Pregame Six Pack

Pregame Six Pack: Another scare from Navy

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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.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Syracuse in the way of perfect September

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Win September. Sounds easy enough, but Notre Dame has only started 4-0 a dozen times since 1970 and just twice since the turn of the century. But by beating Syracuse on Saturday night the Irish have a chance to enter the most difficult stretch of their season on a perfect role.

Brian Kelly utilized his bye week to practice his young team hard, a rarity for the head coach. But with position shifts along the offensive line and a beat-up roster forcing youth into action, Kelly and his staff were still evaluating their personnel, making the early week off an opportunity for self-assessment.

“I think we found out a little bit more about our football strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said Thursday. “So, I think we addressed some of what we felt were some apparent weaknesses as we move forward and that we’re gonna play to some of our strengths.”

Notre Dame’s first road test is in familiar confines. Heading back to the New York metropolitan area to take on the Orange, they’ll play an away game in front of a crowd that very well could be pro-Notre Dame.

Here comes the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame battles Syracuse in another primetime affair.

 

As Notre Dame and Syracuse reunite in 2014, 100 years ago their battle help put the Irish on the national map. 

With Notre Dame and Syracuse playing for the first time since 2008, it’s worth taking a quick look back at the six previous games between the two programs. While they’ve come mostly in clusters (a two-game series in ’61 and ’63, three games in ’03, 05 and ’08), the first meeting a century ago is a game of some historical importance.

Notre Dame historian Jim Lefebvre took a look back at the game, where Jesse Harper brought his team east looking for a battle, and emerged with a program-defining 20-0 win over a Syracuse squad that had  stomped Michigan.

From Jim’s research:

The 1914 Notre Dame team traveled to Syracuse and beat The Orange 20-0 to solidify ND’s place among the football powers.

Notre Dame’s trajectory as a team that would play anyone, anywhere was set in 1913. After his hiring from Wabash College as ND’s head coach and athletic director, Harper set about creating a schedule that would take his squad to faraway places that simply didn’t appear on the schedule of other teams from the Midwest…

Referee and Chicago sportswriter Walter Eckersall observed: “Notre Dame’s decisive victory over Syracuse, 20 to 0…gives the Hoosier eleven an equal claim to the western championship with Illinois and Nebraska….The South Benders played good football against Syracuse…Notre Dame’s victory over the New York eleven, the team which decisively defeated Michigan, entitles it to recognition.”

The game Saturday night might not be one of the red letter matchups on the Irish schedule this year, but it certainly carries a bit of significance.

 

Matching up Notre Dame’s receivers with a suspect Syracuse secondary might be a game inside the game worth watching. 

An early look at the matchup points your eyes to Notre Dame’s passing attack against the Syracuse secondary. But injury and depth issues for both teams could make this one of the defining matchups of the game.

Syracuse has lost defensive back Wayne Morgan for the game, the converted corner playing a key reserve role in all three games. Notre Dame will be without starting slot receiver Amir Carlisle.

On the Irish side, that opens the door for Torii Hunter Jr., who Kelly said had an excellent week of practice.

“Torii Hunter really progressed later in the week,” Kelly said, citing a breakthrough in playing through the injury. That should open up an opportunity for the skilled sophomore receiver to utilize a skillset that’s always excited the head coach.

“He’s got sure hands, great acceleration and he’s strong,” Kelly continued. “He’s gonna be a really good player. We’ve just gotta get him out there and get him going.”

 

In a football game that might be closer than many suspect, cashing in points in the red zone will be critical. 

Much has been made about Notre Dame’s improvement in the red zone. The Irish will need to continue that efficiency in the scoring area, a region on the field where Notre Dame has a decided advantage over Syracuse.

“We try to play our best red-zone defense possible but they are a great offense,” Orange head coach Scott Shafer said during his weekly teleconference. “They’ve been spectacular in the red zone.”

Syracuse’s offense is going to need to improve in the red zone, where they’ll be facing another stout Irish defense in the scoring area. It’s worth looking back at the success Notre Dame has had in the red zone defensively.

The Irish rank fourth nationally this year, giving up just four scores. But since Kelly arrived in South Bend, the Irish are second in FBS in the red zone, giving up just 3.7 points per red zone drive. They are the best defense since 2010 in allowing touchdowns, giving them up at just a 46-percent clip.

