Tag: Brian Kelly

Joe Schmidt

High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts


Heading into the season, questions surrounded Notre Dame’s defense. With key starters gone at every position, the strength of Brian Kelly’s previous four teams would need to replace a cast of characters that played a lot of really good football.

Add to that the departure of Bob Diaco, and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not only taking over a depth chart with really limited experience, he’d be teaching that group an entirely new system, a complex scheme that developed over the past 10 years, mostly in the NFL.

Through nine games, the results have been a mixed bag. There have been high-water marks: The first-ever shutout of Michigan.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

There have been struggles: North Carolina’s up-tempo attack and Navy’s triple option. But for the most part, the play of the defense — a group that lost key starters Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell in training camp — has been impressive.

That Notre Dame’s rush defense would rank 38th in the country after losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from the front four (from a defense that finished 71st in the same category in 2013) should have just about every Irish fan jumping for joy. Especially when you look at the youth up front — only Sheldon Day and Justin Utupo are the only upperclassmen (from an eligibility perspective) in the regular rotation.

Even the Irish secondary is holding its own. Playing a man-heavy coverage scheme that’s put in high-leverage situations as VanGorder utilizes multiple blitz looks to get pressure on the quarterback, the secondary has held up. The loss of Russell, expected to be an All-American-caliber player, crushed the depth at cornerback.

Injuries to captain Austin Collinsworth, safety Nicky Baratti, and most recently cornerback Cody Riggs, haven’t helped either. (Also add in the suspension of Eilar Hardy until last week and the likely redshirts of Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown, two seniors who’ll probably finish their football careers elsewhere in 2015.) Ranked a respectable 61st in the nation, the Irish are giving up 226 yards a game through the air, with their 13 interceptions nearly matching the 14 touchdown catches they’ve allowed.

So what’s been the problem exactly? Why did a team that gave up just 12 points a game through the first five Saturdays of the season turn into a group that’s given up 42 points a game in the next four?

Two critical areas: Sudden Change Defense and Red Zone Defense.

To be clear, this isn’t just a defensive problem. And all the focus on Everett Golson and his turnover struggles have made that abundantly clear. Those turnovers have forced a young group into some high-leverage situations, and when the stakes have been at their highest, VanGorder’s defense just hasn’t been able to get the stops.

Let’s take a closer look at two reasons why the Irish have been giving up more points. After being stout in these two critical areas the past two seasons, Notre Dame’s opponents are cashing in at a far better rate.



Our measurement of sudden change defense looks at the drives coming right after a turnover. For simplicity of statistics, we’re counting interception and fumble returns for touchdowns as sudden change scores, another indicator of the shared blame between the offense and defense.

A quick look at the last three seasons shows just how far the Irish are lagging behind in this critical measurement. Through nine games, the Irish have already turned the ball over 19 times, that’s more than last season’s total of 17 and more than the 15 turnovers the Irish had during their 2012 run to the BCS title game.

Just as critically, the Irish’s response to those turnovers has been far worse than the previous two seasons. Notre Dame has given up scores on 12 of those turnovers, with 11 of those coming as touchdowns. In no game has this stat played more prominently than against Arizona State. The 28 points the Irish gave up off of turnovers is the main reason Notre Dame won’t be competing for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Reaching a conclusion on why this change has occurred would be a lot of guess work. Young personnel could be playing tighter in critical situations. An abundance of scheme might make it difficult to play-call in the immediate aftermath of a turnover.

Practice priorities for VanGorder, who is still likely installing and coaching up the basics, might limit the time this group has for these moments during the week. Or it could just be rotten luck and good execution by the opponent. (That, and there is no defense for a pick six.)

In the moments following the loss to Arizona State, I asked Kelly what the change has been in Sudden Change situations.

“Couldn’t tell you,” the coach replied.


Sudden Change Opportunities





Where the struggles have been the most obvious are in the red zone. Put simply, once an opponent gets inside Notre Dame’s 20-yard line, they’ve scored far more often than in years past. After being among the best defenses in the country the past two seasons in the scoring areas, the exact opposite has taken place this season.

Notre Dame is an awful 97th in traditional red zone defense. That number gets even worse when you look at touchdowns, where the Irish rank 114th in the country.

Again, the reasons for these difficulties are puzzling. Notre Dame’s rush defense is better on whole than it was in 2013, yet that certainly turns inside the 20. And while Bob Diaco’s 3-4 base scheme often gave opponents a little to prevent giving them a lot, once the field shrunk, Diaco’s defense stiffened considerably.

In the red zone, the margin for error drastically drops. Perhaps this is where the learning curve is most distinct. With young players along the defensive front, attacking linebackers still understanding the fundamentals of their responsibilities, and a secondary playing new starters across the board, it doesn’t take long for a mistake to turn into a touchdown.

We’ve heard Kelly continually talk about the need for communication. There’s no doubt that this is one of those places where communication is key. It’s also worth looking at the personnel construct of this unit. After playing large, big-bodied defenders all across the front seven, the 2014 defense is the opposite. Joe Schmidt (and now Nyles Morgan) and Jaylon Smith give up quite a bit of heft to Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Jarrett Grace. The freshmen playing along the defensive line won’t be mistaken for Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.

Drawing too many conclusions about scheme change or coaching mistakes without taking into full consideration just how different the personnel is between this year and last isn’t necessarily fair. But regardless of the reason, the drop off in the red zone has been startling.


