Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen


With last night’s announcement had all eyes on the first announcement of the College Football Playoff rankings, the immediate concern is Navy. While we can spend the next five weeks worrying about the view from 30,000 feet, credit Brian Kelly for understanding that the Midshipmen present the most clear and present danger.

That’s because Navy seems to be hitting its stride. With quarterback Keenan Reynolds looking like the guy who pushed Notre Dame to its limit last season, the Midshipmen may be just 4-4 entering Saturday night’s game, but they’re coming off their best performance of the season, a 41-31 victory over San Jose State.

So while the victory might not do much in the court of public opinion (or in the mind of the selection committee), Kelly mentioned a group of experts who don’t want to see Navy on their schedule.

“I can tell you among the coaches throughout the country, if we were just polling coaches, they would tell you nobody wants to play Navy,” Kelly said. “But sometimes when you talk about the average fan, they hear about an academy, and they don’t think in terms of how difficult of an opponent it is.”

To get us ready for this year’s edition of the Midshipmen, Gene Wang of the Washington Post joins us. Covering Navy football among the many beats under his umbrella at the Post, Gene was kind enough to spend a few minutes getting us prepared for the longest running intersectional rivalry in college football.


Can you call the start of this season a disappointment? After playing Ohio State tough, the Midshipmen just haven’t won the games that you’d expect, losing to Western Kentucky and Air Force (and really Rutgers, too). Is there one thing you can put your finger on?

The first half of the season definitely was a disappointment for the Midshipmen, especially given they need help from Army to keep the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy after losing to Air Force. Uncharacteristic turnovers have been the main culprit for the slow start, including six lost fumbles and two interceptions by QB Keenan Reynolds.


Getting to Keenan Reynolds, how badly have injuries wrecked his season? After running for over 1,300 yards and passing for over 1,000, I was expecting him to be a dark horse Heisman candidate. After wreaking havoc against Notre Dame in 2013, is Reynolds healthy for Saturday?

Injuries have contributed in large part to Reynolds’ sloppy beginning. He hurt his knee in Week 2 against Temple and landed hard on his right [throwing] shoulder late in the fourth quarter against Air Force. Reynolds has sat out two games, with backup Tago Smith directing victories both times, but he says he’s essentially 100 percent now.


Looking at the numbers Noah Copeland and Chris Swain have put up, the fullback dive — something that Notre Dame fans certainly know plenty about — looks prolific and incredibly dangerous. How is it that this duo is averaging basically 8 yards a carry?

Defenses have been so locked in on shutting down Reynolds that fullbacks have been able to take advantage. Copeland is the home-run threat at the position while Swain is the battering ram. They are an ideal complement to one another, and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is comfortable with either carrying the ball at important times.


Defensively, the Midshipmen are hanging in there. Against the most powerful Brian Kelly offense that Navy has faced, how do you expect Buddy Green’s defense to hold up?

Throughout his career Buddy Green has been a master at getting the most out of an undersized defense with the philosophy of preventing the big play and stiffening in the red zone. Occasionally Navy will surrender a long completion over the top, but for the most part, opponents have to work methodically to reach the end zone.


Ken Niumatalolo has done some really impressive things at Navy, including giving Notre Dame all he can handle while he piles up Commander-In-Chief Trophys in his seven-plus seasons as head coach. Covering him, is he happy at Navy? Do you get the feeling he’s looking for another challenge? Or does the conference shakeup give him a renewed set of goals?

Ken Niumatalolo is a great fit for Navy and has no immediate plans to coach anywhere other than in Annapolis. He is a wizard at implementing the triple option, which is an offense ideally suited for the type of player who comes to a service academy. Plus Niumatalolo rarely has to deal with the knucklehead factor at other power five schools where football success often comes before academics.


Every year, Notre Dame fans watch a Midshipman or two pop up and put together a really impressive game against a team with bigger, stronger and faster athletes. Give us one player on offense and one on defense that might be flying under the radar and could play big next Saturday.

