Post-Spring Update: Northwestern

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As we continue our meander through Notre Dame’s 2014 opponents, we arrive on the much-anticipated game with Northwestern. No, this won’t be a candidate to host College GameDay, but for ND grads and the city of Chicago, this will be a game that’ll likely determine bragging rights on the North Side.

(At the very least, it’ll make for a fun tailgater and a lot of charter buses heading back for a nightcap.)

Last year was the first slip up for Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. The former All-American linebacker who essentially put the Wildcats back on the map as a player, Fitzgerald took over the program after the sudden death of Randy Walker. Learning on the job, Fitzgerald built on Walker’s momentum and brought the program to a consistency it had never before seen.

Wildcats fans are hoping to return to that more-than-average place, maybe even getting back to the 10-win plateau that saw the 2012 season capped off with a victory over Mississippi State in the Gator Bowl.

Getting us up to speed on all things Northwestern is Jay Sharman, the editor of Lake the Posts, a long-running Northwestern football blog. Jay was nice enough to answer questions not just about the Wildcats on the field, but the relationship between two schools and football programs off of it.

 

Can you help us figure out what went wrong for the Wildcats in 2013? After a 10-win 2012 and a Gator Bowl win over Mississippi State, Northwestern lost seven straight, finishing the year 5-7. Was it a matter of injuries or bad breaks? Regression to the mean?

This is the stuff that makes off-seasons so damn long. It’s not like I brood over this question regularly (ahem, ahem…every day), but since you asked anything that comes after this sentence is an excuse. At least that’s the take those of us that believe NU has arrived to the place where any year that isn’t a bowl game is a disaster. Are we more the 10-win 2012 program or the middle of the pack B1G team that our B1G record under Fitz would suggest? Great question.

It’s hard to believe that at one point we were 4-0, #16 in the country and on the game-winning drive against Ohio State (after leading most of the game) in primetime when Kain Colter fumbled a 4th down snap (he still got the first down, but the refs didn’t see it that way). The emotions surrounding that biggest game in Evanston since 2000 took the air out of the balloon and the season. Honestly, it was a combination of bad luck, injuries and poor coaching in clutch time all rolled up in to one tidy ball of a hot mess.

Keep in mind NU lost on a Hail Mary to Nebraska (no one deeper than the deepest?), in OT at Iowa after being in the red zone in the final minute with the score tied and then the world’s zaniest FG by Michigan to send us to an OT loss. We’d like to think at least two of those three were once in a generation kinda plays (and over the past 20 years we’ve had our fair share).

Injuries were a big part, but so was the lack of depth. NU’s offensive line was pretty miserable, but we also lost All-American heart-and-soul PR/RB Venric Mark, along with a host of linemen and somehow inherited Iowa’s AIHRBG (angy Iowa-hating RB God) as one after the next we started to learn what “sixth” on depth chart meant. Throw in some really conservative defense in key stretches with the lead and you have the recipe for the most disappointing season since 2001.

 

Did the frustration from last season carry over to spring?

Let’s hope not! The injuries sure did. NU’s spring roster resembled the cliched M*A*S*H unit and we struggled at time to even go full 11-on-11 due to injuries. Fitz has been overly cautious in the off-season and is working like crazy to limit injuries and ensure we’re at full throttle for 2014. The attitude was a good one – one with a chip on the shoulder, which all got overshadowed by what i’m guessing is…

 

It’s hard to talk football when the Wildcats football team took official steps towards unionization. This could probably be an entire discussion, but help me out here: Does a group of student-athletes at one of the finest academic institutions in American not understand the value of a full scholarship? Is this still moving forward?
…there it is – you’re next question. This is months and months of posts, vicious alumni debates and a topic that nearly had fans going at one another this off-season. NU fans (as well as ND fans) are no stranger to the front page and business section of the NYTimes and WSJ, but we’re not used to getting football headlines there. In March.

It’s impossible for me to be objective on this question as I’ve stated my opinion numerous times that unionizing football at NU isn’t the solution. However, it is really hard to argue that Kain Colter and CAPA didn’t win this battle. From a strategic standpoint, they had a Rose Bowl-level win. By forcing the NCAA and other private school institutions to address the issues that most all of us would agree on (medical coverage post college for injuries suffered while playing, concussion protocols, etc…) and not even touching the compensation argument, they were able to create seismic change in the legislative waters and had school ADs and presidents scurrying to really genuinely address some key issues. That being said, the way Kain went about it was less than something Jim Phillips, Fitz and many of the teammates feel good about.

What’s the reaction been like among alums, Northwestern supporters and former players?

It’s been ugly. Go ahead and scan the comments section on LTP in February, March and April. NU fans can’t go anywhere in the country without this topic immediately coming up in conversation. Former players are divided strongly on the issue, alumni are more anti-union in general and students,well, it’s tough to gauge exactly. Every one is fatigued by the issue but many felt hurt by the way things went down. NU prides itself on family atmosphere and transparency and this process didn’t exactly play out that way. Fitz and Phillips publicly lauded Kain for taking a leadership position and supported him and then he promptly bad-mouthed the school saying they made it nearly impossible for him to pursue a medical degree. This topic is one that I have personally received numerous emails from former players-turned-doctors who are incensed at that notion. Bottom-line it’s been a rough, rough off-season and the boom coming over is all of that media coverage and distraction for the current team this fall. It’s naive to think it won’t be a factor.