Red Zone Defense



Reaching Conclusions

If anything, looking at the numbers from the past few years should give you greater appreciation of the units the Irish have featured. When put into difficult situations, the defense carried this team — and no time more obvious than in 2012.

Notre Dame’s sudden change defense was as outstanding as their success in the red zone. While limiting their turnovers to just 15 with a first-year quarterback behind center, what the defense did once the offense turned the ball over was nothing short of astounding.

Against Navy, Everett Golson’s first interception was immediately followed by Stephon Tuitt’s fumble-return for a touchdown. Against Michigan, the Irish pushed the Wolverines back 15 yards in three plays before Brendan Gibbons missed a field goal. Golson’s second interception was negated when Manti Te’o picked off Denard Robinson.

You can go on and on.Somehow, Notre Dame’s defense continuously took an opponent’s opportunity at a momentum swing and turned it into one for the Irish. Bennett Jackson picked off a pass after Golson fumbled against Stanford. The Irish forced a punt on another Golson fumble against the Cardinal, only allowing a score because Stanford’s defense put up the seven points after sacking and stripping Golson in the end zone.

That special season continued in the red zone. It was a product of great personnel playing a scheme that demanded — and received — assignment correct football.

Even with Alabama going five-for-five in red zone touchdowns, the Irish finished third in the country in touchdowns allowed in the red zone. Their final regular season numbers were incredible, just eight touchdown in 33 red zone appearances. Numbers like those are a large reason why that defense will go down among the best in school history.


There are still four more games in 2014, giving the depleted Irish defense plenty of opportunities to improve in the season’s final quarter. That gives VanGorder and Kelly not just the next three weeks to get better, but the month of bowl preparations, a huge developmental time for a team looking to do even bigger things in 2015.

Next season can wait. For this young group to make progress, they’ll need to do a better job of coming up big in the critical moments.



The good, the bad and the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State

Lloyd Carrington, Everett Golson

Give Brian Kelly credit. He found an appropriate nickname for the egg the Irish laid Saturday afternoon, dubbing it, “The Debacle in the Desert” during his Sunday post-mortem teleconference. That game shook the core of the Irish, with Everett Golson’s five-turnover afternoon ending Notre Dame’s playoff chances in a first half from hell.

With Northwestern heading to South Bend on Saturday, the final three games of the season will test the mettle of Kelly’s young football team. With their playoff hopes destroyed, the goal is altered, but a ten-win regular season is still a tremendous achievement — it would be only the third in the past dozen years.

Let’s dig in to this week’s good, bad, and ugly before closing the books on the Sun Devils.



The Wide Receivers. Outside of one really bad, back-breaking drop by Corey Robinson, it was a nice afternoon by Notre Dame’s skill players.

The Irish receivers had explosive afternoons, with Will Fuller leading the way and slot receivers C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle doing their jobs as well. Facing aggressive man coverage for a lot of the afternoon, the Irish made the Sun Devils pay, racking up 446 receiving yards, most coming in the second half.


The Rally. It’s a stretch to give a team credit for correcting their already fatal mistakes, but the Irish made this game pretty interesting down the stretch. While the final score won’t reflect it, Notre Dame had ASU on the ropes, needing to get one defensive stop but coming up short.

Of course, falling behind 34-3 seems all but impossible against this football team. But fumbles, interceptions and deep balls tell the quick story, until the Irish regrouped at half time and made a game of it.

Notre Dame’s second half was the type of football Kelly expected from his team, with the Irish outgaining Arizona State 314-164 in the second half. The Sun Devils also continued to play aggressive in coverage and move at tempo on offense, giving the Irish an unlikely chance to be in the game with six minutes remaining, a miracle considering Notre Dame flushed 10 more points down the drain in the second half with a goal line interception and a botched field goal attempt.


C.J. Prosise & Amir Carlisle. After struggling with consistency earlier this season, Prosise has really rounded into form. His ability to turn a quick screen into a big play helped turn the momentum around for the Irish. He broke another big play in the second half that went for 59 yards and set the Irish up for a score.

Prosise seems to have found his home at slot receiver, a capable duo with Amir Carlisle, who is back to full speed after a knee injury against Purdue. Carlisle looked great as well, breaking a great catch and run on his own screen pass, not to mention the touchdown on broken coverage that pulled the Irish within three points.


The Second Half Defense* (*Until the six-minute mark)

The Irish came out for the second half with the right defensive adjustments. The understaffed group got after the Sun Devils, forcing punts when needed and allowing the Irish offense to slowly make their way back into the ball game. They even forced a critical turnover.

Jumping between a three and four-man front, Notre Dame got some solid play from a group of unsung players, with Andrew Trumbetti, Justin Utupo and Grant Blankenship all taking key snaps up front. But after making significant progress, Mike Norvell’s ASU offense took over with the ball and a three-point lead and marched down the field for a decisive score to extend their lead to 10-points.

(The rest of this belongs in the bad column.)


Matthias Farley. At this time last year, Farley was getting kicked down the alley, playing his way out of the starting lineup and out of the two deep as well. We thought that his position switch to cornerback — the deepest position (at the time) on the roster –this spring was the result, not an actual scheme-tweak to help the senior find a better home.

Right now, Farley is playing some really impressive football. Given a tough assignment at nickel back, Farley had a critical interception when the Irish were rallying, and also made two tackles for loss, including one sack. While his limitations sometime expose themselves, he’ll make more good plays than bad, and he certainly did that on Saturday.



