Pregame Six Pack: Showdown with the Seminoles


It wasn’t too long ago that an undefeated Notre Dame team was about to head into some of the most hostile territory in all of college football. A double-digit underdog for a primetime, ESPN game, many expected Brian Kelly’s flawed, but surprisingly undefeated squad to be no match for their opponent. Then the Irish pulled away in a tight game and beat Oklahoma 30-13.

Oklahoma wasn’t Florida State. But then again, this is a rivalry that saw Ty Willingham walk into Doak Campbell Stadium and shake down the thunder against Bobby Bowden.

Two drastically different data points are only issued to point out the fact that we really have no idea what will happen on Saturday evening, when both the Seminoles and the Irish face their stiffest test to date. The winner will likely take the inside track to one of four spots in the College Football Playoff. The loser will be forced to regroup and win a resume contest down the line.

But after a week of constant conversation — some of it even focusing on the battle on the field — one thing is sure: It’s time to play the football game.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. As usual, here are six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for the game of the year between Notre Dame and Florida State.


Everett Golson wasn’t exactly Broadway Joe, but his declaration (and realization) should have Irish fans feeling better about Saturday night. 

Nobody has wanted to see Everett Golson morph into a turnover machine these past few weeks. But if you’re looking for a blueprint on how to handle adversity (note to Jameis Winston, this is the type of adversity we enjoy writing about), Golson has been nearly perfect in the week since his sloppy game against North Carolina nearly helped the Tar Heels pull the upset.

It started Saturday evening, when after the Irish’s 50-43 victory, Golson spoke candidly to the assembled media.

“I think I said it earlier, but I come in here kind of every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job,” Golson said. “Right now, it’s time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that.”

According to head coach Brian Kelly, Golson took that focus to the practice field, where he was sharp all week as the undoubted leader of the Irish offense. It also helped that the coaching staff found new drills to help focus the attention of their quarterback on ball security, with Matt LaFleur bringing in a specialized football that helped Golson work on pressure-point, ball carrying technique.

On Wednesday afternoon, Golson was asked repeatedly about his recent rash of turnovers, and how they’ll likely be the determining factor in Saturday night’s football game. It forced the quarterback to make a proclamation that isn’t necessarily bulletin-board material, but a strong statement nonetheless.

“It’s to a point where you get just kind of fed up. I think that’s where I am,” Golson said. “And I’m definitely not going to turn it over.”

Don’t expect Notre Dame’s quarterback to all of a sudden show up in Tallahassee in a white fur coat like Namath. But the fact that Golson has had to endure multiple weeks of questions has clearly gotten to the Irish’s premiere playmaker.

“Everett’s at the point where he’s tired of being the center of the question,” Kelly said Thursday. “He’s tired of answering the question about turnovers.”

But if there’s another development this week that should have Irish fans happy, it’s that Golson also took some time to look inward. While there are things he can do to combat turnovers (and they’ll be necessary to beat Florida State), Golson also had to get his mojo back.

As we talked about here, Golson wasn’t playing like the quarterback we’ve seen against North Carolina. The natural instincts he’s displayed taking over football games were replaced by a football player trying to do the right thing or make the correct read.

On Saturday night, Golson’s going to have to be the artist who just understands the game, not a college kid trying to play the position assignment correct.

“I have to remain who I am. That’s what has gotten me to this point,” Golson said. “I don’t want to try to be somebody I’m not. It’s a fine line.”


It’s important every week. But Saturday night’s battle in the trenches will be critical. 

Both head coaches had nothing but good things to say about their opponent’s offensive line. Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher was relatively succinct.

“Big offensive line. Very good up front,” Fisher said.

Kelly went into a bit more detail, remembering a young group that has grown up since the Champs Sports Bowl.

“One of the best offensive lines I’ve seen in some time,” Kelly said. “I remember going against them three years ago, it was a freshman laden, young offensive line, extremely talented.  Now it’s a veteran group.  So I think that that’s probably what really stands out to me.”