 

Back to the football field, from a distance it looks like part of the problems last year were at quarterback. With Cain Kolter gone (though hardly out of the spotlight), is the quarterback job Trevor Siemian’s? Is one-time Notre Dame target and former blue-chipper Matt Alviti challenging for playing time?

There is no doubt this is Trevor Siemian’s job. Siemian is a very good passer and while no Kain Colter or Dan Persa, he is more mobile than one may think. Make no mistake about it, Siemian will be throwing downfield a lot for many reasons. We’ve got a bevy of veteran receivers and well, he can throw. Siemian suffered a foot injury that none of us knew he had which hampered him severely through the meat of the schedule. Throw in the constant platoon system (Kain thrived in this) and you had a guy searching for his rhythm last year. I expect a huge year out of Siemian in 2014.

The fan base has been lauding Matt Alviti as the next Dan Persa since the day he committed (and yes, thanks for throwing in the fact we beat out ND for his services). After redshirting last season there was a lot of fan speculation that we’d retain the two QB system and platoon Alviti similarly to Colter. Not happening. NU is returning to its more traditional spread offense and while he will likely see some action, I expect it to be limited. By most reports he had a very up and down spring and junior Zack Oliver is very much in the hunt for the back-up role.

 

Former five-star recruit Kyle Prater is now playing for the Wildcats. Are there other receiving weapons that can help this offense make big plays in the passing game?

Kyle played last season and has been disappointing on the field in general. It’s not everyday NU gets a five-star USC transfer, let alone a guy who just looks like a Sunday player on the field as he towers over most. Prater is likely fourth or fifth on this year’s WR threat list. Christian Jones led the way in 2013 with 54 catches and 668 rec yards and made many dazzling catches along the way. Tony “no relation” Jones was the second most productive ‘Cat receiver with 55 rec and 634 yards yet his junior year seemed to be a bit understated. Expect Cameron Dickerson to make a big jump in 2014 (11 rec, 125 yards) and we’re banking that Phil Steele knows what he’s doing by slating Kyle Prater on the All Big Ten second team. There is a slew of younger talent on the team pushing these veterans and our Superback (think hybrid TE) Dan Vitale is one of the best in the B1G and always a threat as the release valve. He’s a fan favorite and a bulldozer (34 rec, 382 yards) and first team All YAC. The wildcard on this team is transfer Miles Shuler who is Venric Mark-like in speed. He transferred from Rutgers last year.

NU has weapons at receiver and most fans are hoping we continue where we left off with the aerial antics from the season finale against Illinois (yes, we know it was Illinois).

 

The running game looks like it should rebound as well. What do you expect out of Venric Mark and the uber-experienced offensive line?

I read that NU’s offensive line is 19th in FBS in returning total career starts. To me, the O-line and our D-line are the season make-or-breaks. Venric is our energizer. He’s been dinged up quite a bit, but man is he explosive. People forget he earned first team All-American honors in 2012 as a punt returner, not at RB, where he put up 1,300+ yards. As you’ll see, he is simply incredible. He’s tiny, but turns sliver creases in to gaping holes and BOOM he’s gone. NU is solid at RB with the likes of Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley, both of whom impressed last year before injuries saddled them. Fans are super excited about incoming freshman and Illinois Player of the Year, Justin Jackson, who will likely redshirt unless we get the injury bug again.

 

For a team that did a decent job getting after the quarterback, a 101st-ranked pass defense doesn’t make a lot of sense. What improvements have been made in the secondary? There seems to be talent back there, led by Ibraheim Campbell.
The secondary is our best unit, hands-down. It may very well be the best secondary since the 1995 Rose Bowl team. Ibraheim Campbell will be playing safety at the next level and he’s just a lock down kind of player. Traveon Henry, like Campbell has been playing since his freshman year and creates a helluva force in the middle of the secondary. At CB we’ve got lots of depth and very good competition. Matt Harris filled in at CB last year admirably (yes, more season-ending injuries) for Daniel Jones while the key guy to watch might be the other CB Nick VanHoose who had a sophomore slump in my opinion. Fitz and fans are pretty huge on incoming freshman Parrker Westphal, a four-star CB and a head-to-head recruiting “W” over Michigan. Westphal is the first ‘Cat to enroll early as a freshman in Fitz’s tenure which shows you how unique he is. I expect him to compete from day one.

As good as the secondary is, that many questions surround the D-line, particularly the interior. With the likes of Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraksa’s Ameer Abudallah all in our division you can bet the gameplan is going to be to test the interior of our line early and often.

 

Let’s talk Pat Fitzgerald. Last season was one of the first blemishes on his resume. How do you view Fitzgerald? As one of the best young coaches in the game? Or as a guy that’s done a very good job winning cupcake non-conference games and getting to eight victories?

Fitz is viewed as the ultimate brand ambassador for NU. He does everything the right way, the players relate to him and he’s no-nonsense in terms of running a program. He’s become an excellent recruiter, but the knock on his coaching is late game philosophy and decision making. The rap is we go in to ultra-conservative mode with a lead (lost all three 4th quarter leads in 2012 when we only lost 3 games) and 2013 compounded that (see: Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan).

