Notre Dame Football: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jaylon Smith took in the query and thought to himself for a quick second, for the game in question could not possibly have been so close to the present.

Not after Notre Dame's latest setback Saturday, a 31-28 loss to Louisville. Not after the loss to Northwestern a week earlier, or the loss at Arizona State before that one.

Does the Florida State game, Smith was asked, feel like it was more than a month ago?

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCam McDaniel and the Irish are stumbling to the finish line after another close loss.
"What is it, three losses in a row?" Smith said of the Irish's current predicament. "Man. Yeah. It feels like it's been a long month, month and a half, whatever it's been. But playing against our rival, the score is 0-0, we've just got to find a way to get a victory."

That is what it comes down to now for Notre Dame, a far cry from that fateful final October drive in Tallahassee, then on the brink of 7-0 and upsetting the reigning national champs. Four losses in five games have presented an entirely new scenario as the Irish head to fellow four-loss rival USC for the regular-season finale. Eleven weeks in, and it remains tough to tell just who this team is.

Few saw that 6-0 start coming, especially after the handing down of preseason suspensions that figured to deteriorate an already thin and green defense. That, of course, only makes this past month all the more difficult to digest.

Brian Kelly would not go as far as to say that his club overachieved in the first half of the season, opting to play the game-of-inches card, which is certainly not inaccurate.

"No, I mean, look, we're 10 points from three more wins, right?" the fifth-year Irish coach said. "Florida State, we lose in overtime, and then we miss a field goal here to go to overtime. Very easily, this team could be in a totally different position, so that's college football, you know? They're very close. We needed to make a play here or there, a kick here or there, and it's a totally different look."

Another way to look at it: Who knew the most important fifth-year decision this past offseason would end up being Luke Massa, who decided to call it a football career after four years, one degree and several injuries? A reserve receiver on the official roster but a steady holder for field goals, Massa could have been the difference this year between 7-4 and 9-2, a fact every bit as remarkable to type as it is to read and say out loud.

The Irish were winning earlier this season because of those overlooked intangibles, from former walk-on Joe Schmidt carrying along the defense to the far more measured play of quarterback Everett Golson — a pair of pieces that have had a circular, drowning effect on these Irish lately as Schmidt's injury has decimated the defense and put a bigger onus on the quarterback.

Kelly talked a lot about his team's youth coming into this season, setting the table for a 2015 run, intentionally or not. Perhaps a 6-0 start fast-tracked that, inside the football complex and out of it. But these last three losses have unmasked the vulnerabilities of this young squad, which has plenty of work to do if it wants to even sniff the playoff conversation next year.

"They played with great effort," Kelly said of Saturday's game. "We would have liked to have made a play here or there, and blocked a little bit better, tackled a little bit better. But we got everything out of these guys. Like I said to them after, I mean, we asked them to control two things, and that was their effort and to play with a great attitude, and they certainly did that.

"We've got a lot of inexperienced guys that are trying to get the job done the best they can. I'm really proud of what they did. They played a lot cleaner."

Did anyone watch the Cardinals and Irish play for 60 minutes and not think that the visitors were the better team? That the difference between these two on Saturday ran deeper than a special teams miscue?

Notre Dame has run the emotional gamut of playing such a young team. With next year right around the corner, the Irish need to grow up fast.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame's offense was supposed to protect its young defense this season. Coach Brian Kelly had said as much as far back as the spring, knowing that his Fighting Irish team would be unable to escape locales such as Tallahassee, Florida, without putting points up on the board.

Now? Ten games into the season, and Notre Dame is trying to just get everyone on the same page, eradicate turnovers and get young guys up to speed as the defense gets tasked with doing more and more each week.

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesEverett Golson has 19 turnovers in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is 4-3.
Throw in the special-teams mistakes of recent weeks and you have all the ingredients for a letdown, exactly what happened in Saturday's 43-40 overtime loss to a Northwestern team that entered hanging for dear life onto the possibility of bowl eligibility.

"I expected us to be in a couple of shootouts this year where we would have to overcome offensively," Kelly said. "I just didn't expect to have nine turnovers in the last two weeks because I thought our offense would be able to bail out our defense, and that hasn't been the case. It's pretty clear what our issues are. All our guys know it. Our coaches know what they are. We've just got to go back to work and make sure we clean them up on Saturdays."

