When Army battles Notre Dame on Saturday, Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken will be looking across the field at a head coach he knew a long time ago. And it can’t help but trigger a trip down Memory Lane.
Because before Monken climbed the ranks at Navy and Georgia Southern, before he was given a chance to take over the program in West Point, he was a young coach trying to find a job.
The Times Herald-Record’s Sal Interdantohas a great story on the beginning of Monken’s career as a college coach. And it features a young graduate assistant being driven by his mother three hours for a job interview with young head coach Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State.
Monken hopped in a car, driven by his mother, Nancy, for the three-hour ride east of their Joilet, Ill. home.
“I was so thankful for that opportunity,” Monken said on Tuesday as his Army team preps for Kelly’s Notre Dame squad. “I had never been up there, He’s a terrific football coach and a great guy. I didn’t get the job and that’s OK. I wasn’t ready at the time. I’m sure he found a very qualified coach.”
While Monken didn’t get the job, his ties to Kelly still go back. He played college football at Millikin, the same program that produced former Irish offensive coordinator and Miami-Ohio head coach Chuck Martin. His cousin Todd Monken, who coached Southern Miss for three seasons, worked with Kelly at Grand Valley, before leaving for Notre Dame and a graduate assistant job.
So as we dive into subplots that were sure to come out this week, Monken’s job interview—and likely runner-up finish—is a fun product of the backroads of coaching in small-college football.
Notre Dame heads to San Antonio, needing a win this weekend for any chance to make it to Brian Kelly’s seventh-straight postseason. And in the Black Knights, the Irish have a foe that’s fitting—a double-digit underdog, but one who presents some of the same challenges that made Navy so difficult.
Jeff Monken’s third Army team has shown considerable improvements. They’ve won big games, beating Wake Forest and Temple while hanging tight with Duke. But coming off a tough loss to Air Force that ends their chance at winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, The Black Knights come to the Shamrock Series hoping to spring an upset, the latest opponents to add to Notre Dame’s nightmare season.
In a crazy week, Sal Interdanto of the Times Herald-Record steps in and saves us. After doing three or four of the same Q&As, Sal pumped these answers out in the midnight hours, and corrected a few of my mistakes as well.
It feels like the Air Force loss took quite a bit from Army’s sails. Coming off an impressive win against Wake Forest, and after a really nice start to the season, can you give us an update on where the Irish find this Black Knights team?
The Black Knights have proved to be a very resilient team this season and I wouldn’t expect a hangover from the Air Force game. Army had to overcome the passing of Brandon Jackson, its best cornerback, to a car accident on Sept. 11. The Black Knights rebounded with its biggest win of the season at Wake Forest after a 17-point home loss to North Texas.
One thing that’s just striking is Army’s defensive success. Alex Aukerman and Andrew King are putting up really nice numbers with King grading out incredibly impressive against the run, too. What does defensive coordinator Jay Bateman do that’s so effective?
Bateman has mixed up defensive packages to fit his talent. Army will occasionally play with a lone defensive lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs. He’s moved Aukerman around as an outside linebacker, defensive end and over the center. Army also has some depth at defensive line where it can rotate fresh players, something it hasn’t done much of in the past.
Offensively, Army seems to be struggling lately, especially against their stiffer competition. For Irish fans who just saw Will Worth and Navy’s triple-option pitch what might as well have been a perfect game, what does Ahmad Bradshaw bring that makes this unit scary and what might be different?
When Army’s offense is rolling, Bradshaw is making all the right reads in the triple-option. Bradshaw is not a game-breaking threat. He has just three rushes of 20 yards or more this season. Bradshaw is a strong runner, who breaks tackles and moves the chains.
Jeff Monken is making strides. The defense is obviously vastly improved. Wins against teams like Temple, and Wake Forest are huge steps forward. But Army is 0-5 against fellow service academies. Is that the next step for Monken—beating Air Force and Navy? Two-thirds of the way through year three, does it feel like he’s on the right track?