Everett Golson’s ball security. At this point, it feels like beating a dead horse. But Golson’s struggles holding onto the football are damaging the very foundation of Notre Dame’s offense. Golson fumbled on the Irish’s first two possessions. He luckily recovered the first, and was not so lucky on the second.

(One play later, on a nifty pick play, the Sun Devils had their first touchdown.)

This isn’t a new problem. From the moment Golson stepped on campus, Kelly and the offensive staff took to breaking the quarterback of some very bad habits. While we’ve seen improvements in other parts of Golson’s game, the more trust this staff puts in Golson to clean up these self-inflicted mistakes, the more difficult it becomes to put up with the crushing mistakes.

After the game, Kelly wasn’t willing to get into specifics, but pointed to the obvious.

“It’s one of the deals where you take one step forward and two steps back, and then he comes back in the second half and he does some really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s got to strive for consistency.  If he plays clean in the first half, who knows where we’d be right now.”

(You’d be 8-1, coach.)


The Offensive Line Play. What a frustrating performance by the five men in charge of taking care of the quarterback. Arizona State blitzed the Irish offense into submission in the first half, giving up five sacks in the game’s first 22 minutes.

We can talk about the batted passes, both turning into touchdowns for Arizona State. We can talk about the missed assignments, inconsistencies that had Kelly scratching his head after practicing all week on the blitz schemes.

At this point, the progress the Irish showed up front the past few weeks has been flushed down the toilet. While Stanley seems to be at home playing left tackle, you could argue that the rest of the offensive line looks out of sorts. After struggling at tackle, Steve Elmer is making an argument that he’s not a right guard, either. Christian Lombard, whose “steady” play is why he’s starting instead of sophomore Mike McGlinchey, was far from solid on Saturday, whiffing on more than one occassion.

Kelly and Harry Hiestand settled on a starting five late in camp, eventually shifting things around after a few weeks. While most of us categorized it as a champagne problem because of an enviable depth chart, it’s turned out to be the fatal flaw of this group. While you’ve got to give Kelly credit for shifting early in the season, this unit still makes too many mental mistakes and gets beaten at the point of attack as well.

While there are still three important data points (and a bowl game) available for evaluation, next spring should be an open competition, as the riches of the past few recruiting classes deserve a chance to compete before everything spoils.


Quick Hits:

* For as many snaps as Ben Koyack has played this year, there were some pretty bad ones on display Saturday. Particularly in his protection of Golson. The senior tight end caught an ear full for inexplicably missing the block off the backside of Golson’s third interception, with the quarterback hit as he threw. He also plain whiffed on a few assignments that were head-scratchers, and his effort seemed to lack when it was vitally needed.

For a player expected to be one of Notre Dame’s most complete, Koyack laid an egg on Saturday.

* Elijah Shumate‘s pass interference penalty late in the second quarter could’ve been a big interception if Shumate would’ve showed the confidence to look for the football. That’s what Matthias Farley did after Taylor Kelly lofted a throw his way, and it became a game-changing interception. Shumate instead ran through a receiver.

* The Irish struggled defensively when Arizona State shifted late and moved at tempo. That’s part of the pain that comes with playing Nyles Morgan at middle linebacker, where the freshman was doing his best to read and react, but too often needed to think.

* Oh boy was Golson’s interception on the first drive of the third quarter a bad one. It would’ve been the perfect quick strike coming out of halftime. And to think it would’ve been a touchdown if Golson’s throw to Amir Carlisle on the post route wouldn’t have forced Carlisle to stumble just shy of the end zone.

* The short-yardage ground game left a lot to be desired. The Irish needed to use a bunch of clock to get running touchdowns, forced to go to fourth down to score on Cam McDaniel’s first plunge and third on his second score. Getting the touchdowns were key. But it took a lot of time.

* At this point, I don’t let Hunter Smith onto the field without gloves on. Or I change holders. For two guys (Scott Daly and Smith) who live together and eat and sleep the center exchange, there are just too many mistakes there, with the pressure of the moment likely crumbling the confidence of both players.

* Max Redfield made 10 tackles Saturday afternoon. But the one he missed on Arizona State’s critical scoring drive in the fourth quarter was rightfully criticized by Chris Spielman on the broadcast. With D.J. Foster tight-roping up the ASU sideline, Redfield had a chance to push him out of bounds shy of the first down. Instead, he went for what looked like a kill shot and ended up whiffing entirely.

That’s a brutal miss for the young safety and hopefully one he learns from.

* For as great as Corey Robinson‘s hands have been this year, the gift-wrapped interception he gave to Lloyd Carrington was a shocker.

* Notre Dame’s sudden change defense. I asked Kelly after the game what the difference was between the usually excellent sudden change defense the Irish played under Bob Diaco and the struggles the team is having now. He wanted no part of it.

In the moment, it’s a difficult question to answer. But when the Irish look back at this season and some of the wonderful progress they made with some really young players, they’ll need to spend some time focusing on their play right after turnovers. Brian VanGorder’s unit hasn’t done well when they absolutely need to, both in the red zone and coming off turnovers.



Inexplicable Mistakes. It’s difficult to get a grasp on what just happened on Saturday. The Irish went to Arizona State and really just short-circuited, with critical mistakes dooming Notre Dame and ending their hopes at a playoff bid. After putting together a nice, balanced, extended drive on their first possession, things fell apart. Maybe that’s too kind. Things shattered.

