Purdue v Notre Dame

Is Brian Kelly having an identity crisis?

92 Comments

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

Noted philosopher Charlie Weis snatched that quote from the great Bill Parcels, introducing it to Notre Dame fans early in his tenure as head coach. It’s a lesson taught often in football, one that can determine the difference between a good football team and a great one. It’s also a lesson that applies to Brian Kelly’s 2014 squad.

After watching Notre Dame’s football program backslide throughout a truly Weisian November, the Irish sit at 7-5 at the end of the regular season, a disappointing finish to a season that started with great expectations and a 6-0 start.

Now the philosophy/identity conundrum needs applying to Kelly and his football program, a group that suffered a late-season identity crisis that not many saw coming.

After dominating November as a head coach, Kelly watched his Irish close the season with four-straight losses, including last weekend’s 35-point pasting by rival USC. A decimated defense, a schizophrenic offense and putrid special teams all disappointed this team down the stretch, a full-scale meltdown that demands total inspection.

Explaining away a lost season by solely blaming things on injuries only scratches the surface of the Irish’s problems. As Notre Dame enters a critical period in the program — the bowl preparation period that should jump-start the 2015 team before spring practice — let’s take a look at the key issues that face Kelly and the Irish as his fifth season atop the program comes to a close.

 

What Should Notre Dame’s Defense Look Like?

The defense the Irish ran out against USC wasn’t the group Kelly and Brian VanGorder wanted to play. It was all they had left.

Saturday’s group included underclassmen at nearly every spot in the lineup, supplemented only by veteran journeymen that for better or worse should be buried on a talented depth chart.

While starters like Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu, Cole Luke and Max Redfield took the field to start the game, the true sophomores — nearly all playing in their first season of significant action — were never supposed to be the foundation of a unit. But injuries changed the admittedly already thin personnel, leaving the Irish severely undermanned.

At its best, the Irish defense played very good football. Shutting out Michigan for the first time in the program’s history and holding Stanford to 14 points are examples of that. Down teams or not, that’s solid football. But as the book was being written (and game tape being produced) about Notre Dame’s attacking, multiple defense, the Irish coaching staff just wasn’t able to counter as team’s shifted their game plan.

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora was the first to expose the Irish’s deficiencies against an up-tempo attack. Scoring 43 points and racking up 516 yards of total offense, the Tar Heels did so against a defense that was still essentially full strength.

During Notre Dame’s bye week, VanGorder spoke with the local media. When asked about the 43 points the Irish gave up against Fedora’s up-tempo defense, he blamed himself.

“I just didn’t do a good job. We got a lot of packages and can play a lot of players in different ways and schemes, and that wasn’t the game really to do that,” VanGorder conceded.

He also acknowledged a key factor that essentially contributed to the demise of this Irish defense.  A system that relies heavily on scheme has a natural enemy in an up-tempo attack, because it forces simplicity to govern your decisions.

“That’s what defensive coaches don’t like. It takes some of the football away from us, takes your inventory and shrinks it, shrinks it way down,” VanGorder said. “Unfortunately, it just removes some of the strategies of the game.”

Those strategies made Notre Dame an incredibly efficient team on third down early in the season, even without natural pass rushers on the field. The Irish thrived in their “sub-packages,” a buzz word that spread in the early season narrative of this team. Those sub-packages were a credit to VanGorder, a new defensive coordinator that allowed young players to get on the field early and do what they did best.

Unfortunately, those packages also masked some of the deficiencies many had expected to see from the start. Deficiencies that came from starting two new defensive ends, both converted outside linebackers. At linebacker, a converted wide receiver was starting in his first game on that side of the ball, while an injured middle linebacker forced a first-year starter and contributor into the fray.

Pair that group with a secondary playing a man-heavy scheme that lost its best player to suspension. A unit that was counting on first-year starters at safety and cornerback was stripped to its bones, the foundation of this defense always one or two bad breaks away from being in a really dangerous spot — a reality Brian Kelly acknowledged from the start.

We saw that danger expose itself in all its ugliness down the stretch. The loss of Joe Schmidt robbed the Irish of its nerve center — not to mention a very productive linebacker. Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones took away the only position group operating with elite BCS-level personnel. Forced to play somebody who knew the ins and outs of the defense, Austin Collinsworth strapped on a harness and battled through knee and shoulder injuries to try and bring a pre-snap consistency into the huddle. It didn’t help.

All of this is a long way to cut to the true issue: At its core, what does this defense want to be?

Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had a system and a philosophy. Sure, it gave away little victories, like underneath throws. Yes, it played vanilla and didn’t do a good job of building pressure schemes. But Diaco did that because he thought it was the best way to win the war.

Diaco’s wasn’t the most youth-friendly system, either. The UConn head coach famously kept Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch on the bench as healthy scratches against Denard Robinson in 2010, unwilling to trust either freshman to play assignment-correct football. The Irish were carved up by the Michigan quarterback anyway.

With their depth pillaged, VanGorder and Kelly searched for defensive answers in November. They found none. Personnel was a steep challenge. So was football IQ, an issue that comes with playing freshman, but also happens when you players are learning a scheme devised in the NFL under mad scientists like Rex Ryan.