After years of winning an uncanny amount of close games, we can’t seem to win the marquee games when we have the lead. It’s fair to knock his sub .500 B1G record, but it may not be fair to call the non-conference wins cupcakes. NU plays as many power conference teams as anyone, and while it may not be Alabama, Florida State and Oregon, just check out the schedule. Vanderbilt from the SEC, Syracuse was a regular, BC. Candidly the teams we’ve scheduled have dipped since we scheduled them (read: Cal), but future schedules have Stanford annually, Duke and other like-minded academic schools including this two-game series. Considering NU is going to a 9-game conference schedule, I believe most NU fans would happily trade schedules with Notre Dame.

 

More than a few ND fans think the latter, pointing out that he’s never lost less than three conference games, and routinely collects wins against programs like Maine, South Dakota and Western Illinois. Do you think that’s fair criticism, or Irish fans annoyed at the stability in Evanston?

I think it is fair – to a point. NU hasn’t competed for the B1G championship with the exception of 2012 when we laid three eggs in the 4th quarter. Consider the fact that NU lost late leads to Nebraska and Michigan two years in a row, Ohio State, Penn State and you know why we’ll be nervous as hell if we have the lead against you. When you consider that we were beating both Nebraska and Michigan last year with 0:00 on the board – and lost both games, you start to get a sense of the inability to close the “name games” frustration. It’s become an epidemic.

Lastly, can we get a state of the union on Northwestern football? You mentioned that the Wildcats’ upset of the Irish almost 20-years ago kicked off this modern era, but where do things stand today?

Things are remarkably better, but those of us that know the pre-1995 reputation are a sensitive bunch. The first five years of the Fitz regime, we were better than Stanford and they blew past us as a program. We felt we were pretty much the equivalent of Sparty until last year. Going to bowl games and winning them is now the minimum expectation for a good season.

Fitz is in year eight and the bar continues to rise. Should he not get to seven games this season the noise will get very loud from disgruntled fans. Again, it is perhaps misguided based on all of the challenges and obstacles that make NU unique, but there is no excuse for this team to not take that next step and go 6-2 or 7-1 in the West Division very soon. i think most fans are hoping the uber-loyal coach would finally make a change with Mick McCall and should the offense struggle again this year I think he’ll have to. Things were good up until early October 2013 and now many fans are asking whether 2012 was a blip or the aberration.

The program is still the only Big Ten school that doesn’t average 40k a game. But some have called the program healthier than Notre Dame’s. Are things still on an upward trajectory?

From a marketing standpoint it’s arrow way up. Indeed, NU is averaging just under 40 k per game, but that will change this year with a home slate that is pretty darn juicy. NU’s private school status, 8K students, dispersed alumni base and ridiculous competition with the Chicago marketplace all make this a challenge for the tradition-deprived school. However, NU began investing in marketing big time about four years ago and have set back to back season ticket sales records.

The fans get frustrated by Sea of Red invasions (sound familiar?) but we’re 11th out of 12 (soon to be 11th out of 14) in terms of actual Chicago alumni base in the B1G. It’s hard to get mad that opposing fans get tickets the second they go on sale as we’d all do it if we lived in the marketplace. I think BC is one of the best analogous situations and I’d love to have their 40K-size stadium. Even if it meant leaving money on the table. NU regularly has 30K+ of the fans and Ryan Field is next up in terms of a major overhaul after NU completes its downright ridiculous $225 million lakeside practice facility which is set to break ground imminently (or so we’re told).

Should NU go 8-4-ish this year and win a bowl game, the momentum will be pretty good moving forward. Fitz’s most recent recruiting classes are at the Top 20 level in terms of quality and you can see the talent uptick. We still simply lack the depth of the big dogs and must rely on staying healthy to compete.

***

For more on Northwestern football, check out Lake the Posts or give them a follow on Twitter @LakethePosts.

Leftovers, Links & Questions for the Week: No. 3 Notre Dame returns from a week off

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It was Notre Dame’s week off, so any leftovers around here are minimal at best. There isn’t enough to make a full sandwich with, if you will, but perhaps enough to satisfy a craving for 45 minutes before dinner is served. In other words, the idle week doesn’t truly end until Tuesday morning.

As expected, the fingers hitting these keys did not touch a remote this weekend. But that didn’t stop them from cruising Twitter and learning a few things that need to be investigated this week, most likely by Tuesday morning:

It sounds like …
— USC’s quarterback depth chart may no longer exist.
— Syracuse’s quarterback depth chart is about to enter into a controversy.

— Jim Harbaugh is in the middle of another controversy.
— Something largely possible because Harbaugh feels emboldened by Michigan’s success, finally notching a road win against a ranked opponent.

— Those rankings are becoming an issue as people debate Notre Dame and Michigan, missing the point that if both win out, both will be in the Playoff.
— The exact seeding possibilities will start to sort themselves out a week from tomorrow (Tuesday), when the selection committee releases its first ranking.

— The Irish will then immediately have a chance at a comparison point between them and the Wolverines — ya know, aside from the 24-17 Notre Dame victory to open the season — when they head to Northwestern.

