After a week of imminent distractions, Notre Dame gets prepared to take to the field and get to 6-0.
On Saturday, only North Carolina stands in their way, not the Honor Code hearings (and likely appeals) still lingering on, nor the uncertainty of teammates still in a holding pattern after an academic indiscretion was uncovered in late July.
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Yesterday, Brian Kelly spent most of his time with the media answering questions that the school’s administration won’t. Tomorrow, life will be easier: He’ll coach a football game.
North Carolina and Notre Dame will meet for the first time since 2008, when the Irish squandered a double-digit lead in Chapel Hill and lost 29-24. In an 18-game series that’s only seen the Tar Heels win one other game, letting any off-field distraction get in the way — not to mention next weekend’s date with Florida State — could derail a season that’s been perfect so far.
Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers or miscellaneous musings as Notre Dame welcomes North Carolina to South Bend at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC on online via Live Extra.
Joe Schmidt is more than just a good Hollywood story. He’s a really good middle linebacker for one of the best defenses in college football.
We’re all suckers for a great story. With a tradition dominated by the heroic narratives provided by Rockne, The Gipper and Rudy, bunching Joe Schmidt’s rags-to-riches walk-on story in with the group makes sense. But it’d be doing a disservice to the senior linebacker.
Schmidt’s a good football player. Period. While he slid through the cracks as an averaged-sized, three-year starting linebacker at Mater Dei, one of the top high school football programs in Southern California, Schmidt’s belief in himself never wavered, and Notre Dame has been the beneficiary of that self-belief.
Yesterday, Schmidt joined Jim Rome on his nationally-syndicated radio program, and told everyone the story of that belief, and what makes him such a wonderful ambassador for the university.
“It starts as a little kid. Since I was five years old, I’ve wanted to come to Notre Dame,” Schmidt said. “I’ve been a Notre Dame fan, a Notre Dame guy. My older sister and my brother-in-law Greg, they went to Notre Dame. The bug bit me early and I became infatuated with the idea of Notre Dame.
“In the recruiting process, they kind of looked at me a little bit and I had some other opportunities to play some big time football other places. But for me, it was all about, I have this dream. If I go and do something and I’m successful at some school, I don’t ever want to ask myself, ‘Could I have done that at Notre Dame?’
“For me, it was about following my dream and just trying to do everything I could to make this university better and everything I could to make this team successful. It was never too much of a decision for me.”
Of course, Schmidt’s story isn’t a great one because he stepped foot on the field or was able to lean on his parents for the financial means to make that dream happen.
“I don’t think I really understood, with taxes, how much you have to make to pay a $60,000 college tuition bill,” Schmidt said, incredibly thankful to his parents.
But Schmidt’s no longer a walk-on with a great story. He’s earned his scholarship. He’s the undisputed leader on the defense. And he’ll leave Notre Dame a two-year starter who’ll likely captain a 2015 Irish squad with sky-high expectations.
So while even Notre Dame fans look at him as some type of placeholder or scrappy, undersized underdog, Schmidt’s almost on pace for a 100-tackle season as a starter in the middle of one of the best unit’s in the country.
Enough about the story. Let’s talk about the guy on the field.
A Notre Dame-North Carolina rivalry? Saturday’s game deserves a quick history lesson.
The Irish and the Tar Heels have only played twice since 1975, splitting a home-and-home series in 2006 and 2008. In a series Notre Dame has dominated, the Irish’s .889 winning percentage is only bettered against Wabash and Illinois in team’s played a minimum of 10 games, a one-sided reboot of a series that’ll now be more frequent with Notre Dame’s ACC scheduling alliance.
But the first meeting in this series is a noteworthy one. Back in 1949, No. 1 Notre Dame met the Tar Heels in a sold-out Yankee Stadium. How hard were tickets to get? Well, this story, courtesy of North Carolina’s official athletic website, gives you a good idea.
Albert Earle Finley began a construction equipment business in Raleigh in 1931, and nearly two decades later it had grown into the largest distributorship in the United States. Finley was generous with the proceeds from his businesses, establishing a reputation as one of North Carolina’s most generous philanthropists. He was also an avid golfer and sports fan, following with interest the pursuits of university teams in the Triangle area. Like many others without direct connections to Carolina, Finley had become a fan of those late-1940s Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice-led teams.
