Jacob Matuska, Reggie Bonnafon

Young defensive front up for another challenge against USC

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It appears that Notre Dame’s already youthful defensive line is going to be getting even younger on Saturday. After losing Jarron Jones essentially on the first play of Saturday’s 31-28 loss to Louisville, a Sunday MRI will determine the severity of the injury and whether he can play again this season.

“We think it’s a Lisfranc sprain, and we’ll just have to see what kind of separation there is in that Lisfranc to determine what his status will be,” Kelly said Sunday. “So we’ll get a little bit better read on his situation within the next couple hours.”

A report at IrishSportsDaily.com has the injury a season-ender, with reported surgery on tap next week for a ligament repair. We’ll find out tomorrow in Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, but it’s looking more and more like the starting tackles on the defensive line, both Jones and fellow junior Sheldon Day, who will go through a checkup Monday, but was still in a full leg brace on Saturday, won’t be available for the all-important rivalry game.

That means fifth-year senior and Southern California native Justin Utupo will return to the starting lineup. The former Los Angeles Times lineman of the year will have a chance to make his mark against a USC offensive line that was under siege against UCLA’s pressure front.

It likely means another week on the inside for Isaac Rochell, who has been taking key reps at tackle with the depth chart plundered. That duo will be joined again by sophomore Jacob Matuska. In the first significant action of his career, Matuska played a productive game, making five tackles including his first career sack.

Freshman Jay Hayes made the stat sheet in his first collegiate game, notching a single tackle from defensive tackle. Kelly talked about his performance on Saturday, reaching the benchmark they wanted for snaps played for the first-timer — helped along by the immediate loss of Jones.

“We’re glad we activated him. We had to activate him,” Kelly said. “We didn’t want to, but he’s ready to play, and he contributed nicely for us on Saturday.”

Kelly is optimistic that he’ll have Daniel Cage back at tackle to give the depth chart a boost. The freshman would add some much-needed heft on the interior of the defensive line, giving the group an anchor up front as they need to find a way to slow down Trojans’ running back Buck Allen.

“We’re hopeful. We moved him around today,” Kelly said of his 325-pound freshman. “He looked good.  We’re expecting to practice him on Tuesday, so my best guess here would be that Cage would be available.”

A fifth-year senior who was a reach to be in the program this season is now making the third start of his career (and season). A sophomore defensive end sliding inside. And a slew of freshman figuring things out as they go. That’s just the defensive tackles. Joined by junior Romeo Okwara and freshmen Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill and Grant Blankenship at defensive end, there is young and then there is this defensive front.

“I think the thing that’s really made this encouraging is that playing freshmen that physically can hang in there and hold their own with veteran players. That obviously is the most encouraging,” Kelly said. “Where we have to grow is in the football intelligence department, and we’ve got to make time for it.

“As you know, there’s a lot of rigors for these guys, and a lot of work that has to go into the classroom, and we’ve got to carve out more time in the offseason for these guys to continue to learn football and understand the game.  That’s going to be the next point of development for especially our defensive players and some players on offense, is understanding the game, and that development has to take place in the off‑season.”

Five things we learned: Louisville 31, Notre Dame 28

Austin Collinsworth, Joe Schmidt
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Kyle Brindza stared down his spot. Envisioned making the kick. Took a final deep breath before waiting for the snap.

And then he missed it.

Notre Dame’s comeback efforts were left for dead as the Irish’s all-time leader in field goals missed yet another one, pushing a 32-yarder wide right as Louisville escaped South Bend with a 31-28 victory.

[WATCH: Full replay of the game ]

Debate focused on Malik Zaire’s hold. Starting for the second-straight game as the team’s holder, Zaire’s hand was out late as Brindza approached the chip shot. After the game, Kelly backed his record-setting kicker.

“I don’t think it was executed at the level it needed to be,” Kelly said. “I didn’t see it. I’ll have to watch it on film, but in talking to Kyle, it did not appear to be handled cleanly.”

That’s kindly framing a situation for a senior kicker whose late-game failings for the second-straight week threaten to undo a legacy that was built on making clutch kicks, regardless of the slight imperfections from a new holder.

But that’s the type of season we’ve found ourselves in, parceling out smidgeons of blame in a black-or-white, win-or-not situation.

With the Irish limping into their season finale against USC next week, let’s find out what else we learned.

***

***

A senior class that did a lot of good for this football program unfortunately doesn’t go out a winner at home. 

There are no consolation prizes in football. And while the Irish deserve credit for giving it their all and responding after a mediocre first half, in the end it wasn’t enough.

For the first time since Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame football program, the Irish didn’t send their seniors out winners. And frankly, the seniors had plenty to do with that.

Brindza’s missed field goal at the end was the last critical mistake. But just two plays before that seniors Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin failed on a double-team block that led to a painful loss on a second down quarterback draw.

