Beating Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl is a big deal for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. His decision to keep Tommy Rees the starting quarterback proves that. In a bowl game that most fans see as equal parts rivalry and exhibition game, the Kelly regime needs a victory to keep the football program moving in the right direction.
There’s plenty of time for the Irish to figure out who’s going to be starting behind center when the Irish take on Navy in Dublin next September, not to mention how to split up reps next spring during one of the more interesting spring practices of recent memory. So forgive Kelly and his staff if they aren’t engaged in the daily debate amongst Irish fans about who should play quarterback not just against the Seminoles but into the future.
“It will be a topic that gets debated and I understand that — it’s the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Kelly said.
But that debate needs to wait until after the season is over, and that’s the main reason why Kelly is sticking with Rees behind center instead of promising sophomore Andrew Hendrix. The Irish need a win. And after twelve games and a season filled with highs and lows, Kelly still believes Rees is his best bet to beat the Seminoles and keep momentum going into the final days of recruiting.
Back to back 8-5 seasons isn’t what anyone had in mind — Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick included. But a victory against Florida State, a team that had even higher preseason expectations than the Irish, will be enough progress to keep recruits interested in the Irish as the staff heads down the home stretch in a two-year quest to land the skill portion of the first phase of rebuilding this program.
There’s little doubt that Stanford revealed another blueprint for limiting Rees’ production in Kelly’s offense. He was a stationary target in the pocket. His inability to run neutralized the ground game, while his less than accurate deep ball allowed the defense to shrink the top of the field as well. But given a month to rebound from his worst game of the season last year — a 20-16 victory over USC — Rees came out firing against Miami in the Sun Bowl, hitting Michael Floyd over the top of a talented Hurricanes secondary for 35 yards on the game’s opening drive and again for a 34 yard touchdown strike on the second drive. For the Irish to win with a young quarterback that had just given the ball away multiple times against USC, they needed to be efficient with their shots and protect the football. Rees did exactly that after a month of coaching and game planning. Naysayers will argue that Rees put those numbers up against a Hurricanes team in free-fall. That may be true, but it was also the No. 3 passing defense in the country. You can say a lot of things about Tommy Rees, but he’s certainly resilient. After a month to recover after his worst game of the season, he’ll likely be ready to come out firing.
Dayne Crist‘s announced transfer could actually be seen as a stabilizing factor in a quarterbacking situation that seemed precarious. If the Irish season went according to plan and Crist made it through the first half of South Florida, the 2012 depth chart could be anyone’s guess. Would Hendrix stick around — likely still third or fourth on a depth chart that may or may not include another talented freshman recruit? Could Kelly keep four scholarship quarterbacks happy for a second season in a row? Some people will knowledge of the program thought Crist’s transfer would come before this season, seeing him as a square peg in Kelly’s round hole offense. Rees’ ability to think quickly and distribute in the spread offense make him a step forward, but he’s still one evolutionary step behind guys like Hendrix and Everett Golson. With Rees, Kelly has a known commodity — a guy that can clearly win football games, but has also struggled through some ugly growing pains as the Irish program moves forward according to Kelly’s blueprint.
Of course, prepping for the season’s final game won’t stop people from looking ahead. Spring practices, summer workouts, a 2012 schedule that looks the part of a meat-grinder, all point to an offense that needs to make a big step forward, and do so without Mike Floyd. Is Hendrix the best fit moving forward? What about Golson, a guy that this coaching staff is incredibly high on? What will Gunner Kiel do to the mix if he signs on the dotted line? More questions than answers, and all of them need to wait until after December 29th.
“I didn’t want any debate within our program,” Kelly said. “I wanted our guys to know, here’s our starter, here’s where we’re going.”
We might forget sometimes, but a coach never forgets that long term planning can wait. Especially when there are games left on the schedule, the only objective valuation of a head coach’s performance. For Kelly, a ninth win means progress, even if it’s only incremental. A loss throws a bundle of negativity, not to mention a lost year of forward momentum, on an offseason that’s already going to be filled with questions.