With the pleasantries out of the way, Notre Dame needs to win both sides of this matchup to take down the Seminoles on Saturday. And one big matchup to watch is the one over center, where Jarron Jones will lineup against Ryan Hoefeld.

Hoefeld was shaky after replacing starter Austin Barron, entering the game against Wake Forest and making a few bad shotgun snaps and drawing a holding penalty. Matched up against Jones, the Irish have a chance to collapse the pocket and win at the point of attack, forcing a relatively weak Florida State running game to be non-existent.

Hoefeld played better against Syracuse, but Jones has shown flashes of great play this season when it was demanded. Consider this one of those times.

Flipping to the other side of the ball, Notre Dame is going to have to be able to establish the line of scrimmage and a corresponding ground game. While much has been made about the lack of pass rushers on the Irish roster, the Seminoles have just eight sacks in their six games, good for 107th in the country.

We’ve seen Notre Dame’s ground game get better in recent weeks. And while Desmond Howard spent Friday morning on SportsCenter saying that the Irish couldn’t run the ball, his colleagues at ESPN, Lou Holtz and Danny Kanell disagreed.

““I think Notre Dame can run the ball and protect the passer. I’m not sure Florida State can,” Holtz said, not all that surprisingly.

“I would agree in the trenches, Notre Dame has an advantage,” Kanell said. “Florida State has struggled mightily running the football, and that is one area where Notre Dame can absolutely go toe to toe with Florida State.”


As the college football world evolves, both Notre Dame and Florida State are on the cutting edge of technology. 

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick has done a lot of things for Notre Dame. He’s currently in the middle of making sure that the Irish get ahead in the world of sports performance.

While a lot of this week has focused on the differences between these two programs, both Florida State and Notre Dame have made a commitment to utilizing their resources — and technology — to bettering their teams. For Florida State, an Australian-based Catapult system was credited as the X-Factor in their BCS title run.

Now Notre Dame is experimenting with that same system, and it’s already paid dividends this season. The Chicago Tribune‘s Chris Hine explains.

After a promising summer camp, Brown’s first three games yielded disappointing results: only four receptions for 35 yards. He was healthy. He just wasn’t producing at the level he and the coaches expected.

“We were kind of like, what’s happened here?” coach Brian Kelly told the Tribune.

Kelly turned to data from a product the Irish are trying out — a GPS-oriented device called the OptimEye. In that data, Kelly solved the mystery: Brown was tense, and his technique was slacking.

Kelly has outfitted Notre Dame’s receivers this season with the cellphone-sized device, which they wear on their backs during games and practices. The device mixes dozens of data points — such as speed, distance, acceleration, torque, impact of getting hit, movement of body parts — in an algorithm to calculate a “player load,” which essentially measures how much a player is working.

Brown’s player load was consistently half that of the other receivers. That number led Kelly to the film, where he found the solution.

“It wasn’t a matter of him not working,” Kelly said. “He was dragging his feet. He was really tight and he wasn’t fluid like the other guys.”

Since the discovery, Brown has 12 catches for 147 yards, including a key touchdown against Stanford.

During a preseason media session with strength and conditioning coordinator Paul Longo, I asked him about the use of systems like Catapult. He said that he and Kelly had kicked the tires on it, but hadn’t committed to it yet, though acknowledged other programs at Notre Dame were utilizing the system. That’s obviously changed, or the veteran strength coach was being coy, no sin for a program looking for every opportunity to get ahead.

So as the Irish build their baseline results this season with their new system, a funny thing happened along the way. They’ve leaned on Florida State, who actually has helped the Irish staff understand the data.


“We cheated. We called Florida State,” Kelly told Hine. “We didn’t know what the numbers meant and they did.”



Last year, Florida State’s defense was statistically dominant. This year’s unit is still finding its way.  

In preseason camp, a look at the Seminoles roster had you wondering if Jimbo Fisher had built a dream team. But on the defensive side of the ball, Florida State has not lived up to the precedent set by the national champs.

