Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Notre Dame Proves Me Wrong and Shocks LSU

I am not sure where to start on this one. I have never been more happy to be wrong. Going into this, I really was not excited to watch. I thought that it was a mistake to accept this match up. I thought that it would be ugly and look bad for Notre Dame. Well as it turns out, this just might be the biggest win in Coach Kelly's tenure.

One of my biggest concerns was the defense. With the injuries and Brian VanGorder's tendency to non-stop blitz, I thought the Tigers would run all over them. It was a good surprise to see that the Irish got back to a simple front with good tackling and not allowing the big play. Only twice did they allow a big play. Both were touchdowns, but for them to only give up three scores to an SEC team is pretty impressive. I was very impressed with the fact that the defense gave up nothing in the 4th quarter. Bend but don't break defense may not be as fun or as exciting, but it is better fundamental defense. I hope VanGorder learned something.

Now getting to the story of the game. Kelly made a bold and risky decision to start Malik Zaire over Everett Golson. Make no mistake about it, Zaire looked really good. He threw a touchdown on his first drive and also ran another one in. He showed his mobility by adding 96 yards running. The ESPN commentators made sound as if the team is moving on from Golson.

But I am not so sure about that and here is why. Zaire only had 96 passing yards and most of his throws were very safe. The play calling in the second half was very conservative. When the team needed to throw downfield, Golson was brought in. With the game one the line and the team needing a long drive to get the field goal, it was Golson who was brought in to complete those big passes. In very limited duty Golson did a very nice job and had 90 big yards passing. It was clear that in spite of all the turnovers, Kelly still had more confidence in Golson with the game on the line.

Even in his post game interview, Kelly said that Zaire did a nice job of what they asked him to do. That means that who will be the quarterback next season is not as clear cut as ESPN was making it sound. It will be an interesting spring and this year's Blue-Gold game might be the biggest one ever.

One thing I really liked about Zaire is that he didn't try to do everything himself. He realized he has 10 other guys out there. The line played better with him in there and the offense as a unit looked more like a unit rather than just one guy trying to do everything. Maybe that could be a learning point for Golson that he doesn't have to do everything.

It will also be interesting to see what Golson decides to do. He clearly will not have the same role with the team next year. At the very least, he will have to split time. Can a two quarterback system work? Absolutely! It worked in the bowl game and Kelly made it work at Cincinnati. The better question is will Golson want any part of that?

Sharing time will affect his numbers and that cannot help his NFL prospects. He might want to transfer. Miami of Ohio could be an attractive place. Chuck Martin is there and Andrew Hendrix had a great year there even though the team did not. The next few weeks will be interesting.

Regardless of who is playing quarterback next season, I definitely feel a lot better now. All the injured and suspended players will return. That can only make the defense more deep. I can't wait for next season.

In closing, I just want to congratulate Tommy Rees on getting a job at Northwestern. I know he will be a great coach there.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Music City Bowl is Hard to Predict Because Notre Dame and LSU Are Hard to Predict

Predicting a bowl game is never easy. The regular season has been over for a month and it is hard to see how a team will respond after the layoff. It is especially true when you have two teams who play in a game that was much lower than expectations at the beginning of the season. So how Notre Dame and LSU come out in this game will be interesting to see. For Notre Dame, it will be especially interesting to see who all is even healthy on the defensive side of the side after a season that saw 14 injuries.

The media is saying that both teams had roller coaster seasons. For Notre Dame the only ride I can think of that would fit would be the Demon Drop at Cedar Point. It is one where a cart goes all the way up to the top and then just like that it is a free fall. That is clearly what the Irish season was. They were sitting at 7-1 with their only loss to Florida State in a very controversial fashion. Then came the disaster in the desert, an embarrassment to Northwestern, and ugly games to Louisville and USC.

