It was 1958 when Army last defeated the storied college football program that is Notre Dame. The Irish went on to win the next 14 meetings. However, this season’s Shamrock Series matchup features two different Army and Notre Dame programs. The Black Knights possess the second best rushing offense in the nation accumulating a total of 29 touchdowns. Army has depth in the backfield. Andy Davidson and Darnell Woolfolk are the primary running backs, though Davidson has been utilized more as a blocker. Coach Jeff Monken also likes freshman back Kell Walker, who scored his first TD in last week’s loss to Air Force. If Army wins against Notre Dame and their next game against Football Championship Subdivision Morgan State on Nov. 19, then the Black Knights will be bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Notre Dame has underperformed this season which is apparent with their 3-6 record. Navy defeated them last week in a close 28-27 game at Annapolis. Notre Dame’s passing offense, ranked 38th nationally, is much better than their rushing offense. Quarterback DeShone Kizer threw for three touchdowns and 223 yards against the Midshipmen last week.
To understand the Irish better, we talked to Pat Sullivan of One Foot Down.
1. Notre Dame has gone from a team that played in the Fiesta Bowl and finished #8 in the AP Top 25 Poll last season, to a 3-6, mediocre team that lost to Navy this season. What has been the cause for this downward trend?
It's hard to say for sure, but I'd pin the blame on two things:
Notre Dame lost a huge amount of talent to the NFL/graduation/attrition after last season. To recap who was lost from last year's team: top two wide receivers, starting running back, starting left tackle, starting center, starting right guard, a starting defensive end, a starting defensive tackle, 2/3 starting linebackers, a starting corner, and two starting safeties. Of that group, two were first round picks (LT Ronnie Stanley and WR Will Fuller), two were second round picks (C Nick Martin and LB Jaylon Smith, whose loss was really that of a first round, top-3 overall pick talent but he fell in the draft due to blowing out his knee in the Fiesta Bowl), two were third round picks (RB CJ Prosise and CB Keivarae Russell), and one was a fourth round pick (DL Sheldon Day).
A few of the undrafted guys made NFL rosters as well, starting RG Steve Elmer gave up football to pursue a career in politics, WR Corey Robinson gave up football due to concussions, and safety Max Redfield was kicked off the team for the gun/marijuana incident in August. That's a ton of talent to replace, even if you have solid youth waiting in the wings. ND isn't Alabama, and thus does not have the ability to reload at every position.
2) Despite what I just said above, I still think good coaches can take inexperienced teams and succeed. But Notre Dame isn't doing that. The coaching by Brian Kelly and his staff have been poor this season. Kelly mismanaged the QB competition by refusing to name Kizer the starter in camp and having the QBs alternate series against Texas, which did not go well. He kept defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder around for another season, and the Irish played miserable defense for the first 4 games of the season (and only marginally better afterward) before VanGorder was finally fired, a year too late.
ND made terrible play call choices against Michigan State and then followed up that loss by losing to Duke at home. Oh, and then there's the NC State game, where Kelly and co. refused to run the ball and instead threw it 26 times in hurricane conditions. The offensive line can't run block despite massive hype and recruiting rankings, and the defense still can't get a real pass rush or consistently wrap up ball carriers. Plain and simple, this Notre Dame team looks unprepared almost every game, and that all comes back to coaching, in my opinion.
2. DeShone Kizer was first put in last season because of the injury to Malik Zaire during the middle of the season. How has Kizer taken control of the Irish offense and improved their passing game?
DeShone Kizer has all of the tools you want in a modern-day quarterback. He's got great size at 6'4.5" and 230 pounds, and an absolute cannon for an arm that enables him to make all of the throws. He's also a very talented runner, with solid strength and great speed for someone his size.
With that said, he hasn't been exceptional by any means this season. Early on, it looked like he was trying to do too much as he carried the Irish offense without any run support. Then, as the year wore on, he settled in and looked fine, but still has had some trouble with accuracy and hasn't been as consistent as fans would like.
Overall, though, Kizer is a great QB and absolutely improved the passing game. He's simply a better QB than Malik Zaire and the team is better off with him taking snaps than they would be with anyone else on the roster right now (well, until maybe Brandon Wimbush is ready to take the throne). Kizer is a strong, vocal leader and has absolutely taken control of the offense, but if he can play more consistent football, he will really be a force to be reckoned with.
3. This season is Coach Brian Kelly's first season at 3-6. Prior to this, he led Notre Dame to the BCS Championship game in 2012. The Irish also appeared in five other bowls. Is Notre Dame considering replacements for Coach Kelly despite that this is his first losing season?
I don't know for sure if ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick is actively pursuing replacements for Kelly, but I do believe he should be doing so.
Saying that Kelly has brought ND to a championship and 5 other bowls completely misrepresents what the team has actually accomplished under him. Those 5 other bowls include a Pinstripe Bowl win over Rutgers, a Music City Bowl win over a down LSU team, a Sun Bowl win over a bad Miami team, a Champs Sports Bowl loss to a mediocre Florida State team, and last year's humiliation in the Fiesta Bowl at the hands of Urban Meyer and Ohio State.
Besides the Fiesta Bowl, which ND was not competitive in, none of those bowls are anything to be excited about, especially at a school that should be competing every year for a playoff spot. Kelly has now lost at least 5 games in 4 out of his 7 seasons, and has lost at least 4 games in 5 out of 7. His 2012 championship team was brutally eviscerated by Eddie Lacy and co. in the title game, and he's managed to lose to the following teams over his 7 years in South Bend: Tulsa, South Florida, Duke, Northwestern, Navy (twice), NC State.