Through six games, the Seminoles are still learning on the job. While injuries and attrition have forced a minor rebuild, the numbers have reflected a unit that has taken a fairly large step backwards. broke down the numbers through six games, comparing last year’s defense to the one Notre Dame will face. Let’s take a look:

FSU D: 2013 vs. 2014
Points per game: 
12.3 to 20.7
Yards per game: 285 to 359
Rush yards per game: 127 to 145
Pass yards per game: 158 to 214
Sacks: 14 to 8
Third down defense: 30.1% to 44.2%

Across the board, the numbers have dropped, some quite significantly. So while the Seminoles’ personnel still reads like a All-Star team, there are opportunities to be had against first-year defensive coordinator Charles Kelly’s unit.


Another Saturday, another game where red zone play is critical. 

After a perfect day in the red zone helped the Irish offense escape North Carolina, Saturday night’s battle inside the 20s will likely dictate who exits the game 7-0.

The Seminoles are the No. 2 team in the country when it comes to scoring in the red zone. They’re cashed in 28 of 29 opportunities, a perfect marriage between a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback and Robert Aguayo, a Lou Groza-winning kicker.

The Irish have been no slouches in the red zone, scoring on 89 precent of their opportunities. And the Irish have actually turned more of their chances into six points, scoring one more touchdown in one less scoring attempt.


But the Irish offense is up against a Seminoles defense that’s played very good in the red zone. Florida State ranks No. 10 in the country, giving up scores on just 68 percent of opportunities. They’ve limited touchdowns well, ranked No. 11 in limiting opponents to less than six points. That’s the biggest statistical gulf in this breakdown, with the Irish ranked No. 63 in the country stopping red zone touchdowns.

While Bob Diaco’s defenses thrived in the red zone, Brian VanGorder’s young unit has yet to show that resiliency. But against a Seminoles team that does exceptionally well in the scoring areas, the Irish will need to find a way to win that battle.



There isn’t much good to say about Jameis Winston — and Florida State’s treatment of his situation — off the field. But the defending Heisman Trophy winner might be college football’s best player, and he presents a challenge like few others Saturday night. 

I’ll let others make the Good vs. Evil parallels. And while from afar it looks as if the Seminoles athletic department needs to clean house and reexamine how it views football, that’s a story that’s been talked about enough this week, leaving the problematic matchup with Jameis Winston on the field woefully under-discussed.

A year after putting together one of the historically great seasons the sport has ever seen, Grantland’s Matt Hinton probably summed it up best:

As long as he is on the field, though, Winston remains arguably the most indispensable player in the nation. With him, Florida State is a substantial favorite to win every game it plays and repeat as national champion. Without him, Florida State is just another Top 25 team trying to keep its head above water with a three-star quarterback, a mediocre running game, and a suddenly vulnerable defense. Either way, the remainder of the 2014 season will be shaped more indelibly by Winston’s game than by anyone else’s, whether due to his presence or his absence.

For the Irish to win on Saturday, they’ll have to do something that nobody has managed to yet: Beat Jameis Winston.

At 19-0 as a starting quarterback, another win Saturday would make him the first FBS quarterback since 2000 to start his career 20-0.

So for all the headlines about autographs, crab legs, BB guns, and things far more detestable, this is the best quarterback Kelly and the Irish have faced since Andrew Luck and an offense that’s far more explosive and dangerous than any other.

“They’re not going to let you just line up and blitz him and have at him,” Kelly said, when asked about Jimbo Fisher and what the Seminoles do that makes the so difficult to defend. “They know how to protect their offense. They’ve got two guys on the perimeter that can flat out fly… You have to be smart and you have to pick your spots.”

That means another difficult task for Brian VanGorder and his young Irish defense. And while the general sentiment of sending the house early and often has been a popular water-cooler defensive strategy, Kelly knows it’ll take much more than that.

“We know what we’re facing. Brian knows we can’t walk in there and say, hey, we’re going to blitz them. We’ve got 87 different blitzes,” Kelly said. “We’ll get crushed if that’s what we do. We’ve got to mix it up. We’ve got to be smart. We’ve got to be really, really good against the run, especially on first down. If we do a good job there, keep them off balance, we have to score on offense and play really good special teams, we can win the game.”