For LSU, it was more of a traditional roller coaster as they began the year with a dramatic win against Wisconsin. Then they blew out two cupcakes because well the SEC schedules cupcakes. Then they had a set back against Mississippi State before blowing out another cupcake. Next they got blown out by Auburn and then barely beat an underwhelming Florida team. The Tigers appeared to have righted the ship after impressive wins over Kentucky and Ole Miss. They took Alabama to overtime. But then like Notre Dame, they folded down the stretch by losing to Arkansas and barely beating Texas A & M.

The thing that is similar is that both teams had a loss to a playoff team that could have gone the other way. That means that there is ability on both teams. We all know what Everett Golson can do when he is on with all the receiving weapons he has. Golson will have to split time in the game with Malik Zaire. But who is playing quarterback is inconsequential if the defense doesn't do better than how they ended. Again, how healthy they are will be huge. The Tigers have a tough runner in Freshman Leonard Fournette who gained 891 yards with 8 touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Anthony Jennings had just 10 touchdown passes with 7 interceptions. Their best receiver is sophomore Travin Dural who only had 37 catches for 758 yards and just 7 touchdowns. Compare that to Will Fuller who had 71 catches for 1037 yards and 14 touchdowns. It is clear that stopping the run will be key.

This bowl is between two big name programs who underachieved. It will be interesting to see how each team comes out.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jimmy Clausen Was a Disappointment At Notre Dame

Earlier this week, some Notre Dame fans but not me got excited to hear that Jimmy Clausen will get a second chance as a starter in the NFL. When he was at Notre Dame, there were only two occasions when he got me excited. The first was the Hawaii Bowl in which he had his best college game and I was there. I was so excited that I was convinced the Irish would contend for the BCS the next season. But after another disappointing 6-6 season he excited me for the second time when he announced he was leaving. I knew the team would be better once he left.

I already know I am going to have so many try to convince me how great he was. That of course is based on nothing but his stats his junior year. That alone is a silly way to judge a quarterback. The stats are a big factor but that is not how quarterbacks are ultimately graded. They are looked at by how far they take a team. He had a career record of 16-19 and that Hawaii Bowl was the farthest they went.

When you company that with the fact that Clausen made his announcement at the Hall of Fame and then showed up on campus in a hummer holding up 4 fingers, that is the definition of a disappointment. That is a disappointment in capital letters. If you needed a picture for the word disappointment, you can use Clausen.

I know. I know. I know. Spare me the nonsense about his stats and how bad the defense was. Yes the defense was slightly better than this years defense, but look at the game film of the 6 losses that year and pay close attention to Clausen with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. He choked regularly.

If you want to know how he had such great stats, a good place to look is at the other sideline this Sunday and you will see Golden Tate who consistently bailed him out on balls that were thrown into  traffic.

Although Notre Dame fans may not see this but NFL teams did as he was not taken on the first day. Carolina gave up on him after one season. Make no mistake of it. He is not starting now because he earned it but because Jay Cutler lost it. Expect the Detroit Lions to make an example of him and show just how overrated he really was.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Another Inevitable Decision. The Navy Game

We all know the history of Notre Dame and Navy. We know how World War II put Notre Dame in a huge financial strain. One that the school would not have survived if not for the actions of the Naval Academy. We hear that story every year when Notre Dame and Navy play each other. This has traditionally been one of my personal favorite games.

That is until recently. Lately, it seems that every year when the Irish and Midshipmen play each other, Notre Dame suffers more injuries than it needs and has suffered embarrassing losses the following week to teams like Tulsa and Pittsburgh. Even in the 12-0 year, the team barely beat a physically inferior Purdue team the week after Navy. This year, that game hit Notre Dame harder than ever. That was when the injury problems really started. The worst loss that game was Joe Schmidt.

After the Navy game, Notre Dame was 7-1 and very much alive in the discussion for the playoff. But the injury problems on defense continued and 4 straight losses followed.

Looking ahead to next season, I cringe at the idea of this game being right before USC. I also notice that Georgia Tech is on the schedule just a couple games earlier. They have Navy's old coach so it is almost like a double whammy sort of speak. The potential fallout could be devastating once again.