“We ran a quarter draw and we got our butts kicked up front,” Kelly said, when asked about the playcall.

On defense, seniors were few and far between. But when you did notice fifth-year captain Austin Collinsworth, it was on a missed tackles, with Louisville running backs and wide receivers flying by the wounded but game senior safety.

So Saturday’s loss ends the home career of a group of star-crossed football players that battled through quite a few detours to get here. And while this class splintered apart because of injuries and attrition more than any of the other Kelly recruited, the Irish head coach had a message of pride and thanks to his wounded locker room.

“They came in a program that had not had won a bowl game in 20 years,” Kelly said. “Now they have won two and played for a National Championship and obviously are part of developing and building a winning program. I’m proud of them.”

***

***

 

With injuries taking Jarron Jones and Cody Riggs off the field as well, it’s kids, kids and more kids on Brian VanGorder’s beleaguered defense. 

Jarron Jones opened the game up making a big play. Unfortunately he wasn’t healthy for the rest of it. Notre Dame’s starting defensive tackle was the latest key starter to go down, finally tapping out after a hobbling leg injury forced him out of the lineup.

The same happened to Cody Riggs. The senior cornerback was making progress as he battled to return from a stress-reaction in his foot, but he was spotted gingerly walking off the field to the locker room, leaving the secondary for Collinsworth and the kids.

“We played the whole game pretty much without Jarron Jones,” Kelly said afterwards. “They battled as best they could. We’re getting everything out of them. I mean, they played with great effort, just made some mistakes.”

Those mistakes came early, as Louisville’s first two drives turned into touchdowns. And both times, the Irish defense let the Cardinals out of their clutches.

A back-breaking 3rd-and-14 conversion allowed a 10-play, 75 yard drive to end in a touchdown run by freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. Louisville’s next possession, the Cardinals connected on a 3rd-and-16 for 52 yards, allowing Bonnafon to run for another zone-read touchdown to cap off a second-straight touchdown drive.

It wasn’t all bad. We saw Jay Hayes hold his own on the defensive line in his first collegiate action. We watched Jacob Matuska and Greer Martini earn their first sacks. And while Nyles Morgan’s clear-cut personal foul got him ejected from the game, he made 10 tackles, a step forward after a few difficult weeks.

But after getting some critical stops to help build some momentum, the Irish defense couldn’t slow down Louisville’s run game, even when they committed just about all their resources to doing so.

 

After nearly playing his way out of the quarterback job, Everett Golson swatted away the vultures and played a much better second half. 

Another football game, another crisis surrounding Notre Dame’s quarterback. After starting the game sharp, Golson threw a critical interception deep in Irish territory, staring down Will Fuller as cornerback Charles Gaines squatted on a comeback route. The Irish defense actually picked up their quarterback, making Golson’s errant throw just a three-point mistake by holding Louisville to a field goal. But it was more gift-wrapped points, three that just so happened to be the final difference in the game.

But Golson very nearly lost his job after another maddening fumble. The senior quarterback peeled back, trying to tuck the football away late before the ball skidded out, back towards the Irish end zone. Senior Nick Martin threw some gas on the fire, with the ball popping out from beneath him as he tried to recover the fumble.

Golson finally showed some urgency, getting to the ball as it slid out of bounds 32-yards behind where it started.

From 2nd-and-6 to 3rd-and-38. From grumbles asking for Malik Zaire to see the field to full-throated screams. NBC’s Mike Mayock thought it was time to make a change. Doug Flutie looked at Golson’s body language and didn’t like what he saw.

But Brian Kelly went to the half and came back out with Golson behind center. And the senior quarterback responded, helping the Irish score touchdowns on their first two possessions to pull ahead.

Golson’s heroics didn’t come without some magic, and a little luck. A jump-ball to Corey Robinson ended up in Will Fuller’s arms for his 14th touchdown. And while Golson’s two-point scramble pulled the Irish within three, he couldn’t get a touchdown to finish the game when the Irish needed it.

“I think he did some good things. There are some things that we want to do better, but he made some great plays with his feet,” Kelly said.

Golson’s 16 of 24 for 236 and two touchdowns against one of the best defense’s in the country wasn’t bad. And after rallying in the second half after a blundering first half, the senior quarterback deserves some credit for bringing the team back and avoiding a full-fledged quarterback controversy.

 

While most will talk about another missed field goal, the Irish special teams provided a few big plays, too. 

Kelly probably said it best after the game, summarizing the frustrations of a two-game home losing streak that not many people saw coming in October.

“We’ve lost back-to-back games because we couldn’t put down a ball and kick it 32 yards,” Kelly said.

A special teams unit that’s once again taking the blame for the loss very nearly was a key factor in winning the football game. Greg Bryant sparked Notre Dame with an explosive punt return that he nearly took into the end zone. Amir Carlisle set up the Irish multiple times with good field position on kickoff returns.