Shafer bemoaned a few missed scoring opportunities that tipped the scales against Maryland. He’ll be facing a tougher test this weekend.

 

Notre Dame’s rushing defense will face a stiff test. 

It’s good versus good on the ground, with the Irish defense facing a very good rushing attack in Syracuse. With quarterback Terrel Hunt running for 7.0 yards a carry and a deep running back depth chart behind him, the Orange will be the truest test this Irish defense has faced so far. Senior back Prince-Tyson Gulley’s career 5.59 yards per carry average trails only two guys named Ernie Davis and Jim Brown. So that’s a pretty convincing sign that he’s a big play waiting to happen.

There’s a rather elegant symmetry to it all with both Notre Dame’s rushing defense and Syracuse’s running offense ranked 19th in the country. But just as the Irish have done a great job playing defense in the red zone, the ability to stop the run has been a building block of Kelly’s program.

Even with a new system and a rebuilt front seven, the Irish defense is managing to live up to the reputation,  a group that since 2010 is eighth nationally in points allowed. With Syracuse’s primary offensive attack coming on the ground, it’ll be interesting to see if the Irish can live up to their stingy ways. Notre Dame trails only Alabama in rushing touchdowns allowed since 2011, making this a key early season test for a young group that’s played brilliantly so far.

 

A resolution is coming soon for the five suspended players. Or at least Brian Kelly thinks it is. 

There’s no official comment out of Notre Dame on the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. But Kelly believes that there’s a chance all of this could be wrapped up by next Thursday.

“I think in talking with a couple of the players I think they have scheduled hearings next Tuesday and Wednesday,” Kelly said Thursday before leaving for New York. “I don’t have confirmation on all five. But I know from what I hear first hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I’m hearing second hand that they’re trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week.”

That’s not to say that all five would be made available to play football, or that they’ll be allowed to. But Kelly did give consideration into allowing them to practice and attend meetings before deciding it was better to have the whole thing behind them before opening that door.

With one of the season’s largest distractions almost behind, the conclusion of all of this has to be welcome for all parties involved.

 

 

Brian Kelly thinks the bye week comes at a perfect time. Now his team needs to play like it. 

We’ll see the fruits of two weeks of labor on Saturday night. The adjustments made to the offensive line are final; Ronnie Stanley will stay at left tackle while the rest of the line will be shuffled, with Nick Martin at left guard, Matt Hegarty at center, Steve Elmer at right guard and Christian Lombard at tackle.

But that’s not all that’s been accomplished. Expect the receivers to take a step forward and to see some more snaps for the young tight ends. The secondary had a chance to catch its breath as well, with captain Austin Collinsworth easing his way back on Saturday.

The potential influx of injured players and potentially seeing three assumed starters finally back in uniform late next week opens all sorts of possibilities. But none of those matter unless the Irish win this week, something Kelly knows all too well.

That’s why the head coach worked his team hard this week, delivering the following assessment.

“We are who we are. We’re a fairly young football team, we’re gonna be inexperienced in some areas,” Kelly said. “That’s not gonna change much. We’re gonna get better. But in the short term here are our strengths and weaknesses and let’s go to work on that. I think that’s what we tried to accomplish in the bye week.”

We’ll get a progress report Saturday evening.

 

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the season begins

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That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back.

With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, Notre Dame heads into their season opener against Rice short wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, safety Eilar Hardy, linebacker Kendall Moore, cornerback KeiVarae Russell and defensive end Ishaq Williams.

The Irish will finally show their restructured defense helmed by Brian VanGorder, with Saturday afternoon our first look at the young and inexperienced defense that’ll be the X-factor of the season. Breaking in the new FieldTurf inside Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish will attempt to kickoff the season in style.

Before we get there, let’s crack open our pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before the Irish take on the Owls at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

***

1. We’ll find out pretty quickly if Brian VanGorder’s defense can hold up against a running offense. 

Last year, Rice’s offense moved impressively on the ground. The Owls rushing attack finished 17th in the nation with 227 yards a game, making a pledge to controlling the ball via the run. That commitment was a big reason why the Owls ranked 12th in the country in time of possession.