That has led many Notre Dame fans to wonder if keeping this game is in the school's best interests. There are those who say Notre Dame gains nothing by playing this game. A win over Navy will not boost their ranking. It is a no win especially with all the injuries that occur.

There are also those who say that the Irish owe to Navy to keep them on the schedule. My response to that is this. Suppose you own a home in Hawaii but you are going through financial difficulty and are in risk of losing it. A rich man decides to help you out and you save your home. In return you allow him to stay there anytime he wants to go to Hawaii. It goes on for years and all  is well. You both pass away, but your kid honors the deal with his kid. His kid is a bit of a slob and throws crazy parties. He leaves the place trashed. There is no way you would continue to honor that agreement.

World War II ended in 1945 and it is now 2014. That is 69 years. Whatever debt Notre Dame owed to Navy is paid for and then some. Notre Dame is basically doing the Naval Academy a favor at this point. The fact is that every year we see that Navy players diving right toward the knees. I saw the same thing the other night when Georgia Tech played Florida State. Anybody who has coached football at any level knows that that is "Bush League." If Notre Dame would have done that to Alabama two years ago, it would have been all over ESPN. But Navy gets away with it because they are the ones who risk their lives every day/ Criticizing a service academy kind of looks bad, so they will not call a spade a spade.

Notre Dame cannot just ignore this. They can start by sending a letter to Navy and tell them clearly that this game will be removed from the schedule if that cut-blocking stuff doesn't stop.

If they still want to honor the World War II memories, the schools can make a new arrangement and play in basketball.

Another option would be to make a new agreement with the service academies that Notre Dame will only play one each year. That game will be either at home or the Shamrock Series. Also, make it on Championship Saturday so Notre Dame is playing that day even though it is not in a conference championship. Air Force would have to keep that weekend open though because they might have to play in the Mountain West Championship. So on their year, Notre Dame would have to play them earlier. The advantage to this is that the team would not have a game for a few weeks which should be enough time to heal.

If not that weekend, maybe they could open the season with the service academy game and have a bye immediately following. That would be early enough to where the team can heal without having too much of a negative impact. Also, having an early bye would enable Notre Dame to schedule a game that Championship Saturday possibly with BYU.

The Navy game is not a game I want to see go away, but at some point Notre Dame has to be practical.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Inevitable Choice Notre Dame Will Have To Make

Notre Dame is already in the ACC in every sport except football. They chose to remain independent with the agreement that they would play 5 ACC teams a year. The Irish subsequently had to end it's rivalry with Michigan in order to keep rivalries with USC, Stanford, and Navy. Notre Dame also has plans to renew it's rivalry with Michigan State after a two year gap in 2016.

That all looked good as Notre Dame could add tough ACC teams without losing it's traditional rivals. But now there is the reality of the playoff selection committee. Over the weekend, they clearly showed how much value they place in conference championship games. The Final Four consists of Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, and Ohio State. All four won their conference championship. Meanwhile, Big 12 co-champs Baylor and TCU where left out. Not having that game hurt them. 12-1 is better than 11-1. That is just simple math.

What that means is that even if Notre Dame didn't fall apart after the Navy game, they probably would not have gotten in at 11-1. What that means in the future is that as long as Notre Dame keeps it's independence, it will likely have to go undefeated to get in.

So that leads to the inevitable question of what does Notre Dame do? Do they join the ACC for football as well? That would certainly give them the opportunity to play in that title game. It would also give them some easy conference games. A perspective I heard this weekend was that Notre Dame's schedule year after year is tougher than what it would be if they were a regular ACC member.

But at the same time, there would be drawbacks as well. Notre Dame doesn't share any revenue from bowl games, NBC contract, etc. with anybody. That would change if they were in the ACC. Also even more rivals would go away. In State rival Purdue would be out for good. Sparty would be gone as well. What would happen to Navy and Stanford would be up in the air. I would think that the USC game would still go on.