He phoned the ticket office at Carolina in the fall of 1949 and was told that, unfortunately, there were no tickets available.
“Surely there are tickets somewhere,” Finley countered.
He was told demand was high and that, no, there were none for sale. Pressing the matter, Finley was directed to the university’s athletic director, Chuck Erickson. Finley phoned Erickson, who explained that hard-to-get tickets went to the university’s most generous financial boosters.
“If you need some money, let’s talk,” Finley said.
Erickson, who doubled as the Tar Heels’ golf coach, told Finley that the university had built a nine-hole golf course during World War II with labor from the Navy Pre-Flight and that each hole had two tees to vary the holes on a golfer’s second time through. UNC had the land for nine more and wanted to upgrade the original holes and build a second nine.
A deal was struck: Finley agreed to pay for the services of George Cobb to design the course and for construction costs. The golf course was named in his honor and remains today UNC-Finley Golf Course (though the layout was completely redesigned by Tom Fazio in 1999). And Finley got his tickets to the Carolina-Notre Dame game.
Finley joined more than 20,000 North Carolina fans traveling to New York to see the Tar Heels take on Frank Leahy’s Irish. But after an early 6-0 lead and a deadlocked 6-6 game at halftime, the Irish exploded in the second half and won 42-6.
Thought Notre Dame’s development office was good at finding donations? Chuck Erickson was no slouch either.
Another week, another test for the Irish defense. Why 17 is the magic number.
Notre Dame has surrendered just 60 points through the season’s first five games, a 12-point average that’s tied for third-best in the country, and the best among teams who haven’t played FCS competition. But against Larry Fedora’s North Carolina offense, the Irish will face one of their stiffest offensive challenges.
The Irish defense has held their opponents to 17 points or less all five games this season, matching the 2012 unit in an accomplishment that hadn’t been achieved since 1982. Fedora’s North Carolina offense has been held to less than 17 points only once in his tenure in Chapel Hill, last year’s season opener against South Carolina.
Most Irish fans thought Brian Kelly was paying lip-service to Fedora’s athletic roster and offense, especially looking at their relatively mediocre 2-3 record with wins over just Liberty and San Diego State. But Brian VanGorder’s defense will face off against a tough dual-threat quarterback and some athletic playmakers.
With the next chapter of the season about to begin, expect the running game to get on track this Saturday.
That we’re applauding a blue-collar effort last Saturday isn’t insignificant. But Notre Dame’s modest 4.0 yards per carry against Stanford — bolstered by long runs by C.J. Prosise and Everett Golson — is hopefully something to build on.
With the restacked offensive line continuing to grow into their roles, Saturday against North Carolina’s very suspect defense will be important to continue the midseason reshuffling. Earlier this week, Kelly was asked about the play of new center Matt Hegarty, who struggled early against Stanford’s three-down front, but settled into the game.
“What we were most pleased with is that in the third and fourth quarter, he played his best football,” Kelly said. “So I think once we settled into the game and started to get into the flow of the game, he graded out much better. But not to take away, there were some of those big misses that we have to really eradicate from his game.”
Hegarty wasn’t the only one that needs to eliminate some ugly plays. Sophomore Steve Elmer was physically overwhelmed a few times by Stanford’s Henry Anderson. Christian Lombard had an early slip-up or two as well. (And that’s certainly not to say Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley were perfect, either.) But getting these five working in sync before heading to Tallahassee has to be a priority for Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, and expect the game plan to reflect that.
Of course, the guys running the ball need to do a better job. And while it’s easy for those of us watching from the press box or the couch to spot cutback lanes, Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston and Cam McDaniel all need to take advantage of their opportunities this weekend.
Folston should be ready to go after a thigh contusion. Kelly said that the medical staff took four cc’s of fluid out of Folston’s quad and that he responded with an excellent week of practice. After a breakout freshman season started down the stretch, Folston could be ready to step into that role, if Bryant or McDaniel let him.