That was the case early on. Quarterback Everett Golson, despite his penchant for running with the ball exposed, did not commit a turnover through three games. Through five, Notre Dame's offense scored better than 31 points per contest while giving up just 12.

All of that nearly came unglued in a 50-43 victory over North Carolina, but that still propelled the Irish to 6-0 and into the heart of the College Football Playoff discussion entering the Florida State game.

In retrospect, that tilt with the Seminoles might have been the Irish's best showing. Or maybe that came the week before against the then-struggling Tar Heels? It has become increasingly tough to tell at this point, although UNC's 5-5 record through 10 games has it in the discussion with 5-5 Michigan, 5-5 Stanford and 5-5 Navy as Notre Dame's best win. (Apologies in advance to 6-4 Rice, the only team above .500 the Irish have beaten this season.)

Injuries to upperclassmen such as linebacker Joe Schmidt and safety Austin Collinsworth -- who returned to action Saturday for the first time since the UNC game -- have certainly hurt, forcing too much onto the plates of young players such as Nyles Morgan and Max Redfield, the latter of whom was benched Saturday in favor of Drue Tranquill.

"I feel like it's not an excuse," linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the injuries. "We all are given objectives, assignments during the week. ... It's not like we're slacking in practice. We had a great week of practice, it's just all about executing and putting it all together. Youth definitely plays a huge point, but it's not an excuse."

Turnovers are another matter, with Golson himself giving it away 19 times in his past seven games, during which Notre Dame is just 4-3. Add in the liability of the kicking game now -- Kelly said senior Kyle Brindza's confidence is shaky, a result of the Irish's inability to fix their holding situation recently -- and everyone feels the need to overcompensate.

Around and around it goes, the result as ugly as you can imagine: Per Blue and Gold Illustrated's Lou Somogyi, the unofficial team historian, Notre Dame has given up 211 points during its past five outings, a school record for a five-game stretch, well above the 166 points it gave up in five games to start the 2007 campaign.

"We have to have a great week of practice, and a great week preparing, to make sure the young guys and old guys alike are on the same page so we can get out there and get a stop," Collinsworth said ahead of Saturday's visit from Louisville. "We can't give up 40 points. I don't care what the offense does. We can't give up 40 points."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last year's Arizona State game served as a coming-out party of sorts for Jaylon Smith, as the then-freshman tallied a then-career high nine tackles, forced a fumble and began to resemble the five-star stud Notre Dame had signed out of high school.

Fast-forward to this Saturday's trip to ASU, and the Irish defense could sure use a similar performance from a much-hyped prep linebacker.

Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame's highest-rated recruit from this past cycle, ascends into the starting Mike linebacker role as the No. 10 Irish look to keep their playoff hopes alive and score their second win in as many years against the No. 9 Sun Devils. Ahead of his team's biggest remaining game, Morgan, a former four-star prospect out of Crete-Monee, Illinois, is tasked with manning the most important position on a defense that lost its leader, Joe Schmidt, for the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsWith defensive leader Joe Schmidt lost for the season, Notre Dame will turn to young Nyles Morgan to fill his shoes at middle linebacker.
"Very exciting player," Smith said of Morgan. "Reminds me a lot like myself as a freshman. Really not knowing much but having great athletic traits and really coachable, so he's a great guy."

Schmidt, who suffered a broken left ankle this past weekend against Navy, was somewhat of a traffic cop in the middle of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, signaling in the plays and making sure his 10 teammates were properly aligned. Coaches had referred to him as a unique extension of themselves on the field, and fellow defenders had deemed him indispensable.

But Smith said nothing will be reduced or simplified without Schmidt, as the Irish defense still looks to play on its own terms. Out goes the former walk-on-turned-leader, in comes the ballyhooed-but-green rookie, a trade-off Notre Dame has no choice but to live with as it heads to Tempe.

"Um, maybe athletic traits, or a bit more aggressive as far as God-given," Smith said when asked what Morgan could possibly bring to the table that Schmidt did not. "So you talk about tackle-for-loss and things like that, I guess. But from a communication standpoint, he's definitely far from Joe. So am I. But we'll work together."

