Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Rivalry That Just Doesn't Feel The Same This Year

Notre Dame and USC is among the greatest rivalries in all of college football. It is right up there with Michigan-Ohio State, Army-Navy, Alabama-Auburn, etc. But this year, it just doesn't feel the same. In years past it has been a rivalry where the winner could possibly be playing for a National Championship.

Notre Dame has lost 3 straight and are already locked in to a non-championship bowl. But it would be nice if USC still had the chance to make the playoff so Notre Dame could at least spoil it for them. Michigan will have that chance against Ohio State and Florida can do the same to Florida State. But Notre Dame and USC are both 7-4 and headed to a bowl game that has no relevance to the playoff committee.

Heck, even Illinois and Northwestern have more on the line. They are both 5-6 and the winner is bowl eligible and the loser is home for the holidays. It would be nice if there was something on the line here but there really isn't.

But it is still Notre Dame and USC. Notre Dame has won 3 of the last 4 and the last two at the Coliseum. The Trojans will definitely want to change that. They are also coming off a bad loss to crosstown rival UCLA. Losing to two big rivals in back to back weeks is a hard way to go into a bowl game. The Irish will not want to go into a bowl game on a 4 game losing streak. That is really all that is on the line.

But with all that, bragging rights for this rivalry are always nice. But it is a whole lot nicer when you can go on to contend for a championship or be able to say you cost your rival that opportunity.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Kelly's 5th Year Looking Very Similar To Weis's

I remember Charlie Weis's last season like it was yesterday. Here is the guy who came in and did a lot of great things early. He totally transformed the direction of Brady Quinn's Notre Dame career. He also found a diamond in the rough in Jeff Samardzija. That was good enough to lead the Irish to BCS Bowls in his first two seasons, only to get beaten soundly in both of them. After that the trouble began for Weis. He now had to coach the players he recruited. Jimmy Clausen was the new quarterback and their first year together was a struggle. They won just 3 games that year. The next season was a little better and ended in a Hawaii Bowl triumph.

The momentum from that win carried over to the next season. Early on the Irish looked great. They were sitting at 6-2 and looked primed for another BCS run. Then in came Navy and shocked the Irish. That loss stung and Notre Dame ended with a 4 game slide. Notre Dame elected not to go to a bowl game that season although they were eligible and Weis was gone.

Brian Kelly was hired about a week later. Now here we are 5 years later and just like in his predecessors 5th year, the team is sliding late in the season. It is amazing that this team was once at 7-1 and looked primed for a spot in the first playoff. But once again, a tough game with Navy has resulted in a losing streak. Although Notre Dame did defeat the Midshipmen this time, the game took a lot out of the defense and a 3 game losing streak has followed.

These two teams have a couple of similarities. That is an offense that can score against anybody and a defense that can't stop a junior college team.

Looking at the 5 year stretches for both coaches, you have to wonder if the team is better under Kelly than it was under Weis. Weis actually led Notre Dame to more BCS Bowls than Kelly did. Although Kelly didn't lead them to a BCS Bowl but to THE BCS Title game. But neither coach fared very well in those games. Both coaches had many key contributors on those BCS teams who were recruited by his predecessor.
Special teams were never really good under Weis and may have even regressed under Kelly. Based on those factors, it doesn't look on paper like the team is better under Kelly than it was under Weis.

But even with all that, Kelly will probably survive the late season slide even if they lose to USC and the Bowl game. One reason why is because there really isn't a proven winner who will be available. But the main reason is that Kelly has a better win-loss record than Weis had. In five years, Kelly is so far 44-19 while Weis was 35-27.

That record combined with the fact that Notre Dame has a really young team will be what saves Kelly and gets him his 6th year. I can see how that is fair, but next season is the season that will define Kelly. If he manages only another 7-8 win season, the school has a decision to make. But there is one thing that I do have to question. I keep hearing all the talk about how many freshman are playing. Why is that happening in year 5? That is an excuse for the 1st or even the 2nd year. You would think that in year 5 he would have had enough of his own recruits who are upperclassmen.