And with the cover teams doing an excellent job slowing down Louisville’s return men, the Irish had set themselves up quite well in a game that required winning the field position battle, too.

But all of that doesn’t matter if you can’t make the plays when they count.

***

***

Sometimes the night is darkest just before the dawn. 

Football has a funny way of revealing your most crippling weaknesses. The past month has done that.

Notre Dame’s depth on defense has been decimated, turning a group that seemed ahead of schedule in October into one searching badly for answers in November. An Irish offense blessed with better weapons than they’ve had in years only now understands that those weapons don’t mean much if you aren’t properly equipped to handle them.

So while there’s much doom and gloom as we watch Notre Dame stumble in ways they haven’t seen since the Weis era, when fans wipe the tears out of their eyes, they’ll see some of the groundwork being laid for a quicker rebound.

The kids that stood their ground and held up more than respectably against Louisville’s offense? They’ll develop some scar tissue that’ll pay dividends in the future. And while outsiders and followers will wonder if Notre Dame’s head coach and leader has lost his team, it’s not hard to see the energy and emotion on the sidelines as proof positive that this team understands how to fight, even if it’s taking one too many shots to the jaw right now.

“I mean, I can say some cliché things, but I think everybody just has to keep their head up. We’ve got a lot of young guys that have a lot of potential,” Golson said after the game. “It’s kind of one of those things where it’s kind of heartbreaking for us to lose, but you can’t stay down because we do have so much talent. We’ve got to still play with confidence. We’ve got to still play aggressive. I think if we do that, like I said, the talent is there, so I think that will kind of show itself.”

Right now, that talent might not be enough to stop a fade that could extend into a less-than-desirable bowl game. But the pieces are there for a recovery, even if we had to watch them crumble to the ground first.

 

 

Live chat — Notre Dame vs. Louisville

Rice v Notre Dame
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It’s Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. And it’s our final home game of the season, with the Irish still looking for their eighth victory.

For those looking for an online stream of the game — Watch the broadcast here. After the game, you can check out the Postgame Show here.

As usual, we’re here to chat.

 

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Mailbag: Still steaming mad about last week

New Mailbox
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With the questions (understandably) a little bit more filled with frustration than usual, it seems more than a few of you are searching for answers to last week’s loss still.

I’m not sure I can provide those, but I’ll do my best to eat a little crow, answer a few questions, and get everybody ready for the final home game of the season.

First, on to this nonsense:

 

irishdodger: Since we fans keep seeing reports (via tweets & radio interviews w/ Chris Mortensen, etc) regarding Brian Kelly being of interest to both NFL teams & Florida, why hasn’t anyone that covers ND addressed him directly about the subject?

yaketyyacc: Do you think all this talk about Kelly moving on is founded by the hopes of Notre Dame fans?

scoli: Do you believe it is possible that the melt down over the last 4 or five games is related to CBK spending too much attention on possible new job and not enough on preparing himself and his team for the upcoming games?

mediocrebob: Could you remind these people that there is no better option and that they’ll feel really stupid when they realize Kelly was a blessing when the Irish are stuck with some unproven no-name coach and losing consistently?

You guys will probably never guess where I come out on all of this. But it’s closer to Bob, especially when you look at the coaching candidates that currently exist.

Brian Kelly was asked about the Florida job on Thursday, especially after his name was mentioned a few times this week in connection with the high-profile job opening. He laughed at the question, and I think that’s his honest opinion

A lot of people have speculated about the “agent connection,” with CAA’s Trace Armstrong repping a lot of the usual suspects in all of this reporting, but I don’t know why anybody would go to Gainsville and try to rebuild that mess when they have a team that should be very, very good in 2015 in front of them.

(As someone pointed out, SI’s Pete Thamel, probably the most plugged in college football writer working, essentially said the same thing earlier this week.)

Getting back to the candidates, who do you want to take this job if Kelly leaves? Butch Jones? Dan Mullen? Ask Oklahoma fans how frustrated they are with Bob Stoops. And clamoring for guys like Urban or Gruden or anybody from that old list is frankly a waste of time. Winning at Notre Dame is a lot tougher than just about every other place in the country.

The issue I run into with a lot of these arguments is that every fanbase has things they hate about a coach. From playcalling right down to what they wear to press conferences. So while Kelly’s red zone run game might be the thing that makes you want him out, wait until you see Coach X or Coach Y in the same situation. He won’t be perfect, either.

 

don74: Assuming Kelly stays will there be a shakeup with the assistants at the end of the season?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’ll certainly be something to watch once recruiting shakes out and the Irish transition from the season into spring football.

I think you can rule out any changes with Brian VanGorder or Matt LaFleur. They are just finishing up their first year in the program. But Kelly’s been very loyal to his staff and the same could be said in return. I tend to think only a new job opportunity (a low-level head coaching position) feels like a chance for things to change.

