SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17:  (L-R) Sam Kohler #29, head coach Brian Kelly, Grace Kelly and Hunter Bivin #70 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Getty

NCAA wrong to erase Notre Dame’s recent history—both good and bad

49 Comments

What does vacate mean, anyway?

That’s the question I’d ask myself if I’m Notre Dame and Brian Kelly. Because the NCAA made their ruling. And nobody paid attention to the fact that the Irish football program was left alone.

No scholarships were taken. No wrongdoing assigned—not to Kelly, nor any of his assistants, or the team within the athletic department that actually rooted out the problem.

In terms of penalties, the stiffest the NCAA levied on the program was a $5,000 fine—practically  the going rate of three-nights in a 2-star hotel on a home football weekend, or the minimum buy-in for the latest and greatest season tickets in the remodeled house that Jack built.

So what’s really the big deal?

Perception.

Because being lumped in with the two decades of institutional dishonesty in Chapel Hill isn’t sitting quite right for the proud folk under the golden dome. Neither is the all-too-easy connection between Catholics and convicts, the Irish now apparently lumped in with Nevin Shapiro and that pyramid of cash he was shoving into the pockets of players and administrators alike.

Because the biggest fight we’ve seen from the football program this year came in the form of a 420-word statement attributed to Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins. And while those six paragraphs cut to the core of why Notre Dame doesn’t believe the punishment levied on them is fair, there’s a better chance that the NCAA will eat its own words before anybody actually changes their opinion on this one.

Because we’ve already seen people connect the dots. Vile, disgusting ones—revealing much more about the people capable of bringing up the tragedies of Lizzy Seeberg and Declan Sullivan as they find a corollary in a half-dozen college kids who took a few academic shortcuts.

Maybe that’s what has Kelly so ready for a fight. Even after watching his coaching reputation swirl down the drain as the losses pile up this season, Notre Dame’s football coach played the role of indignant innocent bystander on Tuesday, even if it played right into the hands of those who hold the most contempt for him.

So fight what you want to. But it’s not going to change opinions. Not the ones that are running wild, certain that this is finally the proof that Notre Dame’s really is just like everyone else.

But even if the university’s appeal is denied, it won’t erase the memories—of that magical 2012 season. And also that next one, ruined by the first academic scandal of the Kelly era.

Remember that year? A 2013 team poised for greatness but derailed when a university and football program tossed its star quarterback for a semester for utilizing his peripheral vision on an accounting exam?

That was Notre Dame putting its honor code and integrity before winning football games. Something they did a year later when they held five football players from team activities as they dug through 95,000 documents in search of the truth, leading us to the current mess we’re in.

So maybe Kelly is right. Even if you hated to hear him stick up for himself amidst a football season most find indefensible.

But run the guy out of town for losing football games. Not for standing up for his program, who just survived a two-year investigation and came out just five grand lighter, an invoice that likely came with “For Appearances” in the memo line.

So as the NCAA kicks the can down the street for North Carolina, Florida State, Ole Miss and Baylor, the smoking gun of it’s 21-page document revealed that a former Notre Dame student athletic trainer typed out school work on behalf of a student-athlete.

Maybe that’s why the wins are so important. To Kelly. To Jenkins, who finally said something about the investigation, a bizarre lack of leadership shown by an org chart that’s rarely shied away from big moments.

The games matter. They were history. Highs. Lows. Good moments and bad. All part of the record Notre Dame’s trying to protect as sports’ biggest bureaucratic laughingstock takes dead aim at Notre Dame for doing, at least in the NCAA’s eyes, just about everything right.

Notre Dame will appeal NCAAs order to vacate 2012, 2013 wins

Rev. John Jenkins,Jack Swarbrick
AP
50 Comments

The NCAA is ordering Notre Dame to vacate wins in the 2012 and 2013 football seasons, part of their penalties in connection to the Frozen Five academic misconduct investigation that derailed the 2014 season. Notre Dame plans to appeal the decision.