— What is worth remembering about Michigan’s 20-17 victory at Northwestern on Sept. 29 is the Wolverines put themselves in a 17-0 hole before getting their act together, their last real scare this season despite now coming off back-to-back top-25 matchups. (No offense, Maryland, but your 7-3 first-quarter lead was not really all that terrifying.)

Now then, some questions …
Will Irish sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong be available to play against Navy (8 ET; CBS)?
Head coach Brian Kelly loosely targeted Armstrong’s return for after the idle week when a knee infection first sidelined him the week before the Stanford game. The simultaneous — but obviously unrelated — return of senior running back Dexter Williams from an undisclosed suspension made Armstrong’s absence much more palatable.

Nonetheless, adding Armstrong to Williams and junior Tony Jones would create a genuinely deep running back rotation. Fresh legs are a rare commodity at the position in November, but Notre Dame might luck into them.

That is, if Armstrong’s fitness was not damaged too much by the four-week break, which included six days in the hospital at one point.
“It’s complicated in the sense that six days sounds like a lot,” Kelly said Oct. 9. “We were draining the knee area and making sure that no infection would get in there. So it required a round-the-clock maintenance on that, and it’s something that’s better done in a hospital environment than back in the dorm.”

Admittedly, this is a question which will go unanswered into the weekend, but it is worth acknowledging well ahead of time.

One way or another, Notre Dame will make it a priority to get junior cornerback Julian Love close to the ball this weekend against Navy’s triple-option attack. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Despite vastly-improved safety play, will the Irish still move Julian Love to safety from cornerback, as they did last year?
The then-sophomore made a career high 14 tackles that day, with 10 of them solo. His nose for the ball is best-suited against the Midshipmen when he can play close to the line of scrimmage and stop the triple-option from the outset, rather than fight off a block on the sideline and then work his way in.

If they do so, will Donte Vaughn get another chance at cornerback?
The junior was benched against Pittsburgh for poor coverage and shoddy tackling. Freshman TaRiq Bracy acquitted himself quite well filling in for Vaughn, and one could be forgiven for readily presuming Bracy would be Notre Dame’s third cornerback (behind Love and junior Troy Pride) moving forward.

This weekend may be the exception.

“Donte has got length, and we like his size,” Kelly said even after that on-field change against the Panthers. “… Donte is much more of a physical player against the run.”

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Notre Dame’s stressful weekend was inevitable; kicking woes were not
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Maybe they aren’t as bad as thought?
Refreshing Notre Dame’s Playoff possibilities
Refreshing predictions from Notre Dame’s preseason
No. 4 Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions
Big-Picture Mailbag: Wherein Notre Dame fans somehow worry
Friday at 4: Forget about football, just this once, just this weekend

OUTSIDE READING
A family photo’s journey, with Twitter’s help, ties together Pitt and Notre Dame
NCAA Midseason All-American Team from Pro Football Focus
The Athletic’s midseason college football All-America teams ($)
6 college football teams that have greatly underdelivered this season

AND A THANK YOU
A couple Mondays back, this space mentioned a marathoner named Brad. The closing line of Friday’s column was, “Could somebody text me score updates for Clemson at NC State?”

Brad actually did. That’s going above and beyond right there.

Minutes before he did so was also the only chance to personally watch any college football over the weekend. While on a swamp tour in the bayous of Louisiana, the flat-bottomed boat cruised by a house closer to a wild pig breeding ground than to any roads. One man sat on the deck in a rocking chair. A TV made in the mid-90s played Alabama at Tennessee. As Captain Ron said hello to Mr. Jones, this tour now included not only alligators, blue herons and abandoned cement barges, but also the ideal embodiment of how pervasive football is in the United States.

Friday at 4: Forget about football, just this once, just this weekend

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Hold on, I have always wanted to do this …

SOMEWHERE ABOVE MIDDLE AMERICA; SPIRIT AIRLINES FLIGHT 985 — Usually, such a self-serving dateline would be nothing but unnecessary and flattering self-flagellation. In this instance, however, it is to the point about to be addressed. (Also, it’s a Spirit Airlines flight, no humblebrag includes Spirit Airlines.)

Maybe if Notre Dame was not 7-0, not one of six Power Five undefeateds remaining and not No. 4 in the polls, this weekend would feel empty. Maybe if the Irish had not reached the off week with everything still possible, were not forcing their fans to discuss the dreams they usually do not dare voice outside the privacy of an empty car on a long commute, then these 14 days would feel idle rather than relaxing. Maybe if head coach Brian Kelly had not switched quarterbacks a month ago and thus not sparked Notre Dame to look significantly — undeniably, inarguably, one Pittsburgh-struggle away from overwhelmingly — better than it had in the first three weeks, then this would be a time to reassess the obvious flaws that had yet to spell ruin, inevitable as it would certainly seem.

But the Irish are on the brink of something, as much of a brink as anything can be with a month to go. Those generational dreams are more pertinent than most are familiar with. Kelly did make the change to junior Ian Book.

Beginning again Monday, the Notre Dame stress will rise to a level not felt since 2012, and even then, it was a team escaping trouble for as long as possible, not one embarrassing Stanford on both sides of the line.