That's simply not acceptable for a blue blood program like Notre Dame, and so I really, sincerely hope that Swarbrick is working hard right now to find the Irish a better coach that can take this program to the next level, as Kelly has improved the program but has absolutely hit his ceiling.
4. Who are some key players on the Irish defense that could disrupt Army's triple-option? How has Notre Dame's defensive players adjusted to the firing of Brian VanGorder, who was fired after a 1-3 start?
First and foremost, Army needs to watch out for LB Nyles Morgan. He's a junior and the most talented player on the Irish defense - he's big, fast, and athletic and will be all over the field on Saturday. LB Greer Martini is another one to keep an eye on, as he returned from injury to tie Morgan for the lead in tackles against Navy with 11. He's not quite as athletic as Morgan, but he's got great instincts and is a sure tackler and always seems to know where to be.
LB James Onwualu and DL Isaac Rochell are also solid players and senior captains who will be on the field a lot and using their athleticism and strength to wreak havoc in the Army backfield. Finally, CB Julian Love is a true freshman who earned the starting role opposite senior CB Cole Luke mid-season, and looked fantastic against Navy in how he played the option from the corner spot. He will likely be another critical cog in the ND defensive machine on Saturday.
5. Is Notre Dame considering joining a conference anytime soon? The Big 12 is looking to expand.
Absolutely not. Notre Dame simply has no reason to do so, as they make more money from their NBC contract and being independent than they would from existing within a conference. Furthermore, their independence allows them to play a truly national schedule, which is key for recruiting and building a strength of schedule that can rival the schedules of big players within the various conferences.
Also, if ND were to ever need to join a conference, I'd imagine the ACC is the likely landing place considering all of the other ND sports teams are members already and ND football already has a 5-game-per-year agreement with the conference.
6. Which players are currently being scouted by the NFL? Where do Notre Dame's players stand in terms of early mock drafts?
There are a quite a few ND players who will be in the NFL in 2017 or 2018. DeShone Kizer is the first one on everyone's minds, as some mock drafts have him going in the top 3 of the 2017 draft if he decides to go pro. LT Mike McGlinchey and LG Quenton Nelson are both future first round picks, but it sounds like they both will want to return for the 2017 season and then go pro in 2018. CB Cole Luke and DL Isaac Rochell will definitely be drafted in the middle rounds, and will be solid depth for an NFL team, if not more depending on how they develop in the pros.
DT Jarron Jones has all of the physical tools to be an NFL DT, but there are questions about consistency that could hold him back and maybe prevent him from being drafted. Nyles Morgan will absolutely play in the NFL and will likely be picked in the first few rounds, but still probably needs another year in college considering this is his first full year starting.
As for underclassmen who look destined for the NFL one day, watch out for WRs Equanimeous St. Brown and Chase Claypool, CBs Donte Vaughn and Julian Love, and RBs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams.
7. Is Kizer a better passer or is he better at option plays?
Definitely a better passer. He runs the read-option well and has made ND fans forget that everyone thought Malik Zaire was definitely better than him at running the ball, but he's a passer first and foremost and his arm is easily his greatest asset.
8. How has the new freshman class of 2020 looked so far this season?
On defense, the class has really had a chance to step up and earn time and they've looked very promising. Safety Devin Studstill has basically started since day one because of Redfield's arrest, and he has been joined by fellow freshmen Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, and Troy Pride Jr., who all were called upon to help at cornerback and who all have looked very good for true freshmen. Defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara have seen some time and provide more speed and athleticism in an abysmal pass rush, but still look a ways off from being big-time players.
On offense, WR Kevin Stepherson has been a major contributor, especially in using his speed to go vertical and open up the offense. Besides him, though, the offense has mostly been ruled by sophomores and juniors, although frosh WR Chase Claypool has shown flashes of his immense potential considering his size and athleticism.
9. Which position matchup intrigues you the most?
It has to be Army's defensive line against Notre Dame's offensive line. ND's offensive line has talent and size and strength and should have a major advantage against the military academies and their lack of bulk up front. But they have been unable to get much of a push all season, and that was true last week against Navy as well. I'm interested to see if they can actually put it all together and dominate an opponent that they should dominate, or if Army's stingy run defense will shut down Josh Adams, Tarean Folston, and Dexter Williams as they try to establish some semblance of a running game.
10. Prediction time! What is your score prediction? How will the team come out on top?
I think Notre Dame wins this one, but it will be much closer than Irish fans could have possibly imagined at the beginning of the season. I think DeShone Kizer carries the load for the offense and looks more polished than he's looked all year, torching the Army secondary for a few TDs and maybe running for another. The ND defense will struggle again to keep a triple option offense off of the field, but they will get a couple stops thanks to Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini and the offense will capitalize with touchdowns to ultimately win this one 34-26.
11. Any other information we should know about Notre Dame?
1) This is the Shamrock Series game, so ND will be wearing these interesting uniforms.
2) If Army beats ND, they will likely have sentenced the Irish to the same 3-9 record that was the beginning of the end for Charlie Weis in 20073) It's been a long season for us.
Special thanks to Peter Sullivan for taking the time to answer questions about Notre Dame. I encourage you to follow One Foot Down for all news leading up to Saturday’s matchup.