When given the option, Kelly went with what he knows best — and that’s Rees at quarterback. But as most smart coaches do, he did so with a caveat.
“I think you all know that Andrew Hendrix can do some things that can help our football team and we need to see him as well,” Kelly said.
That’s true. Now and in the future.
Mike Tirico Podcast: Brian Kelly on Notre Dame’s 2016 fall and 2018 rise
Brian Kelly can very much understand what Dino Babers has done to bring Syracuse to No. 12 in the country. Babers orchestrated that rise along the exact same timetable the Notre Dame head coach made his career on, a timetable that then risked his career, Kelly explained to NBC Sports’ Mike Tirico on his eponymous weekly podcast.
Babers is in his third year leading the Orange, now at 8-2 after back-to-back 4-8 seasons.
“He has stuck with his system and developed his players,” Kelly told Tirico. “These young men are now veterans on the offensive line. He has gone out and brought in some veteran players on the defensive line. He can do some things on the line of scrimmage that he couldn’t before.
“They present a challenge because they can run the football, they can throw it, they’re balanced on offense. … He’s a smart football coach, and he’s developed Syracuse into a winning team.”
While each of Kelly’s first two seasons at Notre Dame matched Babers’ combined wins in his first two with the Orange, it was still Kelly’s third that saw his break through, a la Syracuse currently. That season, as many remember, ended in the BCS national championship game.
This followed a trend for Kelly, going 19-16 in three seasons at Central Michigan before moving to Cincinnati where he went 34-6 before taking over the Irish. That final season with the Bearcats featured the same regular season record Kelly’s third at Notre Dame did, 12-0.
Then, one could say Kelly and the Irish stagnated for three seasons. He had not needed to navigate those years at the FBS-level before.
“Got here and after that third year, really went past that three-year turnaround again and stopped doing the things that I had been doing in the process that I had always stuck with,” Kelly said. “The 4-8 season (in 2016) was a re-awakening of getting back to the things that I had always done and just validates the fact that if I stick with the process and the things that I have always done as a football coach, then we can have success.”
This, along with the general enormity of coaching at Notre Dame and all that comes with it, had Kelly unprepared for the scope of the gig despite being a 19-year head coach when he arrived in South Bend.
“I don’t think I was actually adequately prepared for it,” he said in a moment of candor.
To hear Kelly expound on that list of responsibilities, on recruiting players who fit the University’s culture and on his early career in politics, give Kelly and Tirico a listen via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever else you may get your podcasts.
And In That Corner … The No. 12 Syracuse Orange at Yankee Stadium
Entering the season, Syracuse would have been considered Notre Dame’s sixth-stiffest challenge, at best. This particular space lumped the Orange in as a “should-be win,” designating it as no higher than the eighth-toughest opponent awaiting the Irish.
DF: Stephen, I cannot say I ever anticipated this game being, well, this game. Before we dig in, how long have you been on the Syracuse beat?
SB: I’ve been covering the team since the start of the 2013 season overall and since 2014 for Syracuse.com/The Post-Standard.
At 8-2 and No. 12 in the country, the Orange have put this game on the national radar as much as Notre Dame has. Be honest here — not that you won’t be throughout these answers, but this is the spot where you may have reason to change the past — what did you see as Syracuse’s 2018 ceiling back in the preseason?
Honestly, I would say nine wins in the regular season was the absolute ceiling I envisioned at the start of preseason camp. I did not expect Florida State or Louisville to be this bad and, while the team is markedly improved in important areas, Syracuse has also avoided significant injury and taken advantage of its softest schedule since joining the ACC. I thought the Orange would be better in Year 3 under Dino Babers and predicted 6-6 heading into Week 1.
This may be an unfair way to ask this, as some factors depend upon each other, but what percentage of this year’s top-15 performance would you credit to Babers, to senior quarterback Eric Dungey and to a schedule that has been reasonable, but has yet to feature No. 3 Notre Dame or No. 22 Boston College?
