Notre Dame Answers Critics, Saves Season

Louis Nix - Notre Dame vs. Arizona State
Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Louis Nix III (1) in action during an NCAA Football Shamrock Series game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Arizona State Sun Devils at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Notre Dame wins 37-34. (Photo: Manny Flores/Icon SMI)

What may have started as a low, persistent murmur humming steadily in the background became a full-fledged cacophonous roar moments after Notre Dame fell in abysmal fashion to the Oklahoma Sooners.  Every negative comment and every unwanted hypothetical shed its wallflower status and rushed to the forefront to make its presence known.  Fighting Irish fans were booing players and ex-players were bashing fans on Twitter.  Media outlets sensed a wounded Irish program ailing in the water and attacked, with articles boasting headlines such as “Defensive drop-off has plagued Notre Dame this season” popping up endlessly around the country.  Even the Oklahoma Sooners, fresh off a road win in South Bend, began to question how significant their second career victory over Notre Dame truly was.

Beyond the fierce scrutiny and ever-loudening criticism housed the true issue: what was to be done about it?  Realizing serious problems with potential to derail the entire 2013 season is the first, easy step.  Crafting strategies to patch the holes is what separates a good coaching staff from a great one.

How could Notre Dame increase its quarterback production after two disastrous outings against Michigan State and Oklahoma?  Could you truly swipe starting quarterback Tommy Rees for backup Andrew Hendrix if Hendrix was unable to beat Rees in a quarterback competition, or sub Hendrix in for only rushing situations?  Is Malik Zaire too young to be considered in a starting quarterback conversation?

These questions hung over Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s staff with the aura of a fog of fruitless inevitability.  How could an overabundance of offensive red flags be corrected in order to score enough points to defeat an Arizona State squad that hung 62 points on USC a week prior?  The answer was no one believed they could, neither Las Vegas nor any of the NBC sports analysts who all unanimously picked Arizona State as the undeniable victor in the pre-game coverage.

Kelly and staff showcased yet another example of why they should be considered one of the best coaching staffs in America.  While experts forecasted a quarterback controversy on the horizon, Notre Dame’s coaching staff focused on refitting the Irish offense to develop an effective rushing attack.  The Fighting Irish held the ball for over 34 minutes against Arizona State – the highest time of possession rating for Notre Dame all season – and were propelled by 37 rushing attempts, tied for the most ND carries to date.  But the upset victory over the Sun Devils was more than effective strategy – it came through improvement across the board.

Tommy Rees, accumulating a ghastly 48.5 quarterback rating in his last two outings against Michigan State and Oklahoma, shook off his slump and threw for 279 yards and 3 touchdowns.  True freshman linebacker and former 5-star recruit Jaylon Smith burst onto the scene, offering fans a sneak peek at how special he will eventually become.  Smith chipped in 9 tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss as well as a forced fumble, though his true contributions involved nearly singlehandedly stalling two Arizona State drives, forcing two field goals in the process.  Prince Shembo awoke from the slumber of his giant potential and recorded 3 sacks, nearly matching the 4 sacks the Fighting Irish defense had mustered all season.  Even kicker Kyle Brindza joined the fray, drilling a 53-yard field goal and tying a Notre Dame record in the process.

The most important facet of Saturday’s upset of Arizona State was illustrated by how adversity was handled.  Notre Dame held a surprising 24-13 lead at the start of the 4th quarter after killing another Arizona State offensive drive courtesy of a Prince Shembo sack.  Facing 3rd and 10 on Notre Dame’s own 25 yard line, Rees took a snap, looked to his left and made an ill-advised pass into an area surrounded by three Arizona State defenders in zone coverage.  Sun Devil cornerback Osahon Irabor intercepted Rees’ pass and returned it 37-yards for a touchdown, pulling ASU within 4-points.  Notre Dame responded with a field goal, but within the first 8 minutes of the 4th quarter Arizona State had tied the game 27-27, with Notre Dame’s defense surrendering a 3rd and 20 in the process.

Given the relentless criticisms, the poor showings, the must-have nature of the game and an 11-point 4th quarter lead erased in minutes, it appeared Notre Dame would succumb to Arizona State.   In previous years such a decisive moment would have triggered the “here we go again mindset”, accepting a loss was forthcoming and unavoidable.  Instead, Notre Dame showed the finishing ability Brian Kelly has spent years trying to instill, and a Notre Dame unit that had every reason to throw in the towel responded, undaunted by the change in momentum.

Irish running back Cam McDaniel proved his mettle as a closer, piling up three rushing first downs with the elusiveness critics have claimed he lacks.  Kyle Brindza came through with a tiebreaking field goal and Notre Dame took a 30-27 lead, draining five minutes off the clock in the process.  The defense responded immediately, forcing Arizona State into a 4th and 13 on the very first drive.  In a moment no one could have predicted a mere week ago, ASU head coach Todd Graham opted to go for it rather than punt on his own 22-yard line with less than three minutes to go due to his defense’s inability to keep Notre Dame’s offense off the field.  Two interceptions and one Dan Fox game-clinching touchdown later, Notre Dame emerged from Dallas with a season-saving victory.

