It didn’t take long for the bloom to come off Brian Kelly’s twelve-win regular season. A heavy reliance on the passing game against Michigan, and a disappointing performance against Oklahoma had Irish fans frustrated, critical of everything from Bob Diaco’s defensive game plans to Kelly’s offensive system. The very set of coaches that had Irish fans worried they’d be leaving South Bend for greener pastures were now “the problem” as two September losses struggled to derail the ’13 season before it really got started.
Of course, these aren’t new complaints. Nor are they unique to Kelly. When Bob Davie kept with a running offense, fans clamored to get a quarterback from this generation, someone that could throw the football effectively. When Ty Willingham’s West Coast offense sputtered, people wanted to run playcaller Bill Diedrick out of town. Even Charlie Weis’ decided schematic advantage had people clamoring for a change when the Irish offense turned too finesse.
And while many are looking at the Irish’s 37-34 victory over Arizona State through a lens that only shows the work still needing to be done, it’s a novel exercise to read some of the reviews of Kelly and his staff’s work from the opposite perspective.
Namely Sun Devil head coach Todd Graham, who was incredibly complimentary of the Irish game plan.
“First of all, congratulations to Coach Kelly. They do a great job. Their defensive coordinator and defensive staff did a tremendous job,” Graham said after the game. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”
That’s Bob Diaco for those forgetting, last season’s national assistant coach of the year and a guy that didn’t forget how to coach football over the summer. While the young assistant’s usually somewhat conservative and execution based game plan doesn’t always get him the credit of scheme and pressure based coaches like Michigan State’s Pat Narduzzi or the Wolverines’ Greg Mattison, Diaco and his staff put together a vintage ’12 plan and the Irish executed it, tackling well, running to the football, getting to the quarterback, and taking the football away.
We may forget it by the end of the year, but Notre Dame was nearly a touchdown underdog entering the game Saturday night. Reading what our friends over at House of Sparky had to say about the game as they recapped what happened, this particular section is particularly illuminating:
Plain and simple: Notre Dame prepared for Arizona State like no team has prepared for the Sun Devils this season. Stanford had the talent to beat Arizona State and the Cardinal certainly prepared well, but even the Cardinal didn’t out-manuever the Sun Devils for a full four quarters.
Brian Kelly led the Fighting Irish to their best performance of the season because his coaching staff gave its best performance of the season.
The Irish did the things that Brian Kelly promised this week, yet kept consistent with his offensive philosophy. On Saturday, that meant the offensive balance Irish fans have clamored for, with Notre Dame running and throwing at almost a 50-50 balance. But it also meant taking shots down the field with the fade routes that have been a staple of Kelly and Chuck Martin’s philosophy.
“They had a lot of big plays on the fade that we can’t give up in the secondary,” ASU cornerback Osahon Irabor said after the game. “We’ve got to be stout because it’s our job not to give up big plays, and I think we gave up too many of those.”
Even Notre Dame’s big miscue on 3rd and 20 was an outlier, considered the great job the Irish did getting off the field. Here’s what House of Sparky said about the Irish defense’s work on third down.
Defensively, the Fighting Irish executed best on third down. Notre Dame limited Arizona State to just four conversions on 13 attempts and put pressure on Taylor Kelly all night. The Fighting Irish knew the Sun Devil offensive line has struggled in run-blocking this season, so they didn’t have to do anything special up the middle. Instead of scheming around Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, the Irish let their stars do their own damage and focused on creating havoc with Prince Shembo.
Overall, there are things the Irish will work on over bye week, items we’ll cover this week as we prepare for the second half of the season. But consider this a brief look at how the other side view’s this football team and its coaching staff.