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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Northwestern Is The Epitome Of a Jekyll and Hyde Team

After coming off the worst game of the season, it is a big week for Notre Dame to get back on track to position themselves for the best bowl game they can get. How a team responds is really a reflection of the coaching. We shall see.

This week is the renewal of an old rivalry. It is strange to play a Big Ten team this late in the year. This used to be a regular season opener for the Irish and often was a tune up for Michigan. They haven't met since 1995 but have met 47 times with Notre Dame dominating by winning 37 of them. Although Northwestern did win the last one.

This 2014 version is possibly the most inconsistent team in the country. They began the year with disappointing losses to California and Northern Illinois. Then they went on a three game winning streak. The highlight of that streak was a 20-14 win over Wisconsin. That was big because the Badgers could possibly be the Big Ten West division champs. But now, the Wildcats are on a 4 game losing streak.  Two of those include blowout losses to Nebraska and Iowa.

Their latest defeat was to Michigan. I watched the replay of that game on BTN in 60. Let me tell you, the game was just awful. Both teams looked bad. The Wildcats lost 10-9. They scored a last second touchdown, but instead of kicking the PAT and taking it to overtime they decided to go for two. They failed. Michigan was the only common opponent for the two teams and we all remember what happened when the Wolverines came to South Bend.

Northwestern has a pretty good defense in only giving up an average of 22.3 points a game. But the better offenses they have faced in California, Nebraska, and Iowa have scored 30+. Notre Dame is probably the best offense they have seen yet.

Offensively, Northwestern has very limited capability. Their Senior Quarterback Trevor Siemian has only 1837 passing yards with a dismal 5 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Whenever a quarterback has more interceptions than touchdowns, that is cause for concern. Compare that to Everett Golson's 2757 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Siemian's best receiver is Kyle Prater who has just 37 catches for 372 yards and only a single touchdown. Compare that to Will Fuller's 52 catches for 694 yards and 10 touchdowns. Even the complimentary receivers in Corey Robinson and CJ Prosise have more yards and touchdowns

Their only real weapon is freshman running back Justin Jackson who has 761 yards and 5 touchdowns. So it seems that if the Irish defense stops him, they got it. They have been really good against the run all year except for Navy, but that is a different animal.

Based on all that and combined with the fact that Notre Dame will finally have a home game after being away for more than a month, the Irish should just dominate. The only concern is the idea of a hangover after such a bad loss.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Coach Kelly Is Wrong, But He Did The Right Thing

In his post game press conference, Coach Brian Kelly pretty much put the Arizona State loss all on Everett Golson. I have already stated that I don't believe any of the 5 turnovers were on Golson at all, but more due to poor offensive play. I stand by that.

Coach Kelly knows that. He saw the game. He also knows that Golson was the driving force in bringing the team back to come within 3. But Kelly had a good reason to go off on that rant. To be a respected quarterback, you sometimes have to take it in the chin even when it isn't really your fault. The players know it is not your fault and will rally around you and go out of their way to make sure they make that block or hang onto that ball next time. My guess would be that that is a lesson he is trying to teach Golson.

This is a big week for the coaches this week. The playoffs are gone. Notre Dame can still play in a really good bowl game. Northwestern is not exactly an opponent to get excited about. That is where it takes a great coach to bring this team together in what can still be a great season.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Time For Notre Dame To Be Honest With Themselves

Going into this game with Arizona State, I had a bad feeling and I am not at all surprised by the result. That was for two main reasons.

The first one is the Navy factor. Mack Brown mentioned it in the pre-game that a team like Navy takes a lot out of a team because of the different style and the cut blocking they do. I don't want to buy into a theory like this but the history speaks for itself. They lost to Tulsa the one year after Navy. Even two years ago during the great 12-0 season the Irish struggled against Purdue, which isn't unusual either. Last year they lost to a bad Pittsburgh team. The Irish are not the only team affected by this. Of the teams that have faced Navy this season, only one team has won the following week. One of the teams who played Navy was Ohio State and they lost to Virginia Tech, who isn't good, the next week. We know what Ohio State has done since then. So there is something to this and I hope Notre Dame is smarter in how they handle Navy in the future. Maybe put them the last game after USC/Stanford, or just schedule a bye the next week.

The next reason is that although they were 7-1, I got the sense that this was a young and inexperienced team who really overachieved. That showed big time. Everybody wants to blame Everett Golson, but that is not fair at all. He really played a heck of a game and threw for over 400 yards. I am not saying that 17 turnovers in 6 games isn't a concern, but none of the five that happened against Arizona State were on him. I honestly felt sorry for him. The offensive line has a lot of underclassmen other than Nick Martin. They have shuffled around all season. Their inexperience showed as they were unable to pick up blitzes all first half. The Sun Devils were coming in untouched. That is what led to 4 of the turnovers. The first was a fumble in which the defensive back got Golson from the blindside and nobody picked him up.

The next two interceptions were both tipped at the line due to the pass rush they were unable to pick up. The next interception was in the end zone early in the second half when he was hit as he threw. The last one was on Corey Robinson. So it was bad play by the line and a young receiver that led to the turnovers, not Golson.

The other area that showed inexperience was the young defense. They were placed in bad positions a lot in the first half and given short fields. But a veteran defense, would still go out there and shut it down holding them to a field goal. They still cannot give up touchdowns. They play really good for most of the second half which enabled the offense to come back. But after the Amir Carlisle score that pulled the to within 3, they let Taylor Kelly lead his team right down the field and score. Again, a great defense would not allow that. Part of that is finding their leader. They still haven't replaced Manti Te'o in that regard.

So Notre Dame really needs to be honest with itself. First, they need to either take Navy off the schedule or be smarter about where they place them. Being honest, they haven't been smart about it. Second, the Irish need to acknowledge that this is a young team that really is a year away from being a team that can contend for a 4 team playoff. That being said, there is still a lot to play for this year. They win out and go 10-2, Notre Dame will still go to a big name bowl game like the Orange, Fiesta, or Cotton.

That won't be easy though. Northwestern is next and although they haven't looked good this year, they did beat Wisconsin. So they do have ability. Louisville is a solid team who was able to build a 21 point lead against Florida State. And of course, the USC game is always the game of the year for both teams. Beating those teams and winning a bowl game would be a great building block for next season.

In closing, I just want to congratulate Arizona State. They came ready to play and showed they are as good as anybody in the country.