The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

100 Comments

A little less than 48 hours after Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern, it doesn’t seem like too many people are over it. So let’s dispense with the introductions and pull the band-aid.

Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s disastrous 43-40 loss to the Wildcats.

 

GOOD

Will Fuller. Right now, Notre Dame’s sophomore wide receiver has 13 touchdowns, tied for the lead in the NCAA, and on pace to break Golden Tate’s record of 15 scores in his Biletnikoff Award-winning junior season.

Once again, Fuller had a monster day, scoring three times on his nine catches for 159 yards. He beat a good Northwestern secondary on deep routes, screen routes and everything in between. He also dropped two or three balls, reminding you that Fuller is still a work-in-progress, an exciting proposition as we look to the future.

 

Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back bounced back, running for 106 yards on 20 carries Saturday. He scored a nifty touchdown on a spin move at the goal line, and also showed the type of vision and patience that’s become a staple of his game.

While it feels like we saw too much of Cam McDaniel or grumbled every time Folston wasn’t in the backfield, he had five times as many rushing opportunities as McDaniel, who gained 12 yards on his four runs — including the game-turning fumble when the Irish were trying to run out the clock.

 

Matthias Farley. Another game, another really big play for Farley, who is turning into one of the lone bright spots on a defense that’ll be discussed for much of the “Bad” section. The senior (with a fifth-year available) stepped in front of a pass near the Irish goal line and returned it 39 yards.

Farley is tied for the team lead with three interceptions. His 6.5 tackles-for-loss are also tied for the team lead. It’s been a nice bounce-back season for the veteran who struggled last year at safety.

 

Forcing Turnovers. Notre Dame forced four of them. (And nearly a fifth that would’ve iced the game if it didn’t bounce from the arms of two diving defenders and squirt out of bounds.)

And Austin Collinsworth’s scoop and score was the defense’s first touchdown after Max Redfield’s block on Devin Gardner nullified Elijah Shumate’s pick six.

 

BAD

The Defense. So it’s gotten ugly. Really ugly. Just how ugly? Historically ugly.

This five-game run is the worst in the history of Notre Dame football for allowing points. Per BlueandGold’s Lou Somogyi, the doldrums of 2007 saw the Irish give up 166 points to open the 2007 season. This five-game streak has seen the Irish give up 211.

To keep everything under this one stench-filled lid, let’s go through the bullet points.

  • Tackling. Boy, it got comical for a bit out there. For as nice of a season as Cole Luke has had, I think he’s still trying to drag down a receiver while futilely punching at the football. That’s not to say Luke was alone, as it was a group fail out there, as the Irish turned the least explosive offense in power-five football into a group of worldbeaters.
  • The First Half. Lord only knows how many more points Northwestern would’ve scored had they not gotten hit with a rash of the drops. But the Irish’s first-half effort against the Wildcats’ version of hurry-up was likely (hopefully) rock bottom for this group.Having rewatched the game twice over the weekend, I’ll spare the gory details. But the ground game had major breaches, the pass defense allowed the chains to move early and often (Northwestern converted just 8 of 20 third downs, but it sure felt like a lot more), and the situational awareness of this group continues to be really distressing.
  •  Injuries. I’m listing this third for those of you who like to take to the comments and accuse me of being too kind. But at this point, it’s difficult to call this defense Notre Dame’s, when in a perfect world half of this group would be watching and learning still.We’ll find out more about Sheldon Day’s future this season on Tuesday, as the junior defensive tackle had an MRI yesterday to take a look at his knee. The same with freshman tackle Daniel Cage, who has played some impressive snaps this season. But the front seven of this football team — a group that had no margin for error from a depth perspective during training camp — has hit a critical state.The secondary isn’t much better. Getting Austin Collinsworth back was a nice boost, but the captain isn’t a great fit as an “in space” defender. But when you’re counting on a guy with a shoulder harness and a cornerback with a broken foot to be two key components, it’s going to result in 10-catch days for Kyle Prater.

 

Kyle Brindza. Notre Dame’s senior specialist had a horrific day at the office. He missed two key field goals that ended up being critical points. He also struggled punting the football, with two big misses setting up the Wildcats with great field position.

Brindza had help — a botched hold by Malik Zaire set up Brindza’s blocked extra point. But the senior kicker hooked a 38-yard field goal as the first half ended that could’ve extended Notre Dame’s halftime lead to a touchdown. The senior kicker also missed a crucial field goal in overtime, hooking another ball left to gift wrap the Wildcats’ victory in their first possession of overtime.

Punting the football was also a struggle. Brindza’s first bad punt — a 27-yarder — gave Northwestern the ball near midfield. It didn’t bite the Irish, with the defense stopping the Wildcats on a missed pass on 4th-and-3 in the second quarter.

But on 4th-and-9 from the Northwestern 44, Brindza took the field with an 11-point lead and the opportunity to pin the Wildcats deep with six minutes left in the game. Instead, he shanked a 17-yarder that jump-started Northwestern, with the Wildcats going nine plays and 73-yards in just 1:58.

Notre Dame’s all-time leading field goal kicker is making just 57 percent of his kicks this year, dropping his career average down to a musty 72 percent. With the center exchange and holder problems the Irish have had, it’s certainly not all on him. But a key veteran on the Irish roster is struggling… a recurring theme that we’ll get to later.

 

Drue Tranquill. Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder tried to get a good football game out of Tranquill this weekend at safety, starting the freshman in place of Max Redfield. The move backfired in a big way, with Tranquill near or around many of the big Northwestern plays that went the Wildcats way.