How this football team rebounds this weekend will be interesting. If Kelly has shown anything during his five seasons in South Bend, it’s that his team does not quit. So while the playoff chase is over, there’s plenty of work to do.

For the offense, it means that you can’t exchange five great plays for one terrible one. That’s essentially what the Irish did on Saturday, and no matter how prolifically they moved the ball in the second half, if you’re giving away the football it’s not going to matter.

With three games left, there is still plenty of story to write. But the Debacle in the Desert will be a loss hard to forget.



Pregame Six Pack: The showdown in the desert

William Fuller, Julian Whigham, Durell Eskridge

A tumbleweed blows by. Dust kicks up. Todd Graham saunters into the foreground, space-aged headset just off his cheek. Brian Kelly steps out from behind a saloon door. No, this isn’t the O.K. Corral, but Saturday’s (just after) high-noon showdown certainly has some drama baked into it.

Two teams will enter Sun Devil Stadium with hopes of joining College Football’s Playoff. Only one will exit. It’s not exactly Wyatt and Doc taking on the McLaury brothers, but the mid-afternoon showdown is one of the biggest games to come to Tempe in a long time, and Sun Devil fans are mighty excited.

So are the Irish. After stumbling through a hard-fought victory over Navy, Notre Dame gets another opportunity to beat a Top 10 opponent. This time, they’d be wise not to put victory in the hands of a back judge.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack before Saturday’s elimination game.


There are big games. And then there’s the Notre Dame game. Tempe will be ready to rock this weekend. 

In many ways, the best thing that ever happened to Notre Dame was former Sun Devils athletic director Steve Patterson taking to the radio waves to complain about Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick trying to move/cancel/whatever this football game.

Patterson, who high-tailed it out of Tempe to take the Texas AD job, called out Swarbrick last April on the radio and threw some Catholic guilt Notre Dame’s way.

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

Whether that grousing was what saved the game or not (I’m guessing it probably did), the result is super beneficial to Notre Dame just 19 months later. The Irish get a much-needed opportunity to beat a “top team” in the selection committees eyes, and reboot their stalled out pursuit of a final spot in the first College Football Playoff.

Arizona State has that same opportunity, but also gets the type of big game that they hoped to host when they agreed to a three-game series. So while Patterson may come from the Dave Brandon school of athletic administration (, mark this down as one of the few times that taking it public paid off.


Now the featured back in the Irish offense, Tarean Folston has the opportunity to emerge as a star.

While last year’s victory over Arizona State was the team’s most impressive feat, it was a turning point in the wrong direction for running back George Atkinson. After serving as the silver lining against Oklahoma, when his 148 yards on 14 carries looked like a potential light-bulb moment for the inconsistent back, Brian Kelly gave Atkinson the opportunity to seal his role as the team’s featured back against Arizona State.

Facing a defense that was giving up yards by the bushel, Atkinson was expected to feast against the Sun Devils front seven. Instead, he ran for just 54 yards on 18 carries, as Kelly rode Cam McDaniel down the stretch, with McDaniel gaining 82 yards on just 15 attempts. That opportunity basically spelled the end for Atkinson’s chances, eventually opening the door for Folston to ascend to the No. 2 job, a role he inched up from as the season rolled on, turning into the team’s best back down the stretch.

One year later, Folston enters the Arizona State game this season looking to make a similar move. To his credit, he’s already done something an Irish back hasn’t done since 2006, run for over 120 yards in two consecutive games.

Against the 90th ranked rushing defense in the country, expect to see a steady diet of Folston, and to have the sophomore back introduce himself to a national audience.


The defense will run through Nyles Morgan. And we’ll get our opportunity to see how ready the young linebacker is for the spotlight. 

Thursday evening, Kelly updated the local media on the progress young linebacker Nyles Morgan made this week. And according to the head coach, Morgan is going to handle playcalling for the defense, a sign that Morgan is ready for the responsibility that comes with the position.

“Nyles handled pretty much all of the communication. He did a great job this week and he’ll be the guy making the calls out there,” Kelly confirmed.

“He had a really good week and he’s extremely confident. Look, he’s not gonna be perfect. Certainly there’s gonna be a hiccup here or there, but he’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I think he had an excellent week.”

Sunday, Kelly said he expected sophomore Michael Deeb to back up Morgan in the middle, with the Tuesday depth chart update confirming that plan. But Thursday evening, Kelly said fellow freshman Greer Martini would serve as the primary backup, a sign that last week’s nine-tackle performance against Navy was no fluke.

The Irish will be incredibly young on the inside this week at linebacker. We’ll find out if it hurts them tomorrow afternoon.


We’ll find out Saturday afternoon if Will Fuller got Brian Kelly’s not-so-subtle message. 

Sometimes Brian Kelly uses the media to deliver a message for him. Usually, it’s in a subtle manner. In the case of Will Fuller, it wasn’t.

On Tuesday, Kelly took a question about Torii Hunter and used it as an opportunity to call out his sophomore wide receiver. After Fuller dropped a touchdown pass and generally slept-walked through Notre Dame’s 49-39 victory against Navy, the rising star has a chance to matchup with Jaelen Strong, one of the best receivers in the country.

Finding the way his players tick is a specialty of Notre Dame’s head coach. But digging one layer deeper into the showcase afternoon for Fuller presents an opportunity for Fuller to play big against a Sun Devils defense that plays a lot of man coverage, but also measure his talents against another one of Philadelphia’s finest, Jaelen Strong.