When things are going good, “NFL scheme” is music to the ears of fans and recruits. It’s also something that players relish — understandably proud of their installation and achievement in a system that draws from football played at its highest level.

But when things are like they’ve been this past month? It’s a four-alarm fire, with the Irish unable to stop the run, cover the pass, avoid the home run or the first-round knockout.

How did USC beat the Irish? Essentially any way they wanted to.

It wasn’t only USC’s skill talent that made the undermanned Irish look silly. It was Northwestern’s, who utilized an up-tempo attack to turn one of the least explosive offenses in the country into a group that scored 43 points against the Irish.

That gets to the point of building a defense. And likely one of the largest lessons VanGorder learned in his return to college football.

“I think the biggest adjustment is how many times a college player has to see something before he solves a problem,” VanGorder said back in October. “And then once he solves it, the ability to recall and not allow it to happen again is difficult.

“They’re so young, and the defense from the last few years they were involved in to this one is so different that they will make the same mistake over and over.”

We saw those mistakes happen. Over and over.

Not just the mistakes that come with freshmen like Nyles Morgan learning on the fly, but in the secondary, where Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield are battling to unlearn some lessons as they try and learn and play better football in their current system.

Nearly every piece of this defense returns next season. That’ll include KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams, who should both be back on campus this summer.

But as VanGorder, Kelly and the defensive staff look back on a season filled with peaks and valleys, they’d be wise to strip away the frills and focus on their foundation first.

 

Is Brian Kelly’s Preferred Offense the Right One for Brian Kelly’s Football Team?

As season five comes to a close, Brian Kelly’s preferred offensive system demands inspection. Brought to South Bend as one of the premiere offensive innovators in college football, the transition to Kelly’s aggressive, pass-heavy, spread attack hasn’t always been easy.

Most difficult has been finding the right fit at quarterback. Neither Dayne Crist nor Tommy Rees were natural fits. Then again, neither were Andrew Hendrix, Luke Massa or Gunner Kiel, either.

But Everett Golson’s struggles down the stretch should force Kelly to re-examine what it is he wants to accomplish with his offense. Not just through the prism of personnel or playcalling, but as a head coach, and ultimately as a vehicle to victory.

Golson’s turnover struggles can’t just be pinned on the quarterback. They should also fall on the coach calling the plays.

Right now, Notre Dame’s two most explosive offenses under Brian Kelly took place in 2011 and 2014. And both of those teams were held back by quarterbacks who turned the football over too many times.

For the longest time, the dog to kick was then second-year quarterback Tommy Rees. Whether it was lack of arm strength or athleticism, Rees’ shortcomings are well chronicled.

But Golson has none of those deficiencies. He has the arm to make any throw. The legs to escape trouble and run the zone read. But the 22 turnovers committed over the past nine games makes winning impossible, especially without a defense to bail you out.

Critiquing playcalling is the worst form of fan or media criticism. Analyzing red zone playcalling or offensive game planning — the second item a clear strength for Kelly as a head coach in every season up until now — is an exercise that’s difficult to do without the entire picture.

But if there’s something telling about multiple jet sweeps at the goal line or an over-reliance on the passing game, it’s that Kelly never developed trust in his offensive line when it was time to score touchdowns.

(That’s been obvious just about every time the Irish ran a QB draw inside the 10-yard line.)

Is the problem Everett Golson or Brian Kelly? Maybe it’s a system putting too much onto the shoulders of a quarterback?

Second-year quarterbacks make mistakes. Jimmy Clausen threw 17 interceptions as a sophomore. Brady Quinn completed just 54 percent of his throws. Outside the ND sphere, second-year player Jameis Winston has thrown 17 interceptions this season, a year after winning the Heisman with a sparkling 40:10 TD:INT ratio. A little bit of knowlege can be a dangerous thing.

With Golson the redshirt freshman, Kelly and then offensive coordinator Chuck Martin manufactured an undefeated regular season, leaning on the back of a stalwart defense and play-calling a run heavy, risk averse game. They were unwilling to let an offense beat itself after just living through it. That shows a head coach far more flexible and willing than his critics attest.

That discipline will need to be utilized in 2015. Whether it’s a reformed Golson or the upstart Malik Zaire, the formula for offensive success needs to be examined. The Irish receiving corps returns completely. The offensive line brings back four of five starters, with Christian Lombard swapped out for Mike McGlinchey in the second half, a kickstart to the future at right tackle.

With Tarean Folston set to emerge as a star and Greg Bryant a wonderful 1A, the running game can drive this offense if the head coach will let it. That also means the quarterback being a legitimate option, whether it be Golson (still the odds on favorite) or Zaire, a much better natural ball carrier.

But Kelly may need to once again recalibrate his approach to winning football games.

 

Does Notre Dame’s Coaching Staff Need a Change?