The five weeks to come will include freak outs — don’t you dare, unfounded Twitter rumors, don’t you dare — and celebrations. They may well include the continued coalescence of USC, leading to concern clouding enjoyment of Thanksgiving’s cheesy potatoes. (Ahhhh, cheesy potatoes.)

An injury will lead to aggravation. A questionable play call will spark un-nuanced outrage. A correct-to-the-letter flag will be faulted for missing the spirit of the rule.

This is what awaits you come Monday.

Today is Friday.

So, for one weekend this fall, forget about football. Enjoy some time away from the TV, or at least leave it on just in the background and focus energy somewhere else. By no means do you need to clean the gutters, but has anyone ever been worse off for not watching Michigan at Michigan State? (12 ET; FOX)

This flight is to New Orleans to enjoy a bachelor party. It being scheduled for this particular weekend is no accident. The only coincidence was the survey of attendees happened to match the weekend the best man had already decided upon. The polling results were private; they were never going to be shared if they conflicted with the executive decision.

There will not be football on at this bachelor party, no matter if it is in a football-mad state filled with dreams of upsetting the national balance and ruining any semblance of order in the Playoff conversation. Good for Louisiana, for LSU, for Ed Orgeron. That is not a problem to be discussed around here this weekend. (And not while watching the Tigers host Mississippi State at 7 ET on ESPN.)

That is a problem for Monday.

Go, open your Friday at 4 beverage. Just like any week, you have earned it. But maybe do not worry about USC at Utah tomorrow night (8 ET; Pac 12 Network), even if that spread is ticking more and more toward the Utes.

As you read this, yours truly will be heading toward a nice Cajun dinner.

Midday Saturday, it’ll be a boat tour of the swamplands. There will be no television anywhere near, though the boat does come complete with a cooler filled with local beer.

Take a weekend off. Just this one.

And if you don’t, could somebody text me score updates for Clemson at NC State? Much appreciated. (3:30 ET; ESPN)

Big-Picture Mailbag: Wherein Notre Dame fans somehow worry

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Notre Dame is undefeated, and for the most part, that is good enough. Yet, concern about the No. 4 Irish showed itself in this week’s call for mailbag questions through references to other programs, be they Pittsburgh, Alabama or Michigan. Yes, that is the first time in 2018 those three have been mentioned in the same breath. Maybe the first time this decade.

Let’s begin with the most recent Notre Dame victory and work our way toward ending with some philosophical Wolverines wonderings.

Brian Kelly shrugged off the difficulty the Irish had against the game plan Pitt put into place. But the concern is, of course, that it WORKED. The counterargument is that there were quite a few missed passes that would have changed things (dramatically) and quite a few missed blocking assignments that could have broken for us.

But doesn’t this just tell every other team on our remaining schedule what the blueprint is for containing the Irish? And if so, what is the next chess move for Kelly to counter it? — Mark H.

It worked? Notre Dame won, right? And the defense gave up just 242 total yards, one score and 4.0 yards per play, right? Right. Just making sure.

Pittsburgh’s method worked only to that extent; it was not enough. That is the first counter: Continue relying on the Irish defense.

The next thing to remember is teams take on their coaches’ dispositions. The Panthers follow Pat Narduzzi’s lead, and to a lesser extent, defensive coordinator Randy Bates. That results in a defense willing to sell out against the run when told to, even if doing so comes at the expense of the secondary. Not all other teams will have that success or the roster designed for it. The current iterations of Navy and Florida State, for example, very much do not, and USC needs to worry now with senior linebacker Porter Gustin out for the year.

His success sometimes makes it hard to remember: Ian Book is still a first-year starter with only five career starts under his belt. (Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images)

Lastly, some of this is overreaction forgetting the Irish can indeed counter this defensive strategy, and that will start with junior quarterback Ian Book. He was “antsy” and “skittish” against Pittsburgh, to use his own words. To offer a broader description, Book was nervous about any version of a pass rush. He had not yet faced a stacked box like that, and the first appearance of one reminded Book he is a first-year starter leading an unbeaten team toward the Playoff. If the moment did not get to him, some version of doubt did, be it in himself, the offensive line or the game plan.

Book spun away from not-yet-threatening pass rushes too often against the Panthers. Fortunately for Notre Dame, that should not be a difficult bad habit to break upon some film review. If Book realizes his happy feet actually got him into more trouble than they evaded, he may settle down when Northwestern — where Bates was defensive coordinator as recently as last year — tries a similar strategy. At that point, exploiting the minimalist secondary should be readily possible.

Losing a night of sleep after Virginia Tech may have affected the team’s performance against Pitt. Why doesn’t the team spend the night after a late away game? Would it be an NCAA violation? Is it just about cost? — Joseph B.

Notre Dame reportedly plans to do just that after the Navy game in San Diego kicks off at 8 ET. The flight back from southern California will also cover about 1,800 miles, compared to only 450 or so from Virginia Tech. That trip really was not very lengthy.

Given those November plans, it is obviously not an NCAA violation, but there is a logistics issue when the kickoff time is not announced in the summer. If the Lane Stadium festivities had ended up dampened by sunlight, then what would have been gained by staying the night? That kickoff time was not known until six days beforehand.