I think the majority of the credit goes to Babers (50 percent) for implementing systems and not only sticking to them, but building a roster and culture around them. Everything that goes into the inner-workings of Syracuse football ties into the mindset of winning football games in shootout fashion. From recruiting to conditioning to defensive emphases, everyone understands the ultimate goal and we’re seeing it all come together in Year 3 with a deeper roster.
I’ll say Dungey (25 percent) and the schedule (25 percent) get an even split of the rest, though it’s admittedly a weird way to divvy up credit as the defensive line and special teams play have been considerable factors in the team’s success this year. Regarding Dungey, he’s had an up-and-down season in which he was benched against North Carolina and nearly lost his job the following week. But the competition brought out the best in him. He looked significantly better passing the ball over the next two weeks, and when he’s trusting the timing of plays and throwing accurately, there isn’t a defense in the country that won’t be kept off-balance. He’s truly a monster in the open field.
The schedule has just worked out perfectly for Syracuse. The Orange caught Florida State on a down year and the absolute rock bottom for Louisville. UConn is trash. Seriously, this is a team that could easily be 10-0 if the defense would’ve been able to get a stop at Clemson and Dungey didn’t miss an overtime throw at Pittsburgh.
Let’s focus on Dungey for a moment. A four-year starter, he has never finished a season. Knock on wood, he may this year, even though a couple weeks ago it looked like he could be benched in favor of sophomore Tommy DeVito. Dungey has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, thrown 14 touchdowns against five interceptions, and averages 219.3 passing yards per game. On top of that, he has rushed for 690 yards and 12 touchdowns. I suppose I have a few questions, so first of all, can you (briefly) explain the DeVito situation from October?
So DeVito is a redshirt freshman who is probably the most decorated recruit of the Babers era — Elite 11, The Opening, Under Armour All-American. He split first-team reps with Dungey during camp and played the majority of the Florida State win after Dungey left with eye irritation. He’s played in about half the games this year, with FSU and North Carolina being the big ones. DeVito threw three TDs to lead Syracuse back against the Tar Heels.
That following week, Babers let the two quarterbacks compete throughout the week and only told them of his decision Saturday just before the North Carolina State game. Dungey looked like a completely different player, throwing for 400 yards and three touchdowns. At Wake Forest the next weekend, he completed 14 straight passes.
It’s pretty clearly Dungey’s job moving forward, but I do believe if Dungey reverts as a passer for more than a few drives, Babers won’t hesitate to turn to DeVito. Like I said, this team is built to win 50-30. If the offense isn’t scoring the ball, that’s a problem. The perceived margin for error is slimmer there than for most teams.
Would you consider Dungey a true dual-threat quarterback, or is he a pass-first quarterback who happens to be able to run for chunks when available? Presumably, his scrambling played a role in some of his past injuries.
Yes, he’s a dual-threat quarterback. He’s consistently a weapon in the running game. If teams don’t account for him or decide to drop back and try to take away the vertical passing game (see Wake Forest), Dungey will take advantage. He’s bigger than he was in past years and has run over multiple defensive backs this fall. He’ll rack up yardage on designed runs (RPOs, draws and sneaks in short-yardage situations) and scrambling. He’s probably at his best in the scramble game when Syracuse goes with its four- and five-wide sets.
Speaking of such sets, one of Notre Dame’s greatest weaknesses this year is its nickel package. Neither senior Nick Coleman nor freshman Houston Griffith has been able to consistently fill the hole left by Shaun Crawford’s ACL tear. The Irish have survived that deficiency thus far, but they also have not faced an offense with four receivers with 387 yards or more, 28 receptions or more, and each with multiple touchdowns. This is an offense that lost its two leading receivers, and last year’s Nos. 3 and 4 are now Nos. 5 and 6. Where did this group come from? Should Notre Dame fans worry about Dungey’s third and fourth (and fifth) options?