 

idratherbeinsouthbend: Given that we are fully engrossed in the CFB playoff system now, how long will it be before (A) the playoff expands and (B) the mid majors have their own championship?

Again, this is a big issue that we’ll be discussing just about every year until it actually expands. But the TV contract is supposed to dictate that this will stay a four-team playoff, though there are a lot of influential people thinking it needs expansion. (Brian Kelly is on the record thinking eight teams is better.)

ACC commissioner John Swofford talked about this earlier this week, with ESPN reporting this quote:

“The question is asked a lot, ‘Why not eight?’ or ‘Will it become eight in a few years?’ I can tell you why not eight, right now: The presidents made the decision as to how far we can go with the playoff, and the bookends are exams in December, and the presidents don’t want football to become a two-semester sport. Those concerns are education-based. So I think they’re appropriate.”

 

danirish: Which of the three MUST the Irish fix immediately: Turnovers, allowing a ton of points, or special teams.

Turnovers. And it’s not even close.

Turnovers are pretty much the root of all evil in football. And it’s pretty clear that when the Irish started turning the football over left and right, winning got a lot harder to do.

This defense — especially a defense without Sheldon Day, Joe Schmidt, a half-strength Cody Riggs and Jarron Jones — and the rest of the guys mostly kids, needs all the help it can get. And turning the ball over and putting the pressure on them isn’t the way to win the next two football games.

How you fix that immediately? I’m not exactly sure.

 

blackirish23: Can the argument also be made that the defense has essentially held up to it’s end of the bargain due to what BK expected at the beginning of the season, and that it’s our Offense that has been the let down, especially when the defense does it’s job (once in a great while) and gets the ball back either via turn over or on downs?

I think you’re on to something. And that’s essentially what Kelly has said after the team’s three losses. In the eyes of this coaching staff, the offense needs to beat opponents with the defense doing it’s best to get stops and create turnovers.

But nobody saw this rash of turnovers coming — especially last week in the inexplicable manner that they happened.

So Kelly acknowledged that this week, and I think we’re going to see the Irish offense, but run in a more conservative manner, trying to take the risk out of things.

 

billtetley53: How long do you think it is going to take this fanbase to realize that it will take a perfect storm for ND to make the playoff ?

I think you can say that for every team in college football. Look at Mississippi State. They are a veteran football team on both sides of the football and have a quarterback that caught lightning in a bottle.

Oregon has a quarterback that could be a Heisman Trophy winner. That’s never happened. Florida State’s bent every ethical line possible, and has a special quarterback (on the field), which has happened only two other times in the program’s history.

And all of these teams — minus the Seminoles — have lost a game.

Outside of Alabama, who is still playing in a different league than just about everybody else from a program-building perspective, it’s always going to take a special year.

But I’ll go on the record: I think Notre Dame will be in next year’s playoff.

 

onward2victory: Last week’s mailbag I pointed out that Brian Kelly team’s have struggled in 3 areas:
1. Special teams
2. Turnovers
3. Not matching energy of the opponent.

(Editing…) So after watching the Northwestern game, where ND was terrible in all 3 of these areas AGAIN, I was wondering if you wanted to change your answer at all?

Not sure what would suffice, Onward. An apology? Your question was certainly well-timed. And obviously the field goal game is a mess. As are turnovers this season.

But I’m not sure I’m ready indict a head coach for continual issues, especially since it’s not completely true. Notre Dame was one of the best turnover teams in the country in 2012. They were also a Top 25 team in turnovers lost in 2013 as well. (Even with punching bag Tommy Rees.) They’ve been terrible in 2011 and 2014, but not the other three seasons.

And I’ll still say that “matching energy” is a ridiculous thing to try and measure. Notre Dame started fast against Northwestern — Golson running for a big touchdown on a perfect offensive drive. They had a nice opening drive against ASU. But playing tight games with teams that don’t look even on paper is a thing that’s existed at Notre Dame ever since it was a national showcase program. It’s the game circled on every opponent’s schedule — just check out how many Louisville fans will be there today.

Ultimately, the Irish have found painful — but ultimately universal — ways to lose games. So, I’m agreeing with you on special teams. Partially with you on turnovers. And not buying what you’re selling on “energy.”

 

Former Irish greats talk about their favorite Notre Dame memories

Washington v Notre Dame
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With Senior Day a perfect time to look back, some former Notre Dame football greats are looking back at their time with the Irish. And they’re doing it in a pretty cool way.

Want to know Tim Brown’s favorite moment as a Notre Dame football player? (Hint: Next weekend’s opponent played a role.) Or how about Golden Tate’s? (It won’t be much of a leap.)

With the help of Greenfly, we’ll hear from some Irish legends as they look back on their time under the Golden Dome. You can see all the videos here.