Brian Kelly

Jacob Matuska, Reggie Bonnafon

Young defensive front up for another challenge against USC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will Fuller, Nick VanHoose
100 Comments

A little less than 48 hours after Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern, it doesn’t seem like too many people are over it. So let’s dispense with the introductions and pull the band-aid.

Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s disastrous 43-40 loss to the Wildcats.

 

GOOD

Will Fuller. Right now, Notre Dame’s sophomore wide receiver has 13 touchdowns, tied for the lead in the NCAA, and on pace to break Golden Tate’s record of 15 scores in his Biletnikoff Award-winning junior season.

Once again, Fuller had a monster day, scoring three times on his nine catches for 159 yards. He beat a good Northwestern secondary on deep routes, screen routes and everything in between. He also dropped two or three balls, reminding you that Fuller is still a work-in-progress, an exciting proposition as we look to the future.

 

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back bounced back, running for 106 yards on 20 carries Saturday. He scored a nifty touchdown on a spin move at the goal line, and also showed the type of vision and patience that’s become a staple of his game.

While it feels like we saw too much of Cam McDaniel or grumbled every time Folston wasn’t in the backfield, he had five times as many rushing opportunities as McDaniel, who gained 12 yards on his four runs — including the game-turning fumble when the Irish were trying to run out the clock.

 

Matthias Farley. Another game, another really big play for Farley, who is turning into one of the lone bright spots on a defense that’ll be discussed for much of the “Bad” section. The senior (with a fifth-year available) stepped in front of a pass near the Irish goal line and returned it 39 yards.

Farley is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. His 6.5 tackles-for-loss are also tied for the team lead. It’s been a nice bounce-back season for the veteran who struggled last year at safety.

 

Forcing Turnovers. Notre Dame forced four of them. (And nearly a fifth that would’ve iced the game if it didn’t bounce from the arms of two diving defenders and squirt out of bounds.)

And Austin Collinsworth’s scoop and score was the defense’s first touchdown after Max Redfield’s block on Devin Gardner nullified Elijah Shumate’s pick six.

 

BAD

The Defense. So it’s gotten ugly. Really ugly. Just how ugly? Historically ugly.

This five-game run is the worst in the history of Notre Dame football for allowing points. Per BlueandGold’s Lou Somogyi, the doldrums of 2007 saw the Irish give up 166 points to open the 2007 season. This five-game streak has seen the Irish give up 211.

To keep everything under this one stench-filled lid, let’s go through the bullet points.

  • Tackling. Boy, it got comical for a bit out there. For as nice of a season as Cole Luke has had, I think he’s still trying to drag down a receiver while futilely punching at the football. That’s not to say Luke was alone, as it was a group fail out there, as the Irish turned the least explosive offense in power-five football into a group of worldbeaters.
  • The First Half. Lord only knows how many more points Northwestern would’ve scored had they not gotten hit with a rash of the drops. But the Irish’s first-half effort against the Wildcats’ version of hurry-up was likely (hopefully) rock bottom for this group.Having rewatched the game twice over the weekend, I’ll spare the gory details. But the ground game had major breaches, the pass defense allowed the chains to move early and often (Northwestern converted just 8 of 20 third downs, but it sure felt like a lot more), and the situational awareness of this group continues to be really distressing.
  •  Injuries. I’m listing this third for those of you who like to take to the comments and accuse me of being too kind. But at this point, it’s difficult to call this defense Notre Dame’s, when in a perfect world half of this group would be watching and learning still.We’ll find out more about Sheldon Day’s future this season on Tuesday, as the junior defensive tackle had an MRI yesterday to take a look at his knee. The same with freshman tackle Daniel Cage, who has played some impressive snaps this season. But the front seven of this football team — a group that had no margin for error from a depth perspective during training camp — has hit a critical state.The secondary isn’t much better. Getting Austin Collinsworth back was a nice boost, but the captain isn’t a great fit as an “in space” defender. But when you’re counting on a guy with a shoulder harness and a cornerback with a broken foot to be two key components, it’s going to result in 10-catch days for Kyle Prater.

 

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s senior specialist had a horrific day at the office. He missed two key field goals that ended up being critical points. He also struggled punting the football, with two big misses setting up the Wildcats with great field position.

Brindza had help — a botched hold by Malik Zaire set up Brindza’s blocked extra point. But the senior kicker hooked a 38-yard field goal as the first half ended that could’ve extended Notre Dame’s halftime lead to a touchdown. The senior kicker also missed a crucial field goal in overtime, hooking another ball left to gift wrap the Wildcats’ victory in their first possession of overtime.

Punting the football was also a struggle. Brindza’s first bad punt — a 27-yarder — gave Northwestern the ball near midfield. It didn’t bite the Irish, with the defense stopping the Wildcats on a missed pass on 4th-and-3 in the second quarter.

But on 4th-and-9 from the Northwestern 44, Brindza took the field with an 11-point lead and the opportunity to pin the Wildcats deep with six minutes left in the game. Instead, he shanked a 17-yarder that jump-started Northwestern, with the Wildcats going nine plays and 73-yards in just 1:58.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading field goal kicker is making just 57 percent of his kicks this year, dropping his career average down to a musty 72 percent. With the center exchange and holder problems the Irish have had, it’s certainly not all on him. But a key veteran on the Irish roster is struggling… a recurring theme that we’ll get to later.

 

Drue Tranquill. Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder tried to get a good football game out of Tranquill this weekend at safety, starting the freshman in place of Max Redfield. The move backfired in a big way, with Tranquill near or around many of the big Northwestern plays that went the Wildcats way.