Charles Ross, who led Rice in rushing last season with 1,280 yards, is gone. But quarterback Driphus Jackson is a run threat, and backs like Jawon Davis and Darik Dillard are going to get their opportunities. So if you were wondering if Brian VanGorder’s young defense can hold up in the trenches, it won’t take long to find out.

A closer look to Rice’s commitment to running is pretty impressive. In the regular season, their lowest total rushing attempts were 42 carries, when the Owls ran for 192 yards in a 23-14 win over Kansas. In their loss to Texas A&M, Rice ran for 306 yards on 51 attempts. The Owls 31-26 loss to Houston? Still ran 45 times for 174 yards and two touchdowns.

Only in Rice’s blowout 44-7 loss to Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl did the Owls not hit the 40-carry mark. Even then, they still managed to tote the ball 32 times, in a game the Owls trailed by five touchdowns by midway through the third quarter.

 

2. Even against a team that feels like a run first (and maybe second, too) offense, converted wide receiver James Onwualu gets the first opportunity at Sam linebacker. 

One of the stories of fall camp was the ascent of James Onwualu, who finished last season with four starts at wide receiver and begins this year in the starting lineup at outside linebacker. Joining Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as starters, nobody’s going to get this trio mixed up with the big bodies that anchored Bob Diaco’s 3-4, but this trio sets a new bar for athleticism.

When asked about Ben Councell’s availability for Saturday, Kelly showed no hesitations playing Councell for fear that his surgically repaired ACL wasn’t properly healed. But rather, Kelly explained that even if Rice is going to run the ball 40 times, formationally it makes sense for the 220-pound Onwualu to play in the game.

“In terms of the way we’re playing the defense, it’s definitely been more towards handling spread teams,” Kelly explained. “That’s why we feel like we’d be better-suited with some more athleticism… (Because Rice) is in open sets.”

We’ve heard nothing but superlatives about Onwualu, and his ability to prepare. Consider Saturday afternoon a progress report on the sophomore.

 

3. Let the Greg Bryant era begin. (Again.)

Sure Bryant had a few carries early last season, not making much out of those opportunities. But a nagging knee injury allowed the blue-chip recruit to take a medical redshirt and Saturday’s game serves as a mulligan for the redshirt freshman.

The depth chart at running back lists captain Cam McDaniel atop a three-man first-string, though you’ve got to expect to see Bryant quite a bit on Saturday, if only to get the butterflies out before taking on Michigan.

With the Irish expecting to move with pace, the running game will dictate the tempo. Even with standout defensive lineman Christian Covington anchoring the interior of the defensive line, the rest of the unit is still finding its role. But Bryant will get his chances to break a big one. He’ll just need to show some patience.

Even if it isn’t Bryant, Saturday serves as the first test for the Irish coaching staff. How they split touches between Tarean Folston, McDaniel and Bryant will likely dictate how productive the Irish offense can be.  After getting less than the sum of the team’s parts at running back last year, it’s a big season to reestablish Notre Dame’s ground game.

 

4. First time back? Let’s run through the new kids on defense. 

Basically, the only guys you’ll really recognize are defensive lineman Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and safety Austin Collinsworth. Day and Collinsworth were awarded captaincy by Kelly earlier this week, and Smith probably should have.

But outside of that trio, nobody will blame you for pulling out a roster. Up front, we’ll see debut starts for sophomore Isaac Rochell and freshman Andrew Trumbetti. If it’s not Trumbetti at defensive end, junior Romeo Okwara will be in line to make his second career start.

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones feels like a veteran, but in reality he’s only started one game in his career. But he’ll pair with Day on the interior of the defensive line, taking as many reps as possible before the juniors gives way to grad student Justin Utupo and true freshman Daniel Cage.

Backing up the linebacking trio is a group of youngsters. Freshmen Nyles Morgan backs up Schmidt. Fellow freshman Greer Martini is in the two-deep behind Smith. And junior John Turner is the next man in behind Onwualu.

Without KeiVarae Russell’s 26 starts at cornerback, the Irish secondary is pretty green. as well Cody Riggs will make his first start in South Bend after playing 40 games for Florida. Cole Luke starts his first game at cornerback. Max Redfield starts his second, after Kelly forced him into the lineup against Rutgers. Add to that some veteran experience in Collinsworth, and you’ve got a secondary that desperately needs to communicate well.

(And maybe wear names on the backs of their jerseys, just for the fans’ sake.)