Most Army fans would probably take a win over Navy in December breaking a 14-game losing streak to the Midshipmen over playing in a bowl game. The service-academy games carry that much weight. Army has improved its talent and toughness under Monken. The 31-12 loss to Air Force last week proves Army still has ground to make up amongst service academies.
The urgency for Notre Dame is obvious. You could say the same for Army. Is the formula different for a Black Knights win?
Army’s best chance for a win is to control the clock with its offense. Time-consuming touchdown drives are a staple in the triple option. When Notre Dame’s offense is on the field, Army needs to find a way to pressure DeShone Kizer. If Kizer has all day to throw, it could be a long day for the Black Knights.
Notre Dame lost defenders Julian Love and Drue Tranquill to head injuries against Navy. The freshman cornerback and junior safety will both return to practice, per Brian Kelly, though neither will be full contact yet.
“Tranquill and Julian Love, they will go to practice today,” Kelly said during his Tuesday press conference. “They will practice in a non-contact fashion. If everything goes well, they’ll be clear for contact tomorrow.”
Before being pulled from the game for precautionary reasons, Love was playing excellent football at cornerback. He was active in run support, and finished behind just Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan in tackles with eight, including one TFL. Kelly praised the way Love played, the freshman from Chicago a quick study against a difficult assignment.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a true freshman play the triple option as well as he did,” Kelly said of Love. “He was really good before he got dinged. He was running to the football, playing off cut blocks, playing physical, playing smart, very, very good. In terms of assignments, in terms of physicality, in terms of tackling it was really good.”
While PFF had Tranquill leading the Irish with four missed tackles, he’s been a key contributor against the option (when healthy). And against an Army attack that’ll likely pressure the edges more than Navy, the junior will be asked to play a key role in slowing down Army quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw.
One position where things don’t look quite as optimistic is defensive tackle. Junior Daniel Cage is set to meet with a concussion specialist after leaving the Miami game with a concussion.
“He’s made some progress, but anytime that somebody’s in their second week and has not fully gone through the stages as we see them, we’d like to get a second opinion and make sure that everything is good,” Kelly said.
That leaves the Irish needing more from the position, with Jarron Jones being the likely answer there. Jones played just 12 snaps against Navy, a decision that looked preventative more so than strategic, when you consider the fact that the Irish defense forced a stop in both series that the fifth-year senior played. When pressed for details on Jones’s absence on Tuesday, Kelly sounded like that might change in a must-win scenario like this Saturday.
“I think he wants to play a lot this week,” Kelly said, steering away from specifics when pressed. “We’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and we’ll see what happens.”
Kelly hopes experience can help turn close losses into wins
As Notre Dame’s season gets darker and darker, the calls for change grow louder. So whatever happens these next three games, Brian Kelly—if Jack Swarbrick hasn’t changed his mind—will likely face the biggest offseason of his coaching career.
He’ll need to find a new defensive coordinator. He’ll have to address other potential coaching changes. And after yet another week where Kelly’s game management came up short in a tight game, the head coach will also have to evaluate his own in-game thought process.
But even as the Irish rack up their sixth loss in nine tries, even as Kelly’s record in South Bend tumbles closer and closer to .500, the seventh-year head coach believes that improvement will come from making progress doing the things they’re working on, rather than making wholesale changes.
“If you look at the six games that we’ve played, what needs to change is a little bit better play calling here, maybe a little bit better execution there, and players just maturing,” Kelly said on Sunday. “All these guys pretty much are going to be back. And when they are put into similar situations that we have all grown from them, and we flipped six very difficult losses into six wins, and we are sitting in a better position.”
Finding ways to flip those games from losses to wins isn’t very hard. But believing that experience will be what cures those ills—than another year will simply solve the problem–is a much tougher pill to swallow. So whether it’s a message Kelly’s sending just to keep his players and coaches on task or his actual belief, Kelly feels confident that the close games will turn once his team learns how to win.