Brian Kelly has shown loyalty to his assistants. He’s also shown the ability to make changes, with the outside additions of Harry Hiestand and Bobby Elliott and the daring move of handing Chuck Martin the keys to the offense, spurring the success of 2012. (Scott Booker was also promoted from the GA ranks to take over as tight ends coach and special teams coordinator before the 2012 season.)

Kelly’s two big hires for 2014 — VanGorder and quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur — haven’t shown the immediate impact that the last coaching shuffle did. VanGorder’s late-season struggles are well-chronicled above.

Golson’s struggles also reflect poorly on LaFluer. The first-year assistant, who worked under Kelly early in his career before coaching under Mike Shanahan with the Washington Redskins, was brought on to help improve the quarterback play as the Irish transitioned back to Kelly’s preferred spread attack. That’s obviously been a work-in-progress at best, as Golson’s been plagued by turnovers that have ruined otherwise impressive numbers.

(Some have speculated that LaFleur’s main job was working with Malik Zaire and freshman DeShone Kizer, while Kelly and Golson worked in lockstep.)

What kind of move would Kelly want to make before next season? First, it feels safe to eliminate big name hires like the recently fired Will Muschamp or Bo Pelini. That’s never been Kelly’s M.O. (And if Irish fans forgot how things went the last time Notre Dame let public opinion and Q-Rating determine the defensive coordinator, shame on them.)

But a shakeup might be in order for Kelly. So let’s look around and see where it might come.

First-year offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock ran an offense filled with young skill players and the group improved by a touchdown per game in points scored. He’s also been one of Kelly’s most trusted advisors. But another trusted assistant, former Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn, is currently unemployed.

Quinn is an offensive line coach by trade, a position currently held by Hiestand. He’s also not likely to take a position coach job after running his own program and coordinating Kelly’s offense for four seasons in Cincinnati. So Quinn might be a move that Kelly would mull, though that could make for some difficult decisions in the staff room.

On the defensive side of the ball, it’s hard to think Kelly’s going to stop supporting VanGorder after 12 injury-and-youth-plagued games. But are any jobs below VanGorder up for grabs?

Defensive assistants Mike Elston, Kerry Cooks and Elliott all essentially learned a new defense along with the players, taking cues and radically rebuilding a defense that spent four years under the singular voice of Bob Diaco. Understanding the dynamic between VanGorder and the three other defensive staff would require CIA-level monitoring devices, and there’s no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with those dynamics.

Special teams continues to be the one maddening constant that’s shown struggles since Kelly arrived. First handled by Mike Elston, Booker is the face of the unit, though he shares responsibilities with other coaches. A young coach who deserves credit for the tight end position and some key recruiting wins, the Irish fixed their return and coverage issues this season, but then saw Kyle Brindza and the kicking battery fall apart. A year after workshopping and looking for help outside the program, the steps forward the Irish made have been covered up by the wayward kicks and missed holds on the field goal unit.

Kelly has demanded loyalty from his assistants, and also shown it in return: Chuck Martin took a pay cut to leave and coach Miami (Ohio) and several other assistants are paid very well.

But in a year where the Irish didn’t make the type of progress anybody expected, a change could conceivably be on the horizon.

 

Displeasure is Only One Bad Loss Away

The idea of building good will at a program like Notre Dame is a bit pollyanna. Even when you win, there will be people who don’t like how it’s being done. And a loss? What tho’ the odds, that just won’t do. Even if you’re playing the JV defense.

But as the coaching carousel starts to crank up one more time, the hires that we end up seeing at big-time programs — Michigan, Nebraska and Florida — primarily consist of the usual suspects.

Barring Michigan tempting Jim Harbaugh with ownership rights, Florida looks close to hiring Colorado State’s coach. Nebraska might replace a former defensive coordinator with an offensive coordinator with ties to the school. Once again, Jon Gruden and Bob Stoops appear to be going nowhere.

Brian Kelly is Notre Dame’s head coach. It’s his first stop that’s lasted into season six since his run at Grand Valley. And while he’s built programs at Central Michigan and taken Cincinnati to new heights, year five had Kelly paying the price for earlier sins, as injuries, attrition and the NFL Draft robbed him of a senior class.

While this year isn’t a mulligan, it won’t be viewed at the national level the same way that it is by hard-core Irish faithful. But expect the intensity to ratchet up. Because after a 12-win 2012, Notre Dame has gone 16-9 the next two seasons. That’s the type of win rate that warms up hot seats, not build statues.

So as Kelly takes stock of his team’s performance this season, it’s worth a reminder that applies to players and coaches in kind:

“What you say you are is your philosophy. What we see on film is your identity.”

 

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. USC

Notre Dame v USC
157 Comments

Upon second review, Notre Dame’s 49-14 defeat against rival USC looks just as bad. Early missed opportunity. Another injury plague. And a game that looked decided by the end of the first quarter.

There’s little positive to draw from Saturday’s performance. Outside of sophomores Malik Zaire and Greg Bryant, finding exemplary play from anybody in white jerseys and gold helmets is a reach.

But let’s go through the good, bad and ugly from the regular-season finale before turning our gaze to the postseason options and a long, angst-filled offseason.

 

THE GOOD

(Or at least a shade on the dull side of the good spectrum.)