This group is balanced across the board and features a bunch of guys who are willing and capable to simply handle their roles. Babers’ offensive approach is almost always built around what the defensive is showing. That’s why you’ll see the tempo offense halt for checks at the line of scrimmage. Playing off coverage against a 2×2 set? Here comes the bubble screen. Going to give Jamal Custis man coverage? Time for the fly. There’s a simplicity to it, but with wrinkles in motions and releases, Babers does a great job of creating matchups and exposing weaknesses. Just ask Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Looking at the players themselves, Custis is the most physically gifted. At 6-foot-5, he has looked like an NFL guy for three years, but he’s only now stayed healthy and performed consistently enough to produce. Slot receivers Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson are extremely efficient, shifty and great after the catch (particularly Johnson). Tight end Ravian Pierce is a weapon in the red zone. I guarantee you the Orange tries to slip him off an RPO look at some point Saturday, and the safety who has watched Dungey run all game will have to be ready to stay back.
This all comes just a week after Syracuse enjoyed Brian VanGorder’s defense to the tune of 54 points, but most of that came on the ground. While Dungey threw for 192 yards on 14-of-27 passing, the Orange ran for 326 yards on 55 carries. Which would Babers prefer, to run or to pass to a victory?
Babers will take whatever he’s given, but almost always tries to keep the threat of the ground game on the table. Honestly, Louisville gift-wrapped multiple red-zone possessions and penalized its way into a blowout. The Syracuse offense didn’t even have one of its better performance of the year, stalling out in the red zone multiple times.
Since we’ve talked about the receivers, here’s what you should know about the Orange run game. Junior Moe Neal is the top back. He’s got great burst and has become a simpler runner, rarely cutting more than once before hitting the jets. You’ll also see senior Dontae Strickland, the team’s best receiving and blocking back and true freshman Jarveon Howard, a bowling ball who is used most often in short-yardage and goal-line situations. When Syracuse is on the goal line, look out for a jumbo package featuring six offensive linemen, a tight end, two lead blockers and a back. One of those lead blockers is 280-pound sophomore fullback Chris Elmore, who was recruited by most programs to play defensive tackle.
I would usually have spent a question or two by now on the defense, but Syracuse’s does not impress much. This weekend certainly looks to be a shootout. Can you give me any reason to believe otherwise? I suppose it is a defense that has forced 25 turnovers this year (while Dungey’s offense has turned it over only 12 times).
You hit the nail on the head in regard to turnovers. This is a bend-but-don’t-break defense that wants to keep plays in front of it and force teams to earn points. A 15-play drive means 15 opportunities to force a turnover. That unit as a whole, but particularly the secondary, has been opportunistic in regard to ball disruption, though it all starts up front. Redshirt senior defensive tackle Chris Slayton is a monster, drawing regular double-teams to open up 1-on-1 chances for defensive ends Alton Robinson (nine sacks) and Kendall Coleman (seven).
Two of Syracuse’s top four corners are banged-up in junior Scoop Bradshaw and redshirt freshman Ifeatu Melifonwu, though Babers expects them to be active Saturday.
Before we get to a prediction, let’s return to my initial question. If a top-15 standing was not a preseason expectation, what are the Orange hopes for November at this point? Peach Bowl or bust?
Win out and a Peach or Fiesta Bowl spot seems all but guaranteed. If not, there’s a chance the Camping World Bowl takes a 9-3 Orange team, but there could be more travel-friendly fanbases in play as well. 8-4 seems like a near-lock for the Pinstripe Bowl, which would be disappointing for some considering Syracuse has played in the game twice, but could present a fun matchup with Penn State.
Keeping in mind Syracuse upset No. 2 Clemson last year and nearly pulled off the same feat this season, can it draw anything from those experiences? What do you expect from the Orange on Saturday?
I expect a team that will be mentally engaged and equipped with a solid game plan. I expect a close contest featuring big plays on both sides of the ball and a real emphasis from the Orange defense to get after Ian Book. No one will be overwhelmed by the opponent or the stage. But when push comes to shove, I think a Notre Dame-heavy crowd and outdoor venue make life tough on Syracuse’s offense down the stretch. All of its big wins during the Babers era have come in the Carrier Dome; in fact, before the Orange won at Wake Forest two weeks ago, the team had gone eight straight ACC road games without a win. So I’ve got Notre Dame winning a close one. I went with 41-37 in our predictions, for whatever that’s worth.