Morgan, whom Notre Dame has not made available for interviews this season, will still be charged with making the calls, Smith said. If anything looks askew, Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day will set on correcting matters.

"Everybody's stepped up their communication a lot, especially coming from me and Jaylon and the safeties," said Day, a captain. "Everybody's making sure we understand what's going on when the play is called and everybody's on the same page."

Morgan was ESPN's No. 2 player out of Illinois, its No. 5 inside linebacker recruit nationally and its No. 72 player overall from the class of 2014. He has eight tackles, including one for loss, in limited action this season.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan saw extended playing time in Saturday's 49-39 win against Navy after Schmidt went down in the third quarter, but coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were reduced to one defensive call when faced with Schmidt's absence. The call sheet has thickened with practice time, players said, and distancing themselves from the Midshipmen's triple-option attack is a welcome reprieve.

"It's expanded tremendously," Smith said. "We're back to playing what we call regular football. Navy is a whole different offense, so we're going to be good."

An old sophomore if ever there were one, Smith has started all 21 games through nearly two years at Notre Dame, assuming the starting Dog linebacker role in old coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense last season after starter Danny Spond (hemiplegic migraines) was forced to retire during fall camp. Spond served as a mentor to Smith throughout last season, and Smith said Schmidt can do the same for Morgan and the unit as a whole down the stretch here.

The staff has plenty of faith in Morgan's ability to rise to the occasion.

"He's been unbelievable," Kelly said. "Look, we have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in: 'You're either going to quit or you're going to be one of the best players that's ever played here.'

"Because we're hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more, and that's the kind of kid he is. From Day 1, he's been in there asking questions, learning the defense, watching film. So no, there's not any more (film work), it's just that he's going to be out there now instead of watching, he's going to be playing."
Brian Kelly was talking Sunday about shifting out of the mentality of facing Navy when he mentioned that his players were already thinking on the flight home about getting back to their base defense.

"It was interesting, the last series when they started throwing the ball, we were getting into our base familiar calls, and the guys were obviously teeing off and getting after the quarterback," the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said. "You could see there was a different sense of not relief, but they were getting after the quarterback in a way that they're used to.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsReplacing the leadership of Joe Schmidt, who was lost for the season due to injury, is tall task for Notre Dame's defense.
"It'll be a quick transition and one that, like I had mentioned to you before, we ran some 7-on-7 and did some things to keep our calls active, knowing that it was going to be a quick transition."

It is always a transition out of facing Navy. It is an even bigger transition adjusting a defense that no longer has its most important player.

Joe Schmidt is out for the year following a fractured and dislocated left ankle suffered in the third quarter against the Midshipmen, an injury that completely changes the conversation around these Irish now.

How could they build off their underwhelming initial No. 10 ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee?

How would they respond to a last-second, controversial -- in their minds, at least -- loss to the defending national champs with an extra week off to stew?

How could they handle the triple-option offense of Navy before transitioning to a tough road test at No. 14 Arizona State?

All of that is on the back burner now, giving way to a simpler, much more important question:

Who runs this defense now, and how?

Schmidt's 65 tackles led the team. His ascension from walk-on to starter to irreplaceable part demanded a respect that few others on the roster can match. His knowledge of the game made him the defense's quarterback -- an on-field extension of new coordinator Brian VanGorder, calling checks and assignments before the snap to get the absolute most out of a unit that was already facing a challenge in trotting out seven newcomers this year, himself among them.

"Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped," his father, also named Joe, joked to ESPN.com earlier this season about the unease of watching his son regularly bark orders. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Schmidt had led one of the nation's most surprising units early on, with VanGorder looking like a Broyles Award candidate after his defense surrendered just 12 points per game through Notre Dame's first five contests.

Recent competition level is the source of some recent struggles — the Irish have given up 113 points over their last three contests — but the unit had been, in some part, regressing to the mean.

Now? The Irish turn to freshman Nyles Morgan, their highest-rated recruit from the 2014 class who steps into the starting middle linebacker role that had been filled so well by a guy the Irish had not even offered a scholarship to out of high school.

Ironic, sure. And Morgan is a tremendous talent, to be clear. He played much of the second half Saturday, mostly to uneven returns, but Navy certainly presents its own unique set of challenges.