The NCAA found that a former student athletic trainer committed academic misconduct for two football student-athletes and provided six other football players with impermissible academic extra benefits. Another football student-athlete committed academic misconduct on their own. They put the Irish program on one year of probation and a two-year show-cause order for the former student trainer. They also levied a $5,000 fine against the university.

In his weekly press conference, Brian Kelly defended his program and their actions in the aftermath.

“We did the right thing. I’m proud of the academic support staff. I’m proud of the people that represented us at the time,” Kelly said.

The university released a statement minutes after the NCAA’s with university leadership acknowledging the investigation, though vowing to appeal the vacation of wins.

“We very much appreciate the hard work of the NCAA enforcement staff and the members of the Committee on Infractions for their review of our case, but we believe the penalty they have imposed is not justified,” Father Jenkins said.

“We disagree with the decision of the hearing panel to impose, at its own discretion, a vacation of records penalty. In past academic misconduct cases, the Committee on Infractions has imposed this penalty only when it has found serious institutional misconduct, such as actions with the direct involvement or knowledge of a coach or academic personnel, a failure to monitor or a lack of institutional control. The NCAA enforcement staff and the hearing panel agreed with Notre Dame that no such institutional misconduct occurred in this case. Indeed, the only reason the NCAA reviewed the matter was because the misconduct involved a former fellow student who happened to participate in the University’s student trainer program—an activity which involved no responsibility for the academic work of student-athletes.

“We believe that imposition of the vacation of records penalty without serious underlying institutional misconduct will not primarily punish those responsible for the misconduct, but rather will punish coaches, student-athletes and indeed the entire institution who did nothing wrong and, with regard to this case, did everything right. We are also concerned that establishing this precedent will infringe on universities’ autonomy in deterring academic dishonesty, for it will discourage the retroactive lowering of grades even when an honor code committee deems this appropriate.

“As we said at the outset of this investigation, Notre Dame would willingly accept a vacation of records penalty if it were appropriate. It is not in this case. Indeed, should this precedent stand, it could create a perverse incentive that will discourage institutions from investigating so aggressively and imposing the penalties for academic dishonesty that their honesty committees might judge appropriate.”

The process is not complete as Notre Dame will now submit its case to the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee.

Cowboys plan to activate Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty
32 Comments

The Dallas Cowboys plan to activate rookie linebacker Jaylon Smith, a huge development in Smith’s recovery from a major knee injury. And while it’s not necessarily a sign that Smith will be a part of the Cowboys’ stretch run, it’s an indicator that the former Notre Dame All-American and Butkus Award winner is making progress after his injury in last season’s Fiesta Bowl sent his career on an unexpected detour.

Cowboys VP Steven Jones announced the news on local Dallas radio, telling 105.3 The Fan that Smith can help the team as the season continues, even if it’s only in practices. From the Dallas News:

“That doesn’t mean anything with change with Jaylon in terms of his routine,” he said. “I don’t actually see him [returning to the field], even though he’s eligible to practice — just to extend your period. If we weren’t to activate him, then they would certainly be done if they don’t start practicing.

Jones also said the team will not activate tight end James Hanna, who underwent season-ending knee surgery. He had a previous surgery in August.

“So really it’ll just be Jaylon and McFadden that we’d give that shot to keep them alive,” Jones said. “And McFadden will actually return to practice full bore. But Jaylon’s routine won’t change at the moment.”

Much of the focus on Smith’s return has been focused on the nerve in his knee regenerating. The nerve was the major reason why Smith slid from the draft’s first five picks until the second round, a time-consuming process and a recovery that doesn’t always happen.

A source with knowledge of the situation has confirmed that Smith’s nerve is responding as the team and Smith had hoped. While he’s not at full power, he has taken major strides in the months he’s been working with the Cowboys medical staff, who feel confident enough in the overall health of Smith’s knee (he also reportedly suffered ACL and LCL tears) to allow him to participate in practice, less than 11 months after the initial injury.