Malik Zaire. If there’s a positive in Saturday’s performance it was the energy and competitiveness that Malik Zaire brought to the field. On second and third viewing, Zaire’s numbers were better than the 9 for 20 for 170 yards he threw for.

(That’s not to say it was a perfect performance, either. We’ll spend some time later this week digging deeper.)

Amir Carlisle and Will Fuller both dropped first down passes. And Fuller got his hands on, but couldn’t reel in a certain touchdown that could’ve gone for another 50-plus yard bomb.

But if we’re awarding gold stars in a game where USC had all but called off the dogs, Zaire’s presence postgame was exactly what you want to see out of a starting quarterback, and his message — one Irish fans thought they were long past hearing — was one that needed to be said regardless.

“We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different,” Zaire said.

Zaire received a bit of coaching before meeting with a group of reporters huddled in the busy tunnel outside of Notre Dame’s locker room. But he was spot on with every comment he made, showing confidence, and nothing but support for Everett Golson, in the moments after a difficult loss.

“It’s never a me versus him type of thing,” Zaire said. It’s the quarterback group. We are the red army and we do what we need to do. That’s support each other. Because it’s bigger than us. It’s about the team and getting victories.”

That’s the type of “alpha dog” you expect your quarterback to be. While it’s a long way from being good enough to be an elite quarterback, Zaire’s mindset and attitude seems like the perfect one.

 

Greg Bryant. If the Irish did get some nice plays moving forward in the ground game, they came from Bryant. Again, they came well after the game was decided, so reading too far into this is silly, but Bryant showed some decisiveness running, and it showed in the final stat line as he averaged 11.3 yards a carry.

The two-headed monster most wanted to see in 2014 will likely emerge a year later.

 

THE BAD

Everett Golson. Six drives, zero points.

Notre Dame’s quarterback just didn’t have it on Saturday. And against a team where the Irish needed to score points and get into a slugfest, that was a backbreaker.

From jumpstreet Golson seemed to be off his game. The Irish went backwards on their opening drive, a formation penalty on snap one (Amir Carlisle lined up off the line of scrimmage) followed by a delay of game. But Golson had the chance to hit Will Fuller on a broken coverage on 3rd and 14 that could’ve been an opening drive touchdown. He never even saw him.

From there it didn’t get much better.

Kelly seemed willing to live with Golson struggling. But after a hard luck interception that spiraled through Corey Robinson’s hands, Golson held onto the football too long and was strip-sacked, recovered all too cleanly by USC.

It wasn’t all on Golson. The offensive line didn’t do that good of a job protecting him against some exotic, heavy blitzing (Zaire didn’t face this type of attack. The game was out of hand by then).

But the quarterback we saw on the field Saturday didn’t resemble the kid we saw going into enemy territory against Oklahoma or USC in 2012, not to mention in Tallahassee in late October. And ultimately we’ll see if he can rally.

 

Injuries. Notre Dame is down to two scholarship safeties for bowl preparations, and that’s after getting Eilar Hardy back after his career seemed finished as a part of the academic probe. Seeing Austin Collinsworth’s shoulder give out again, just feet from where his father was watching his son play, added some gravity to the agony of injuries in football.

Max Redfield got the start against his Southern California brethren, only to go down with a serious rib injury. That’s brutal news for a player who needed to make his move during these next dozen practices. And Cody Riggs should shut it down, getting his foot healed in time for Pro Day, the next important rep he’ll take in his college career.

Jay Hayes’ redshirt? Might spend the next month in the cold tub with a high ankle sprain. Greer Martini and Jacob Matuska? Not sure what they’ll be able to get out of that young duo during December, either.

Notre Dame’s defense is in a bad, bad place. As we saw very clearly on Saturday.

 

The Defense. Cody Kessler probably didn’t complete 80 percent of his passes in 7-on-7 this week. But throwing against a beat-up Irish secondary and with the front seven not having much luck getting after him either, it was a day at the beach for the Trojan quarterback.

The Irish stopped the running game only with moderate success, something Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder stacked up with hopes of keeping things close. But that just let cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler — and everybody else in single coverage — get beat long by the Trojans’ swift receivers.

We saw George Farmer be the elite receiver he was recruited to be. After scoring just two touchdowns in his first 22 star-crossed games, he had two against the Irish. If that was Nelson Agholor’s finale in the Coliseum, 12 for 120 was a good way to go out.

And JuJu Smith will be a handful for the Irish secondary to deal with these next few years, the freshman already looks the part of a big-play machine.

Still, it’s hard to get too up in arms when you consider that outside of Luke, Elijah Shumate and Jaylon Smith (who made 14 tackles, including a sack), this should be the Irish’s scout team defense.

 

Small bits of bad: 

* In the history of five catch, 75-yard performances, Will Fuller‘s might be the least fulfilling. The afternoon pushed Fuller over 1,000 yards on the season. But that stat line could’ve easily been 8 or 9 catches for 175 or 200 yards, with Fuller being missed or dropping his way out of three big plays that could’ve put him in the Irish record books.