Notre Dame’s upset of Arizona State wasn’t always pretty but growth and maturity was witnessed in every facet of the Fighting Irish’s play.  And with this win Notre Dame moves to 4-2 on the season with only USC and an interim coach standing in the way of a 5-2 finish to the roughest part of Notre Dame’s schedule.  The Fighting Irish needed a win in Dallas to save the season from spiraling out of control, and they did it in prime time as an underdog with top rated recruits from Texas and Louisiana present.

On the trip back to South Bend, the only cacophonous roar heard will be courtesy of the jet’s engines.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at

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  1. All of these stats are great but I’d much rather listen to the delusional irrational posts of fanatics. Besides I believe bj posted that Ara was 63-0 vs #1 ranked teams with 47 of those wins coming on the road (in fact 52 of those wins were shutouts). Lou was a more pedestrian 21-0 vs #1 ranked teams. In fact, a #1 ranked ND team has played a #2 ranked ND team on 37 occasions with ND winning all of those matchup a as well.

  2. I just want to ask a question if ND sucks so bad, what would be your plan to make them into the team you feel reflects a champion? All I keep hearing is how ND is like the Cubs and how everyone on this board is accepting mediocrity. I’m sick of hearing it, they aren’t championship caliber we all know that. I’m not going to stop routing for my favorite college football team just cause they are not the best.

    One thing everyone on this board is missing is look at all the top ten teams, what do they have in common. Well let’s look at #9 Texas A&M, they are an 8-4 team without Mansel. Alabama has AJ As QB that’s why they have won championships. Georgia has Aaron Murray, LSU has a QB finally. Oregon has Marietta and I could keep going on. This offense needs a QB with play making ability not a game manager. I like Tommy but that is what this team is missing a leader and playmaker at QB. Put a playmaker in there and they don’t lose to Michigan or Oklahoma. With a playmaker/leader at QBit elevates a teams play on all phases of the game. That’s not an excuse its a fact, look at the history of ND football and show me a champion without a playmaking QB.

  3. Woody,

    HUGE win, yes. But it’s so sad that we’ve gotten to the point where beating ASU is a huge win. I recall when beating #1 ranked teams on the road were common place at ND. Now we’re happy beating ASU. This is where we’re at. That’s too bad. I just hope I live long enough to see excellence once again common at ND and the standard and not have to hear about beating ASU to go to 4-2 being HUGE. But so long as we continue to settle and make excuses I doubt that will ever happen. Undemanding fan bases turn to not produce very good teams. Wrigley Field is full every game of every season with fans who really don’t care whether their team wins or loses. That’s what ND football is fast becoming thanks to fans who are happier making excuses for mediocre football than wanting to see greatness on the field.

    1. Again, I hate when facts get in the way of opinions. In the history of college football ND is 8-16-1 versus #1 ranked teams.

      So if 8 times in the history of the sport is considered common place then ok.

      1. Also, only 1 of those wins was on the road.

        Therefore, if beating one #1 ranked team on the road in the history of the school constitutes a common place occurrence, then carry on.

      2. What would be intriguing is to obtain the data of how Notre Dame did against the #2 team when NOTRE DAME was the #1 team.

        That, to me, is the more fascinating data measurement.

      3. Interestingly enough the Irish are 4-1-1 when they are #1 playing the #2 team. We all know when that loss occurred.

  4. Guys,

    That was a very HUGE win v. ASU.

    Let’s just concentrate on each game. This is not complicated. Just google Al Pacino motivational speech. What are we going to do, men?

    Go Irish!


  5. mar,

    Stop being so demanding! Don’t you realize that BK and his staff are practically working for free. Why would you be so exacting about men with such little coaching experience, who practically work for charity at ND. I think you’re being very unreasonable wanting to see better performances from BK, his staff, and this team. After all, we’re striving to become Temple and Purdue. So, please, mar, stop talking sense and let the rest of us wallow in our desired mediocrity. We don’t want to ever strive for excellence when an excuse for failure is so much easier to do.

  6. “Kelly and staff showcased yet another example of why they should be considered one of the best coaching staffs in America.”
    Where were they in game 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 -especially 2 and 5!

    SOOO 1 out 0f 6 qualifies them for coaching greatness.. I guess.

  7. How is Kelly nurturing leadership among the players? That’s an area that this tea desparately needs to address.

  8. Gotta love the media. Trying to create a QB controversy. Last year it was EG vs. Rees. I thought Kelly handled that expertly. He let it be known EG was the starter. Period. He knew when he needed to put Rees in a game. At the same time, he always made it clear EG was the QB, that these were just growing pains. And what happened, we saw improvement in EG’s game. He was one of the bright spots at Alabama, I thought. Most of the team looked shell shocked. He didn’t, and he ended up finally scoring ND’s first TD.

    Same this year. For better or worse, Rees has to be the QB. Wasting a year of eligibility having Zaire come in would be ridiculous. He is still a raw talent and should be another excellent option for the future. Don’t burn his eligibility now. I don’t object to putting Hendrix in for certain situations. Though predictable, he does have speed and there are times ND can use that to their advantage. But as a starter, I would say no, unless Rees is injured.