 

5. After all the talk of spread offense and hurry-up, tempo attacks, this is our first look at the “new look” Irish offense. 

Everett Golson has traveled the long road back. Now he’ll take off the red jersey and be a live target for the first time since Alabama took dead aim at him. That’s over 600 days since Golson last suited up when it counts, so don’t necessarily expect everything to go perfectly from the start.

But that being said, it’s time for the Irish to push the pace of the game and utilize the zone-read, spread principles Kelly’s been waiting to unleash since Golson arrived.

The running game is there. The offensive line’s advantage is distinct. Now it’s time to see what the Irish offense looks like under Mike Denbrock’s supervision and the play-calling of Kelly.

The Irish are short their No. 1 receiver as Daniels continues to be wrapped up in the academic investigation. But that shouldn’t stop Notre Dame from running and gunning all afternoon. But one player to keep an eye on: sophomore receiver Corey Robinson. He had a pin inserted into his thumb and had it casted late last week. He was somehow miraculously back at practice Tuesday, good to go, per Kelly.

 

6. Opening Day hasn’t been all that kind to Kelly’s Irish squad. After a distracting last few weeks, can the Irish set things aside and play a dominant game?

The Irish are 21-point favorites over Rice, a school that’s 0-4 against Notre Dame, with a collective one touchdown in those games. Can the Irish put the Owls away early and build momentum into next week’s matchup with Michigan?

First things first, Kelly’s Irish may be 3-1 on opening days, but only Notre Dame’s win over Navy in Dublin could be considered a rousing success. Last year, after jumping on Temple, the offense struggled and the defense showed some of the inadequacies that plagued them all season. In Kelly’s first season, the Irish won ugly over Danny Hope’s Purdue team.

Of course, 2011’s opener against South Florida is going to be difficult to forget. Watching the Irish short-circuit with five turnovers in a lightning-delayed game at Notre Dame Stadium could go down among the most miserable losses of the last 20 years.

The weather forecast for Saturday shows a good chance of rain. But regardless of what the weather brings, Saturday is an opportunity for the Irish to make a statement and set the tone for the 2014 season.

Make no mistake, this Rice team isn’t coming to South Bend to take one on the chin. David Bailiff’s team has won 15 of their last 19 games, a record you don’t get by accident. But with or without five suspended players, the Irish have a large personnel advantage.

Now they need to take care of business and get ready for a battle with Michigan that could go down for the ages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pregame Six Pack: Send off at Stanford

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The regular season comes to a close on Saturday, with No. 25 Notre Dame visiting No. 8 Stanford. The Irish will have a chance to beat four ranked opponents on the season, though pulling off a victory in Palo Alto will be the biggest win on a season that certainly had its ups and downs.

While we may hear plenty of talk about revenge for Stanford after last season’s 20-13 overtime defeat, Cardinal head coach David Shaw talked about the missed opportunities more than any controversies.

“In the end, the opportunities that were there for us to make, we didn’t make, the opportunities for Notre Dame to make, they made,” Shaw said. “And besides that last play of the game, that was the real difference in the game.”

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect game for the Irish, either. Everett Golson turned the ball over three times on fumbles (matching this season’s total), with one turning into Stanford’s only touchdown. But after Golson went out of the game after a nasty helmet-to-helmet hit, Tommy Rees rallied the Irish, completing all four passing attempts, including the game winner in overtime.

There will be no margin for error for the Irish this weekend, with two starters missing from the offensive line and Louis Nix watching from the sideline. But that’s why they play the game.

Let’s get to this weekend’s pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers or miscellaneous musings before Saturday evening’s Notre Dame-Stanford game.

***

Never considered a tough place to play, heading to The Farm is no walk in the park anymore. 

If the Irish are going to knock off Stanford, they’ll be doing it in one of the toughest places to win in college football. The Cardinal have lost twice this season, but not on their home turf, with Stanford’s 15-game home winning streak the second longest in college football, one game behind South Carolina.

Since the Irish beat the Cardinal in Stanford Stadium as two mediocre three-win teams battled in 2007, Stanford has won 36 of 39 home games since then. Those wins aren’t just coming against cupcakes either.

Stanford is 12-1 at home against ranked opponents, including 4-1 against teams in the top ten. Their last home loss to a ranked team came against No. 6 Oregon in 2011.

