The Shamrock Series is here. With the university essentially picking up and moving to San Antonio for the weekend, there’s more than just a football game on Saturday afternoon planned, as presentations from university faculty and researchers, a 5k run/walk, and a mass all on the docket.
Brian Kelly’s dance card isn’t as full, but his objectives are more pressing. Namely, find a way to keep the season alive for another week. Because winning against Army feels beyond mandatory, and there’s also a hope that the team finds a spark before returning to South Bend for another postseason elimination game against Virginia Tech.
The mission is clear, and it is critical. Win a football game, or stare a school record for futility straight in the eyes.
Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.
It feels like a lifetime ago, but Kelly’s first win over Army in a Shamrock Series game was a gigantic one.
After suffering a humiliating defeat against Navy, Notre Dame rebounded in a big way to beat Army, a 27-3 victory in a game that Brian Kelly’s young staff absolutely needed to have. Playing in Yankee Stadium and giving up a 17-play, 78-yard opening drive that ended with a Black Knights field goal, Bob Diaco’s defense stiffened the rest of the way, stopping Army’s fullback and knocking quarterback Trent Steelman, not giving up another point.
Watching from the Yankee Stadium press box that night, you could see the emotion on the field after the victory. Coaches hugged as they went to the locker room, Diaco embracing Paul Longo after the defensive performance.
Kelly’s message postgame sounds an awful lot like the one he’s delivering to his wayward team these days.
“It’s a culmination of just the same message,” Kelly said on that chilly November evening. “I know it’s boring and it’s not a great story for you. But it’s just a consistency in our approach every single day. Guys are really understanding where they fit and how to play the game.”
DeShone Kizer added another wrinkle to what will soon be a very interesting off-season.
Most expect DeShone Kizer to leave Notre Dame after this season, a projected first-round draft pick with the chance to sign a very lucrative NFL contract. But Kizer spoke this week about the future, and his comments certainly leave things much more open than most expect.
When asked about sophomore Brandon Wimbush, currently redshirting and preserving a season of eligibility, Kizer spoke about an upcoming position battle—something that would be music to Irish fans’ ears.
” I look forward to competing with him whenever that time does come,” Kizer said. “I think there’s going to be three guys here who all have the ability to throw the ball with the best of them. There’s going to be three guys who have had the experience in game, and that competition is going to be very interesting.”
Kizer clarified that those three quarterbacks were indeed Kizer, Malik Zaire and Wimbush. And that answer is surprising, mostly because the smart money pointed at a depth chart that had just Wimbush at the top with both Kizer (NFL) and Zaire (graduate transfer) moving on.
So even if there’s no decision from either veteran quarterback on their fate after 2016, consider this another interesting wrinkle in an offseason that’ll be filled with big news.
Expect more time for young talent in the secondary.
Drue Tranquill and Julian Love are both cleared for Saturday’s game, two key pieces of the Irish’s secondary against Army. But even with Tranquill’s return, and his usually stellar play against the option, expect to see more from the young Irish secondary, with safeties Devin Studstill and Jalen Elliott earning time at safety and Love, Troy Pride and Donte Vaughn continuing to eat up reps at cornerback.
Kelly already praised Love’s play at corner, earning high marks for his ability to read and react to Navy’s option. But outside of a few tough plays, Studstill, Elliott and Vaughn all held their own as well.
Kelly especially liked Elliott’s play, the type of instinctive football they saw on tape when they recruited him—and certainly a different player than the one who froze up on an onside kick a few weeks ago.
“He had to settle into the game a little bit, but once he did, we started to see his ability to run and put himself in the kind of positions that were really what we saw from him coming in to Notre Dame,” Kelly explained.
Expect another big afternoon for Greer Martini.
Notre Dame’s “option specialist” is much more than that. And after leading the Irish in tackles against Navy, expect that number to go up. Because Ahmad Bradshaw will be challenging the Irish on the edge of the defense, and Martini will be there waiting.
After starting his career as a young player who struggled to control his emotions and the highs and lows of on-field success, Martini’s taken big strides since a really disappointing game against Texas, allowing his football IQ to take over, something that pays off against the triple option.
“He had a good sense in high school of defending it and understanding it. He plays the game that way,” Kelly said Thursday. ” He’s a very cerebral kid, very smart. He attacks the football but in a real controlled manner. He’s never out of control. That’s really the most important thing. You have to attack the option, but you have to be in control, and he does that well.”
This defense needs to get off the football field.
Army isn’t Navy, not when it comes to moving the chains. But the Black Knights are still a Top 35 offense when it comes to converting third downs, no slouch, but not up to the task with the Midshipmen, a top 10 unit.
So as we look back at the Irish performance last weekend, the lack of offensive possessions was a direct response to the struggles to get off the field on D. And the challenges come when a triple option attack is willing to risk it on 4th-down, stressing the defense for another down.
“I think the strain comes from 4th-and-1. That’s where the strain comes from. And so that’s why it’s so important that when it’s 3rd-and-5,” Kelly explained. “Where we started to do a really good job in the fourth quarter is we started bending back the runners. There were a couple of occasions where we didn’t bend back runners in the third quarter.
“They were falling forward, so instead of 4th-and-3, it’s 4th-and-1. And so that’s where it becomes mentally a little bit more difficult when it’s 4th-and-1. You get them 4th and 4, now go ahead. Let’s see what you got. It’s the 4th-and-1s where you’re really — you’re not successful on third down when it’s 4th and 1.”
Army doesn’t have Will Worth. But they do rely on their fullback quite a bit more than the Midshipmen, meaning the Irish defense (maybe even Jarron Jones), will need to slow down 220-pound sophomore Andy Davidson, a converted linebacker who plays physically.
Paper tiger or difficult matchup? We’ll find out soon about Army’s defense.
On paper, Army’s success on defense is startling. The Black Knights are giving up just 18.1 points a game, good for 13th in the nation. Their rushing defense is in the Top 25 and their passing defense is No. 6 in the country, allowing just 166 yards per game. That success is incredible, especially when you consider the physical mismatches the Black Knights face on a weekly basis.
But digging deeper into those numbers requires you to look at Army’s opponents. And Notre Dame’s offense, even as inconsistent as its been all season, is the best the Black Knights will face.
Only Air Force, who scored 31 and racked up 444 yards against Army, is ranked in the Top 60. And Rice, UTEP, Buffalo, North Texas and Wake Forest are all ranked below No. 90, with UTEP, UNT and Wake 107th or worse.
So while Army defensive coordinator Jay Bateman is sure to throw some exotic looks at Notre Dame’s offensive line and Alex Aukerman and Andrew King have wreaked their fair share of havoc, it’s a different type of test for Army this weekend.