Just something to think about.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Louisville Runs All Over Depleted Irish Defense

With a freshman Reggie Bonafon starting at quarterback, Notre Dame was totally focused on stopping the running game of Louisville. That makes the fact that the Cardinals were able to pretty much run at will hurt even more. The team gained over 200 yards rushing against the Irish defense. Brandon Radcliff gained 136 yards with a touchdown. Former Auburn runner Mike Dyer also pitched in 61 yards. Bonafon also gained 35 yards and 2 touchdowns.

To be fair, the Irish defense has been depleted with injuries. Losing Joe Schmidt seemed to have hurt the worse. Sheldon Day is also a huge loss. Against Louisville, Cody Riggs and Jaron Jones also were added to the list of injuries. Notre Dame at times had 9 freshman out there playing.

Having said all that, this unit has given up 30+ points in 6 straight games. Over that stretch, they have given up 242 points. That is awful. This unit started the year so strong too. Against Michigan and Stanford, fans believed that this defense was among the best in the nation. But now, I am not sure there is an offense in the country that this defense can stop.

Say what you want about Everett Golson and all his turnovers. The offensive line has also been a problem. Heck, Notre Dame cannot even get a guy to hold kicks. But even with all those factors, Notre Dame's lowest offensive output over that same 6 game stretch was 27 points. That was against Florida State in that controversial game. Their average scoring over that stretch is 37.5. If I were a head coach and had an offense that scored that many points, I would expect to win. I certainly would think that 40 would be enough to blow Northwestern out.

I do understand how young this defense is and all the injuries. But c'mon, these guys are good enough to get a scholarship at Notre Dame. I expect that they should be able to give up less than 37 points. These woes are due to more than just injury and youth. Brian VanGorder must go. He is a reincarnation of John Tenuta. Sure the blitzing is exciting and has potential to make a big play for a loss or force a turnover, but it also has potential to give up big plays because you leave something open.

Another problem is that it does not teach good fundamental defense. Whenever a player runs through with reckless abandon, he can run right through and miss the tackle. Coach Diaco had nothing fancy, he just emphasized good tackling. His defenses did give up yards but because they tackled well, they could keep them out of the endzone.

You also have to wonder if this style of reckless play might be a contributing factor to all the injuries. What really irritates me about this style of nonstop blitzing is that it defeats the purpose of what a blitz is. It is supposed to be an element of surprise to catch an offense off guard. But when you blitz this frequently, they are ready for it. It is basically the same thing as an offense running a trick play every 2 or 3 plays.

I am not ready to part ways with Coach Kelly yet, but please as soon as the gun sounds against USC buy Mr. VanGorder a one way ticket to wherever he wants to go.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Louisville Is Going To Be Tough

The good news is that Notre Dame is undefeated under Brian Kelly on Senior Day. So whatever Coach has done to get them ready for the senior's last trip through the tunnel has worked. In fact, some of the teams best performances have been on Senior Day. Who can forget Robert Blanton's blocked punt against Utah or just throttling Wake Forest?

The bad news is that this Louisville team is really good. They had a 21-0 lead on Florida State and like Notre Dame came close to beating them. But unlike Notre Dame, they seem to be peeking at the end of the season. 

Louisville is without their starting quarterback Will Gardner, but back up Reggie Bonnafon has seen the field plenty. He has 662 yards passing with 4 touchdowns and just one interception. The good thing for him is that he has a trio of backs in Brandon Radcliff, Michael Dyer, and Dominique Brown who all are near the 400 yard mark for the season. That running game could create problems for the Irish who have given up a lot up the middle lately. With Sheldon Day now out, that could create even more problems.

Their defense has been up and down all year. But with the health of Everett Golson a major question mark, they could create serious trouble for Notre Dame's offense. 

I am hopeful that the streak on Senior Day continues and the Irish get back on track, but I will not lie. It won't be easy.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Firing Brian Kelly Is Not The Answer, But There Are Legitimate Concerns

So here we are five years into the Coach Kelly Era and questions about his future in South Bend are coming up. Rumors are that he might leave for the NFL or possibly even Florida. Ironically, if this is his last year at Notre Dame, he would have lasted no longer than Charlie Weis.

There is also a lot of debate all over social media. Many want him fired and others have said that he is the best coach since Lou Holtz. Well the truth is somewhere in the middle there. I agree that he is the best coach since Holtz, but I also believe that that is not really anything to brag about.