Marist Liufau did not need long to ponder. The consensus three-star linebacker reportedly received a scholarship offer during his visit to Notre Dame over this past weekend, and Wednesday evening he followed that up with a commitment.
Liufau (Punahou High School; Honolulu) will become the third Hawaiian player on the Irish roster, continuing a tradition started in earnest by Manti Te’o in 2008, a commitment coincidentally sparked by Te’o’s visit to Notre Dame during the 2008 Syracuse game. Liufau will join current junior safety Alohi Gilman and sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa as the current generation of Hawaiian Irish.
Liufau also held offers from five Pac-12 schools, highlighted by Oregon and USC, as well as Group of Five standards in the West in Boise State, Utah State and San Diego State. Instead, he will bring his defensive back experience to Notre Dame, joining a roster rich in current freshmen linebackers but low on proven commodities otherwise, meaning he should have an opportunity to prove himself, even if a number of others are trying to do so, as well.
The 20th commitment in the class, Liufau is the third linebacker, joining consensus four-star Osita Ekwonu (Providence Day; Charlotte, N.C.) and consensus three-star Jack Kiser (Pioneer; Royal Center, Ind.). It is presumed all 20 will ink their National Letters of Intent during the three-day early signing period beginning Dec. 19.
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Rise of Pittsburgh, Northwestern, Syracuse
Welcome to a world where Northwestern and possibly Pittsburgh contend for conference championships while Virginia Tech, Florida State and USC have work to do to even be eligible for a bowl game. Welcome to a year in which No. 12 Syracuse is one of only three Irish opponents currently ranked. Welcome once again to Notre Dame’s schedule frustrations of 2018.
Michigan (9-1): Bookmakers predicted the Wolverines would beat Rutgers 43-6, so the actual 42-7 victory goes to show just how little Vegas knows. Michigan rattled off 35 unanswered points after giving up an 80-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
Expect more of the same from the Wolverines this weekend, favored by 28.5 against Indiana (4 ET; FS1). A combined point total over/under of 53.5 suggests a 41-13 finish, but who would ever trust Vegas to properly handicap these things?
Ball St. (4-7): The Cardinals came out of their off week with a 42-41 overtime victory against Western Michigan on Tuesday. That win alone may cool Mike Neu’s seat this winter.
Vanderbilt (4-6): A 33-28 loss at Missouri puts the Commodores in a tough spot as far as bowl eligibility goes. The two-touchdown underdogs won the turnover battle 2-0 and did not trail until the final nine minutes, but Vanderbilt just could not pull off the surprise.
As a result, the ‘Dores need to finish 2-0 against Mississippi (7:30 ET; SEC Network) and Tennessee. Vanderbilt is favored by 2.5 points this weekend, and likely will be next, as well. For an SEC game, the 66.5 over/under stands out, projecting a 35-32 result.
Wake Forest (5-5): Maybe the Deacons will have another quarterback controversy next season. With freshman Sam Hartman out for the year, junior Jamie Newman led Wake Forest to a 27-23 victory at NC State on Thursday, completing 22-of-33 passes for 297 yards and three touchdowns. Two fourth-quarter scores brought the Deacons back from a 23-13 deficit.
Now Wake Forest can play the role of spoiler. Pittsburgh (12 ET) arrives as a touchdown favorite with a chance to win the ACC Coastal with a victory. A 34-27 game could go either way, quite frankly, when Greg Dortch is in the mix.
Stanford (6-4): The Cardinal finally brought its running game, rushing for 244 yards in a 48-17 victory at Oregon State. Even with an 8.1 yards per carry average, Stanford’s passing game still stole the show. Tight end Colby Parkinson finished with six catches for 166 yards and not one touchdown, not two, not three, but four scores.
The Cardinal now head to Cal (7:30 ET; Pac 12 Network) for the first wave of Pac-12 rivalries. Cal has not beaten Stanford since 2009, but did just snap a longer streak to USC, one tracing back to 2003. This would be a mild upset, with the Bears only two-point underdogs with a 45-point over/under making for a 24-22 projection.