***

After pitching a shutout against some pretty impressive competition, fifth-year left tackle Zack Martin has one more tough assignment this weekend. 

When Martin takes the field against Stanford, he’ll become the all-time leader for most career starts at Notre Dame, a record that won’t likely be beat any time soon. But for as impressive as Martin’s iron man streak is, his play this season has been just as good.

In this week’s game notes, the Notre Dame sports information department points out some of the very impressive talent the Irish have faced this year. Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Aaron Donald (Pitt), Shilique Calhoun (MSU), Leonard Williams (USC) and Frank Clark (Michigan) have combined for 77 TFLs and 31 sacks this season. Matched up against Martin, they’ve had just three TFLs and zero sacks.

Saturday, Stanford outside linebacker Trent Murphy brings another sizable challenge to the table, the nation’s leading quarterback sacker with 13. Last year, Murphy was dominant. While he might not be matched up with Martin all game, keeping Murphy in check with be key for the Irish.

Just how tough is Murphy? Well, he might just come from a long line of giants. His 52-year-old dad can still rep 225 pounds 25 times on the bench press. He wrestled a 400-pound steer calf for fun in high school. The fifth-year veterans will be ones to watch on Saturday.

***

One season after giving up the sport for professional baseball, the Irish will have to slow down running back Tyler Gaffney. 

Stuck behind Stephan Taylor for the past few seasons, Tyler Gaffney started for three seasons as an outfield for Stanford’s nationally-ranked baseball program. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 24th round, Gaffney said goodbye to his senior season of football, leaving the program for the minor leagues, where he put together an impressive 2012 season, hitting .297, with a .483 OBP in low-A State College.

But Gaffney came back to the football program, taking an unique redshirt season before putting his baseball career on hold as he returned in the spring to compete for the starting running back job.

“I weighed out my options down to the smallest details,” Gaffney told SI.com. “Getting your degree, being part of this team, being able to play football, is outweighing staying on the baseball team. It pretty much opens up three options rather than just one.”

Those options have only gotten more impressive, as Gaffney has been dominant this season, running for 1,296 yards and 16 touchdowns while going over 100 yards seven times this season, including a Herculean effort against Oregon, where he carried the ball 45 times.

Matched up against a really thin Irish defensive front, Gaffney will likely be the weapon of choice for David Shaw, and it’ll be up to the Irish front seven to limit the Doak Walker Award semifinalist.

***

After saying goodbye to some elite tight end talent, the Irish duo of Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned in impressive seasons. 

For two programs that have produced a ton of good tight end talent lately, that Troy Niklas and Ben Koyack have turned into the most productive duo in college football certainly is a positive development this season for Notre Dame. 

After wondering how Notre Dame was going to replace All-American and Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert, the Irish have shown exactly how. Take a look at the numbers over the past two seasons through 11 games:

Tyler Eifert: 40 catches for 555 yards (13.9 avg.) and 4 TDs
Troy Niklas/Ben Koyack
: 35 catches for 556 yards (15.9 avg.) and 8 TDs

Not since 1958, when Monty Stickles, Gary Meyers, Dick Royer and Bob Wetoska caught 10 touchdowns have the Irish tight ends scored more touchdowns than this season. With Niklas, Koyack and potentially Alex Welch returning next season, there’s plenty to look forward to at the position.

***

With another season finale in California, Notre Dame’s commitment to the West coast is critical. 

With scheduling dynamics forever changed because of Notre Dame’s commitment to five ACC games moving forward, two sets of games the Irish aren’t interested in losing are the series with USC and Stanford.

The Irish have committed to finishing their season in California, alternating years between USC and Stanford, a nice Thanksgiving trip away from South Bend. But it’s also a great way to continue building a roster that depends on California talent. The Irish played three games against the Pac-12 this year, the most since 2009.

Eleven members of the Irish, including seven scholarship players, are California natives. And finishing the season on the West Coast allows the Irish coaching staff to recruit the state before heading back, giving Mike Denbrock a chance to drop in on prospects like Tyler Luatua.

With Stanford, USC and UCLA all playing good football, it’s tough mining a state that’s one of the most talent-rich in the country. But it’s a commitment the Irish staff have made and continue to cash in on, with 2015 quarterback Blake Barnett the latest.

