Notre Dame’s air attack downs No. 23 Navy in 52-20 rout

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Perhaps there is something witty to quip about a player with “pool” in his name having a record-setting day against Navy, but what Chase Claypool did during No. 16 Notre Dame’s 52-20 blowout was anything but witty. Claypool was acrobatic, sure-handed and downright dominating in tying the Irish record with four touchdown receptions in a game. As a whole, Notre Dame matched Claypool’s excellence.

While the Irish struggled to consistently reach that standard early in the season, this was their second impressive performance in a row, a run that extends into the end of their 21-20 victory against Virginia Tech on Nov. 2. Head coach Brian Kelly sensed the strong play was going to continue Saturday, rather than return to only sporadic showings.

“I could tell in pregame that Navy was in trouble,” Kelly said. “They really were. And that’s just the maturation of a group of guys that needed to figure out how to go from preparation phase to playing phase.”

Maturing from preparation to playing might as well sum up both Claypool’s career and season, culminating in this record day. The first three of Ian Book’s five touchdown passes went to Claypool, making the senior receiver wait until the third quarter to tie Maurice Stovall’s 19-year-old record.

With that twisting 20-yard snag, Claypool had four scores and Book five, the third time this season he has thrown five touchdowns in one game. Ranked No. 23 in the most recent rendition of the College Football Playoff poll, the Midshipmen (7-2) were expected to be a much stiffer challenge than either New Mexico or Bowling Green.

Claypool and Book made sure they were not.

“He’s throwing the ball up and giving me a chance to make a play,” Claypool said. “I’m happy that I’m able to make some plays for him just to build that trust a little more.”

As impressive as the offensive explosion was — and few other words suffice to describe a day when Book went 14-of-20 for 284 passing yards and five touchdowns, when Claypool caught seven passes for 117 yards, when Notre Dame (8-2) gained 300 yards before halftime — the Irish defense held Navy’s triple-option attack in check just as effectively.

By holding the Midshipmen to only 151 first-half yards, on a 4.08 yards per play average, Notre Dame’s defense gave its offense a chance to build that early lead rather than sit on the sideline watching endless and mundane Navy drives. Instead of the Midshipmen draining the clock — they finally strung together a typical 18-play drive in the fourth quarter, reminding all of the impressive but numbing ability of the triple-option attack — the Irish defense set up three touchdown drives by forcing fumbles.

Notre Dame got the ball back quickly, and it never needed long to score. At one point, Book connected on four touchdowns within eight Irish plays for 156 yards. A scoreless game was suddenly 28-0.

It was that kind of day for the Irish, one of sheer dominance, which Claypool embodied, against a ranked opponent best-known for minimizing the effects of a talent differential. The Irish emphasized their talent advantage Saturday, Claypool most of all.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Claypool’s first touchdown was only from seven yards out, but it underscored how much of a mismatch he would be for Navy as much as any of the following three would. Plenty of crossing routes become scores, but not that many become so easy a player can relish the last few yards. Claypool could.

Yet, the Midshipmen put a linebacker on him on the next drive, a result of Notre Dame motion designed to create a likely mismatch. Neither Claypool nor Book had to think much about what to do next.

“We knew it was a mismatch or a miscommunication of some sort, because we hadn’t seen that on film ever, and it hasn’t even happened this year,” Claypool said. “I think Ian knew it right away. I knew it right away. I was running down the field with a big smile on my face before the ball was even thrown.”

47 yards later and Claypool had given the Irish a commanding lead. Book kept going to him, including that tough catch along the sideline for the record-tying score.

“Chase always has the juice,” Book said. “He’s always talking and he’s such a confident person, like he should be. You can tell when he gets on a roll. You want to keep giving him the ball. Even though it might not be the clearest look, he’s going to come down with it, and that’s the best. Makes my job a lot easier.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The triple-option tightens its grip only as a game remains tied or within one-possession. As long as that is the case, that offense can take as long as is needed to score, and by taking so long, it can reduce the effects of any discrepancies between the two rosters. When Navy responded to Claypool’s first score by methodically taking 11 plays and more than six minutes to move 48 yards, a tie game seemed likely, the beginnings of a long afternoon for Notre Dame.