Smith’s recovery comes as no surprise to those who coached and played with him in South Bend. Former head coach Brian Kelly had this to say about Smith earlier this year.

“You don’t need to worry about that with Jaylon Smith. He could fall to the seventh round. He’s going to be a star in the NFL. It really doesn’t matter,” Kelly said this spring. “He’s so driven and so focused on what’s in front of him that he’ll overcome this. I have no doubt about it.

“This is a generational player. You go generations and don’t get a player or a kid like this.”

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Virginia Tech

53 Comments

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the Irish lost a close football game.

After jumping out to a quick start, Notre Dame gave away a halftime lead and allowed Virginia Tech to close the game with 13 straight points, a defeat on senior day that wasted good efforts by a handful of players young and old.

The loss guarantees Brian Kelly his first losing season in South Bend. It also takes the Irish to Los Angeles with a Southern Cal team smelling blood in the water and playing better football than just about any team in the country not named Alabama.

Let’s get straight into the good, bad and ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Jarron Jones. It was an impressive home finale for Jones, who was a monster in the trenches against the Hokies offensive line. He had nine tackles, officially credited with five solo stops. He had a TFL and broke up a pass. His PFF Grade was a team-leading +5.5, contributing to the awful afternoon of Hokies center Eric Gallo.

So while Jones didn’t make much of an impact against the triple option attacks of Navy and Army, he played huge against the Hokies. And the good news is that there’s no offense on Sundays that’ll feature a dive, option and pitch man with undersized offensive linemen diving at his knees.

 

DeShone Kizer. Again, if this was it, it was a gutty effort. If this was it, it’ll be less about the 3-of-15 second half and more about the courage under fire he showed.

If Kizer is indeed as well respected by NFL circles as he is in the mock-draft community, then he owes it to himself to put on a baseball cap and become the future of a team that’ll hopefully find a way to win the games that the Irish couldn’t this year. After the game, he was candid about the decision in front of him.

“I don’t know yet. I think that there’s definitely an opportunity, to possibly play at the next level,” Kizer said. “I think that after next week we’ll evaluate the season and evaluate the situation as a family.”

 

Quick Hits: 

At this point, this feels like a back-handed compliment, but what an impressive opening drive. Seven play, 78 yards, and seven points. Tough to ask for more.

It was nice to see Te’von Coney fill the stat sheet. Ten tackles for the sophomore in a late-season start. Notre Dame’s linebacking corps is in good shape next season, even as it says goodbye to James Onwualu, who also had a big, big afternoon.

Josh Adams got to 100 yards, courtesy of his big 67-yard touchdown run. But he actually graded out quite poorly, mostly for his struggles in the passing game. (One tell as to where Adams is from a health perspective. He nearly got run down on his long run—something that certainly wouldn’t have happened last season.)

If you didn’t enjoy seeing Chris Finke score a nifty touchdown on a perfect throw on a post route from DeShone Kizer, you’ve lost all joy. (I can understand why.)

 

THE BAD

The officiating. When Justin Fuente gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a five-yarder going the wrong way and Brian Kelly (rightfully) nearly exploded after the ACC officials—both on the field and in the booth—missed multiple targeting and helmet-to-helmet hits on DeShone Kizer, you know it’s a terrible day for the guys in the stripes.

 

The Second Half. The defense got shredded. The offense hit the brakes. The coaching staff lost the battle of the grease boards and headsets. All in all, it was 30 depressing minutes of football, with the Hokies making all the plays down the stretch.

 

THE UGLY

All of it. At this point, the lines are very clearly—and loudly—drawn. You either want Brian Kelly out, or you have him on very, very thin ice. And whether you think the program is best served by having Kelly atop it next season or not, this much is universal—it hasn’t been a good season for the head coach.