Slot back DeBrandon Sanders was battling various ailments this season but has been getting healthy in recent weeks. With Navy’s fullbacks having a great deal of success this season, don’t be surprised to see Sanders get opportunities on the perimeter for a change of pace. Defensively, rush end Paul Quessenberry was able to excel against Ohio State, and Navy will need more of the same to keep Everett Golson off-balance.


For more this week, you can follow Gene on Twitter @Gene_Wang or read more from him at the Washington Post



Notre Dame ranked 10th in first Playoff rankings

Tennessee v Georgia

The first College Football Playoff rankings were released Tuesday evening. And Notre Dame has some work to do.

The selection committee’s first ballot has the Irish slotted in at 10th in the country, a middle-of-the-pack one-loss team according to the 12-person voting panel.

Three of the top four spots are filled with SEC teams, with unbeaten Mississippi State atop the first pole, while one-loss Auburn and Ole Miss surround No. 2 ranked Florida State. Following that group is Oregon, Alabama and TCU, with Michigan State and Kansas State filling out the top ten with Notre Dame.

While the initial reaction for most Notre Dame fans will be panic, there is still a lot of football to be played. The top two-loss teams slot in at 18th and 19th, with Oklahoma and LSU, starting a five-team run of two-loss teams, with West Virginia, Clemson and UCLA slotting before East Carolina, the only non-Power Five conference team.

Here is the evaluation process, according to the College Football Playoff’s website:

Selection committee members will have a wealth of information including review of video, statistics and their own expertise to guide them in their deliberations. They will emphasize obvious factors like win-loss records, strength of schedule, conference championships won, head-to-head results and results against common opponents. The playoff group has retained SportSource Analytics to provide the data platform for the committee’s use. While the details of the platform have not been finalized, it is anticipated that it will include countless pieces of statistical information for every Football Bowl Subdivision team. It will also include general information such as each team’s opponents’ record and opponents’ opponents’ records. The platform will allow the committee members to compare and contrast every team on every level possible.

While the compare and contrast function isn’t fully formed, it’s worth doing a little of it as we try and make heads or tails of how the committee viewed a single loss. For Ole Miss, who just lost to LSU in Baton Rouge, they slid only to No. 4, with a victory over Alabama helping their lofty rating. That Michigan State can lose by 19 points to Oregon and still be rated ahead of Notre Dame (who had a more impressive win over Michigan than the Spartans as well) is a bit confusing.

Right now, it looks like a big win is valued more than a close loss, explaining why the Irish slot at ten. And while three conference frontrunners make it look difficult for Notre Dame to bump past one or the other, Nick Saban’s comment echoes those from Kelly earlier this afternoon.

“None of it matters. I don’t even care, to be honest with you. Don’t know. Don’t care.”

That won’t be the reaction from fans across the country, who now ratchet up the value of every regular season game played once the calendar turns to November. In fact, the Irish and the Crimson Tide are the first big losers of the initial pole, with Notre Dame four spots lower in the initial committee rankings than the AP poll, while Alabama is three spots lower.





Kelly on cut blocks: “Stop being crybabies”

Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

With a week off between Florida State and Navy, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff had an extra week of preparation for Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Allowing his team to leave campus during the university’s fall break, Kelly afforded his players a chance to recharge their batteries after being on campus since June.

But back to work on Sunday, the objective was quickly clear: Stopping Keenan Reynolds and Navy.

To do that, Kelly’s defense will not only be taking on a talented quarterback, but a Navy offensive front that utilizes cut blocks in their triple-option scheme. A legal technique that nonetheless draws complaints because of the many injury risks involved, last season the Irish suffered key injuries to defenders Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke during the Navy game, just part of a two-deep that was absolutely ravaged by injury.

Asked about the technique and Navy’s use of blocking below-the-waist, Kelly very quickly ended any debate about where he stood on the issue and how he plans to address it this week.