Then, senior defensive end Khalid Kareem swatted the ball out of Midshipmen quarterback Malcolm Perry’s grasp. Fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal recovered the loose ball at the 27-yard line. Two plays later, Claypool had scored again.

“Any time you get Navy to turn the football over, [the turnovers are] going to be huge for you,” Kelly said. “We were active, we were fast, we were physical. They hadn’t played a team quite like that all year. It’s difficult, we talk so much about our inability to map the speed of the triple-option; well, they can’t map the speed of our defense.”

Kareem would force another fumble, that one coming when he was blocked but could see the ball just ahead of him as Perry pondered a pitch and Kareem “just kind of tapped it out.”

“Coach was saying, when we’re tackling this week for the option, wrap up but also have the outside hand up to tip the ball,” Kareem said. “Paul did that today and scored.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Kareem was referring to Irish sophomore linebacker Paul Moala, who forced and recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown all in one motion. He may have been cheating off his assignment a bit, but the ploy worked.

“I was supposed to play the quarterback to the pitch, so I got lucky enough to be able to get him to pitch the ball a little early,” Moala said.

STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame’s 273-game sell-out streak reached its official conclusion with an announced crowd of 74,080 falling short of the Stadium’s 77,622 capacity. This was expected all week and was, of course, only a matter of time as attendance suffers at sporting events nationwide.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Claypool came to South Bend from British Columbia. He got on recruiting radars by dominating games against competition that Kelly could not help but acknowledge was inferior. Back then, that served the effect of forcing Kelly to fly to the northwest to assess Claypool in person — there was no way he could be as dominant as the film suggested.

Thus, Kelly was the only person in the media room Saturday not shocked by the following exchange …

Reporter: “I know you had big games in high school, but have you ever caught four touchdown passes before in a game?”
Claypool: “I haven’t caught four touchdown passes.”
Reporter: “You ran some in or something?”
Claypool: “Yeah … [slightest of delays] … I had 10 one time.”
The entire press corps: “What?!?!”

Claypool explained it was actually a game much like the win against Navy, one in which his team — in eighth grade — knew it needed to maximize possessions against a triple-option attack.

“It was against our rival, No. 1 team in the league. They ran a triple-option, so similar to this team. We knew that every possession we got was kind of going to be important. We just had a good game plan. Went out there and ran around a little bit.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool 7-yard pass from Ian Book. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Navy 0. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:21)
3:11 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 47-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Navy 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:23)

Second Quarter
12:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 3-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Navy 0. (4 plays, 39 yards, 1:35)
10:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Braden Lenzy 70-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Navy 0. (1 play, 70 yards, 0:09)
4:45 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. Notre Dame 31, Navy 0. (7 plays, 29 yards, 3:23)
1:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Tony Jones 2-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Navy 3. (9 plays, 72 yards, 1:24)
0:00 — Navy field goal. Bijan Nichols 27 yards. Notre Dame 38, Navy 3. (9 plays, 72 yards, 1:24)

Third Quarter
9:55 — Notre Dame touchdown. Claypool 27-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Navy 3. (7 plays, 78 yards, 2:09)
1:42 — Navy touchdown. Mychal Cooper 43-yard pass from Perry Olsen. Nichols PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Navy 10. (7 plays, 74 yards, 3:36)

Fourth Quarter
14:39 — Notre Dame touchdown. Paul Moala 27-yard fumble return. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Navy 10.
5:31 — Navy touchdown. Olsen 2-yard rush. Nichols PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Navy 17. (18 plays, 75 yards, 9:08)
1:18 — Navy field goal. Nichols 36-yard field goal. Notre Dame 52, Navy 20. (6 plays, 25 yards, 2:01)

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

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

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

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

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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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

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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.