The good, the bad, the ugly: Bye week

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There is no football game this weekend. For a Notre Dame football team that just played three-straight tight games, that’s a good thing. (For Irish fans, it’s a victory as well. Go buy a pumpkin and get outside in the fall weather.)

As promised, let’s look back at the first eight weeks of the season. Notre Dame sits at 6-1, with a place in the College Football Playoff still very much in play.

 

THE GOOD

Everett Golson. For all the grumbling about Golson’s turnovers the past few weeks, it might help to take a step or two back and evaluate what Notre Dame’s quarterback is doing from distance.

He’s thrown for nearly 2,000 yards. He’s tossed 19 touchdown passes against six* interceptions. He leads Notre Dame in rushing touchdowns. And he’s doing it with a receiving corps led by two true sophomores, an entire pass-catching unit that had exactly one total catch from Golson before this season.

While nobody wants to see Golson cough up another football while running with it, he displayed a really solid grasp of how best to run in this offense against Florida State, squirting away from pressure, moving the chains and getting down on the ground before he needed to get hit, understanding the best play is the one where you’re not crunched by a 250-pounder.

One more thing to consider: Golson is CLUTCH. (All-Caps Necessary.)

It’s shown itself in two-minute drills, with the Irish deadly on their final drive heading into halftime. And obviously, it’s made plays like Ben Koyack on 4th down for the win against Stanford possible. And Corey Robinson on 4th-and-18 possible. And Corey Robinson on 4th-and-3 for the win against Florida State possible.

In his second full season as a starter, Golson is playing at the level of an All-American candidate. While he hasn’t been perfect, let’s not forget that he’s the engine of this offense.

 

The Kids on the Defense. Looking over the two-deep depth chart in August, there were a lot of people scratching their heads. Who is this kid? We’re gonna do what with that kid? 

But credit Brian Kelly for knowing exactly what he had. And while most of us probably thought he was being optimistic about a situation that didn’t have a solution, the head coach’s comments from August sound pretty spot-on:

“I’m watching them every day. I’m going against them every day. I’m liking it. I know when you have holes. I’ve been around long enough. I know when you look at them and go, ‘That’s not very good.’ Now they’re young. We might cut a gap loose. We may be in the wrong gap. But it’s not because we’re not ripping and roaring up the field. It’ll be fun but they’re gonna cause a few moments of coach VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground. I’m sure of that. But the thing is, it’s a physical group. It’s a physical group.”

That Notre Dame’s defense is getting key contributions from true freshmen Andrew Trumbetti, Daniel Cage, Kolin Hill and Grant Blankenship up front is pretty amazing. That Drue Tranquill, a recruit some Irish fans didn’t even want as part of this class (or only wanted if he was willing to play linebacker), is playing major snaps as a key piece of the secondary is incredible.

Down to a man, this defense is performing at a really impressive level. But the fact that kids who were playing last season on Friday nights are now such a critical part of the defense is one of the great surprises of the season.

 

Dealing with adversity. If there’s anything that should have you feeling optimistic about this Irish team putting their difficult loss to Florida State behind them, it’s the fact that this group has ignored the noise surrounding them since August, when news of an academic scandal exploded.

With five teammates hanging in limbo for two months as the university dug into a thorough investigation, it would’ve been easy for a young team missing some key leaders to be distracted. But that didn’t happen.

And with KeiVarae Russell pledging to return to Notre Dame in the summer and Ishaq Williams likely right behind him, the players who made their mistakes have moved on, even if they disagree with their punishment. That allows the team to do the same thing.

 

Joe Schmidt, Linebacker. I’m making the clarification here because Joe Schmidt, the underdog story, has already been beaten to a pulp. Yes, we all love the story. And it’s been told wonderfully multiple times. But I’m more interested in the middle linebacker that won a starting job and is the unquestionable leader of the defense.

After Jarrett Grace suffered a devastating leg injury that still threatens his career, many hoped blue-chip freshman Nyles Morgan would be able to step in and contribute early. But Schmidt has quieted any and all doubters, putting together a tremendous season that has him on pace for triple-digit tackles to go along with multiple interceptions and forced fumbles.

At this point, Schmidt’s a lock not just to return for a fifth year, but to have a ‘C’ on his jersey. He’s the type of player that’s so incredibly valuable not just because he’s the nerve center asked to relay Brian VanGorder’s signals to the defense, but also because he’s a walking testimonial to hard work and achievement every step he takes inside the Gug.