    I’ve always said, Rees does not have the ability to start and win 12 games. We’ve seen as good as he can give, and he doesn’t play into Kelly’s offensive system well. But he’s the best choice ND has right now.

  9. ND hasn’t beaten the Trojans at home, in ND stadium, since 2001.

    There were high hopes in 2011. ND had a new coaching staff that had recruited well and developed some excellent players. The team was playing better and gaining confidence, and their upcoming game against USC was one of the longest running, most well known, and most highly anticipated rivalry games of the year. ND was also comming off a bye, and had 2 weeks to prepare, so Irish fans had many reasons to feel good about the game.

    And what happened?

    ND came out of the tunnel …FLAT. No emotion, no enthusiasm, no intensity.
    It was little wonder that we quickly fell behind 17-0.

    But then ND started to claw their way back, 17-7… 17-10, and with Rees getting in a grove, he helped drive the Irish inside the USC 20 yard line before he left the game for 1 play due to a bruised knee.

    In comes back-up Dayne Crist… who mishandles the preceeding snap… letting the football go through his legs… where it is scooped up by a USC player… and returned 80 yards for a TD. Game Over.

    I remember reading where our coaching staff, heading into the bye week before USC that year, decided to give the entire team a full week off, then prepare as they normally would the following week for an upcoming game.

    I thought this was a terrible waste, and poor use of available practice time.

    Sure, you rest your starters, or players who are dinged up, bruised, or winded. But it is also an excellent oppertunity to get some meaningfull reps for your back-ups, second stringers, and freshmen. An excellent oppertunity to get back to basics, address your special teams play, and add a new wrinkle or two.

    ND didn’t do any of those things…. and the ND team, and the ND fans, who deserved better, paid for it.

    I sure hope BK makes better use of his bye week time this go round.

    1. Shaz,
      I like that you brought this up. Look at Kelly’s record in games after bye weeks and you’ll see a team that often comes out flat. They came out flat against Alabama with so much time to prepare.

      Is it over exposure to an oppressive ego centric coach?

      Do the coaches not know how to force speed into the practices if the players lose tempo?

      Thinking Notre Dame has turned a corner is a mistake. Without on the field or locker room leadership, this team is still a bunch of pups looking to the master to tell them when to sit, stay or roll over.

      1. For readers who cherish their own opinions rather than their own facts try these facts.

        Topic: Brian Kelly at ND after Saturdays without a game (that terminology is collegiate, the “bye” week belongs with the NFL)

        2010, after not playing on 11/6/2010

        Notre Dame 28-Utah 3

        2011 after not playing on 10/15

        USC 31-Notre Dame 17

        2012 after not playing on 9/29

        Notre Dame 41-Miami 3

        So, apparently, in bizarro world, the loss to USC, sad though it was, constutes “often (sic) coming out flat”


        If “coming out flat” on 10/19/13 will involve the Trojans mustering only 3 points, well, you sure can throw me in that briar patch!!

      2. Well said, people on here seem to love to throw around opinions as fact.

        Sometimes if you hear something enough you begin to believe it to be true. You always hear people talk about how difficult it is to beat Nick Saban coached teams when you give him a month to prepare. In actuality his bowl record is only 8-6.

        Go Irish!

      3. I’ve heard that Lou never lost a recruit or a game and Ara never won by less than 50.


      4. ….and that Charlie Weis was a genius.

        Although, he did get $18 million for just going away so maybe he was.

      5. You are so right about Ego-centric BK! Never forget he is striving very hard to win the Fashionista award for 2013. His interest is mostly in the field of Extreme Tacky Uniforms and helmets for the team and new styles of male Maternity tops for the Coaches and assistants! No time for teaching his team the basics of football.

    2. Kelly’s already outlined his plans for the bye week, which involve resting some veterans like TJ Jones, Tuitt and Nix, while having a mini-camp for guys like Davis Daniels and a bunch of freshmen Kelly expects to contribute in the 2nd half of the season (I believe Folston, Redfield, Smith, Rochell and Elmer were specifically mentioned).

  10. Agreed JC. Would love nothing more than to repay USC for some of the beatings administered during Willingham’s reign. However, should USC beat Arizona on thursday, they will be fired up… fresh start under new direction …. and be a tough matchup when they visit South Bend.

    Go Irish!

  11. Winning Ugly, Uglier and Ugliest seems to be ND’s Forte. I hope we put a myriad of stylistic points on USC. I want to shut them out like Ara did in 1966 with a real 51-0 shillelagh shellacking!


    1. If there is a year ND could do that it would be this year. However, when ND is 3 and 1 and a long bomb is attempted and unsuccessful over and again, I hope the play calling is better. Control clock, get a running game–a real one–which IS getting better–and put on some points to the tune of 10 or more a quarter. EVERY play does not have to be shotgun. Make no mistake, SC would like to make a statement for their lack of morale–which kiffin is good at doing time after time. The psychology of USC will be interesting as the game goes on. BOTH programs want to make a statement–ND has the upper hand. However, THAT is why we play the game. PLEASE GOD let there be better play calls on offense!

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