* For Irish fans wondering what has to happen to see Chase Hounshell and Michael Deeb in a game, we saw it. Deeb came in after Martini went down before halftime. Hounshell played much of the fourth quarter, his first significant action since his freshman season.

* We saw brief glimpses of good play by Devin Butler both last season and earlier this year. But a cornerback who gives up both the short throw and the one over his head isn’t going to be a cornerback for much longer. Especially not in this defensive system.

* Good for the coaching staff for finally giving Mike McGlinchey an extended look. After rewatching the offensive line play, it wasn’t that Christian Lombard was necessarily that bad or that McGlinchey was that good. But the status quo up front hasn’t been getting it done and McGlinchey is the offense’s sixth best lineman.

(No, Leonard Williams didn’t get a tackle for loss. But on consecutive snaps he had his way with McGlinchey, who drew quite the assignment in his first extended experience of the season.)

* This might be the world’s worst QB draw running team I’ve ever seen.

 

THE UGLY

Watching Brian Kelly’s postgame comments, he didn’t seem like a coach with one foot out the door. And with his two bosses just feet from him, sharing in the misery of the moment, he didn’t look like a coach who had a bone to pick with his superiors, either.

Put simply, there wasn’t a moment of fun this season. Not in the early winning streak days. Nor in the injury-ravaged, identity-deficient end of days.

The first months of the season were stolen by an academic probe that simply wouldn’t end. And this is a November collapse that’ll follow Brian Kelly for a long time.

But that’s not to say this program is broken.

It’s worth pointing out that great coaches have months like this. Even the coaches Irish fans hold above their current head man.

If 7-5 is indeed rock bottom, then give Kelly credit for at least raising the floor significantly. For those adamant that a dreadful season puts the Irish right back to the starting blocks, there’s plenty of ammo for that argument right now.

But before you decide that, maybe take a look back at the end of 2011, when Notre Dame seemed to be in the very same place. Or maybe go back a little more than a decade, when some guy named Nick Saban was taking a roster filled with plenty of talent and losing four of his last six, sliding to 8-5, including a 31-0 loss to an Alabama program not exactly at its highest moment. (Saban won the Sugar Bowl and finished 13-1 the next season.)

Good coaches have bad seasons. Gary Patterson’s TCU program might be on the verge of the CFB Playoff, but it took a 4-8 season last year to get there. TCU was 11-14 in 2012 and 2013 after four-straight double-digit win seasons.

For those wondering if Kelly can sustain at a program, it’s true that the head coach hasn’t stuck around at one place longer than three years since he was in Grand Valley. But guess what? Notre Dame hasn’t stuck with one coach for longer than Kelly since Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines. So it’s a two-way street.

Losing stinks. A run like this is a step in the wrong direction. And there are very large, big-picture questions that Brian Kelly needs to be asking himself, both on the offensive and defensive sides of the football. (Hell, the special teams need a swift kick, too.)

But the future hasn’t been cast. And that’s why it’s important to use this next month to practice for next season, even if half the guys are in walking boots or slings.

This season’s cooked, with last Saturday’s performance laying around like Thanksgiving leftovers. But while that may color the future for many, it’s hardly set in stone.

So before we turn to the wonder (and dread) of the offseason and uncertain future, there’s one very important month left to this season. Even if it includes a bowl game that’s mostly being played for pride.

 

Five things we learned: USC 49, Notre Dame 14

Malik Zaire, J.R. Tavai
223 Comments

Held together by duct tape, twine and every bit of adhesive Brian Kelly could find, Notre Dame’s 2014 season officially exploded Saturday afternoon. The wreckage included a decimated defense incapable of stopping anyone and an offense in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis.

With a four-game losing streak ending the Irish’s regular season at 7-5, Notre Dame made an unranked USC team look like a vintage Pete Carroll squad. The Trojans sprinted to 577 yards of offense and could’ve added plenty more if they wanted to do so. On defense, Steve Sarkisian’s team finally forced Everett Golson to the sidelines, benched as Malik Zaire took over down 35 points after Golson put together four straight punts followed up by two turnovers.

The regular season is over, with the Irish losing five of their last six to end this season with a thud. After flying back to South Bend tonight, they’ll have a few weeks to perform the autopsy on the season that was before learning their bowl fate.

So let’s get to the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s most lopsided defeat of the Kelly era.

 

Notre Dame has a quarterback controversy. 

It seemed preposterous just a month ago that the Irish would find themselves in this position. But after giving Everett Golson the hook in the second quarter, Malik Zaire provided a spark for the Irish offense and turned the month of December into a very interesting one around the Gug.

“Today we thought we had some things early on that we didn’t execute on,” Kelly said after the game. “And that’s why we made a change at the QB position.”

Zaire turned the Irish offense around in short order. His three-play scoring drive took less than a minute and included everything Irish fans have been begging for from Golson. A run from Greg Bryant. A 49-yard completion to Chris Brown. And an 11-yard quarterback keeper for the score.

Zaire moved the Irish into field goal range just before half as well, though Kyle Brindza’s attempt clanged off the left upright.