Holtz talks candidly about life at the top of Notre Dame


For most of the younger generation, especially those suiting up and playing football, Lou Holtz isn’t known as a football coach, but as Dr. Lou, the funny old fella on ESPN that’s got a catchy phrase for just about everything. While the ESPN Holtz has become almost a caricature of himself, and the mantel piece as one of the nation’s true cheerleaders for the Fighting Irish, he’s also one of the only people in the world that can talk to Brian Kelly about life at the top as a head coach at Notre Dame.

So while most of us are used to seeing Holtz spar playfully with Mark May or give pep talks in fictional locker rooms in Bristol, Holtz the former coach had plenty of interesting thoughts to share yesterday as he discussed Notre Dame, Brian Kelly, and the Irish’s hopes to upset Alabama.

It’s no surprise that Holtz told Kelly that life at Notre Dame is different than anywhere else either coach had been. It’s a lesson he learned from Ara Parseghian. And that change only grows when you find yourself at the top of college football.

“When I went there Ara Parseghian said this place is different than any other and you’ll have to learn how to handle all the media, all the distractions, everybody pulls you in a different direction you time’s not your own,” Holtz said yesterday. “He said after you win a national championship the coaching position will change again. He’s absolutely right. Once you win a national champions at Notre Dame, your life is never the same again after that.”

The parallels between Kelly and Holtz entering their championship season (at least Kelly’s opportunity at a championship) are downright scary. Take a look at a few of the tidbits’s Lou Somogyi points out:

* Both 51 years old.
* Both had 10 losses entering season three.
* Both bet their seasons on an unproven dual-threat QB from South Carolina.
* Both beat Michigan State in September 20-3.

Season three has been the magical season for many Notre Dame coaches. Holtz talked about that and ventured a few guesses why.

“Why the third year? Because by that time you’re comfortable with it,” Holtz said. “The players have bought in to your system. You’ve been able to recruit to your system. You’ve been able to build a camaraderie and a trust between the players and the coaches.”

That camaraderie and trust has been so evident this season, as Kelly delicately balanced a tricky quarterback situation and built a unity on this team that hasn’t been seen in a long time. And if Kelly is able to defeat Alabama, Holtz spoke candidly about the next challenge that faces Notre Dame’s head coach: Elevated expectations.

“When you win it, everybody puts you on a pedestal,” Holtz said. “Once you’re on the pedestal, no matter what you do, it ain’t good enough. We finished second in the country, everyone called me an idiot. The guy who finishes last in medical school, they call him doctor.”

Holtz also talked about the dangers of not setting your goals high enough, something you never thought possible for a motivator like Holtz.

“You get on top, you say this is pretty good, let’s not change anything.  But if you don’t change anything, you don’t have anything you’re trying to aspire to,” Holtz said. “When I left Notre Dame, I thought I was tired of coaching. I was not tired of coaching. I was tired of maintaining.

“We should have set standards that nobody thought were possible. That’s the thing I regret. Don’t maintain. We maintained it well. But that was a mistake.”

Wood and Gray are running to a historic season


Tango and Cash. Turner and Hooch. Murtaugh and Riggs. HollyWood and Meatball.

The last duo might not have the notoriety yet, but it hasn’t been for a lack of effort by Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray. At the midway point of the 2011 season, Wood (nickname still pending) and Gray (Meatball has already stuck) haven’t reached the cult status of some of the hallowed duos of a generation past, but they have run the Irish ground attack into some pretty rarified air, waking up some echoes that many Irish fans had long forgotten when it came to running the football effectively.

For much of the past 25 years, running the ball has been embedded into the DNA of the Fighting Irish. When Lou Holtz took over the Notre Dame football program in 1986, he immediately pronounced the Irish a ground machine, relying on a steady rotation of ball carriers to power the Irish offense. In Holtz’s first season, the Irish averaged 189.4 yards a game rushing, good for 33rd in the nation. The Irish wouldn’t average less than 215 yards a game or finish worse than 20th in the country again until 1997, the first year of the Bob Davie era. Davie had some football teams that were adept at running the ball — his 1998 and 2000 teams both averaged more than 200 yards a game. But the Irish running games that moved so efficiently under Holtz’s saw a steady decline in efficiency in the tail end of the Davie era, and then a precipitous drop when Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis took over the Irish program, with the Irish failing to average 4.0 yards a carry in seven of the eight seasons between the two coaches.