Five years in I am no longer interested in what he did at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, or Cincinnati. All that matters now is his record at Notre Dame. If the team wins another game this year which is not a given, he will be the first coach to win 8 games in his each of first 5 years at Notre Dame. That is a good accomplishment, but he was not hired to go 8-4 every year. He was hired to compete for a national title every year. And every time it appears that the Irish are getting close to that level, it comes crashing down.

The team goes 12-0 only to get throttled to Alabama. They go wire to wire with defending national champ Florida State and lost in a very controversial fashion. But since then they barely beat Navy, got blown out to Arizona State, and got embarrassed by Northwestern. So how close Notre Dame is to a serious contender is still up for debate.

Now is Coach Kelly to blame or is he the reason the Fighting Irish were in those positions? Again, the truth is somewhere in the middle. He certainly has won a lot more than his predecessors and teams once again look at Notre Dame as a tough opponent.

At the same time, there are some concerns that have been there since he has been coach. Let's start with turnovers. This season Everett Golson has been turnover prone with 20 in 6 games. While that is on him for the most part, Kelly has had 3 quarterbacks since he has been at Notre Dame. Prior to Golson, both Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees both had turnover problems too. That tells me that there might be something in the preparation.

The next concern is special teams. I remember as a high school kid in Michigan going to football practice two days after the Rocket returned two kicks against Michigan for touchdowns. When we were about to begin practicing special teams, coach asked us if we thought special teams were important. Then he told us to ask Michigan.

Since Kelly has been in South Bend, the kicking game has been a disaster. When is the last time a Notre Dame player has had a huge return. Even the 12-0 year, their net return was like 1 yard. This season they can't even get somebody who can hold kicks. That is just one thing that cost the Irish the game against the Wildcats. Special teams is one third of the game and since it has consistently been a problem during the Kelly era, there has to be reason to question whether or not they are spending enough time on it.

The next concern is that every year there is at least one head scratcher game. That game where Notre Dame should have just blown a team out, but instead got upset or let it be closer than it needed to be. Teams like Tulsa, Navy, South Florida, Purdue, Pittsburgh, and now Northwestern should not even give Notre Dame challenge beyond the first quarter. Even the 12-0 season had a couple of games that were closer than they needed to be.

Upsets happen in sports and they are sometimes the most exciting things in sports. But c'mon, these are teams that don't even get half the recruits that the Irish get. I would be surprised if there is one player on Northwestern who was recruited by Notre Dame.  So who is to blame for the team not being ready for these games? I am not saying it is all on the head coach but he has to take a big part of the responsibility.

But on top of all those, probably the biggest concern I have is that Coach Kelly really doesn't take accountability or hasn't been held accountable for his actions. That has happened right from the start. Do you remember Declan Sullivan? He died because of Kelly's negligence. In any other profession that is a firable offense, especially  for a guy in his first year. Yet that got forgiven quite easily.

Then in year two after a disappointing loss to USC, Kelly did something that just totally blew my mind. He publicly stated that he didn't recruit many of the players that were playing at the time. He said, "You know who my players are." He threw a lot of guys who eventually were key contributors to helping him make it to the BCS Title game under the bus.

With all the players that have been caught with academic issues, he needs to look at what he needs to do differently.

Most recently, he threw Golson and others under the bus in press conferences. While those mistakes were huge, a good leader takes accountability for not properly preparing his players.

While I do recognize all these concerns, I still do not think that it is time to part ways with him. For starters, I don't see a home run hire out there this year. Nick Saban isn't going anywhere. His wife is happy in Alabama. I really don't see guys like Les Miles, Bob Stoops, or Jim Harbaugh wanting to leave their jobs for Notre Dame.

But more importantly, this team is really young. The players have worked hard and it would be unfair to them to make them have to start all over when they are close. I, myself, felt that this team was a year away even when they were 6-0. I actually predicted that they would win a lot early but it may get tough later. I didn't expect to lose to Northwestern though. So regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Coach Kelly needs to come back. But next year, Notre Dame better make the playoff or they have a decision to make.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Reality Is That The Irish Defense Is Just Not Very Good

All night I have been trying to tell myself that this loss is not as bad as it looks. This Northwestern team did beat Wisconsin who just beat Nebraska handily. So the Wildcats are better than their record. But then I remind myself of the fact that they just lost to Michigan. They had lost 4 straight. In the previous two games combined, they managed just 16 points. They lost to Michigan.