“As it relates to the cut blocks, stop being crybabies, and go play the game,” Kelly said emphatically. “I don’t want to hear about cut blocks.Get in your stance, get off the ball and play the game. I don’t want to hear about it.

“It’s part of the game, and they’re legal, and you’ve got to get off the ball and go play. I told our guys this is a no‑cry zone this week. I don’t want to hear about it. Go play big games and go play the game the right way.”

With the front seven of the Irish coming off their most decisive performance of the season, there’ll be some challenges posed by the low blocks, but that’s to be expected by every team. And while it’s Brian VanGorder’s first game against an option defense, it’s Mike Elston’s fifth-straight year of coaching against Navy’s offensive line, meaning he’ll have his team well versed on battling blockers as his team takes on a unique challenge as it enters November.

That challenge has come with unforeseen difficulties. As it was pointed out to Kelly this morning by AP writer Tom Coyne, the Irish have not just struggled with Navy, but struggled to get past the Midshipmen, losing in the weeks after they played their service academy rival in two of four seasons under Kelly.

With nearly three weeks between the Seminoles and Arizona State, Kelly talked about balancing an entirely unique week with keeping his young defense up to speed, especially with a drastically different opponent on tap next week. Kelly has used a portion of 7-on-7 passing practice to keep his team ready for the Sun Devils, while still downloading the game plan for the Midshipmen.

“Now 95 percent of our practice is against Navy, but we know that we have to transition out, and we want to keep speed involved in our practice as well,” Kelly explained. “So I don’t want to say that we have an eye towards Arizona State, what we have is an eye towards is Navy 100 percent. But we also have to maintain our base calls, so our guys don’t lose that understanding, because we had a bye week and then you go into Navy. We don’t want them to forget what quarter coverage looks like.”

That’s the type of juggling every coaching staff needs to do, especially with a group of young defenders still learning to play together. But if you’re looking for some lessons coming out of North Carolina’s up-tempo attack, this could be Kelly and VanGorder’s way to make sure the Irish don’t have translation issues jumping back into Todd Graham’s offensive attack and repeat some of the struggles against the Tar Heels.


With the College Football Playoff Selection Committee announcing their first rankings tonight, Kelly was asked if he planned on setting aside some time to see where the Irish were ranked.

He chuckled.

“It’s way too early for any of that stuff,” Kelly said. “I’ll be woking on Navy, figuring out a way to get some points and slow them down.”


Kelly gave an update on the status of two of his safeties, and his comments on the potential return of both Austin Collinsworth and Eilar Hardy to the playing field was more optimistic than many expected.

In his last update on Collinsworth’s re-injured shoulder, Kelly gave the good news that surgery wasn’t necessarily needed. And now it sounds like the Irish team captain will work with the medical team to try and find a way to get back on the field to contribute.

“We got Collinsworth dressed yesterday. He’s in a harness,” Kelly explained. “He’s going to try to give it a shot and see what he can do.  I don’t know if we’re going to have him activated for this weekend, but he was practicing yesterday.  We’ll see what happens there.”

On the flip side of the injury, the Irish welcomed Hardy back to the practice field, the only one of the five suspended players to be given that opportunity. While a few reports hinted that Hardy would only be eligible to practice, Kelly talked about a still ongoing process for Hardy, with hopes that he might be able to contribute this season after all.

“We’re hopeful. There are things that have to occur for that to take place, and those are above certainly what I can control,” Kelly said. “But we’re of the mindset that we’d like to get him cleared, and that’s a process that is working through right now.”

Can Brian Kelly recapture his November magic?

Purdue v Notre Dame

Among the many reasons Charlie Weis lost his dream job coaching Notre Dame was the Irish’s stumbles in November. Even with a guaranteed 10-year contract, Jack Swarbrick couldn’t watch Notre Dame melt down in November for another year, with Weis’ final two seasons ending with Notre Dame going 1-9 after Halloween. That’s a scary movie franchise that needed killing, no matter the expense.