Asked after the game how he thought Zaire played, Kelly liked what he saw from a young quarterback playing his first significant minutes.

“We tried to get a spark offensively and I think Malik gave us that spark,” Kelly said. “He did some pretty good things.”

On paper, a 9 of 20 afternoon against the 111th-best pass defense in the country isn’t enough to make this change a no-brainer. But credit Zaire for showing the type of competitive spirit and energy this team desperately needed, especially after the game was out of hand.

“The only message I wanted to convey was that we need to play with a lot of heart and that we need to have a no-quit attitude,” Zaire said after the game. “I felt like we were in the game until the clock hit zero. We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different.”

Something’s wrong with Everett Golson. After playing productive football amidst his turnover problems, Golson’s struggles against USC’s defense were the biggest surprise of Saturday afternoon.

And now that makes December a key month of practice at a position that seemed at its strongest in October.

 

Notre Dame’s defense is absolutely decimated.

Notre Dame didn’t have much of a chance on defense heading into the game. And that was before the Irish lost six more players from their two-deep.

On the defensive line, the Irish lost Jacob Matuska and Jay Hayes. At linebacker, Greer Martini went down. And in the secondary the Irish lost Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth. Cody Riggs didn’t even dress, wearing a walking boot from the sideline. Add those losses to Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt, and there wasn’t much the Irish coaching staff could do.

“We knew we were shorthanded. We’ve lost a lot of players on defense over the last five weeks,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s been a very difficult run for us with key players on defense. And having to play so many freshman on defense. We just haven’t been able to stop anybody, and it’s been a difficult run for us.”

That was evident from the start, as the Irish tried their best to stop the run by loading the box. But that left Notre Dame’s young secondary in man coverage, and led to Cody Kessler’s career day.

“We loaded up against the run. We were in man coverage all day,” Kelly acknowledged. “We knew it was pick your poison today. And we just don’t have a lot of answers in that situation.”

That’s to be expected at just about any program when you reach this level of injuries. And against an offense that just had too much talent, Kelly all but acknowledged the hole his young defense was playing from.

“They played as hard as they can. It’s just there’s a deficiency there personnel wise,” Kelly said.

 

Greg Bryant took advantage of his opportunities on Saturday.

If you’re looking for a silver-lining to the drubbing, sophomore running back Greg Bryant took advantage of his increased reps on Saturday afternoon. After making a big play in the punt return game against Louisville, Bryant led the Irish in rush yards with 79, breaking into the USC secondary more than a few times.

“It was nice to get him in and get him more touches, that’s what our intentions were,” Kelly said after the game. “We got him in on kickoff as well and I thought he ran hard.

“The more he’s in the game he’s starting to feel more comfortable running the ball. He’s a nice addition to our offense where we have a backfield now where we feel those kids are just getting better and better.”

Bryant looked especially effective running with Zaire in the backfield. Multiple times the Irish hit the Trojans with a zone-read play, with both quarterback and running back picking up a big gain.

While Bryant did most of his damage with the game well in hand, he’ll take this momentum into bowl practice. And paired with Tarean Folston the Irish have a two-headed running back depth chart that’ll look awfully nice in 2015.

 

Mike McGlinchey appears to have made his move at right tackle.

It took until the final game of the regular season, but Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand decided to put sophomore Mike McGlinchey in at right tackle and the first-year performer held his own.

The massive right tackle paired with fellow sophomore Steve Elmer to keep the quarterback protected, often times against USC All-American Leonard Williams.

“Other than the last play, our quarterback was clean when he was in there. And obviously that’s the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “When you go to right tackle, you want your quarterback upright. So the initial observation, and again, I didn’t watch the film so I can’t give you the specifics, our first thought is can he hold up on the edge, especially when Leonard Williams is lined up over you.”

That wasn’t the case with Christian Lombard, who got beat on the strip-sack fumble that spelled the demise of Golson. And while McGlinchey is still learning how to keep his feet and play against pass rushers, he’s a promising piece of the future along an offensive line with four starters likely returning.

 

Remember this game. Because Brian Kelly and his team certainly will.

As Cody Kessler was setting records and USC scored more first half points against Notre Dame than any opponent since 1998, the Irish were all but helpless. That made for a painful afternoon, and one that’ll likely serve as a reference point during an important offseason that’s taken the Irish as far away from the mountain top as they’ve been since Kelly took over the program.

“It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike,” Kelly said. “Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today, we got our butts beat. And it wasn’t as close as the score.”

Kelly was careful to put into context where he sees this football team. And with Jack Swabrick and Father John Jenkins standing inside the small media tent, Kelly made a careful distinction as to where this team sat.

“This is not a program situation. This is a personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about young guys growing up and maturing.”

That’s a hard to understand distinction, but one where Kelly still deserves the benefit of the doubt. But as the Irish try and piece together an eighth victory that’s remained elusive for most of November, Kelly made it clear that the final weeks for this football team will be steeped in competition.

“They got punched in the nose today. So you want to see a response, too,” Kelly explained. “The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available. We’re going to have to see something from this group.”