If you’re a scholarship player feeling buried on the depth chart, just take a look at Schmidt. It took until his senior season, but he’s the guy getting his opportunity on the field, leading the team and playing at a high level. Schmidt did that through hard work, and his example will no doubt be used every time the Irish coaching staff is pursuing a preferred walk-on or a five-star recruit.

The best player will play. And that’s why Schmidt is on the field, recruiting ranking be damned.

 

Will Fuller & Corey Robinson, future stars: It’s hard to talk about one sophomore wide receiver without the other. But with a depth chart with little in front of them, both Fuller and Robinson have shown themselves to be stars-in-the-making, with Fuller nearly there and Robinson making his bid last Saturday.

The duo are unlikely game-breakers. Nobody wanted Robinson on their roster until Notre Dame became the first program to offer the raw San Antonio athlete with good very good bloodlines. Fuller was an anonymous three-star prospect who had an offer from Penn State, but came to Notre Dame after a sneaky senior season in the Philadelphia Catholic League helped his profile rise.

Fuller is third in the NCAA with eight touchdown catches this season. After serving as a deep threat specialist last year, Fuller has shown himself to be electric with the football in his hands. His work on screen passes has turned three yard gains into 30, making the quick game a crucial component of the offense. He’s also drawn his share of pass interference penalties, earning 15 yards by beating defensive backs and forcing a penalty.

Robinson’s breakout against Florida State was a long time coming. We’ve seen his skills since spring practice videos after his early enrollment, helping Irish fans understand the term “catch radius” after looking at his gumby arms stretch and stick to just about every football thrown his way.

Even with a fractured thumb, Robinson has been an efficient pass catcher. He’s gotten his high-point opportunities lately, posterizing a Florida State defensive back and rendering a Syracuse defender helpless in one-on-one coverage on a fade route for a touchdown.

For as good as these two have been, a look into the near future should have Irish fans salivating. The juniors will likely pair with Golson again in 2015 in an offense that should be even better.

 

Brian Kelly, Program Builder. Another year, another data point that shows Jack Swarbrick hired the right guy to take over the Notre Dame football program in 2010. While two consecutive eight-win seasons weren’t the type of immediate success people hoped for, that Kelly has won 27 of his last 33 games — and is doing it now with an insanely young team — has the Irish on the verge of another golden era.

When you look at a head coach, wins and losses are important. But so are the decisions that go into building a program. As Kelly has had to adjust his coaching staff, we’ve seen those decisions play out wonderfully. After two seasons, Kelly had to replace Charley Molnar, Ed Warinner and Tim Hinton. He did that by making the unorthodox decision to move Chuck Martin to offensive coordinator, shifting Mike Denbrock and Tony Alford to allow the promotion of Scott Booker, and bringing in Harry Hiestand from Tennessee. All three of those moves have paid large dividends.

Having to replace both Martin and Bob Diaco after last season, Kelly once again hit a home run. The decision to bring Brian VanGorder in from the NFL has been an immediate program-changer. And the move to turn the offense over the Mike Denbrock while going back to calling plays has been an incredibly smooth transition, with Kelly still in control of the football game as a head coach while also scripting the offensive game plan beautifully.

Adding to his prowess as a football coach, Kelly was forced to serve as the voice of the university during the academic investigation, while six-figure administrators sat quietly to let the head coach do their work. We’ve seen how that’s gone at other programs.

For as long as he’s at Notre Dame, Kelly’s name will always be in the conversation when NFL job openings arise. But with an elite team set to take the field in 2015 and a foundation for beyond them already soundly in place, there’s nothing but good times ahead inside Notre Dame Stadium.

 

Quick Hits:

* Comeback player of the year candidates: Offensively, it’s easily Golson. But on defense, look closely at Matthias Farley. The move to cornerback during spring practice had many thinking it meant Farley was going to be buried on the depth chart. Instead, he’s been one of the key playmakers on the defense.

* Not many coaching staffs would take an off week and reshuffle their offensive line, moving four starters into new jobs. But credit goes to Kelly, Denbrock and Harry Hiestand for knowing they had a problem and addressing it immediately.

* There isn’t free agency in college football, but how important has Cody Riggs been to Notre Dame? While the Gators go down the toilet, the Florida transfer is at Notre Dame playing major snaps at cornerback, building his NFL resume and getting a graduate degree that’ll help him with life after football. That sure sounds like a win-win scenario to me.