I hate the thought of not playing those games. But I also hate the fact of being penalized for not having a game that will keep Notre Dame out of the playoff more often than not. Notre Dame will inevitably have to face this reality. They will have to decide whether it is more important to keep their traditions or being able to consistently get into the playoff. This is not an easy decision at all. I am glad I am not making it.

Right Decision Or Not, Notre Dame Accepts Bid To Face LSU In Music City Bowl

It has been debated for the past week by Notre Dame fans. Would they or wouldn't they not accept a bowl bid? Should they or shouldn't they accept the bowl bid. Every Notre Dame fan wants to see the Irish play in the Bowl game. That was never the question. The question was whether or not it was the right thing to do. There were many including me wondering not only if it would send the right message to allow a team who lost 4 straight to go to a bowl and whether or not the team would even be healthy enough to play.

Well, the decision has been made and as Notre Dame fans we need to support the team whether we agree with the decision or not. So it is time to start getting ready for LSU. Although the Tigers had a bit of a down year, they are still a premier school in the tough SEC West. Alabama needed overtime to beat them. So it definitely won't be easy for Notre Dame.

The good news for Notre Dame is that the game is not until the day before New Years Eve. That gives them not only more time to prepare but also more time for some of the wounded to get healthy. It will be interesting to see how the quarterback situation plays out. Will Brian Kelly go back with Everett Golson or will he start Malik Zaire? It seems that against an SEC defense, you would have to go with the veteran. But then again, I gave up trying to figure out Kelly since his days at my alma mater Central Michigan.

Notre Dame and LSU have only crossed paths 10 times and the record is an even 5 a piece. The last time they met was the 2007 Sugar Bowl where Jamarcus Russell's Tigers wazed Brady Quinn's Irish 41-14. An Irish win in the Music City Bowl would not only avenge that loss, but also make the late season collapse a little more forgivable going forward.

It will be tough, but Go Irish beat LSU!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Five Changes Coach Kelly and Notre Dame Need to Make

As I have stated repeatedly, I am not on the Fire Brian Kelly bandwagon yet, but I am beginning to lose my patience. I think you give him next year but the team better be in the playoff. Having said that, I do see five key things that need to change and should help. No, I am not going to say start Malik Zaire. Everett Golson has done too many good things and has way too much skill to just abandon. I think Kelly should give an a number of turnovers, say 6 that he is allowed to make. After that he is coming out if he goes over 6. Kelly should stick with Golson but there are areas that need change.

Brian VanGorder Must Go

I know he has only had one season, but this style of defense will never be successful in South Bend. It is an injury prone style. Think about it, are you more likely to get in a car accident if you are driving recklessly or if you are obeying the laws? This style of defense is reckless and probably contributed to all the injuries. On top of that, in order for this defense to work, you need lock down corners to cover the best receiver for the other team. What is more frustrating is that we saw this style defense get torched under John Tenuta a few years ago. Bob Diaco just emphasized good tackling. No fancy schemes. They gave up yards but ultimately kept them out of the endzone. Why the team went back to this kind of defense is beyond me.

Hire Jeff Quinn As Offensive Coordinator

The reason is real simple. This guy was with Kelly pretty much everywhere he went. The only exception was Notre Dame because Quinn took the head coaching job at Buffalo. Well now he is gone from there which makes him available to rejoin Kelly.

Bring Back Tommy Rees In Some Capacity

 The best year Tommy Rees had at Notre Dame was his year backing up Golson. He was called in at times and did well. But his most important role was mentoring Golson. Rees wasn't the most talented quarterback ever in South Bend, but he was very knowledgeable. Unlike Golson, Rees made mistakes due to lack of talent and not too many just bonehead plays. Bringing Rees back to help with not just Golson but all the young quarterbacks as well.

Hire a Really Good Special Teams coach

This has been a struggle since Kelly has been at Notre Dame. Notre Dame scares nobody with their return men. This year fans had to hold their breath on extra points. That is not good. I am not sure who is out there but they need somebody.

