First Look ’14: Notre Dame
A couple of weeks ago I came clean on my own personal Notre Dame hypocrisy. On one hand I try at all costs to point out the continued retreat to the pack of national college football relevance for the Irish by pointing out records over the past twenty years, the diluted power of being on NBC and until 2012, the lack of BCS success. In so doing I was feeding the very relevance by doing silly things like calling them TTFSB – something we as NU fans mock Illinois’ Tim Beckman for doing to us. Beckman’s fixation at trying to ignore NU underscores the fact that the Illini have self-selected their program to aspire to be like ours. Granted, we don’t have a red circle through the Notre Dame logo hanging outside the players’ locker room, but I think you get the point.
If you look at either the LTP poll from a few weeks ago (55% of fans voted this game the marquee one on our schedule) or StubHub (where the cheapest ticket is about $150 – the highest of any NU game on the calendar at this point) this game is the headliner for the ‘Cats season.
Returning to Notre Dame is bittersweet for me. I make no secret that our last visit to South Bend – 9/2/95 – is in essence the rebirth of NU’s program thanks to Gary Barnett’s famous 17-15 upset win over Lou Holtz’s team that was in the team photo for national title contenders heading in to that season opener. We all know what happened from that game forward – a two year stretch of B1G domination, a Rose Bowl run and a pair of B1G titles. Going back to ND nearly 20 years later will be somewhat disappointing – even if we pull off a much more modest upset (at least at this point). Nothing, and I mean nothing, will compare to that win on that day of that year as it marked what was thought to be impossible and will someday make it in to a movie script.
The ‘Cat have significantly closed the gap on Notre Dame since 1995 -and while the won-loss total record is still in Notre Dame’s favor, we now regularly compete with Notre Dame for recruits – and win several of those battles. We’re currently head to head with ND and a couple of other name schools for one of the hottest QB prospects in the country – Travis Waller.
— ⚡ Travis Waller ⚡ (@traviswaller11) June 10, 2014
Of course, both of our respective programs are run by fiery Irish men and both programs try to straddle the student part of student athlete. Northwestern fans would be quick to go one-on-one with academic requirements with Notre Dame (or any school for that matter) but that’s a whole different post (as I’m sure ND fans would love that exchange as well).
Today, we’re embarking on a journey to get as educated as possible for the rare November non-conference road game at Notre Dame. You can pretend that this game doesn’t mean as much as some of our other intra-conference battles (read: Wisconsin, Nebraska, Iowa) but again, I think you’d be kidding yourself. In the Chicago market in particular, this game will make some pretty big waves and have a significant shaping of local media perception on the state of the respective programs.
This marks the first of a two-game commitment with the Irish visiting Ryan Field on November 3, 2018 – should that game actually happen. The ‘Cats will be soon moving to a 9-game conference slate in 2016 (meaning one game of the Duke, Stanford, Western Michigan and Western Illinois must be cancelled) and this game was scheduled before the 9-game conference slate was a reality. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one of the teams back out of this game in the future.
Here is Notre Dame’s 2014 schedule where you can see NU is the home game respite after a rare three straight road game stretch for the Irish:
Today, please welcome Keith Arnold from NBC Sports where he pens The Irish Insider. It’s definitely bookmark material for this season as you keep tabs on the Irish. Keith, welcome to LTP! Game on….
Notre Dame Quick Hits
2014 Game Day: Northwestern vs Notre Dame (Notre Dame Stadium – Nov. 15, 2014 – 3:30 pm et/NBC
Last Meeting: 1995 – Northwestern 17 Notre Dame 15
Notre Dame 2013: 9-4 (6-2)
Fitz record vs Notre Dame: 0-0
NU record vs Notre Dame since 1995: Northwestern 1-0
All-time series record: Notre Dame 37-8-2
LTP All-time Favorite Notre Dame player: Rocket Ismail
Favorite Notre Dame game: Really? You have to ask?
LTP: There’s a new defensive sheriff in town for Notre Dame – Brian VanGorder – and he appears to be installing a 4-3 scheme. What impact or fears do you have with this transition?
KA: If there are any fears about the Irish defense it’s replacing some very good personnel. Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were first round talents that went a bit later because they both had injury plagued 2013 seasons. Bennett Jackson went in the fifth round even after playing poorly in 2013. Almost the entire front seven is turning over, though there are some talented players moving into the lineup.
VanGorder is a long-time defensive coordinator who not very long ago was the highest paid assistant in college football. After Gene Chizik got flushed at Auburn, VanGorder went back to the NFL to work with Rex Ryan. He coordinated a very good Atlanta Falcons defense and has a bit of a mad scientist reputation, and he’s known Brian Kelly for over 20 years and coached together back when the duo were assistants at Grand Valley.
What’ll be interesting to follow is the evolution of Notre Dame’s defense. Under Bob Diaco, the Irish were strictly focused on fundamentals and simplicity. It helped turn a terrible Irish defense under Charlie Weis into one of the better units in the country. But now they’re going to scheme and bring pressure, things that rarely happened with Diaco.
It’s made for an interesting offseason.
LTP: I’m not one to harp on the returning starters myth but ND had eight players drafted in the NFL Draft last month and is ranked 100th in DI in terms of returning starters. Tee up how big the wholesale changes will be on the roster and what degree you’re counting on untested, highly-ranked recruits to step in and fill the gaps?
KA: The past two years have seen the Irish finally fulfill their potential when you consider the “stacked” recruiting classes they’ve been bringing in since Weis took over. A lot of that had to do with Brian Kelly developing Weis’ talent and finding plenty of his own.