Strong’s road to the top of the Pac-12 receiving food chain is far from the one most-traveled. After just 17 catches and 318 yards as a senior at West Philadelphia Catholic, Strong headed to junior college instead of accepting offers from VMI, Villanova or Eastern Michigan. After sitting out his freshman season, he scored 15 touchdowns in 10 games for Pierce College. Then he chose Arizona State over offers from some of the best programs in the country.

Strong’s breakout 2013 season at ASU included a monster game against the Irish last season. While his 821 receiving yards best Fuller’s 599, Notre Dame’s sophomore has nine touchdown catches to Strong’s eight.

A week after failing to show up, Fuller needs to be at his best on Saturday afternoon. We’ll see if Fuller got Kelly’s message.


A year ago, Notre Dame managed to sack Taylor Kelly six times. Can they make Kelly’s afternoon miserable again?

Notre Dame’s pass rush dialed up its finest game of the year against Arizona State last season, with Prince Shembo unblockable at times and Taylor Kelly harassed and hurried in the Irish’s 37-34 victory.

The Irish defense held the Sun Devils at bay most of the afternoon, and after ASU made a fourth-quarter charge, Dan Fox’s pick six extended the lead to 10 points and the Irish held on from there. While Kelly’s stat line looked mighty pretty — 33 of 47 for 362 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish managed two interceptions and six sacks, ruining the afternoon of one of the Pac-12’s most efficient quarterbacks.

Not wanting to give away any specifics, Kelly credited the defense’s success to some coverage tweaks that they hadn’t shown in previous weeks. While Brian VanGorder has built this defense around scheme changes and confusing looks for an opposing quarterback, some wondered if that ability is hampered without Joe Schmidt in the middle of the defense.

It certainly doesn’t look like it will be.

“We have not simplified what we’re doing,” Kelly said Thursday. “I don’t think you can go into a game like this against that offense and play vanilla. If you do, it’s gonna be a long day. They’re just too good. They have a ton of answers. We have to be who we are.”


The Irish didn’t blink walking into Doak Campbell. We’ll see if they can do the same in Sun Devil Stadium. 

Swap out stadium lights for desert sun. And swap out the Seminoles’ war chant for a group of screaming students who’ve been camped out since Sunday.

Notre Dame showed the type of tunnel vision and big game preparation that they’ve displayed under Brian Kelly since he got the program up to speed in 2012. On Saturday, they’ll have another opportunity to walk into a road stadium and come out a victor. After preparing his team for a hostile atmosphere before traveling to Tallahassee, Kelly expects that experience to help his team be ready for business this weekend.

“We did a little bit of [extra preparation before] Florida State and I think we passed that test,” Kelly said. “We did less of that for Arizona State because we think we’ve kind of been there and done that. I think they know how to handle that. This is really about going out and executing and playing clean football. We have to play well. We have to play better defensively and we have to be more efficient on offense. I think it’s less about the things we had to concern ourselves at Florida state and more about what we do in this game.”

If there’s one message Kelly sent clearly at Florida State it was that he wasn’t coaching not to lose. The Irish played aggressively from the start, throwing deep on first down. He was daring on fourth down, showing confidence in the offensive line multiple times.

With his team looking to their coach for his lead, Kelly showed the type of confidence you want in a leader. That makes Saturday less about the opponent or the venue, but the players wearing gold helmets.

“For me, the most important thing is our guys play the kind of football they’re capable of playing,” Kelly said. “I want to win, right? That’s why we’re in this. We want to win the football game. I want us to play to the level we’re capable of playing. If we do that, then I expect us to win the football game.”



Sun Devils present major challenge for Irish (VIDEO)

USC v Arizona State

Brian Kelly met with the local media on Tuesday to discuss Notre Dame’s trip to Tempe this weekend. And the battle with Arizona State certainly has Brian Kelly’s attention.

A season after playing one of their best games in beating Todd Graham‘s squad in AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Kelly knows it’ll take a similar effort to emerge victorious. With quarterback Taylor Kelly finding his rhythm after missing three games with a foot injury, Kelly talked about the scheme offensive coordinator Mike Norvell employs.

“Offensively I think Mike Norvell, one of the best offensive coordinators in the country, does a great job. Great balance on offense. I think that’s one of the things that stands out right away,” Kelly said. “Their ability to run the football sets up their play action pass… Just a very dynamic offense that is multiple. Multiple formations, multiple personnel groupings, play fast. Very dynamic offense, and they have been for the last few years.”

Of course, Kelly has gotten to know the flip side of the football for the Sun Devils as well. After facing off with Graham as Tulsa, Pitt and Arizona State’s head coach, Graham and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson run an attacking, aggressive scheme that isn’t too different than the one the Irish go up against every day at practice.

“Defensively you’re going to get a very similar look that we try to employ. It’s an aggressive scheme, one that is going to try to take away the run but also try to get the ball away from you,” Kelly said.

That scheme has turned around after some high-profile struggles. Against UCLA, the Sun Devils defense melted down, giving up 62 points and 580 yards of offense. But after escaping Southern Cal on a Hail Mary pass to win 38-34, the defense has helped carry the team, giving up just 10, 10 and 16 points to Stanford, Washington and Utah last weekend.

Kelly talked about the changes to the Sun Devil defense, mostly in their ability to eliminate the big plays that killed them.