“Look, if we’re losing 31-0, then changes are made or you’re playing younger players, and you know, that’s how you handle those situations,” Kelly said. “But when you know that your nucleus is maturing and getting better and is going to be the group that you’re playing next year, you’re just working on the finer details during the course of the year and during the course of your preparation.”
In a game decided by a single point, when the two team’s offensive totals nearly duplicate themselves, the outcome is expected to hinge on one or two plays. And down the stretch, with the game on the line, it was Navy that made the plays, and Notre Dame that did not.
Because the afternoon played out to the script that Ken Niumatalolo needed. Quarterback Will Worth executed the offense flawlessly. The Midshipmen’s defense got the red zone field goals they needed. And the Irish—even if the letter of the law shouldn’t have allowed it—made a critical mistake with their 12-men on the field penalty, allowing Navy’s offense back onto the field and eventually into the end zone.
With another painful one-score loss in the books, let’s get on with the good, the bad and the ugly.
Greer Martini. Back after a concussion last weekend, Martini led the Irish in tackles with 11, adding a TFL as well. It’s the type of production you come to expect from Martini, a highly intelligent football player who has become a bit of an option specialist for the Irish.
In his four games against option teams (three against Navy, one against Georgia Tech), Martini is now averaging more than nine tackles a game. That’s the type of play that’ll come in handy next weekend against Army and likely against Virginia Tech and USC as well.
Torii Hunter Jr.Notre Dame’s senior captain had a career high in catches (8) and yards (104) to go along with a touchdown in a losing effort. It was the first 100-yard game of his career and maybe more important than the statistical output was the fact that he bounced back after what looked like it could’ve been a serious knee injury.
Hunter hasn’t become the breakout performer we expected this season. A TJ Jones senior season has actually been more like Jones as a junior—steady, not spectacular, but usually reliable. That’s not enough. But you’ve got to give him credit for taking advantage of the matchup against Navy’s undermanned secondary.
Sam Mustipher. After putting up some ugly statistical games, Sam Mustipher was tied for the team’s highest grade along the offensive line with a +2.8. That’s a rebound after a tough few weeks for the Irish center, and his shotgun snaps all found their correct home as well.
Third Down Conversions. You wouldn’t know it, but the Irish actually out-converted Navy on third down, making nine of their 13 chances while the Mids only managed eight. And while there are still the third downs that got away, there was plenty of good on this crucial snap, like Equanimeous St. Brown‘s gritty catch and run along with DeShone Kizer’s shoulder-lowering scramble.
Good job, good effort.
The Safety Play. Drue Tranquill had built a reputation as one of the team’s top option defenders. But Tranquill had a poor game tackling in space, missing a handful of big tackle before he was taken out of the game for what looks to be a concussion.
Tranquill had been building on some strong play of late, so this step backwards was a surprise. Certainly more so than the challenges Devin Studstill had, the freshman safety struggling to react to the counter option and get quickly into his run responsibilities.
Put simply, Tranquill was a guy the Irish defense desperately needed to play well if they were going to get the stops they needed on defense. He didn’t and the entire Irish defense paid dearly.
Learning on the job. The play won’t hold a spot in the history of this rivalry like Ram Vela’s flying game-winning stop, but Troy Pride being flattened with a bone-crushing block as the Midshipmen converted a 3rd-and-long for a game-changing touchdown certainly is the lasting image from the game.
The freshman cornerback was knocked to eternity on a gigantic block right after fellow freshman Julian Love was also caught on a crack block. The two hits opened the sideline to Navy’s Calvin Cass who rumbled in for a gigantic, game-changing 37-yard touchdown.
The youth movement didn’t stop this week just because of the triple-option. And in a game that hinges on the Irish defense reading and reacting as quickly as possible, the freshmen seeing and doing things for the first time came up just a bit short, though did gain valuable in-game experience.
Donte Vaughn played 46 snaps, Studstill 39, Julian Love 36 (before he went into concussion protocol), Jalen Elliott 30, Pride 19, and redshirt freshman Asmar Bilal 12. All will hopefully carry that knowledge into the Army game next weekend.