What, if anything, does sending clips of holding calls/penalties to the ACC do? So far, seen no results. — @sogdeaux

Let’s presume you are sitting at a table as you read this. Seems a reasonable possibility. If not, pretend.

Now, can you prove to me there is not a ghost under that table? Can you prove to me you have not seen any effects of Notre Dame sending in clips to the ACC pointing out missed holding calls?

It is very possible the Irish coaching staff would have sent in a dozen clips after the Pitt game if not for pointing out some holds missed at Wake Forest. Likely? No. But you cannot prove otherwise.

Notre Dame junior defensive end Julian Okwara will likely ask for an NFL draft evaluation this spring, but that is not a sure sign he heads to the next level after this season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

That is the point of sending in the clips. No matter what, calls are going to be missed. These are part-time officials trying to keep up in a game that is going faster and faster with bigger and stronger athletes. It is an utterly thankless task. If Notre Dame can point out — this is strictly a hypothetical — junior defensive end Julian Okwara is often grabbed by the shoulder when he executes a swim move, then an official may be more apt to look for that grab when he sees Okwara begin that paddle motion.

Calls will continue to be missed, but the effect is the call that is made that otherwise would not have been, the ghost under the table you will never see nor even know exists.

With the season more than half over and plenty of empirical evidence at your disposal, can you handicap which seniors will be offered fifth years and who will likely accept? Similarly, which, if any, juniors are likely to enter the 2019 draft? — @kenjomanMcd

First, let’s ruminate on the wonders and bewilderments of technology. This rough draft is getting typed at an airport gate awaiting a flight south. Rather than pay for 90 minutes of shoddy wifi or unnecessarily use up hotspot data, the internet is disconnected. That makes itself clear in the lack of spell check in this particular Google Doc. Yet, somehow, the “2018 Depth Chart” Google Spreadsheet can be opened, although it has never been backed up on this computer.

All this is to say, that oddity is the only reason this question gets pondered right now, and it is also why it took genuine sounding out to spell minimalist earlier.

There is little difference between getting offered a fifth year and accepting it. If the former were to occur without the latter, word would never genuinely leak on that. Only eight current seniors have another year of eligibility available: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, receivers Miles Boykin and Chris Finke, tight end Alizé Mack, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, linebacker Asmar Bilal and defensive back Shaun Crawford.

The quicker question to ask is who does not come back. Wimbush heads that list. Even if an injury forced him back into playing time and he led the way to the Playoff, a happier final collegiate year will be found elsewhere, and Wimbush leaving for those pastures would open the gate for current freshman Phil Jurkovec to be no less than Book’s backup in 2019.

Dew-Treadway has given little reason to incur a fifth-year, especially with Notre Dame curating the concept of defensive depth previously unseen in these parts.

The other six would all return to starting and contributing roles, though there is some question to Mack getting approval for it, given his academic suspension in 2016.

As for early-departing juniors, no offensive player has shined enough to warrant consideration, and yes, that is a reference to receiver Chase Claypool. Defensively, cornerback Julian Love and defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara could conceivably have decisions to make. Okwara in particular seems ripe for more development before heading to the NFL draft, but those other two may receive positive enough feedback to warrant strong pondering of collecting paychecks.

Do you see any assistant coaches leaving the Irish this year to jump to a head coach opening in college or an assistant coach position in the NFL? — Charles C.

The latter such move is not seen very often, Harry Hiestand aside. Complete staff continuity is also not seen often, as evidenced by the fact that Notre Dame’s coaching staff seemed ready to remain intact as Boykin raced to the end zone against LSU in the Citrus Bowl, and Brian Kelly still eventually had to replace Hiestand and defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

At the very least, defensive line coach Mike Elston is ready for a head coaching gig, has told Kelly that and has been groomed by Kelly and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick for that.

A few years ago, Kelly and Swarbrick led an unsuccessful effort to get then-running backs coach Tony Alford the head coaching job at his alma mater, Colorado State. If Elston spots an opening he would like, expect a similar full-court press  With Bowling Green already looking and Chuck Martin facing the prospect of his fifth season below .500 at Miami (OH), the possibilities for Elston will be there.

How about some talk about what ND can do between now and January to get ready to face Alabama in the semifinal? — Pat C.

Pat went on to list a thought about every Irish position group, which should pretty much offer the answer to his question. You don’t want ‘Bama. Ain’t no one outside of Louisiana want ‘Bama.

Oh, and by the way, just to start drilling this into heads in case it really does come to matter: The semifinals are not in January. They are Dec. 29.

For the new eligibility rules, do bowl games/postseason games count toward the limit of four? — @ChadComey

Yes. And before you ask, each Playoff game counts toward the total separately.

Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson has found his groove of late, powering the Wolverines into the Playoff conversation. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Would you be of the opinion that we need to root for Michigan or naw? — @IRISH_GL

This is not an attempt to avoid the question. It is an effort to show how tricky this calculus can be. Do you think Notre Dame will lose yet this year?