Virginia Tech (4-5): It is not that Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster is inherently on a hot seat. His career is too well-established for that. But head coach Justin Fuente must be considering offseason possibilities after Virginia Tech gave up 492 rushing yards in a 52-22 loss at Pittsburgh.
Righting the ship, and keeping bowl possibilities afloat, will require the Hokies to win as 5.5-point underdogs at Miami (3:30 ET; ESPN). A 51.5-point over/under hints at a 28-23 Hurricanes victory.
Pittsburgh (6-4): The Panthers can clinch the ACC Coastal with a win at Wake Forest. Considering Pittsburgh ran for 13.7 yards per carry against Virginia Tech and Qadree Ollison led the way with 235 yards and three touchdowns on 16 rushes, that title game appearance should become a reality. The Deacons rank No. 103 in rushing yards allowed per game (203.6) and No. 113 in yards per carry (5.19).
Navy (2-8): The Midshipmen gave up 297 rushing yards on 52 carries in a not-as-close-as-it-seems 35-24 loss at Central Florida. Navy might snag a win this weekend, though, with Tulsa (3:30 ET; CBSSN) visiting and the Middies favored by five.
Northwestern (6-4): The Wildcats won the Big Ten West with a 14-10 triumph at Iowa led by freshman running back Isaiah Bowser’s 165 yards on 31 rushes.
That could lead to a letdown as Northwestern heads to Minnesota (12 ET: BTN) as 2.5-point favorites. If nothing else, the 50.5-point over/under seems high, a 26-24 conclusion out of character for the Wildcats this season, only reaching 26 points three times thus far.
Florida State (4-6): The Seminoles bowl chances took a drastic hit with their 42-13 loss at Notre Dame. They now need to win out, beginning as 1.5-point home underdogs to Boston College, who may be without starting quarterback Anthony Brown (3:30 ET; ESPN2). The absence of Brown and the ineptitude of Florida State’s offense combine for a 48.5-point over/under, a possible 25-24 squeaker.
Syracuse (8-2): The Orange put the final nail in the coffin of Bobby Petrino’s head coaching career with a 54-23 victory against Louisville on Friday. Presumably as a result of someone needing to hang around to coach the team for two more weeks, Cardinals defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not fired along with Petrino despite giving up 518 total yards and 326 rushing yards to Syracuse.
The Orange will look to continue their turnover-forcing ways against Notre Dame (2:30 ET; NBC) after forcing four last week. This line has moved back up to 10.5 in favor of the No. 3 team in the country while the over/under has fallen from 66.5 to 61.5 due to harsher weather expectations. A 36-25 Irish victory would assuredly be enough to keep Notre Dame comfortably in all Playoff considerations.
USC (5-5): The 15-14 loss to Cal turned up the heat on Clay Helton, even if he says he expects to coach at USC for another 15 years. The Trojans gained 277 total yards, rushing for 97 on 38 carries, a 2.6 yards per rush average.
Losing to UCLA (3:30 ET; FOX) might seal Helton’s fate, but USC should prevail as 3.5-point favorites.
12 ET: Wake Forest vs. Pittsburgh; Northwestern at Minnesota on BTN. 2:30 ET: Syracuse vs. Notre Dame on NBC. 3:30 ET: Virginia Tech vs. Miami on ESPN; Navy vs. Tulsa on CBSSN; Florida State vs. Boston College on ESPN2; USC at UCLA on FOX. 4:00 ET: Michigan vs. Indiana on FS1. 7:30 ET: Vanderbilt vs. Mississippi on SECN; Stanford at Cal on Pac-12 Network.
Favorites: Michigan -28.5; Vanderbilt -2.5; Stanford -2; Pittsburgh -7; Navy -5; Northwestern -2.5; USC -3.5 Underdogs: Wake Forest +7; Virginia Tech +5.5; Florida State +1.5; Syracuse +10.5.