He knows it. His bosses know it. And his team knows it. And as different circumstances play into the same near-weekly result, Kelly seems to be doing whatever it takes to just get through the season, knowing that changes, whether he’s publicly acknowledged them or not, are coming.

“There are some things we’re going to have to do in the off-season,” Kelly said after the game. “There are a lot of inexperienced players that are going to benefit from this. I’m not benefitting at all being in front of you losing this football game. It’s not helping me any. It’s going to help those guys that have gone through it. So we’ll bank on that.”

Five things we learned: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

72 Comments

Behind center and ready to play a hero, Malik Zaire awaited the snap. Little did he know the clock was already running.

Seven of the 13 precious seconds remaining in the fourth quarter ticked off the field as the senior surveyed the field, the Irish still needing a nice gain to make a game-tying field goal even possible. And after Zaire left the pocket looking to make a play, even a completion wouldn’t have made a difference. He was out of time.

A fitting final snap of the season in Notre Dame Stadium if there ever was one.

Notre Dame’s fast start and 17-0 lead were not enough, as the Irish fell for the seventh time this year, with Virginia Tech rallying to win 34-31. After scoring on four of their first five drives and exploding for 24 first-half points, DeShone Kizer and the offense cooled off, punting on six of their next seven series as the Hokies offense rallied for the win.

A young Irish defense fought valiantly but gave up four scoring drives in the second half. Kizer’s couldn’t replicate his first-half success.  And any hope of stealing a bowl appearance with two wins against the season’s toughest back-to-back is finished.

So as the lights go out on Notre Dame Stadium for the final time this season, let’s find out what we learned.

 

A gutty effort by DeShone Kizer wasn’t enough to get it done. 

In what might have been his final game in Notre Dame Stadium, DeShone Kizer showed plenty of heart. But he didn’t play well enough to win the game.

Kizer completed 16 of 33 throws for 235 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing attempts with 16, earning all 69 yards he gained. But when the Irish needed to move the chains and win the game late, the Irish came up empty twice.

Of course, not all of that is on Kizer. A strong wind made accuracy a major challenge. The offensive line that protected him well for the majority of the game, struggled down the stretch. And a perfect deep ball that Kizer lofted down the sideline slid through Equanimeous St. Brown‘s hands, a game-changing catch that never was.  On a Saturday where the Irish offense needed to carry the team to victory, Kizer was just three of 15 in the second half, with Bud Foster’s defense shutting down the Irish in the game’s final 30 minutes, save Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run.

Kizer was unwilling to discuss his future postgame, only that he had a decision to make after the season. But he reportedly hung around on the field after the loss, perhaps taking things in one last time before declaring for the NFL Draft, a decision the smart money already thinks is made.

After taking two clear head-shots that deserved personal foul calls, Kizer clearly left it all on the field. Unfortunately, there were a few missed plays out there as well, and they ended up costing the Irish.

 

Notre Dame’s young secondary couldn’t keep pace with Virginia Tech’s talented receivers. 

Someday a few years from now, Notre Dame fans will look back at the challenge Donte Vaughn, Devin Studstill and Julian Love faced on Saturday and reminisce that games like this helped forge the unit into something better. Until then, it’ll just be called growing pains.

Asked to go toe-to-toe with perhaps the best trio of receivers they’ll face all season (or at least until next weekend), the young defensive backs had some tough assignments, with Isaiah Ford catching seven of his 10 targets for 86 yards and Cam Phillips and Bucky Hodges bringing in touchdown catches. Add in a long catch and run by slot man C.J. Carroll that went for 62 yards and the Irish were unable to make a big play against the Hokies passing attack—other than the gift-wrapped interception that bounced through the hands of Phillips and into the arms of Drue Tranquill.

The Irish defense had multiple opportunities to go out and win the game, but came up short. After holding the Hokies to just 135 yards in the first half they gave up 284 yards in the second, with 206 of those coming through the air. (That doesn’t count the 15 yards that came on a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke, a play that Kelly thought Luke played perfectly.)