Still, Morgan has a ways to go. Just ask VanGorder, who offered this summation of the former four-star prospect during the Irish's bye week:

"It's been tough. Again, it's a lot of defense and it's been difficult for him to be able to learn it all, let alone then communicate it all, to everybody. So you know, I'll tell you, he definitely has a real resilience about himself. I'm on him a lot. A lot of coaching pressure on him, and he holds up really well. He doesn't flinch. It's going to happen. It's going to come. It's no different than I had rookie linebackers in the NFL, that first year was like, they were confused, they just couldn't do it. And again, I'm hopeful with him, because of his demeanor, that he'll get it. It'll come. And he's got some really, really outstanding physical traits."

No one will doubt that about the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan. And Notre Dame knows better than to fill his plate ahead of the defense's toughest remaining test this Saturday. Kelly had said after the 49-39 win that the defense went with one call the rest of the game after Schmidt left in the third quarter.

"Jaylon (Smith) is going to have to pick up," Kelly said. "I think the defensive line is going to have to be more assertive in making sure they're taking care of their end of things. I think our safeties. I think everybody is going to have to pick up the slack for the loss of a guy that really did most of the work."

Playoffs? Rankings? No, the questions are far more basic now for Notre Dame. Little else matters unless they figure those answers out, and soon.

Notre Dame prediction: Game 8 at Navy

November, 1, 2014
11/01/14
6:00
PM ET
No. 10 Notre Dame renews its rivalry with Navy at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland. Are we in for another tight contest?

How Notre Dame can win: Everett Golson and the Irish have to avoid turnovers, first and foremost. The longer the Irish hold the ball, the more efficient they can be, the better it is for their defense, which will have its work cut out for it defending Navy. That can be the difference between Notre Dame blowing Navy out -- as it did in 2011 and 2012 -- and finding itself in a tight contest, as it did last year (38-34). Forcing turnovers always makes life easier for Notre Dame against Navy, too. (Notre Dame has forced 15 turnovers this season, tied for 36th nationally.)

How Navy can win: The Midshipmen have been hitting their stride lately, with Keenan Reynolds scoring a rushing touchdown in 14 straight games after last week's 251-yard, three-score performance on the ground. Reynolds needs to run another efficient charge against Notre Dame, as Navy's turnover-less performance gave it a great shot at the upset last season. (A missed extra-point didn't help, either.) It will be interesting to see this Irish defense facing the option in its first year under Brian VanGorder, who said he has not defended the option since going against Georgia Southern in 2004. Still, if the first seven games are any indication, the Irish won't lack for discipline.

Breakout player: Jaylon Smith is the best player on Notre Dame's defense. He hit his stride last season after facing Air Force and Navy back-to-back. Should Notre Dame's defense perform well Saturday, Smith will be a big reason why.

Prediction: Notre Dame 48, Navy 24. Style points? Don't be surprised if the Irish go for some after the initial College Football Playoff rankings had them at No. 10.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt's right-hand-man says the defense wouldn't be the same without him. His father says he wouldn't put a price on his son's dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL's top defensive player when discussing him -- at least in each's recruitment.

"There's a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn't he have more offers?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "So everywhere that I've been, I've recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn't have a lot of offers."

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt's path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt is among Notre Dame's leaders in tackles.
VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as "unusual" in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt's father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt's parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt's father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

" 'Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped,' " the elder Schmidt joked. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe's narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame -- which offered him a preferred walk-on spot -- and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

[+] EnlargeJoe Schmidt
Courtesy of the Schmidt familyJoe Schmidt fell in love with Notre Dame as a kid while visiting his sister, who ran track for the Irish.
"We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all," Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn't look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

" 'My dream is to play at Notre Dame,' " the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. " 'Even if I have success at another school, I don't want to think, 'Could I have done it at Notre Dame?' If I go there and it doesn't work out, at least I gave it my all.'

"My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off."

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC's final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt's been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame's nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt's unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school's internal academic probe. He's been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

"That's my brother, I love him," said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish's leading tackler (31). "Both of us in the middle, it's just all about family and making sure we're on the same page. ... The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn't be there without him."

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt is a former walk-on who worked his way to a scholarship before earning Notre Dame's starting middle linebacker role. He is a coach's dream who never makes one game or snap out to be bigger than it really is.