Brian Kelly turned that around, and in the process became one of the premiere coaches in all of football in the season’s final month. From 2008 to 2012, Kelly put together an insane regular-season record once the calendar turned to November, going 17-1 between Cincinnati and Notre Dame. No head coach in college football — Not Saban, Meyer, Patterson or Stoops — came close to having that type of success.

That’s what made last season’s late-season stumble to Pittsburgh such an aberration. With two fourth-quarter interceptions dooming the Irish, Kelly’s football team did something they don’t usually do: Beat themselves.

“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said after that difficult loss.

You can understand losing to Stanford, a late-season game that saw the injury-depleted Irish hang in there until the end against a Stanford team that would win 11 games and the Pac-12. But the Pitt loss hurt, though luckily didn’t rattle the team’s foundation, as it came along during a horrific injury stretch and some bad luck (the officiating crew that worked the Pitt game has heard its name mentioned a time or two these past few weeks). A Senior Day victory over BYU steadied the ship, and combined with an ugly victory over Rutgers finished the season with a more-than-respectable 9-4 record.

Entering the home stretch of a surprising 2014 season, the Irish will be defined by their ability to win this November. Playing five straight Saturdays, Notre Dame can determine whether or not they’ll have one of four coveted seats in the first College Football Playoff.

That the Irish got a much-needed week off before heading into this stretch was important. Because on Saturday, they’ll face a stiff test against Navy’s triple-option attack that pushed the Irish to the max last season, needed a late fourth-down stop to escape alive. After watching Bob Diaco, Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta all struggle in their early attempts to slow down the Midshipmen, Brian VanGorder will get his first look at a triple-option offense in a decade, doing so in primetime on CBS, the proud flag-waver of the SEC’s dominance these past few years.

Even as more than two-touchdown favorites, the Irish will be tested in ways they haven’t seen this year. And after that, they’ll travel across the country to face another explosive offense. Arizona State’s high-powered passing attack will certainly test Notre Dame’s depth-deprived secondary. A year after pulling out an impressive victory in Dallas over the Sun Devils, the Irish defense will face an ASU team looking for revenge, not to mention positioning in the wide-open Pac-12 South race.

Each week has a chance to define Notre Dame’s season. And while the narrative will likely still include the lack of a “signature victory,” taking care of business while others falter does more than rewrite early-season history.

So while the win could lack style points, beating Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team is no easy task. Nor is beating Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals, likely closer to playing like Louisville teams of old by then. And a finale against USC will give the Irish plenty of challenges from a young and talented Trojan team that can play with anybody when they’re on.

Worried about a beauty pageant? As they always do, the next few weeks will reveal the cream of the crop.

“October is for pretenders and November is for contenders,” Kelly said last year as the team prepared to go into November.  “We try to ingrain that within our players’ and coaches’ minds that this is now the time to kick it into gear, because this is where you get the opportunity to play for championships.”

Because of the work this team has done through seven games, that opportunity is still alive. But the Irish will need to display improvement on both sides of the ball to achieve their goals.

That mission starts Saturday against Navy.




Mailbag: Weekend reading

New Mailbox

Before we have an Irish-free Saturday, let’s get to some questions. For those of you wondering what you should do on a day usually committed to football, the world is your oyster. Or you could watch some of Notre Dame’s opponents do battle.

Navy is taking on San Jose State in the early game. Both USC and Arizona State are playing late tonight. It’s three opportunities to see three of the challenges ahead, especially with Louisville and Northwestern sitting this weekend out.

Welcome to a Justin Brent joke-free Mailbag:


@WorldBWhee: why should we think that “this” the Irish are back? Been down this road a few times in the past 12 years to no avail…

Okay, I’ll bite.

I’m not necessarily sure that this team is going 11-1, and if they do, they’ll certainly need to play a lot of good football. But if you can’t see what’s happening under Brian Kelly, and the improvement of this football team, then you’re never going to see it.

This isn’t like 2005-06, where a veteran team had a gigantic drop-off behind it when the talent graduated. It’s not like the 2002 team, getting by on defense and an offense that literally struggled to score an offensive touchdown for the first month of the season.