“There’s eight new players on that defense, so you could see that they’re understanding what they’re doing a lot better and what Coach Graham wants them to do,” Kelly said. “I think when we broke down the film, I think USC had three plays for 256 yards, three plays for 256 yards. I think they’ve eradicated some of those catastrophe type plays out of their defense.”


When it comes to the Irish, the biggest personnel change this week was the move of Nyles Morgan into the starting middle linebacker job. The depth chart now lists Morgan in front of Michael Deeb with Joe Schmidt done for the season after successful ankle surgery this morning.

Kelly was asked how the Irish defense will fare with a youngster in the middle of it, and the head coach was candid, especially when discussing Morgan’s inexperience.

“Look, Nyles has been here 12 weeks. He’s had 12 weeks of coaching, and Coach VanGorder is extremely confident in Nyles’ ability to go in there and play,” Kelly said. “We think we’ve got a guy that can go in there. His traits are pretty clear. He’s extremely athletic. We’ll put him in a position where he can help us win a football game on Saturday.”

Kelly quickly praised the freshman’s ability to dig in and prepare. He also talked about the tough teaching he’s already withstood this season, with VanGorder and Kelly not taking it easy on a young player that this staff believes has sky-high potential.

“We have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in, ‘You’re either going to quit or you’re going to be one of the best players that’s ever played here,'” Kelly explained. “We’re hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more. That’s the kind of kid he is.”


Outside of Schmidt’s season-ending injury, just about everybody else got out of the Navy game alive. A season after injuries collapsed the defensive depth chart, it should be all (other) hands on deck, with Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day and James Onwualu back to practice this afternoon.

“Our full medical would be James Onwualu was cleared yesterday through his concussion testing protocol, so he is cleared for practice today,” Kelly said. “Jarron had an ankle sprain which responded well to treatment, so he’ll be full go at practice today. Sheldon Day had a brachial plexus, so he responded well to treatment. He’s strong today, so he’s cleared for practice.”

While I watched a lot of Doogie Howser as a kid, in case you were wondering, “brachial plexus” is the medical term for “stinger,” so Day got out of a nasty collision with Onwualu in about the best condition you could ask for.


A week after emerging as one of the better wide receivers on the field against Florida State, sophomore Will Fuller disappeared on Saturday against Navy. While he scored his ninth touchdown of the season against the Midshipmen, his three catches for just 16 yards didn’t sit well with his head coach.

When Kelly was asked about redshirt freshman receiver Torii Hunter finding more snaps this weekend, Kelly turned the focus to his emerging star receiver.

“Well, if Will Fuller practices the way he did last week, [Torii] will get a lot more playing time, because that’s the way he played,” Kelly quipped.


After playing seemingly every road game with a primetime kickoff, last week ABC announced that kickoff will be in the 3:30 ET time slot, with a local kick scheduled for a relatively early 1:37 p.m.

The news was a surprise not just for fans, but for the Irish coaching staff as well. And while the logistics make for an easier return to South Bend after the football game, it’ll require a slight tweak to the standard away game schedule.

“We were in a routine of playing night games, so I mean, my preference, I’m a coach, so I’m a product of habit. I would have preferred the habit of playing night games,” Kelly said, when asked about his preference.

“Having said that, it will make no difference on the outcome of the game, whether it’s at noon, 1:30, 2:30, 6:30 or midnight. I’m used to getting in that routine for our football team. It might have been a little bit cooler at night. Other than that, no excuses, let’s go play.”

With high temperatures expected to be in the low-to-mid-80s on Saturday, the Irish have already started working with their nutrition team to add additional fluids to their diet.


Lastly, graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy had surgery today as he continues his battle with cancer. Kelly said that surgery was successful.

Pregame Six Pack: Another scare from Navy

USA Today Sports

As Notre Dame and Navy meet for the 88th straight time, we reach a familiar time of year and a particularly scary Saturday for the Irish. As ghosts and goblins prepare to roam the streets in search of trick or treat, the Irish coaching staff receives its annual scare in the form of a triple-option offense and a football team with nothing to lose.

That Notre Dame still plays Navy on an annual basis is a story in its own right. While most college football fans see it as an easy win for a team using tradition as an excuse for a mark in the win column, the truth is a far more noble endeavor.

While the story is well-told within Notre Dame circles, Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister did a great job retelling it, reminding Irish fans that during World War II, the Naval Academy kept the university’s doors open.

From Prister:

Notre Dame was in desperate need of students as the war and its repercussions cut significantly into its enrollment. The Midshipmen School and the V-12 Program began at Notre Dame in 1943, and by mid-war, civilian undergrads totaled only about 250. The rest of the enrollment was dedicated to the training of naval officers.

So closely tied was the University to the Naval Academy that Notre Dame’s football roster in 1943 included the “military status” of each player. Approximately 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame from 1942-46. In 1947, an Air Force detachment was established on campus.

In 1946, Admiral Chester Nimitz – who had accepted O’Donnell’s plea in 1941 – was presented with an honorary degree from Notre Dame. In 1947, Rear Admiral Cary Jones presented Notre Dame President Rev. John J. Cavanaugh with a commemorative plaque honoring Notre Dame’s “efficiency, patriotism and cooperative spirit.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh – Notre Dame’s president from 1952-87, and a former Navy chaplain, by the way – was a strong proponent of the Notre Dame-Navy football series.

“The Notre Dame-Navy connection is very close,” said Hesburgh, now 97, in 2013. “We’re like a big family…They’re always going to be on our schedule.”