There are plenty of logical reasons why the Irish running game has taken a step back in the years since Holtz coached in South Bend. Passing quarterbacks like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen do nothing to help a team’s rushing average (especially with sack yardage counting against the running totals). Plus, Holtz’s teams never liked passing that much either, with the Irish ranking in the top 50 in passing offense only once, with the 1992 team tying for 49th best in the country.

The Irish will never return to the days of averaging 250 yards on the ground a game, like they did under Holtz. The sports has changed too much and the Irish have too much talent at wide receiver, tight end, and quarterback. But for the first time in almost two decades, Brian Kelly has put together a rushing attack that embodies the great days of old.

With Cierre Wood averaging 5.8 yards a carry and on pace to run for 1,400 yards, the Irish look to have their most prolific runner since Reggie Brooks ran for 1,343 yards in 1992. (With a breakout game, Wood could also put Vagas Ferguson‘s 1,437 yard 1979 season in in his sights.) After a slow start, Jonas Gray’s 8.4 yards a carry have forced Kelly to give the powerful senior a bigger role in the rushing attack, and the duo — along with one of the best Irish offensive lines in the past two decades — has put the Irish ground game into some hallowed space after six games.

Even at its most explosive, no Irish ground game under Holtz ran for six yards a carry, like the Irish are doing at the midpoint of the regular season. With both Wood and Gray on pace to get 100 carries each, the Irish one-two punch ranks up there with Jerome Bettis and Tony Brooks in 1991 and Bettis and Reggie Brooks in 1992 as the top duos of the last 25 years. (The 1991 rushing attack was so prolific that senior Rodney Culver averaged 5.6 yards a carry on 114 carries.)

Operating from a spread formation, the process might look vastly different than it did 20 years ago, but the results are the same. Ed Warinner‘s run game relies on time-tested power, counter and zone blocking concepts, while doing it exclusively from a one-back set. Those that pine for the day of Joe Moore‘s offensive line pulling and leading the way are seeing the modern version, with center Braxston Cave, and guards Chris Watt and Trevor Robinson just as likely leading the way around the outside.

With Andrew Hendrix added into the mix against Air Force, the Irish averaged over nine yards a carry against the Falcons while adding a quarterback running option to Kelly’s spread system. As the running game hits its stride and Tommy Rees gets the pass attack playing at a more efficient level, the Irish offense is on track to be one of the most balanced units in school history.

After six football games, Wood and Gray are on pace to do something special. While their Q Rating and nicknames need work, HollyWood and Meatball could go down in the record books.

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Even with love for Irish, Lou Holtz picking South Florida


Even with his son Skip returning to South Bend to coach against a team he supported as a student, player and coach, you won’t find Lou Holtz in South Bend next weekend. He’ll stay as far away from South Bend as his day job will take him, as Dr. Lou will stay with his brethren in Bristol instead of returning to Notre Dame Stadium, a place that memorializes Holtz with a statue outside its stadium walls.

Holtz, long the loudest and most ardent supporter Notre Dame has on the airwaves, is finally putting a team in front of his beloved Fighting Irish.

And you can hardly blame him.

“If somebody said you’re picking an upset, I’d say, that’s not an upset, an upset is what his mother would be if I picked against her son,” Lou said last week at a fundraiser in South Florida. “There’s no way in the world I’d cheer against my son. Make no mistake, I want the world to know, I am for the South Florida Bulls.”

Here’s the video proof for all those who couldn’t believe that Holtz would pick against the Irish.

Expectations all hinge on the man behind center


It’s getting difficult to ignore the trajectory this offseason is taking. Quite simply, Year Two of the Brian Kelly era has expectations. Great expectations. Eric Hansen expectations. Even Mark May expectations.