Even if you take into consideration 2013’s four losses — a team that was playing all season with its backup quarterback — the roll Kelly and Notre Dame are on since 2012 is pretty impressive. It’s also one that doesn’t seem close to stopping, with this program set up for success over the next few years, especially when you consider this team is led by the youth on the roster.

“Being Back” is a pretty stupid concept in general. But if it means Notre Dame’s going to compete for a spot in the playoff over the next few years (and could likely open next season as a preseason No. 1 candidate), then they’re back.


goirishgo: What’s your take (and ND’s) on the impact of the FSU and UNC academic investigations on the ACC? Wasn’t part of the attraction to the league cultural? Having to do with the perceived academic strengths of schools like Duke, Wake, UVA, and the like? Has that changed?

I think you’re absolutely right that the ACC’s culture was one of the most attractive parts of the conference membership. And while the Jameis Winston stuff and Florida State’s alleged complicity in all of it is quite distasteful I actually think the North Carolina situation is far worse.

It will be very interesting to see how Mark Emmert and the NCAA handle this, and how dramatically they plan to sanction the Tar Heels athletic department. A systemic issue that went on for 18 years is mind-boggling.  All that being said, I don’t really see it impacting Notre Dame, the conference at large, or its members. Other than the black eye in general not being good for one of the conference’s premiere athletic departments.


@waylonlc13 Can u put a grade on the #ShamrockSoldiers15? How do they compare 2 previous groups and who do u c contributing early?

I’ve learned long ago that football coaches evaluate recruits much better than sportswriters.  That said, I expect this to be one of Kelly’s best classes, especially if they close with a flourish, as I expect they will.

What’s interesting with this group is Brian VanGorder’s imprint on the defensive recruits. After focusing on the defensive front late in the last recruiting cycle, the Irish are rebuilding the back-seven of the defense, especially needed with injuries and attrition in the secondary. These guys don’t profile like earlier recruits. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with the common denominator being speed and athleticism.

Pair that with some early targets that turned into early commitments and we’re seeing the way Kelly and his staff prefer to recruit: Build your base early and stay in play for the big-time, national guys.


mediocrebob: Word’s out that Daniels will likely try to return to Notre Dame. With scholarships limited and several big names left on the board, is there a good chance of seeing DD back next year?( assuming the university will have him of course) Is there a possibility of Van Gorder’s son giving his scholarship up? Never quite understood the reasoning behind that.

If word is KeiVarae Russell’s instagram page, then that’s the word. But it’s probably pretty premature to know what DaVaris, the Daniels family, or the university are thinking, or what the readmission policy is for any of the athletes with eligibility remaining. Especially when last Kelly talked about it, he said he had yet to speak with DaVaris at all.

All that being said, I’d find it hard to believe that Kelly wouldn’t take Daniels back. He was expected to be the team’s best receiver this season. Add him to the mix next year and the Irish could go five-wide with playmakers and even the most old-fashioned Irish fans would have little to complain about.

Daniels likely sees a draft grade that would have him lucky to be taken this year, with only an injury-plagued two seasons for scouts to work from. But a big 2015 season he could catapult him up draft boards, earn Daniels a diploma and be a win-win for everyone.

As for the VanGorder scholarship, I’m not sure if it’s a year-to-year proposition with walk-ons being awarded scholarships. And while most make the moderately valid point that dad could and probably does get some tuition reciprocity, the likely reason VanGorder was put on scholarship was so he could take part in all the prep meetings and travel with the team, considering in an emergency, VanGorder is likely the No. 3 quarterback, with the staff desperately wanting to save a year of Deshone Kizer’s eligibility.


@michaelmartin78: CDH Raider James Onawalu doesn’t seem to make a lot of plays, is he under performing or just hard for novice eyes to notice?

Good question. Not really sure, although the staff likes what he’s doing. And the Irish are really playing a 4-2-5 a lot of the time, with a nickelback on the field and Onwualu on the sidelines.