Be Smart With Scheduling Navy

This is a long standing tradition that honestly does nothing for Notre Dame. It is a big game for Navy though. Every year Notre Dame seems to get more injuries during this game. This year the defense took major hits in that game and most notably was Joe Schmidt. The Irish defense was clearly different after that game. Since taking them off the schedule seems  unlikely, Notre Dame should play them on Championship Saturday since neither team has a game that day. That way the team has a little time to recover before the post season. At the very least, make sure a bye follows them.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Brian Kelly Hasn't Had a Good Road Record Vs PAC 12

After a frustrating season, I am still not quite yet on the bandwagon to part ways with Coach Brian Kelly. He does deserve another season, but the seat should definitely be hot. I mentioned before that there are things that are of legit concern such as his lack of accountability, poor special teams, playing down to competition, etc.

But there is one concern I haven't mentioned. As we know, each year Notre Dame ends it's season with a November road trip to face a PAC 12 opponent which is either USC or Stanford. This season they actually had two such trips as Arizona State was on the schedule. I am not sure what it is about those games but they have been some of Coach Kelly's worst games at Notre Dame. Both trips to Stanford have been a disaster. Notre Dame's two worst games this year were USC and Arizona State.

I know it is not because these programs are superior in talent because the Irish beat both of them last year and they both had relatively the same team. One was at home and the other was the Shamrock Series. Watching these PAC 12 road games, it always seems that the team is just not ready to play. Notre Dame seems fine going to other places, but the PAC 12 stadiums have not been kind.

Even the two USC games that he did win weren't exactly signature wins. They were in a way because it was against the main rival. But talking in terms of looking great as a football team, not so much. In six total PAC 12 road games, Kelly is 2-4. Maybe that is just coincidence, but more likely there is something to the preparation for these long road trips. It just seems to happen too frequently to be circumstantial.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

There Is a Bigger Problem With Everett Golson Than The Turnovers

Looking at the most frustrating end to a season that I can possibly remember, it is never just one thing that causes a team to just collapse the way Notre Dame did. But the aspect that got the most attention was the play of Everett Golson. The focus on it was his 22 turnovers. That is certainly a huge concern that he didn't anywhere near that two years agree as a freshman.

That is something that he has to clean up but honestly the quarterback position is the most turnover position in all of sports. Looking at Golson's season as a whole, I think there is an even bigger problem with him than the turnovers. Coach Kelly was asked early in the season about the difference between him before and now. Kelly said that two years ago Golson was riding the bus and now he is driving it.

Well I think Golson was definitely given the keys to the bus, but I am not sure if he ever took the wheel. He looked amazing at times with all the plays he could make. He made throws that Tommy Rees couldn't even think about. But Rees was in control of his offense.

Looking at last year's team, even though Rees was limited in skill and also turned it over a lot, you never had a doubt watching who the leader was. Two years ago, Golson wasn't asked to be a leader and you could easily tell that Manti Te'o was the leader.

This year though, I never saw much in terms of leadership from Golson. He is a natural athlete but you can tell he is not much for pumping up his team. In the Past, Rees and Te'o would show leadership on the field and even on the sideline when the other units were out there. I don't remember seeing Golson once on the sideline pumping up the defense or anybody on the team.

Now I am not in the camp of benching him. Malik Zaire was decent in relief but it was in a situation where the game was well out of reach early. He had the starting unit and was against the Trojans backups. With all the sanctions, some of them might not even have been on scholarship. So I think the kid was ok, but I am not going to bust out the anointing oil just yet.

Kelly said that he is unsure who the starter will be going forward. Looking at next year's schedule, it gets no easier at the start. They open with an upstart Texas followed by two tough ACC teams in Virginia and Georgia Tech. It almost seems logical to go with Golson for those three games and see where he is at that point. After that it gets a little easier with UMass. That may be the time to make the change if deemed appropriate.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Should This Team Go To a Bowl Game?

This is the question that has been argued all over social media the past two days after the USC debacle. Now initially you think, "Of course we want to go to a bowl game." As a fan, of course I want to see another game. Heck, I hope they come back out here to the Hawaii Bowl. I loved it when they came here before. I think every Notre Dame fan wants to be in a bowl game.

