable as Northwestern’s offense has played this year, the Wildcats defense has done a very good job. With Everett Golson and the Irish passing attack going up against a surprisingly stout secondary, Kelly said Nortwehstern’s success in holding opponents down in the passing game (the Wildcats are giving up just 210 yards passing per game) reminded him of the Irish defense under Bob Diaco.

“They’re a lot like we were defensively, where they don’t give up the big play,” Kelly said. “They are okay with you taking short hitches and short stuff. They’re okay with you screwing it up way before they do…

“They keep the ball in front, they stay over the top, and do a very good job of corralling things and rallying to the football. Very similar scheme, what we ran in the last couple of years and not giving up the big play defensively and banking on the fact that you won’t be patient enough.”