For a guy making a transition to defense, that Onwualu is already in the starting lineup certainly says something. But the fact that he’s got eight total tackles likely says something, too. We’ll see how much this staff likes their situation at Sam linebacker when the new recruits come in. I expect Onwualu to keep getting better this season as it goes on, but right now, it’s all but a two-man linebacking corps.


irishdog80: Schmidt has been playing great. Many thought, myself included, that Nyles Morgan would be making a bigger impact by now. What’s the story on Nyles Morgan and his development? Is he this year’s Max Redfield?

Last fall, Nyles Morgan was playing high school linebacker, one of the least complex jobs in all of football: Search and Destroy. This year, he’s being asked to learn a defense that has more scheme and inventory than most NFL defenses. Whose head wouldn’t be swimming?

VanGorder talked about Morgan’s development earlier in the week, having nothing but good things to say about him. But this is Schmidt’s defense and Morgan is spending his freshman year learning and playing special teams. Let’s see if VanGorder can get him some snaps in garbage time this month.


dudeacow: How has VanGorder’s decided schematic advantage helped overcome the youth and inferior physicality of some of the defense’s players so well?

I see what you’re doing there… But I’m not sure your analysis is helping you, because as I mentioned earlier this week in the special edition of the Good, Bad and Ugly, this isn’t a physically inferior football team. Just ask Florida State.

VanGorder is proving a few things: 1) He’s a great Xs and Os coach. 2) He’s got physically talented young kids. and 3) They’re smart enough to learn his system.

That this is all happening so quickly is the best surprise of the season.


ylilbnosredna: Keith, how much do you think Folston’s performance against FSU helped ND’s chances with Jamabo? Before that game, I really didn’t think Kelly and co. were doing much to convince RB’s that this was an offense where they could thrive. However, I think Folston’s performance demonstrated that if a RB can really take over in this offense, Kelly will be a lot more hesitant to take him off the field and give him a chance to dominate like we saw Sat night. Do you think Jamabo truly believes he can thrive in this offense and will ND get him? If so, when’s the last time ND could boast signing a trio of blue-chip backs like Folston, Bryant, and possibly Jamabo in a 2 year period?

I see where you’re going, but this would be a three-year period, not two. And I don’t think Soso Jamabo, or any elite running back, needs to see Tarean Folston’s performance against the Seminoles to decide to come to Notre Dame.

The Irish will only look better on the ground as the weeks continue. And with just Folston, Greg Bryant and incoming freshman Josh Adams (don’t sleep on him) on the scholarship roster, the depth chart is as good as you could ask for.


johngaltisspeaking: my question is how are we going to defend Arizona State when they play more like a spread team. Florida State played a very similar style of football to ND but since UNC took it to us in a tight loss I see Arizona State being a team that could take us out of the playoffs.

I’m willing to answer good questions, especially if you’re done being a troll. The ASU game is the next “game of the year.” They play fast, they’re explosive on offense and it’s going to be a hostile atmosphere in Sun Devil Stadium. And Taylor Kelly has pronounced himself 100 percent healthy.

VanGorder said he didn’t do a good job against North Carolina. We’ll see if the Irish have a new way to attack a hurry-up team, but I also think the speed wasn’t as difficult to deal with as Marquise Williams, who played the game of his life.


tracyjordansminifridge: Is Hunter Jr. Healthy enough to play? He has looked extremely athletic in the glimpses we have had of him. He also appears to be a much stronger runner than carlisle who goes down at the thought of contact

He’s healthy. And he’s learning. But right now, Hunter is in the John Goodman-Dayne Crist-Washington State-Sample Size category. He’s been good, but it’s been three or four plays, not exactly a complete body of work.

Carlisle has been very good this season, though let’s hope the fumble against FSU doesn’t send him into a tailspin, like it did against Purdue last year. He’s got a knee brace on that could be limiting him, so we’ll see if he stays in the rotation with C.J. Prosise, or if Hunter can cut into those snaps.