 

 

 

Live chat — Notre Dame vs. USC

Everett Golson, Tarean Folston
72 Comments

[livefyre_chat site=365995 id=11292014-livechat token=”eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJ0eXBlIjoibGl2ZWNoYXQiLCJhcnRpY2xlSWQiOiIxMTI5MjAxNC1saXZlY2hhdCIsInRpdGxlIjoiTm90cmUgRGFtZSB2cy4gVVNDIiwidXJsIjoiaHR0cDovL2lyaXNoLm5iY3Nwb3J0cy5jb20vMjAxNC8xMS8yOS9saXZlLWNoYXQtbm90cmUtZGFtZS12cy11c2MifQ.-leYWwyK2QdkcTiYMuOxr2Qaewp_oMyE5dQlOBkWs80″]

Pregame Six Pack: The present and future of a key rivalry

UNC at Notre Dame
60 Comments

Expectations have been recalibrated. But it doesn’t take a view from 30,000 feet to understand the importance of Notre Dame’s annual battle with USC.

While the four losses each team has suffered this season have muted the national view of the greatest intersectional rivalry in college football, a good Notre Dame-USC football game is usually a great thing for college football.

Especially now. As we get ready to go through the first, and only, vote of the College Football Playoff selection committee that actually matters, games like this one — a high-profile, non-conference, national matchup will be the type of game that the committee will view as important. Especially when it goes apples-to-apples against the cupcakes we’ve seen scheduled the last few weeks from SEC programs looking for a rest before a tough in-conference finish.

Both programs will limp into the Coliseum. Notre Dame both literally and figuratively, with a defense more battered and bruised than any we’ve seen in the recent past. The depth on the Trojans roster is far from healthy as well, with scholarship sanctions and a few key injuries also depleting a talent-rich but razor thin team.

In our regular-season finale, we’re changing things up a bit. As we run through the pregame six pack, consider these six Notre Dame players vital to the rivalry game success of the Irish on Saturday afternoon, both now and in the future.

***

Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s sophomore cornerback is playing his way into quite a player. After contributing only part time as a freshman, Luke ends the year as the team’s No. 1 coverman, facing another difficult assignment a week after being matched up with Louisville’s DaVante Parker.

Kelly talked about the ascent of Luke this season, calling him one of the best developments of the season.

“Cole Luke is turning into an A player. He’s not an A player yet. He was a C player coming into the year. He’s a B-plus player right now,” Kelly said on Tuesday. ”

The Arizona native will likely take on the assignment of Nelson Agholor, USC’s top receiver and a junior potentially playing his final college game in the Coliseum. Agholor isn’t the physical handful that Jaelen Strong or Parker are, but he’s a smooth athlete that’s electric with the ball in his hands both as a receiver and in the return game.

As Luke prepares to transition from a sophomore to an upperclassman, he’s going to face yet another challenge that should prepare him for next season, when he’ll be ready to be a force at cornerback, finally lined up across from KeiVarae Russell.

“He did a heck of a job against the kid from Louisville,” Kelly said. “We matched him up all day. So that was clear that he’s a player that’s ascending for us.”

 

Nick Martin, Matt Hegarty & Steve Elmer. All three interior offensive linemen have more eligibility. But they aren’t likely thinking about next year when they face the challenge of USC’s Leonard Williams. The USC All-American is a wrecking ball in the middle of the defensive line, with the 6-foot-5, 300-pound junior a menace who will likely be in the hunt for No. 1 overall pick in next year’s NFL Draft.

“Leonard Williams is probably singularly the best defensive player front guy we’ll see this year. He’s simply that good of a player,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We’ll have to find ways to double him and slow him down.  He’s one of the best defensive linemen I’ve seen in a few years.  He’s that good of a player.”

This trio is likely to form this double team, with Elmer or Martin teaming with Hegarty to do their best to slow down Williams, the Trojans sack-leader with six, and who in 37 career games nearly matches that in tackles for loss, with 35.5 in his career.

Very quietly, the ground game has rounded into form this season. Much of that credit has gone to Tarean Folston’s emergence, but the front five should be given some of that credit as well.

That entire group will be tested on Saturday. And with the running game essential if the Irish are going to keep the ball away from the Trojans up-tempo offense, keeping Williams from a gigantic finale in the Coliseum will be critical.

 

Will Fuller. Notre Dame’s sophomore receiver is on record watch, his 14 touchdown catches just one behind Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate’s single-season mark. Match him up with a young Trojan secondary that’s talented but ranked 111th in the country in passing defense and Fuller could be poised to write a big chapter in a rivalry game he could dominate for the next three seasons.

While Luke’s ascent on defense has been the surprise of the year on that side of the football, Fuller is poised to break 1,000 receiving yards for the first time since Michael Floyd did it. His touchdown numbers show you a player that’s efficient at finding his way to pay dirt, even as he grows into the role of a No. 1 target.

Kelly talked about that growth earlier this week, with the still stick-skinny Fuller now tasked with growing into his body.

“He’s not a guy that can carry it by himself.  He’s not physically able to just go out there and knock off double coverage,” Kelly said. “He can beat any man coverage around with his speed.  But he’s not physically able to go and play like Megatron (Calvin Johnson) and those beasts.