If not, then go ahead and root for Michigan. If the Wolverines were to go 12-1 to win the Big Ten, it should not affect the Irish. For this hypothetical, let’s presume Alabama and Clemson finish 13-0. The concern about Michigan is better stated as worrying not one, but two one-loss teams would get in ahead of 12-0 Notre Dame. If the Tide are 13-0, then there isn’t even a one-loss SEC team to insert into the hypothetical. Someone from the Big 12 would have to finish that round-robin-plus without losing again. Then, the debate would likely be about Texas (or Oklahoma or West Virginia) against Michigan. The Irish should be clear.

If expecting Notre Dame to lose, then a Wolverines loss may be helpful for the Irish cause, especially if it does not come against Ohio State. The way Michigan is playing, it could slip in ahead of 11-1 Notre Dame. You don’t like it, but it’s in play. If the Wolverines perhaps lost to Michigan State this weekend and then beat the Buckeyes, that would be the ideal setup, along with some Big 12 chaos, for the Irish coming out of Los Angeles with a close defeat.

Reading back on that thought process, the summarized logic indicates Notre Dame fans should root for a Michigan defeat. The Wolverines at 12-1 can do nothing but hurt an 11-1 Irish. Michigan at 12-1 does not impact undefeated Notre Dame, and there need not be fretting about the first undefeated Power Five team excluded from the College Football Playoff being the only one that does not need a conference to be considered a Power Five team.

Here’s one that’s stemming from a conversation with the #NDTwitterati … If you had a button that could eliminate Michigan football permanently, but also erases any trace of them from memory and history, do you press it? — @IrishSBender

Ever seen someone cut off their own nose? It’s not a good look. There is some phrase about spiting your face. It is referencing this.

Who first taught Notre Dame football? Michigan. So go ahead, press your red button, erase the Wolverines’ gridiron history. You’ll be losing Irish lore with it.

No. 4 Notre Dame’s defense spurs it past preseason big picture predictions

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Looking through the first half of this preseason’s 40 predictions showed how much Notre Dame’s offense has changed with junior Ian Book starting at quarterback compared to initial expectations. Walking through the latter half, the defensive and big picture portion, shows …

21) Freshman defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin will manage at least eight tackles with 0.5 behind the line of scrimmage.
RESULT: The play of classmate Jayson Ademilola (seven tackles to date) may have always rendered this unlikely, but this projection went by the wayside for good and for certain when Franklin tore his quad from the bone in his first action, ending his season without a tackle.

22) The Irish will have two players with at least sacks.
23) Junior end Khalid Kareem (pictured at top, left) will lead Notre Dame in sacks.
24) Kareem will have more than eight sacks, the most by by someone in an Irish uniform since Stephon Tuitt’s dozen in 2012.
25) Speaking of 2012’s sacks, Notre Dame will match that season’s 34.
RESULTS: The spirit of all four of these was spot on, as the Irish pass rush has been more potent this season than any in recent memory. Even in 2012, when Notre Dame had Tuitt and Prince Shembo wreaking havoc, the overall effect paled in comparison to this year’s with senior tackle Jerry Tillery (seven sacks) leading the way, Kareem (4.5) making the biggest of plays and junior end Julian Okwara doing everything but notching a sack on each drive. Then come junior ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, not to mention Ademilola’s improving play, as well as his twin brother’s, end Justin.

Senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was essentially unblockable against Stanford, tying a Notre Dame record with four sacks. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The actual grading of these predictions is varied. Between Tillery and Kareem, it is likely the Irish end up with two pass rushers combining for a dozen sacks. Kareem could still lead that charge — he is only Tillery’s four-sack performance against Stanford away — and he could still top eight. Even if Kareem does not break eight, Tillery should, and that was the underlying intention of the claim.

As for the team total, Notre Dame is on pace for 27 sacks, with 16 thus far. This is more a sign of the times than it is a sign 2012’s pass rush was better.

“We’re much more interested in quarterback hurries and getting them out of the pocket and getting them out of rhythm,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said last week. “Today the passing game is a three-step passing game.”

Quarterback hurries are the most subjective of metrics, but being the one at hand, let’s compare 2018 to 2012 … Notre Dame is credited with 41 through seven games, including Okwara’s single-handed seven against Pittsburgh. In the run to 12-0 earlier in the decade, the Irish managed 45 quarterback hurries in 12 games.

The official record of these four projections is currently to be determined for all four, with the first likely to hit and the last likely to miss, leaving the two Kareem-specific speculations unknown yet. The underlying message of the four hits on three, though, if giving credit for such. Unfortunately, the ledger does not.

26) Notre Dame will give up more than 20 points three times, but its scoring defense will still allow fewer than 21.5 points per game, both being 2017’s marks.
RESULT: Threading the needle of such a specific dichotomy was going to be unlikely, yet, here we are. The Irish gave up 27 to Wake Forest — as hinted at — and 23 to Virginia Tech. All five remaining opponents average at least 23 points per game (Florida State) with Navy (28.0) and Syracuse (43.0) looming as the most-distinct threats to the Notre Dame defense, not to mention a bowl game against what is sure to be a high-powered offense, LSU possibilities notwithstanding.

Nonetheless, first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea has schemed his way to an 18.71 points against average.