Jarron Jones. A week after playing the game of his career, Jones played just 12 snaps. It’s a decision that made little sense on Saturday and not much more after Kelly explained the rationale on Sunday afternoon during his conference call.
“It really is a whole different animal relative to option. He’s got a job to do, and you know, he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set because, you know, he’s got to play gap and he has a responsibility,” Kelly explained. “If they choose to run triple option, even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and he’s getting upfield, they are going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So you could take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive, and so it really neutralizes players like him and when you play a team like Navy.”
Nick Coleman. I was a fan of utilizing Coleman more against the option, the aggressive sophomore cornerback capable of playing run support better than coverage. But with the game on the line and a critical third-down passing play dialed up, Coleman ran through the back of the Navy receiver and handed the Midshipmen a free first down.
Coleman was expected to be the team’s third cornerback, a key piece of the puzzle especially after Devin Butler went down and then was suspended. His season has been a disaster.
A Misinterpreted Replay Ruling.
Brian Kelly expanded on what he said postgame, namely that the replay officials shouldn’t have gotten involved in the call for 12-men, nor should they have made it.
A photo of the snap shows Devin Studstill within a step of the sideline, close enough that Kelly believes a flag shouldn’t have been thrown—let alone replay called in to reverse things.
“The rule clearly states that if he is one step from the sideline, then it is not a reviewable play,” Kelly said Sunday. “Very similar to when I had asked earlier in the game for a review on a Tarean Folston run, I was told by the official on the field that it was not reviewable because his forward progress was deemed stopped, so it could not be reviewed. This would be a similar situation where the play could not have been reviewed if he was within one step of the sideline after the ball being snapped.”
With an American Athletic Conference on-field crew and an ACC replay crew, there was obviously some miscommunication. And Kelly hopes that there can be a national standard set so this type of thing doesn’t happen moving forward.
“[There’s] really a need for uniform and nationalized replay when you have different conferences with different ways of looking at specific plays,” Kelly said. “We’re the only sport that doesn’t have that, so I hope that affect the some form of conversation that we can get to a nationalized replay situation.”
Here’s the rule on the reviewed illegal substitution. ACC crew should not have allowed the review. Appears clear cut after a second look. pic.twitter.com/yjdFxhHduN
Having too many players on the field. Mechanics and blown calls aside, that this is even an issue is ridiculous. As I mentioned in the Pregame Six Pack, a special teams blunder would be catastrophic. Especially against Navy.
And sure enough, this time it was because the Irish didn’t have enough time to go from their regular defense to their punt safe team.
“They are a team that obviously goes for it quite a bit on fourth down. So we had our base defense. We were in a safe punt situation,” Kelly explained. “So you’re keeping your defense out there till the very last second and they raced their team out there quickly and we should have obviously not cut it as close as we did.”
Never getting the ball back. Kelly better explained his rationale for taking the three points off of Justin Yoon’s foot rather than attempting to get the first down on 4th-and-4.
“Look, here is my way of thinking. I kicked into the wind in the third quarter for a reason, and that was to take the wind in the fourth quarter with a thought that the field goal would win the game in the fourth quarter.
“We had many chances to get off the field. We had 3rd-and-9s, 3rd-and-7s, 4th-and 6. We had our own chance to pick up a first down on the offensive side of the ball. They are easily disputed, but I think it was the right call to make it 28-27 with a field goal and the wind to your back to win the game in the kind of game that we played.”
The defense didn’t get off the field, with all those conversions—and all three of Notre Dame’s timeouts—still not getting the ball back with 7:30 of game remaining. So even if you can understandably argue Kelly’s point of view, it doesn’t make it any better.
Two games this season, Kelly has bet on his defense getting a stop and lost. And at this point, it’s hard not to notice the trend of the head coach’s 50-50 decisions going against him and the Irish. That’s likely to happen when you see a team find so many different ways to lose close games, but if this team is going to learn how to win their head coach needs to coach to win, too.