“His next step is to continue to work on his physical development.  And that’s the next step for him.”

 

Max Redfield. The sophomore still seems stuck in the doghouse. But he’s the future at a safety position where he’s physically capable of filling the role, only still taking baby steps as he’s learning his way through his second system in as many years in South Bend.

Saturday’s game means quite a bit to Redfield. He’s a former USC commit who starred in Southern California as a prep athlete. So if there’s ever a Saturday for Redfield to play with the type of tenacity and mental sharpness that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder demand, this is the one.

Drue Tranquill’s ACL injury almost forced Elijah Shumate out of the doghouse. But if Shumate’s playing strong safety and Austin Collinsworth is playing as the free safety, it’s only a matter of time before Redfield gets his opportunities, because a one-armed Collinsworth just isn’t a good physical matchup for the athleticism that runs two-deep in the Trojan’s receiving corps.

While Kelly preaches patience with Redfield’s development, some fans have seemingly already tabbed Redfield a bust. It’s the same thing that happened with Harrison Smith, who three years into the position seemed a lost soul before the lightbulb switched on and Smith emerged as a force at safety in his (redshirt) junior season. It might take until next year for Redfield to take that leap, but there’s reason to believe it’s still coming.

Redfield will learn this defense — if he can take on Mandarin Chinese in the classroom, he can learn VanGorder’s system.

It’s his athleticism that you just can’t teach.

 

Greer Martini. That Notre Dame’s freshman middle linebacker is starting is a nice reminder in the not-so-scientific state of the modern recruiting world. Because only former walk-on Joe Schmidt had a lesser recruiting profile than Martini. Schmidt’s worked out pretty well for the Irish. And it looks like Martini is going to be a pretty good linebacker as well.

Martini is starting in the middle because even the best laid plans can go belly up. Jarrett Grace is still in the middle of a daunting rehabilitation. Schmidt’s departure all but signaled the demise of this defense. Fellow freshman Nyles Morgan is sitting out a half-game suspension after his targeting penalty, leaving Martini to take over the job as middle linebacker, just 11 games into his college career.

“I’m kind of blown away, I never thought as a freshman I’d have the opportunity to have my first start at the Coliseum,” Martini said Wednesday.

But Martini’s worked his way up the depth chart because of an advanced football IQ that the Irish coaching staff identified very early. Martini was the earliest pledge of the group, with the Irish staff watching Martini grow up as a football player at Woodberry Forest, where C.J. Prosise and Doug Randolph played before him.

Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated caught up with Woodberry Forest head coach Clint Alexander, who isn’t surprised that Martini is making an early mark.

At Woodberry, Martini played football, basketball and baseball. Alexander discovered him during a junior high sports camp when the Irish freshman excelled in soccer, lacrosse, softball, golf and tennis.

When the junior high kid had free time during that camp, he found Alexander to talk more football.

“That’s when I told my wife that if Greer comes here, he’ll be the best inside linebacker we’ve ever had,” Alexander said. “He ended up being a coach on the field for me. He could give adjustments, make checks, see the big picture.

“I know he certainly takes that ‘slow, white boy linebacker’ concept and gets a chip on his shoulder. When (Joe Schmidt) got hurt, Greer was probably a bigger version of him with more athleticism.”

Now it’s up to Martini to hold the fort against one of the most athletic offenses the Irish have faced all season. And even without Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones — the only projected upperclassmen starters outside of Austin Collinsworth — it’s time to find a way to beat the Trojans on Saturday.

“We all know that we’re young. But we’re all going to challenge each other to be better,” Martini said. “It doesn’t matter how young we are. We’ve got to perform, and I think that’s what we’re going out to do.”

 

Everett Golson. Make no mistake, Notre Dame’s best chance to win on Saturday is a big game by Golson. And after battling back in the second half against Louisville, Golson will face another attacking defense that aims to confuse and disrupt the second-year starter.

Reminding fans and media members that Golson is only in his second year as a starter is likely a fruitless endeavor, but one that remains important. Golson has fewer career starts than Ronnie Stanley. Irish fans understand that Stanley’s still growing into the player that he’ll become. So is Golson. For better, and at times, for worse.

After playing the role of conservative game-manager as a freshman, Golson’s responsibilities as a quarterback grew considerably this season. We’ve seen that in his production, with his 29 touchdown passes and 3,280 yards both Top 10 in the country. Combined with his eight touchdown runs and two two-point conversions, Golson is fourth in the country in points responsible for. That’s no small feat.

But those points have come at a cost. And while Golson’s early-season success had some (ESPN’s Desmond Howard the most visible) calling his 2013 season spent training with George Whitfield a value-add, no amount of practice time can make up for lost game experience.

The lumps Golson has taken are the type of struggles you get with a second-year quarterback, especially one who is the focal point of the offense. So on Saturday, Golson will have one more opportunity to balance his responsibilities as a game-manager with his skills as a playmaker.

His ability to successful walk that line will determine whether Notre Dame or USC emerges victorious on Saturday.