So there is no getting around it. This was a horrible loss. So who is to blame? Certainly, you can look at the field goal unit. Malik Zaire bobbled one snap which resulted in a two point conversion the other way. Kyle Brindza missed two field goals including one critical one in overtime. Meanwhile, Jack Mitchell was clutch kicking for Northwestern. He nailed both the game tying and game winning kick. So I could place the blame here, but a game against a team who lost 4 straight and lost to Michigan shouldn't be decided on kicks.

I could blame it on the turnovers. That certainly has been a problem especially with Everett Golson this season. But against the Wildcats, he wasn't the only one. Usually reliable Cam McDaniel had that critical fumble in the closing moments. I could place the blame there but I still look at the scoreboard and see 40 points. I also still see 3 touchdown passes for Golson and another 100 yard game for Tarean Folston. That should be enough against a team who lost to Michigan.

Of course there were plenty of questionable coaching calls. Going for two instead of kicking while up 11 was certainly a headscratcher. That point ended up being huge. Then with a minute and a half left the ball on second down and Northwestern out of timeouts. All they had to do was down the ball twice and Northwestern would have gotten the ball back with about 20 seconds left. So why didn't  Coach Kelly just go in Victory formation? That certainly was questionable but let's get back to that later. But again, even if the coaches calls are questionable, I would expect to be able to execute against a team who lost to Michigan.

So although all those things certainly contributed, this loss was primarily due to the defense which was just awful. They are honestly lucky it wasn't worst. They were beat all day and the pass was perfect and the Wildcat receiver dropped it. They did get some turnovers, but come on they gave up over 500 yards and 43 points to a team that scored only 16 points the last two games. They only manged 9 points in a game they lost to Michigan.

That is just awful. Quite frankly this defense has been awful starting in the North Carolina game. Before that game, the team was giving up just 12 points a game. But since that great game against Stanford, that average has gone to 42 a game. What I find really disturbing is that this defense has not really been held accountable for it and excuses for them have been made.

EXCUSE #1-They are decimated with injuries.

This is true and it does happen, but there should be enough players on scholarship to perform. What happened to the "Next man in?"

EXCUSE #2-They lost their leader in Joe Schmidt

So somebody else step up and take that role. Where are you Jalen Smith?

EXCUSE #3-Navy does something different so, we can't judge them based on Navy.

Well that is just one game, but what about the other 4? And yes, Navy does something different and they can throw the defense off for a couple scores, but beyond that the better athletes should prevail.

EXCUSE #4-Arizona State kept getting a short field.

That is absolutely true, but a defense is still accountable for playing. They still cannot be giving up touchdowns. Hold them to at least 3.

It seems that it is a different excuse each week. At some point, they have to go play. I am amazed that Coach Kelly has not held them more accountable. He seems to want to blame Golson for everything. I understand that he doesn't work with the defense very much but he is still the head coach for the whole team.

Brian VanGorder brought this attacking blitz style defense to Notre Dame. It can be exciting and it can create huge losses and turnovers. But if you live by the blitz you die by the blitz. When you sell out, you leave a lot uncovered and it can result in a huge gain if the blitz is picked up. That is what causes the huge chunk plays to happen. It is so easy to run right by the play and it looks like a missed tackle. That is not sound defense.

I am of the mindset that a blitz is an element of surprise. But if you blitz almost every play, that element is taken away. It really isn't hard to figure out what happened since the first 5 games. The coaches got a look at the game film and have seen what is left wide open with the blitz packages and have exploited it.

Under Coach Diaco, Notre Dame didn't worry about giving up a few yards as long as it what kept in front of them. They would stiffen up as it got closer and would keep them out of the endzone. They also played good fundamental defense. By that I mean they tackled well. I had way more trust for that than I do with this style.

We will see what happens, but if I were Coach Kelly I would consider ditching VanGorder and bring in more of a Diaco minded type.

They will not beat Louisville or USC without better play from the defense.