Because it’s July, it’s that time of year where we spend most of our time analyzing the past in hopes of predicting the future. As many do over holiday weekends, I spent my time watching from the sidelines and monitoring a few highly spirited debates about debut seasons of Notre Dame head coaches. It’s too soon to forget that Kelly’s debut season was worse than Charlie Weis’ 2005 campaign. But it was also less successful than Ty Willingham’s and only one victory better than Bob Davie’s. (Looking back at that 1997 season, it’s almost a microcosm of the Davie era, and should be Exhibit A on why it’s so hard to be a first-time head coach at Notre Dame.)

Still, for those looking back at eras of recent Irish past, it’s pretty easy to sense the separation between Kelly’s first season and those that came before him. In Eric Hansen’s recent article about the evolution of Brian Kelly (a must read), Lou Holtz pointed to the development of his 1986 team, a parallel that’s been drawn by many as they watched the 2010 Irish develop.

“There were so many things about his first year that reminded me of my first year at Notre Dame,” Holtz said of his 5-6 Irish in 1986. “By the end of the season, we could play with anybody in the country. So could Brian’s team.

“I just think that the program has never looked more hopeful than it does at the present time.”

Holtz’s 1986 squad finished with an uninspired 5-6 record, but lost five of those six games by a total of 14 points. Helping the narrative even more, that season planted the seeds to an eight-win 1987 season, and the undefeated national championship campaign in 1988.

Charlie Weis didn’t leave behind the team that Gerry Faust did. It also bears mentioning that Year Two of the Charlie Weis era had the Irish on the cover of major publications as a legit national title contender, and a ten-year contract that wasn’t universally hailed as being stupid yet.

Weis’ failures at Notre Dame can be pointed, quite fairly, to the defensive side of the football. To his detriment, he failed to develop a defensive identity similar to the one that made his offensive football teams impressive. Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta — Weis too often thought philosophy and identity could be easily interchanged, and the result was a defensive football team that was mediocre both developmentally and physically, a damning blend for a team that had championship aspirations.

Still, for those that happily kick dirt on the grave of Weis, I’d direct you here for the first and foremost reason Weis failed to put together a defense. Maurice Crum. Terrail Lambert. That’s it. That’s all that Notre Dame got defensively out of the 2004 recruiting class. Add in Darius Walker, and a great Blue-Gold game from Junior Jabbie and that’s really all the Irish got from Ty Willingham’s final recruiting class, putting a sizable hole in a program that left Weis little room for growing pains and a razor-thin margin for error.

But that’s ancient history for an Irish football program at an inflection point. Put together a season like many suspect is in the future and the Irish could make a true leap back into national contention, and potentially stake its claim as the preeminent northern prestige football program, with Ohio State in disarray and Michigan a year behind in its reclamation efforts.

So where could it all go wrong? Keeping the focus off a schedule that opens with four very losable games, the Irish need to find stability at quarterback — a position where Brian Kelly brings four guys into fall camp with a chance to win jobs.

Sure, Kelly met with Urban Meyer to discuss his implementation of the two-quarterback system that featured senior Chris Leak and freshman battering ram Tim Tebow, a combination that powered the Gators to a national championship. But remember, Charlie Weis met with Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia staff to discuss the spread offense in life after Brady Quinn, a system that Weis employed for half-a-Saturday with quarterback Demetrius Jones before imploding his 2007 blueprint.

There’s twenty years of evidence that Brian Kelly understands his offensive system, and I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely agree with the strategy Kelly is implementing. More importantly, Kelly has a defense that should be improved from last year’s unit — a group that finished the season embodying its maxim B.I.A (Best In America), not aspiring to it.

We’ll spend the rest of the week looking at the position groupings that’ll have to power the Irish through a tough four-game opening stretch. But if there’s one place where the fate of the 2011 season lies, it’s on the shoulders of the quarterback behind center for the Irish.

The fact that the Irish could be running four different guys out there shouldn’t just be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators as they prepare for the best Notre Dame team in the last five years. It should also be a hair-puller for Irish fans, who’ll likely have to wait until early September to see if Kelly’s plan will work.