But the question is not whether Notre Dame wants to play in a bowl. It is whether or not they should. I am personally amazed at how personally insulting fans have gotten toward each other on this topic. We may agree or disagree as fans as to what is the right thing to do is, but we all want what is best for the Irish.

The arguments I hear are, "We owe it to the seniors," "We need those 15 practices," "It helps recruiting," and "We will give up a lot of money if we don't go."

Let me start with the first one and say no we don't. These guys will leave with a degree from Notre Dame and some of them will make lots of money in the NFL. They will be just fine. I do appreciate all they did for the program but the fact remains that the team did not live up to expectations their senior year.

Second, I coached at both the high school and Pop Warner level. So of course I know the value of practice. However, it is not about the number of practices it is about the quality of practice. With all these players injured, I am not sure how quality these practices will be. If you remember correctly Auburn was not in a bowl game two years ago and last year they made it all the way to the BCS Title Game. So it is not like the kids will completely forget how to play football without those two weeks of practice.

Third, the recruiting aspect is a legit point but understand that it can also have a reverse effect. What if the Irish lose to a team like Northern Illinois or Gunner Kiel makes them look foolish if they get matched up with Cincinnati. What will that do for recruiting?

Finally, I definitely understand how much revenue comes into the school from a bowl game. But seriously c'mon. This isn't Texas-El Paso. This is Notre Dame which is one of the biggest brands in all of sports. So I seriously don't see the school filing Chapter 11 if they don't get that money from a bowl game.

Beyond all that, I have two major concerns about sending this team to a bowl game. First, will the team even be healthy enough to play? There were hardly any players left on defense for the USC game. Who will be available for the bowl game? Some of the injured players might try and come back for it even though it is not advisable putting them at increased risk to get hurt even worse. That is definitely something for the coaches and athletic department to consider.

Second, 7-5 is not good enough for Notre Dame. Many on social media claim that you are not a true fan if you feel they shouldn't go to a bowl game. I say that you are not a true fan if you believe 7-5 is good enough. It was fine in Kelly's first season when the team started 1-3 and finished 7-5. That is clearly much different from a 7-5 team that started 6-0.  It is not like this would be something unprecedented. Lou Holtz refused to go after a team lost 3 games. He said that was below Notre Dame standards. Then just a few years ago a 6-6 team which also dropped 4 in a row refused.

Call me old school, but I look at a bowl game as a REWARD for a GREAT season. This is not a season that needs to be rewarded. My high school coach would take teams out for steak dinner if they won league. Both of my years we won and got to go. But other teams that didn't win league had to miss it. He said that it would send the wrong message to let them go anyway.

Now each coach and team have their own expectations and the beginning of the season. While I am not sure what Kelly's expectations were, I am sure they were better than 7-5. I am afraid that if we let this team go to a bowl game, that this becomes the new standard and I don't like that at all.

Now I am not saying that  Notre Dame should just say no to the bowl game. There are a couple of very good reasons to go to a Bowl game. First, after what happened between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire in the USC game it would be beneficial to open up a competition and see who wins. How Golson responds or how Zaire does in a potential starting role will be a good sign of who the team should proceed with.

Second, although this team doesn't need to be rewarded, it would still be a big momentum boost going into next season if the Irish can go out there and get an impressive victory. Next season the schedule gets no easier. The opener with an upstart Texas team will not be easy. They also have six ACC opponents featuring heavyweights Clemson and Georgia Tech. Of course traditional rivals in USC, Stanford, and Navy will all be tough as well. So this program definitely could use momentum going into the offseason.

The thing with momentum though is that is a another aspect that can backfire if the Irish lose the bowl. So considering all those factors, Notre Dame needs to first determine if this team will realistically even be able to field a legit team. Then they need to find a match up that gives them a strong chance of winning. If both of those factors hold up, I say go. If not, then maybe it might be best to just shut it down for this season.