Offensively, replacing Zack Martin and Chris Watt on the left side of the line will be big. TJ Jones was the team’s MVP and will play for the Detroit Lions this year. The linemen will be replaced by higher profile recruits (and returning starters) so it shouldn’t be too painful. And Chicagoland product DaVaris Daniels will lead a really talented (but young) receiving corps who now have Everett Golson back.
Again, defensive is the big question. Five-star Ishaq Williams is now a senior. Is he finally ready to dominate? Jaylon Smith is an All-American caliber player. Fifth-year transfer and three-year starter at Florida Cody Riggs will help out in the secondary. But it’ll come down to inside linebacker play and a search for pass rushers.
LTP: From an outsider’s perspective that has been paying marginal attention to Notre Dame during the Brian Kelly era, it feels as if the national championship year was a blip on the map surrounded by some pretty un-Notre Dame-like home losses. Yet, the 37-15 mark during his tenure is pretty darn impressive. What’s the buzz about the Brian Kelly era from ND insider’s perspective these days?
KA: Kelly is Notre Dame’s best coach since Lou Holtz and it’s not really close. I could see how the 2012 season is viewed as a blip, but it’s also the only season where he had a quarterback of his choosing playing.
Outside of the crazy loss to USF to open the 2011 season, the only true let-down loss in Kelly’s tenure was last November at Pitt. His teams have consistently played better as the season wore on and win the games they are supposed to (except to Michigan as it turns out).
Notre Dame fans are a grumpy lot. A vocal minority still bellyache about Kelly — for entertaining an NFL job, for not running the football enough, and for turning red-faced on the sidelines on occasion. But as you said — his record is impressive, especially considering there aren’t cupcakes Ws in there.
LTP: Obviously the return of Everett Golson is the headline for 2014. His roller-coaster ride includes leading ND to a national title game then getting suspended for cheating on a test and now he’s seemingly got the weight of the Irish expectations upon him as the make-or-break for 2014. What’s the dialogue going on surrounding Golson’s return?
KA: Nothing but positive. Golson’s suspension essentially train-wrecked 2013 before it started, though Tommy Rees did a more than admirable job. But Golson did everything you could ask for after making a mistake. He was accountable, he worked to get better off the field, and fulfilled his word and returned to Notre Dame, even though he could’ve transferred just about anywhere else.
Golson is a talented quarterback, but in 2012 he played with some serious training wheels on, spoon fed the offense as he learned on the job. Those can’t exist, especially considering he won’t have the same type of defense holding things together. But most are expecting a very big season out of Golson and I’m in that group.
LTP: Give us the skinny on three relatively unknown players at this point who will be names NU fans should fear come November?
KA: Three breakout players you’ll likely be sick of by the time the Wildcats play Notre Dame (on NBC):
1)Jaylon Smith — Started as a true freshman outside linebacker, a rarity for the Irish. Is a 6-foot-3, 235-pound, 4.4 speed linebacker that will likely put up stats by the bushel and doesn’t have a fictional girlfriend to annoy detractors.
He put up better stats as a true freshman than any other OLB in former coordinator Bob Diaco’s system and is moving to a position that’ll have him in the middle of everything. A candidate for a 100-tackle season.
2) Corey Robinson — The son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson, Corey is a 6-foot-5 sophomore wide receiver with velcro hands that should take a big step forward as Brian Kelly transitions back to the spread offense.
Robinson is a really impressive kid off the field, a talented musician, very good student and what you’d expect from The Admiral’s kid. After flying below-the-radar in the recruiting world he’s looking like an NFL receiver in the making.
3) Tarean Folston/Greg Bryant: The sophomore running back duo could be the best runners the Irish have had in a long time. Bryant was the five-star recruit, but Folston emerged as the starter late last season. Bryant has recovered from a knee injury that let him redshirt last season and lit up the spring game. Both are expected to do big things.
LTP: You’ve got quite a few staples on your 2014 schedule but this is the first time ND and NU have squared off since we, ya know, beat you as 27 point underdogs nearly 20 years ago. ‘Cats fans point to that one game as the rebirth of the program and the start to modern times in NU football parlance. It’s kinda weird though. The buzz isn’t as big as I thought it would be for this game. What’s the take from ND schedule surfers on this match-up?
KA: I think there’s quite a bit of interest in seeing a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team up close and personal. He’s a guy that ND fans have followed since the Wildcats program has stayed more than relevant these past few years and has in some eyes pulled even with Notre Dame until Kelly brought the Irish to the BCS title game in 2012.
Of course, even without 2012, not all Irish fans would agree with that assessment, and most hate to admit it has gotten as close as it has. But the opportunity for two programs to play that share not just a geographical pocket but also the moral high-ground will be great fun.
And while it’s hard to say the Northwestern game is as exciting as going to Florida State, a final clash with Michigan, or continuing battles with USC and Stanford, it’s probably the game most Chicago-based Domers are looking forward to the most… and will at least be the best tailgater of the year.
LTP: What are your biggest question marks going in to this season. I’m sure you’ve schedule surfed with “definite wins, toss-ups and likely losses” as we all do this time of year. What do you make of the schedule and ND’s possible 2014 results?
KA: The biggest question mark is the defense. And the schedule is legit. But here’s the down-and-dirty schedule assessment that I’m using to quantify this season.
Gotta Win (4 of 4): Rice, Purdue, Syracuse and Navy.
Should Win (3 of 4): North Carolina, Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville
Hope to Break Even (2 of 4): Michigan, Stanford, Florida State and USC
Get that and a bowl victory and that’s a 10-win season I’m not sure many can complain about. (Though I’m sure someone will find a way to…)