***

Injuries on defense have forced the depth chart to improve. 

Entering the season finale, 17 different players have started a game for the Irish. While injuries have decimated the team, they’ve also forced a lot of different people to see action. Let’s take a look at the 24 different players on the Irish roster to make at least 10 tackles this season (with that number potentially growing on Saturday).

Carlo Calabrese – 76
Dan Fox – 75
Jaylon Smith – 56
Bennett Jackson – 56
KeiVarae Russell – 47
Stephon Tuitt – 42
Matthias Farley – 41
Jarrett Grace – 41
Prince Shembo – 40
Austin Collinsworth – 28
Sheldon Day 27
Louis Nix – 27
Eilar Hardy – 25
Elijah Shumate – 23
Kona Schwenke – 20
Ben Councell – 15
Cole Luke – 15
Joe Schmidt – 14
Kendall Moore – 14
Jarron Jones – 14
Ishaq Williams – 13
Romeo Okwara – 13
Isaac Rochell – 10
Max Redfield – 10

Notre Dame hasn’t reached that milestone in over 50 years, when 29 different tacklers made 10 stops or more in 1962. These numbers are a product of some serious damage done to the two-deep depth chart, with 11 different players that opened the year in the two-deep having missed at least two games. (Those numbers don’t count guys like Danny Spond, Tony Springmann or Chase Hounshell, either.)

A stat like this is a big reason the Irish might not pull out a victory on Saturday evening, especially if the Stanford ground game finds its rhythm. But this season’s bad luck could be helpful in the future, with next year’s defense building experience early.

Pregame Six Pack: Next up Navy

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As winners of three straight (and five of the last six), Notre Dame’s season is coming into focus after a rough start. The quarterback play of Tommy Rees has improved steadily since back-to-back tough games against Michigan State and Oklahoma. The defense has tightened considerably, playing its best football during the winning streak, with two consecutive second-half shutouts and three straight perfect third quarters.

While injuries have taken their toll on the team, Brian Kelly and the Irish enter November knowing exactly what they need to do: Win.

Now comes one of their most familiar opponents. Notre Dame and the Navy have played every year since 1927, one of college football’s longest running rivalries. After the longest winning streak in college football, the Midshipmen struck back winning three of four, until the Irish took back the power with two-straight 40-point victories.

Let’s dive into the pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before Notre Dame and Navy do battle at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

History is vital in the appreciation of this rivalry. 

Notre Dame and Navy share a mutual respect that exists because of the rich history these two institutions share. Before Notre Dame was one of the most powerful and financially secure universities in the country it was a school that could’ve closed its doors when the war took its toll on enrollment and the student body.

Navy established a college training program in 1943 that saved the university, with enrollment numbers that were down to almost Great Depression era levels skyrocketing back to health. The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s beloved former president, talked about how important Navy was to the university.

“All I can say is without the Navy during the war, this institution would have gotten down to a few hundred students,” Father Hesburgh said in 2010. “Instead of that, we were almost twice our normal size during the war, and we were able to contribute something to the Navy.”

If you’re wondering why the Irish will join Navy at the end of Saturday’s game in honoring their school, it’s because the Navy supported Notre Dame in its time of need. That’s something that won’t be forgotten anytime soon.

***

Notre Dame’s staff might have been fooled once by Ken Niumatalolo. It hasn’t happened again. 

The loss in 2010 to Navy was one of the most lopsided in Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. Sixty carries for 367 yards, a staggering 6.1 a clip. Since then? The Irish have held Navy under 4 yards a carry, with the Midshipmen failing to break 200 yards in either game since then, and held to just 149 in last season’s opener, Navy’s second-lowest output in a game since late in the 2010 season.

When asked about trying to forget that dreadful day in the Meadowlands, Kelly made it clear neither he nor his staff have forgotten the ugly 35-17 loss.

“I just think that we felt like there’s only been a couple of times since we’ve been here where we felt like we let the players down, and as coaches you never want to feel that way,” Kelly said when thinking back to that game. “I take full responsibility for that. You want your team prepared. That’s why we’re in this profession, to prepare our kids. We weren’t prepared properly. We redoubled our efforts based off that game to make sure that never happens again.”

***

It’ll be a fun game for the Robinson family, who can certainly be considered a house divided. 