On Sunday, Kelly explained his rationale for starting Tranquill.

“We thought that Drue gave us a better chance at that position,” Kelly said, a few questions before explaining the logic. “The game comes a little bit easier at times. Max is learning the game still. Drue has a little bit better feel for the game. It doesn’t mean he’s there. He certainly made a lot of mistakes in his first start. But we just felt like tackling and football knowledge, he may have been a guy that we wanted to give a shot, and we gave him a shot at starting, and now we’ll evaluate where we are at that position today and tomorrow.”

In defense of the decision, Kelly and VanGorder likely figured that a heavy dose of run plays and short passes would allow Tranquill to thrive in tight spaces, as he’s shown that ability through the earlier part of the season. But as a true, half-field safety, the freshman struggled mightily, showing a frustrating lack of success when it came to the basics of the position.

As a wake-up call to Redfield, this might work. We saw the sophomore make a big play on special teams and eventually work into the rotation at safety. But Tranquill sure isn’t a free safety — something Kelly said openly last month — and you have to wonder if Eilar Hardy will get some work against Louisville, even though he spent two months collecting dust away from the program while the academic investigation played out.

 

UGLY

The Guys in the Headsets. It was not a banner day for the guys in charge of the Irish football program. While thousands of angry diatribes have already beaten the decision to go for two points to death, it’s still a head-scratching decision by Brian Kelly that allowed the Wildcats to stay in the game and ultimately win it.

Pinning this defeat on one mistake is completely unfair though. It was a team loss, with the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline and in the box all sharing the blame.

But after 10 games, it’s clear that this coaching staff needs to protect the team from itself. Offensively, that means putting some shackles back on the unit, even if it takes away from the productivity. While the box score will show complete play-calling balance with both 40 runs and 40 passes, the red zone play-calling had some people scratching their heads and allowing this offense to continue to turn the ball over has people shockingly asking for a return to the vanilla days of yesteryear.

Defensively, it’s very difficult to put all of this on Brian VanGorder. Especially when the first-year coordinator has more first-year contributors on the field than players who actually know what they’re doing. But too often we saw a defensive front with just Nyles Morgan behind it, the type of alignment that everybody in the stadium knows won’t work. Epecially as the freshman still sees things for the first time.

Any talk of firing coaches or hypothetical hot seats is silly. I repeat. Any talk of firing coaches or hot seats is silly.

After all, the game plan was there for Notre Dame to win if the guys on the field even competently did their jobs. But sometimes you win by not putting yourself in a position to lose.

That might need to be the strategy moving forward.

 

Leadership. If this team is missing anything, it’s a strong leadership presence in the locker room. And if this team is crying out for one thing more obvious than anything else, it’s a leader among men on the field.

Yes, I know the Irish have Cam McDaniel, Austin Collinsworth, Sheldon Day and Nick Martin wearing the “C” on their chests. But there is a gulf between the guys leading the team on the field and the ones supposed to be leading it off of it, and that was apparent in a game like this one.

I am not in the locker room. And this isn’t a “call out” or some hand grenade meant to indict a team that by all reports is doing everything their coaching staff asks. But the best players on this roster aren’t the team’s best leaders, and that’s incredibly apparent in games where you need veteran leaders to lead by example on the field.

That didn’t happen on Saturday, with Cam McDaniel fumbling the game away in a kill-the-clock situation. Or kicker Kyle Brindza, a four-year veteran, and not just a specialist, punting and kicking Northwestern back into the football game. (The Irish field goal/PAT unit was on the field seven times. They scored four points and gave up two. That’s not good.)

It’s not all the captains fault. Austin Collinsworth scored a key touchdown, in his only true action this season after being injured in the days before the opener. Sheldon Day may be Notre Dame’s most unblockable defensive lineman, but his first sack of the season came not long before suffering an injury. Nick Martin’s leadership skills don’t likely extend beyond the offensive line, a product of starting just 10 games before this season and being in the shadow of his older brother for three seasons.

There was a lot of discussion about naming captains this preseason. Ultimately, Kelly decided on veteran leaders, naming four guys who have “been there” in McDaniel, Collinsworth, Martin and Day. But the “loyal soldiers” approach hasn’t exactly paid off. And you’re fair to wonder if not having Everett Golson and Joe Schmidt wearing Cs is hurting this program.

Golson has been the face of this team, wearing the struggles of the offense on a weekly basis. That ownership is recognized by his teammates. Schmidt was the MVP of the defense before his injury. A force of nature on and off the field, he’s far removed from any walk-on label that still sticks to him in the media.

One of the challenges of a young team is straddling the line between the present and the future. Nine of the top 10 leading tacklers on defense have eligibility remaining. Same with the offense, where only McDaniel, Ben Koyack and Christian Lombard exhaust their eligibility from the two-deep.

If the Irish want to find a way to be successful in these final two regular season games, they’re going to need to find leadership both on the field and in the locker room from an emerging cast of characters. Schmidt can’t do it, not with a cast on his leg.

But the opportunity is there for Everett Golson, Tarean Folston or Will Fuller to seize those reins on offense, demanding accountability from a group that hasn’t played with it. And after looking lost without Schmidt by his side, Jaylon Smith is the obvious answer on a defense searching desperately for one.

In times like these, a bunker mentality is needed. We’ll see who takes charge moving forward in a critical juncture for the program.

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

1 Comment

Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
Getty Images
24 Comments

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
3 Comments

A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

Getty Images
45 Comments

The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.