On Sunday, Kelly explained his rationale for starting Tranquill.

“We thought that Drue gave us a better chance at that position,” Kelly said, a few questions before explaining the logic. “The game comes a little bit easier at times. Max is learning the game still. Drue has a little bit better feel for the game. It doesn’t mean he’s there. He certainly made a lot of mistakes in his first start. But we just felt like tackling and football knowledge, he may have been a guy that we wanted to give a shot, and we gave him a shot at starting, and now we’ll evaluate where we are at that position today and tomorrow.”

In defense of the decision, Kelly and VanGorder likely figured that a heavy dose of run plays and short passes would allow Tranquill to thrive in tight spaces, as he’s shown that ability through the earlier part of the season. But as a true, half-field safety, the freshman struggled mightily, showing a frustrating lack of success when it came to the basics of the position.

As a wake-up call to Redfield, this might work. We saw the sophomore make a big play on special teams and eventually work into the rotation at safety. But Tranquill sure isn’t a free safety — something Kelly said openly last month — and you have to wonder if Eilar Hardy will get some work against Louisville, even though he spent two months collecting dust away from the program while the academic investigation played out.

 

UGLY

The Guys in the Headsets. It was not a banner day for the guys in charge of the Irish football program. While thousands of angry diatribes have already beaten the decision to go for two points to death, it’s still a head-scratching decision by Brian Kelly that allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game and ultimately win it.

Pinning this defeat on one mistake is completely unfair though. It was a team loss, with the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline and in the box all sharing the blame.

But after 10 games, it’s clear that this coaching staff needs to protect the team from itself. Offensively, that means putting some shackles back on the unit, even if it takes away from the productivity. While the box score will show complete play-calling balance with both 40 runs and 40 passes, the red zone play-calling had some people scratching their heads and allowing this offense to continue to turn the ball over has people shockingly asking for a return to the vanilla days of yesteryear.

Defensively, it’s very difficult to put all of this on Brian VanGorder. Especially when the first-year coordinator has more first-year contributors on the field than players who actually know what they’re doing. But too often we saw a defensive front with just Nyles Morgan behind it, the type of alignment that everybody in the stadium knows won’t work. Epecially as the freshman still sees things for the first time.

Any talk of firing coaches or hypothetical hot seats is silly. I repeat. Any talk of firing coaches or hot seats is silly.

After all, the game plan was there for Notre Dame to win if the guys on the field even competently did their jobs. But sometimes you win by not putting yourself in a position to lose.

That might need to be the strategy moving forward.

 

Leadership. If this team is missing anything, it’s a strong leadership presence in the locker room. And if this team is crying out for one thing more obvious than anything else, it’s a leader among men on the field.

Yes, I know the Irish have Cam McDaniel, Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day and Nick Martin wearing the “C” on their chests. But there is a gulf between the guys leading the team on the field and the ones supposed to be leading it off of it, and that was apparent in a game like this one.

I am not in the locker room. And this isn’t a “call out” or some hand grenade meant to indict a team that by all reports is doing everything their coaching staff asks. But the best players on this roster aren’t the team’s best leaders, and that’s incredibly apparent in games where you need veteran leaders to lead by example on the field.

That didn’t happen on Saturday, with Cam McDaniel fumbling the game away in a kill-the-clock situation. Or kicker Kyle Brindza, a four-year veteran, and not just a specialist, punting and kicking Northwestern back into the football game. (The Irish field goal/PAT unit was on the field seven times. They scored four points and gave up two. That’s not good.)

It’s not all the captains fault. Austin Collinsworth scored a key touchdown, in his only true action this season after being injured in the days before the opener. Sheldon Day may be Notre Dame’s most unblockable defensive lineman, but his first sack of the season came not long before suffering an injury. Nick Martin’s leadership skills don’t likely extend beyond the offensive line, a product of starting just 10 games before this season and being in the shadow of his older brother for three seasons.

There was a lot of discussion about naming captains this preseason. Ultimately, Kelly decided on veteran leaders, naming four guys who have “been there” in McDaniel, Collinsworth, Martin and Day. But the “loyal soldiers” approach hasn’t exactly paid off. And you’re fair to wonder if not having Everett Golson and Joe Schmidt wearing Cs is hurting this program.

Golson has been the face of this team, wearing the struggles of the offense on a weekly basis. That ownership is recognized by his teammates. Schmidt was the MVP of the defense before his injury. A force of nature on and off the field, he’s far removed from any walk-on label that still sticks to him in the media.

One of the challenges of a young team is straddling the line between the present and the future. Nine of the top 10 leading tacklers on defense have eligibility remaining. Same with the offense, where only McDaniel, Ben Koyack and Christian Lombard exhaust their eligibility from the two-deep.

If the Irish want to find a way to be successful in these final two regular season games, they’re going to need to find leadership both on the field and in the locker room from an emerging cast of characters. Schmidt can’t do it, not with a cast on his leg.

But the opportunity is there for Everett Golson, Tarean Folston or Will Fuller to seize those reins on offense, demanding accountability from a group that hasn’t played with it. And after looking lost without Schmidt by his side, Jaylon Smith is the obvious answer on a defense searching desperately for one.

In times like these, a bunker mentality is needed. We’ll see who takes charge moving forward in a critical juncture for the program.

High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts

Joe Schmidt
89 Comments

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.

 

SUDDEN CHANGE DEFENSE

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

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RED ZONE DEFENSE

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

source:

 

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
158 Comments

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 GOOD

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.

 

THE BAD

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.

 

THE UGLY

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
23 Comments

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.”