Expect to see your fair share of David Robinson on the TV screen this weekend. The seven-foot NBA Hall of Famer is also easy to spot with a TV camera, but Navy’s most famous ex-athlete will also be supporting his son Corey, who will take on the Robinson family’s roots when he goes up against Navy.

Robinson likely always saw this game as part of his future — at least if he was going to play football in college. He just always thought he’d be playing for the other team.

“My whole life,” Robinson said, when asked if he saw himself following his father’s footsteps to Navy. “When Notre Dame offered me, I kind of opened up my mind a little bit.”

Our friends over at Irish Illustrated captured Corey’s interview on Wednesday this week, and the freshman was at least with the camera in his face, full of energy as he talked about the excitement that came with his first touchdown and playing against the Midshipmen.

***

Brian Kelly announced Everett Golson might be back with the team sooner than anybody expected. 

For Notre Dame fans eagerly awaiting the return of Everett Golson from his academic exile, Brian Kelly revealed that day may be coming sooner than anybody thought. When speaking after practice on Thursday, Kelly said that Golson would join the team (in practice) this season, not waiting until spring ball to begin to take reps.

“Let’s say he’s admitted back into school on December 15. He would be eligible to practice,” Kelly said. “If that’s the case, then we would practice him, but he would not, of course, be eligible to compete. Provided of course he gets readmitted.”

Getting Golson back on the field and working with the team would be great for jumping starting development, one of the key factors to Brian Kelly’s bowl preparations. If the Irish get to the BCS, there might not be a better scout team quarterback to face than Golson, who could replicate a dual-threat quarterback like Florida State’s Jameis Winston, or take the place of just about anybody to give the starting defense a good look.

On Thursday, Golson took off from his ten-week training stint in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield. It’s the longest Whitfield has ever had to work with a single quarterback, and catching up with Whitfield, he said Golson’s physical, mental, and mechanical gains were incredible.

Golson’s physical strength also benefitted, gaining almost 15 pounds of good weight, checking in at 204 after joining Whitfield at 190. He’s also throwing the football using the laces, a relief for some Irish fans that worried about the young quarterback’s mechanics looking fairly freestyle.

***

More option, less Louis Nix. (But better depth eases the blow.)

Another week against an option opponent.  And another Irish defense without All-American Louis Nix. The 350-pound senior defensive tackle will sit out this week against the Midshipmen, pushing Kona Schwenke into the starting lineup again next to Stephon Tuitt, who shifts to defensive tackle in a four-man front.

The Irish will also be without defensive end Ishaq Williams, who injured a knee on a low block early in the game against Air Force. But the Irish depth on defense showed itself, with little used veterans like Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo playing very well, two guys that’ll likely see time on Saturday as well.

With Jaylon Smith locked in at outside linebacker, Ben Councell was spotted putting a hand on the ground as well. The Irish also have support with sophomore Romeo Okwara, so while guys like Sheldon Day and Elijah Shumate should be back and playing, there’s confidence being built in the depth chart, a beneficial thing this time of year.

Big defensive plays. Game-changing special teams. Expect the unexpected against Navy. 

Ever since former Notre Dame defensive end Renaldo Wynn ran back a 24-yard fumble for a touchdown in 1996, the Irish and Navy have been making plenty of big plays on defense and special teams. Ten times in the last 17 meetings Notre Dame or Navy has scored a touchdown on defense or special teams, with Stephon Tuitt supplying the highlight last season with his 77-yard fumble return.

Here’s a rundown of the highlights since 1996:

2012: Stephon Tuitt, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2008: Toryan Smith, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2007: Chris Kuhar-Pitters, TD Fumble Return (Navy)
2002: Vontez Duff, TD, Kickoff Return (ND)
2001: Gerome Sapp, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
2000: Tony Driver, TD Fumble Return (ND)
1999: Davede Alexander, TD Interception Return (Navy)
1999: Chris Oliver, TD Punt Block (Navy)
1996: Renaldo Wynn, TD Fumble Return (ND)

Making things all the crazier? For as many big touchdowns that have happened on defense or special teams, Notre Dame has only managed to punt just seven times in the past eight games against Navy, with three coming during the Irish’s 2008 victory.

The Irish lost in both 2007 and 2009 without punting the football, making them a ridiculous 2-2 against Navy when not punting.