* Nobody likes a three-man platoon at running back. Thank god Tarean Folston did his best to end it last weekend. Expect the sophomore to get the lions share of opportunities, though Greg Bryant will have his chances against a Navy defense that’s giving up over 180 rushing yards a game.

* Brian VanGorder. From anonymous NFL assistant to social media hero to Broyles Award front-runner.

 

THE BAD

Attrition in the secondary. A position group that looked to be one of the strongest on the roster all of a sudden is nearing red-line, emergency status. Captain Austin Collinsworth’s career at Notre Dame might be over, a fifth-year all but washed away after a knee injury and shoulder dislocation crushed his final season. While many wanted to see what a pairing of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate looked like, nobody wanted to see it happen this way.

Backup safety Nicky Baratti might have to call it a career after his shoulder gave out again, this time on a relatively mild collision on his first play into the game against Purdue. Without Eilar Hardy because of the academic probe, the Irish are down to Drue Tranquill at safety, a position group that went from overflowing to vacant in a matter of months.

Cornerback is not much better. Losing No. 1 coverman KeiVarae Russell hurt the Irish, but Cole Luke and Cody Riggs have done a great job filling in. But behind them, Matthias Farley has been forced into a somewhat difficult fit at nickelback, as we saw Florida State take advantage of a few athletic mismatches for the converted safety.

Behind them is sophomore Devin Butler and freshman Nick Watkins. While it hasn’t been announced, the absence of seniors Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown likely is a courtesy to allow the duo a chance to play out their eligibility at another program next season. That means if anything happens to Luke or Riggs, this secondary is only getting younger.

 

The Academic Investigation. Nothing about this was good. That the Irish would have another season self-sabotaged because of academic issues was painful enough. But to lose three key starters among the five players? That’s attrition that at the time looked like a season-changer.

While the particulars of the investigation are still confidential, the timeline that it took to come to a conclusion put a very bright light on an Honor Code process that’s supposed to both protect the students involved and also be transparent. The length of the process turned five football players into Scarlet Letter wearing members of the Notre Dame community, harm that this administration seemed obtuse about until it was too late.

While the revelations at North Carolina serve as a reminder that these type of problems — and the investigations that follow them — are critical to get right (even if it does take a lot of time), there are lessons to be learned here for all parties involved.

 

Quick Hits:

* It’s hard to put the offensive line or the running game in the bad category, but without last week’s game in Tallahassee, they were in there.

* For as good as Kyle Brindza has been this year, he’s had a habit of snap-hooking a few kickoffs out of bounds. That’s a mistake that’s put opponents on the 35-yard line three times this year. This is pretty nit-picky, but for a game trying to earn the nickname of “Unreturnable,” the standards go up.

* The offensive line play continues to get better. But the big, ugly, hide-your-head misses that we’ve seen the past few weeks have to be eliminated.

* The defense against North Carolina’s tempo attack. Get ready for Arizona State to try the exact same thing.

* Yes, we can put Everett Golson’s fumble issues here. That’s probably appropriate.

 

THE UGLY

Pick Plays and Conference Clarifications. While most “objective” observers continue to stress that the correct call was made on Notre Dame’s 4th-and-3 touchdown against Florida State, it’s still slightly comical for me to take those people seriously.

Would you have been happy with Michael Jordan getting called for a push-off against Byron Russell and the Utah Jazz? Or how about an umpire ending a classic playoff baseball game on a balk call? Or you must still a big fan of the ref that threw the controversial pass interference call that gifted Ohio State a title against Miami. After all, the letter of the rulebook states very clearly that…

Regardless, the play is over with. But that doesn’t make someone a conspiracy theorist for digging into the play, breaking down the situation and wondering aloud about the controversial call. Epic football games shouldn’t be decided by ticky-tack calls, especially when it wasn’t as clear-cut of a judgment call after watching multiple angles and understanding what Florida State’s defensive backs were doing. And that’s what this looks like. Especially now that the ACC has flip-flopped on the actual offender and acknowledged missing another clear-cut, letter of the law unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that should have kept Notre Dame’s offense on the field with a fresh set of downs.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to send ACC coordinator of officials Doug Rhoads a Christmas card, especially after his clarification video. Nor should we expect to see crew chief David Epperley or back judge Pat Ryan on the field for a Notre Dame game again this season. (Not unless you really want to see BK turn purple.)