For over 40 years, Navy remaining on Notre Dame’s football schedule meant a victory, with the Irish setting an NCAA record with 43-straight victories over the Midshipmen. But since Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo took the Navy football program to new heights, the matchup has turned into a battle far more befitting of college football’s longest running intersectional rivalry.

As we get to this week’s Pregame Six Pack, here’s a tip of the cap to a tradition worth honoring, even if it comes with pitfalls and challenges that make the Midshipmen one of the most grueling games on the schedule.


On a Saturday where one key battle should tell the story, Navy’s propensity to turn the football over is a very big problem for the Midshipmen. 

So much attention has been paid to Everett Golson’s turnover issues these past four games. Brian Kelly has made it clear that this weekend, those poor decisions and mistakes need to be eradicated, especially if Notre Dame wants to win in a convincing fashion.

“Everett knows what the charge is there running the offense,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got to be accurate. He’s got to be clean in terms of taking care of the football, and we’ve got to be on top of things offensively. If we’re not, it’s going to be a dogfight.”

But entering Saturday’s matchup with Navy, the Midshipmen’s struggles holding onto the football loom even larger. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows that the margin for error on Saturday is razor thin. And he knows for his team to be able to stay close, they’ve got to win the turnover battle.

That’s been the key stat when Navy has hung with Notre Dame. And that’s been the key problem for a 4-4 Midshipmen team that can’t afford to give the football away.

Navy ranks 106th in the nation in turnover margin. At a woeful -5 in the give-and-takeaway battle, the Midshipmen have no chance to beat Notre Dame if they end up giving the Irish offense more opportunities than they already get, and short-circuit offensive drives that serve two strategic keys (running the clock and scoring points).

Brian VanGorder’s defense has forced 15 turnovers this season, already surpassing their regular season total from last year. And if the Irish defense manages to make Keenan Reynolds play a poor game from a ball security perspective, the Irish should win running away tomorrow.


Passing the football won’t be a big part of Navy’s game plan. But the ability to protect the quarterback will be crucial for both teams. 

In the past, we’ve seen the Irish attack Navy’s defense in multiple ways. In last year’s 38-34 victory, Tommy Rees only threw the ball 20 times (two of those passes were intercepted). In the Irish’s 2012 blowout victory, Golson only attempted 18 passes (and Andrew Hendrix threw five times in mop-up duty), with the Irish running the ball 46 times for 293 yards.

Charlie Weis sometimes chose to attack Navy’s defense differently. While he stuck with running the football in 2008, down 21-7 in 2009, Weis had Jimmy Clausen throw almost exclusively against Buddy Green’s defense, completing 37 of 51 throws for 451 yards against the Midshipmen, with the Irish losing because they only managed to score only twice on their six red zone attempts.

That background is the long way to get to the pass rushing disparity in this football game. In years past, Navy has done an excellent job of scheming their way into being disruptive in the Irish pass game. But while the ghost of Ram Vela might still haunt Irish fans, the Navy pass rush has really struggled this season, managing only three sacks on the season. That’s good for a tie for dead last in all of college football.

On the flip side of the ball, while the numbers haven’t necessarily shown it, the Irish have been much better this season manufacturing pressure on quarterbacks. While they’ve only netted 13 sacks, that’s a big problem for the Midshipmen, because their offensive line is giving up sacks at an astonishing rate.

The Midshipmen have given up 15 sacks this season, good for a respectable 57th in the country. But Navy’s only attempted 86 passes this season. While Navy’s game plan might only include a half-dozen passing attempts on Saturday, getting Reynolds enough time to get the throw off is critical.

Consider this another place where the Irish could turn this game ugly quickly, especially if they get out to a big lead.


Let’s take a long trip down Memory Lane to see how Brian VanGorder plans on defending the option. 

We’ve already talked about the decade that’s come and gone since Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator has taken on the option.  But Saturday presents an interesting matchup when VanGorder will take on Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper as the Irish defense goes up against Navy’s triple option.

Jarron Jones already let slip the plan for Isaac Rochell to slide inside. That should be no surprise considering the Irish haven’t attempted to defend the option with a three-man front since the debacle in the Meadowlands in Navy’s lopsided 35-17 victory. Brian Kelly also pointed out that fifth-year senior Justin Utupo will see plenty of action, showcasing a great (albeit undersized) motor when pressed into duty last season.

In addition to a wonderful breakdown that looked at the changes the Irish made in their defensive schemes against Navy after the humiliating 2010 loss, our friends at OneFootDown went into the Way Back machine and dug out some footage of VanGorder’s Georgia defense taking on the option game of Georgia Southern.

VanGorder ran a base defense that looked an awful lot like a 5-2, rolling up two outside linebackers with a three-man front. And while the decade — not to mention Kelly’s four seasons of experience facing Navy — and the Irish personnel will likely mean a four-man front for the Irish, VanGorder’s scheme looks fairly similar to the one the Irish played out over the past few seasons.

Here’s the conclusion OFD reached after breaking down a lot of really old television footage.

To be honest, this video looked a lot like Notre Dame’s game against the Midshipmen. The three plays I covered in this post are almost exactly the same as three of the plays I covered in my Navy Review post.

This style of defense is “bend but don’t break” taken to an extreme. The offense can get 4-6 yards whenever it wants, and the defense has to count on a missed block or a penalty to stall the drive. One or two stops is all the defense really needs, since the offense can score at will. If the offense can’t get into the endzone or turns the ball over, then the defense has go back on the field and hope for another mistake.