 

We knew the young secondary would have its hands full. Ultimately, it was the Hokies that won the aerial battle.

 

Once again, a fast start can’t make up for a soft finish. 

As we’ve seen far too often this season, Notre Dame’s fast start wasn’t enough. And after being one of the best coaches in America when playing with a lead, the Irish have been disastrous this year, blowing a 17-zip start and a 10-point halftime lead.

Asked to put his finger on the issue, Kelly couldn’t identify one thing.

“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch. I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “We weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”

It helps that Virginia Tech got its act together. After Jarod Evans gave away a fumble and the Hokies stumbled out of the gates, head coach Justin Fuente rallied his team—even as a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty cost his team an offensive series. Evans led the charge, the massive quarterback the most effective ball-carrier for the Hokies run game, a challenging personnel matchup especially with a fullback on the field that forced the Irish out of their preferred five-man secondary.

For Kelly, it’s another tight loss. A coach who built his reputation on winning games late and doing the job in November is now struggling to find solutions at a critical time of the year. A loser of just 13 one-score games in his first six seasons, he’s lost seven in this season alone.

This one as painful as the rest, his young team giving up the game’s final 13 points to go home a loser.

 

It should be back to the drawing board for Notre Dame’s offensive leadership. 

Last season, the Irish deftly handled the trio of Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford atop the org chart on the offensive side of the football. This season? Quite the opposite.

Because after another hot start to the game—triggered by some pretty impressive Xs and Os and play scripting—it was Virginia Tech that made all the winning adjustments, with Notre Dame’s offensive trio unable to counterpunch after the Hokies game back from halftime.

After reluctantly giving up play-calling last season and seeing the team put up its most explosive numbers ever, this football team’s schizophrenic nature has to be driving Kelly crazy. And after leaning on NFL talent like Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, this team just hasn’t been able to find the right formula for clutch, late-game play.

When asked about the offensive coaching structure and the decision to give-up play-calling, Kelly steered clear of any second-guessing.

 

“I’m trying the best I can to offer some solutions, but you really have to trust in the play-calling and the execution quite frankly is part of that,” Kelly explained. It’s play-calling, it’s execution, and we had some opportunities that we didn’t convert.”

With his career at a crossroads, expect the head coach to reevaluate the hierarchy. And if you were a betting man, you’d have to assume that Kelly will go back to betting on himself.

 

 

There’s a young team with a promising future in South Bend. But finding a way to shake off this nightmarish season will be Brian Kelly’s largest challenge. 

Eventually it sounds like a broken record. Even the head coach acknowledged it after the game.

“These kids are wonderful kids. I’m just at a loss for words as to what to tell them,” Kelly said. “It’s just been a difficult year. They’ve worked so hard. They play so hard. They’ve been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter.  Unfortunately, it’s just one of those years. I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach. It just hasn’t gone their way.”

Like we’ve seen all season, the positives have been there. Big plays from Chase Claypool and Chris Finke. Huge games from young defenders like Te’von Coney and veterans like James Onwualu and Jarron Jones.

But as the Irish look for the successful recipe for winning football, they too often have come up just short—with a different culprit seemingly each week. Missed blocks. Ten penalties (and a few crucial ones missed.) Red zone miscues that turn seven points into three. And a crunch time mistake that turns into a fatal mistake.

“I just love our kids. I love the way they battle. We’re going to wake up from this nightmare,” Kelly said, before joking that he hoped he’ll wake up 11-0.

He won’t. And any relief from this nightmare won’t come this November, not with a trip to Los Angeles next weekend that’ll require his players to provide the motivation, now that Notre Dame’s bowl dreams are dashed.

But beyond that, this will be on the head coach. And after assuring himself his first losing season since he rebuilt Central Michigan’s football program, the focus will be on the man on charge. Because he’s got a talented group of players. Now he desperately needs to teach them how to win.