With 56 tackles, senior linebacker Te’von Coney (right) has led Notre Dame’s defense to outpacing even last year’s stellar unit. Coney has added 5.5 tackles for loss, the sack this pose celebrated, an interception and a fumble recovery in 2018. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

27) Again using last season as the initial measuring stick, the Irish will allow fewer than 369.2 yards per game. In fact, let’s lower it to 350.
RESULT: That number is currently at 340.9. Opponents would need to average 362.8 yards per game in the remaining five games to bring the season-long average above 350. That could happen, given they combine to average 388.8 yards per game through six games apiece. (The fact that all five remaining opponents have already had their bye week speaks both to the incongruent timing of Notre Dame’s and to a potential scheduling advantage in the second half of the season.)

28) Opposing running backs will catch at least three touchdowns of more than 20 yards.
RESULT: The specificity of this thought is retroactively surprising, but even if it had been vague, it would have been wrong. First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due: Senior rover Asmar Bilal has outperformed all expectations, proving to be a genuine defender and suited, at least well enough, to the hybrid position. He may not remain there next year, but that will be due to a team need rather than his own ill fit, as may have been previously expected.

Through seven games, the Irish defense has given up just two touchdowns of greater than 20 yards: a 23-yard run to Wake Forest quarterback/receiver Kendall Hinton and a 39-yarder to Stanford running back Bryce Love. That’s it. Again, kudos is deserved by Lea.

29) Freshman linebackers Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer will not preserve a year of eligibility. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec will.
RESULT: Simon and Bauer have both exceeded the four-game barrier to preservation, while Jurkovec has appeared in just one game.  It would take two quarterback injuries for him to burn the season at this point.

Notre Dame junior safety Jalen Elliott’s greatest statistical contribution this season was two interceptions in the second week, but it was this pass breakup against Vanderbilt that may have saved an Irish victory. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

30) A Notre Dame safety will intercept a pass unlike in 2017.
RESULT: See junior Jalen Elliott, Ball State, twice.

31) Simon will make 10-plus tackles.
RESULT: A lack of comfortable leads combined with worthwhile play from Bilal have limited Simon to four tackles thus far. Let’s call that within range and leave this as to be determined.

32) Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill and senior linebacker Te’von Coney will combine for 220 tackles.
RESULT: Currently at 102, the duo is on pace for 175 through 12 games. Stretching that to one bowl game raises it to 189. A Playoff run could jump it to 204. There just is not a viable reach for 220. Go ahead and call this wrong already.

33) The New York Yankees will not be swept in the American League Championship Series, guaranteeing Yankee Stadium hosts a game exactly one month before the Irish play the Orange there.
RESULT: If only the comma had been a period.

34) The best sporting event of the weekend before Thanksgiving in New York City will not be Notre Dame and Syracuse on Saturday, but rather it will be Connecticut and Syracuse rekindling Big East lore in Madison Square Garden that Thursday night.
RESULT: Obviously to be determined, but it would take something monumental to shift this take.

35) Nationwide win total unders … Texas Tech under 6.5, Washington State under 5.5, Arizona State under 4.5, North Carolina under 5.5.
RESULT: Texas Tech is already at 4-2 with Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor yet on the schedule. Mike Leach has proven to be a coach of absurd means in getting Wazzu to 5-1. The Fighting Herm Edwards started 2-0 but have gone 1-3 since to make that mildly interesting. And the Fighting Larry Fedoras would not reward anyone who actually made this wager because they cancelled a game due to Hurricane Florence, but the Tar Heels are unlikely to even reach five wins (S&P+ projects 3.2 wins), meaning the bet would have cashed no matter how they fared against Central Florida, which is to say poorly.

Considering the margins of these endeavors, 1-3 or even 2-2 does not count as a correct suggestion.

36) Nationwide win total overs … Virginia Tech over 8, Vanderbilt over 4.5, Northwestern over 6.5, Michigan State over 8.5, TCU over 7.5, Arizona over 7.5, Oregon over 8.5.
RESULT: If it was not for the Ducks, this might be an oh-fer, although the Commodores have hope of going from 3-4 to 5-7 if they can knock off not only Tennessee (for the third consecutive year), but also either Ole Miss or, more likely, Arkansas.

37) Notre Dame will not reach the top five at any point in 2018.
RESULT: These days, that should read, “No. 4 Notre Dame …”

38) The Irish will win more than 9.5 games.
RESULT: It is shy of bold to count this as correct, but for now it remains just likely. A 2-3 finish to this season would, however, be a collapse Kelly could not recover from.

39) Notre Dame will play in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
RESULT: If granting the logic it remains more likely than not the Irish lose a game this season, and not yet believing a one-loss Notre Dame would warrant Playoff consideration, then this could quickly become a 50/50 proposition between the Fiesta Bowl and the Peach Bowl.

40) At least 15 of these 40 will be wrong, the Prognosticator’s Paradox.
RESULT: If the trends continue as expected, these currently break down to a 17-15 record with eight unknowns. The 17th correct prediction is indeed No. 40 itself.

What is odd looking at these preseason thoughts is the Irish defense has been about as good as expected statistically speaking, yet it has felt more dominant than that, the sole reason Notre Dame held on against Michigan and Pittsburgh at the least, and arguably at Virginia Tech, as well, considering how that first half went.

It is that defense which has the Irish more in the national conversation than expected as the season enters its second half.