What does this mean for Notre Dame’s game against Navy this season? Who knows. VanGorder didn’t exactly shut down Georgia Southern’s option attack, but Georgia blew them out thanks to some turnovers and big special teams plays.

Niumatalolo said his staff spent some time digging up film to see how VanGorder has defended the option in the past. I highly doubt they got much benefit out of a YouTube video that opens with score to a Michael Bay movie then switches to some awful alt-rock.

But if we’re looking for clues, this might be the best one available.


Let’s see if the Notre Dame ground game continues its ascent. 

It feels longer than two weeks ago, but last we saw Notre Dame’s offensive line, it was moving the line of scrimmage against Florida State’s defensive front. With Tarean Folston taking control of the running back battle with the Irish’s first 100-yard game of the season, keep an eye on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line on Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s starting five face a unique challenge against Navy’s defensive front, tasked with blocking faster and smaller defenders. That means the Irish offensive line is able to bully the Midshipmen, but only if they’re able to get their hands on them, forcing the Irish linemen to play with excellent technique first and foremost before moving the point of attack, something that’s been a challenge this season.

But after a breakthrough performance last year against the Midshipmen, let’s keep an eye on the distribution among the running backs Saturday night, especially if Kelly chooses to ride the running game. Kelly talked about Folston’s game against Florida State and how it’s earned him a move up, but not necessarily away from a committee-based approach.

“Standing here right now based upon his performance the last few weeks, he’s probably moved himself at the top of the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean that all the carries would necessarily slant his way,” Kelly explained.  “We’re still going to play all three backs…  I’ve said this a lot of times, we’re evolving.  As a carrier of the football, [Folston’s] earned more carries, but I think we clearly know the importance of all three backs and how they all meet the fit in terms of what we’re doing.”

In 2012, Cam McDaniel put himself on the radar with big games running the football as the Irish needed to burn clock with a lead, with his performance in the garbage time of a 40-point win over Navy getting things started. If the Irish get out front, riding McDaniel, or perhaps Greg Bryant, could be the springboard that either back could use to get momentum heading into the home stretch.


After facing some very good Navy quarterbacks, Keenan Reynolds presents a challenge unlike the others. 

There’s a very good reason Keenan Reynolds has already moved his way into the Navy football record books. The option quarterback might be the best to face the Irish in a very long time, even as injuries have wreaked havoc on his junior season.

Coming off a breakout game against San Jose State, Niumatalolo’s gamble to give Reynolds a few weeks off to get healthy comes at a perfect time for the Midshipmen, and not so much for the Irish.

After successfully moving Navy’s offense last season in a really impressive performance against Notre Dame, Reynolds will be asked to put on his superman cape once more, doing so behind an offensive line that’s struggled and after battling back from knee and throwing shoulder woes.

Asked what makes Reynolds so difficult to defend, Kelly praised Navy’s quarterback for his ability to be a creator as a ball carrier as well as being a deadly option triggerman.

“He’s not somebody that is interested in his own stats,” Kelly explained. “When you look at an option quarterback, if you give him the fullback, the fullback is going to get the football.  I think it starts with an unselfish quarterback, whose understanding of the system is superseding any of his individual stats and accolades.  That is number one.

“Number two, he is an outstanding depth athlete, and his ability to throw the football.  He’s not one-dimensional where you’d say, we’re just going to line up extra guys on the line of scrimmage because we know we can’t throw the football.  He’s an accomplished thrower of the football.  He can spin it on you and he can hurt you.  So I think that’s the second piece of that.

“And then the third is that he’s extremely elusive.  He’s put together pretty well.  He’s bigger than [former Navy quarterback Ricky] Dobbs, and because of that he seems to always fall forward for four or five yards.  When you look up there, it’s 2nd and 4, and he does a great job of obviously managing the down and distance.  I think those three things really stand out to me.”

While injuries and struggles up front derailed Reynolds from a dark horse Heisman candidacy before it could start, just one game after playing against Jameis Winston, the Irish have their hands full with another dynamic quarterback.


Start fast and Notre Dame could end this game early. Start slow? Buckle up for a long, grueling night. 

If setting the tone against Florida State was important, it may be even more important on Saturday night. Because a quick start could determine whether or not the Irish play a game like the ones in 2011 and 2012 or the slugfest that went down last season.

If you’re looking for a down-and-dirty way to tell how this football game goes, just look at the first two possessions for both teams. In 2011 and 2012, the Irish started quick and Navy didn’t. The result? Blowout victories.

In 2013, the Irish offense was just okay to start, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, but settling for a field goal on their second. That kept Navy in the game, especially after they matched touchdowns to open the game, and then played a far more efficient second quarter, with the Irish turning the ball over twice.

A look back to 2009 gives you almost the perfect look inside a Navy upset. The Irish’s first drive ended after three plays, with Robby Paris fumbling after a short completion. Navy converted two fourth downs on a touchdown drive. Notre Dame’s second drive ended on a Nick Tausch missed field goal. Navy went 74 yards in seven plays to go up 14-0. Adding insult to injury, the Irish got nothing when they went for it on 4th-and-Goal from the 3, with Clausen missed Duval Kamara in the end zone.

If history tells us anything, we’ll know fairly early how difficult this game will be for Notre Dame. And it’ll be determined by the Irish’s ability to execute from the start.