With Golson for the Irish and Hood for the Tar Heels, it’s a friendly reminder that all is fair in love and recruiting.
Everett Golson has likely been looking forward to the matchup with North Carolina for a long time. After envisioning himself starring for the Tar Heels on both the gridiron and the hard wood, Golson ended up in South Bend, a winding road that we’ve spent tens of thousands of words describing.
Golson was committed to North Carolina, ready to play basketball for Roy Williams and football for Butch Davis, until an NCAA academic investigation took root. That opened the door for Brian Kelly to come in, finding a perfect quarterback for his offensive system, though ending any opportunity to play basketball.
Of course, North Carolina turned the tables in the last recruiting cycle with their flipping of Elijah Hood. The five-star running back was an early Notre Dame commit, dazzling at The Opening as he showcased elite speed and a physique about as impressive as you’ll find on a high school senior.
Hood has quickly ascended to the top of the running back depth chart for the Tar Heels, averaging 4.3 yards per carry as a powerful, fall-forward running back behind a suspect offensive line. He’ll likely get his opportunity to impress early and often for the North Carolina offense with no offensive line. That says nothing about the numbers Golson could put up against a defense that’s allowing 42 points a game.
As we saw earlier this week with Notre Dame’s flipping of quarterback recruit Brandon Wimbush, the Irish coaching staff isn’t afraid to continue to recruit a prospect that’s committed. It’s helped define the Kelly era, with no quarterback in Notre Dame history winning games at a better clip than Golson.
So while the Irish may lose an occasional big name like Hood, they’ll win enough to make it all okay.
Distractions, suspensions and “getting it.” Any questions about Brian Kelly’s fit at Notre Dame have been answered.
Remember this moment, Notre Dame fans. Because there’s a very real possibility that it might not ever get any better than this.
Ranked in the Top Five according to the now meaningless Coaches’ Poll, Brian Kelly has led a ridiculously young football team into October unbeaten. That feat alone has rarely been accomplished in the post-Lou Holtz era of Notre Dame football.
But even Holtz rarely had to deal with the difficulties and distractions that Kelly has endured, none more frustrating and culture-inflicted than the “imminent” demise of DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. That university brass is still determining discipline for five athletes after suspected academic misdeeds were discovered in late July is ridiculous.
The university, led by Rev. John Jenkins, has deserved a lot of credit in recent years for moving out of the dark ages — in campus life and social issues — all while retaining their ideals as the preeminent Catholic university in the world.
But a lot of that good will has eroded these past two months, with administrators exhibiting the uneasiness that comes along with Notre Dame’s continued hopes to be among academia’s elite while begrudgingly acknowledging football’s role as the foundation that quite literally built most of the university.
That struggle had revealed itself for too long in the athletic department. But Jack Swarbrick has solved that problem. Under Swarbrick, the athletic department no longer operates like their antiquated facilities inside the JACC, but rather like one of the elite athletic outfits in the entire country. Mens and women’s sports continue to win at historic clips, finding a way to recruit athletes that fit inside a mold that even the university’s top administrators are still working to define.
Swarbrick has succeeded largely because he bet on the right man to run his flagship program. And in his relationship with Brian Kelly, the duo has found a way to thrive, mostly because Kelly understands his place in the big picture. That he’s able to win while constantly being examined under a microscope that includes social media and viral memes, HD zoom lenses focused on his every sideline move, and a rabid fanbase demanding a return to past glories is something we shouldn’t take for granted.
Nor should we discount his political acumen. Just look to Ann Arbor when you want to see what happens when you throw a football coach to the wolves. So while some still worry that Kelly’s just a smooth operator and opportunist looking for the next big thing, these past few weeks should end that discussion.
The university has released its last statement on the academic suspensions, delivering a heavily-scrubbed message on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of NFL bedlam, seemingly willing to ride out this storm and batten down the hatches. So its head football coach continues to speak uneasily on its behalf, capably handling a mess not of his own creation.
That’s a man that understands his role at Notre Dame. And a man you couldn’t blame for wanting an easier job, where winning football games was the only measurement of success or failure.