Yet when Schmidt entered the media room after Notre Dame's 31-0 win over Michigan, the optimist in him was outdone by the sheer absurdity of the goodbye his young and unproven defense had just delivered the Wolverines.

"You want to believe that this is something you can accomplish every time you go on the field," Schmidt said. "And there's still a lot of things we could've done better today, but …"

He paused for three seconds and collected himself with a deep breath.

"Shoot. This is a great feeling right now."

As finales go, this was more Sopranos than Breaking Bad, a much-hyped shootout that turned into a dramatic letdown. Notre Dame didn't just send Michigan back to Ann Arbor with a 1-1 record and a bad taste in its mouth from being on the losing end of these programs' final meeting. No, the Irish flat-out demoralized the Wolverines. They bullied their hapless offensive line, shredded their patchwork secondary and delivered one indignity after another following a week that did nothing but suggest the visitors would be the ones who would enter with chips on their shoulders.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Cody Riggs and Joe Schmidt
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsCody Riggs, right, and Joe Schmidt celebrate one of Notre Dame's three interceptions against Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner.
Michigan had played 365 straight games in which they scored points before Saturday. These Irish met them in a dark alley here in Week 2, and they rendered them rudderless.

"I just got the stat from [SID Michael] Bertsch: 1984 was the last time these guys were shut out?" Schmidt said as he double-checked with reporters. "I think that kind of speaks for itself on how great this feels right now for me and for this defense and for this team."

Michigan left here last time feeling disrespected, with athletic director David Brandon on the receiving end of a cancellation letter from counterpart Jack Swarbrick. The Wolverines had said what Notre Dame did to them was a slap in the face. To add insult to injury, the Irish announced Thursday they would play a future series against Michigan's arch-rival, Ohio State.

What Notre Dame did to Michigan before a sellout crowd under the lights was far more humiliating.

The Wolverines seemingly dared Everett Golson to beat them with his arm. He looked every bit as lethal as he did last week against Conference USA member Rice and completed 23 of 34 passes for 226 yards with three touchdowns.

Michigan's quarterback, Devin Gardner, received help from no one but Devin Funchess, which led coach Brady Hoke to defend why he stuck with his signal caller after Gardner threw three interceptions and lost a third-quarter fumble on a reckless spin move Schmidt saw coming from a mile away.

"Sometimes it just opens up, and as a defensive player, that's the stuff you lay awake at night dreaming of," Schmidt said. "Quarterback's back, ball's right there, you know you can force the fumble."

Gardner's predecessor, Denard Robinson, had tossed four picks and lost one fumble in a 2012 loss to Notre Dame. That was against the No. 2 scoring defense in the country, the catalyst behind an Irish team that went all the way to the BCS title game.

This year's defense started eight new faces from a year ago in its second game under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who himself turned into an overnight internet celebrity for a raucous late-game celebration.

"I would say it really just ceases all the doubts about, We're young, 'Can we execute?'" Jaylon Smith (10 tackles) said.

VanGorder can be forgiven for his excitement, but the best was yet to come.

Whereas Hoke had quipped last year that Notre Dame was chickening-out of this rivalry — a brushfire Michigan threw gasoline on by playing the "Chicken Dance" after its win over Notre Dame in 2013 — Notre Dame fans took matters into their own hands in the closing minutes and started a stadium-wide rendition of "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye."

And that wasn't even the final indignity.

On what looked like it would be the final play of the game, Gardner was picked off one last time by Elijah Shumate, who returned it 61 yards for a touchdown. Michigan personnel had already made their way to the locker room, having escaped the hysteria engulfing Notre Dame Stadium — except the officials ruled Max Redfield had roughed the passer on the return, the touchdown didn't count and the game couldn't end on a defensive penalty. This made for an awkward delay, as the playing grounds cleared and a chunk of the Wolverines' roster made the long walk back through the tunnel and onto the FieldTurf before going right back up after the Irish showed mercy and took a knee.

"We temper it by knowing that we got a long season ahead of us, and it counts as one, it doesn't count as two," said coach Brian Kelly, who tried so hard all week to not give in to the hype. "If it counted as two, we would probably be a little bit happier, but it counts as one.

"But there's no question -- I would be lying if I told you that it doesn't feel great to shut out Michigan 31-0."
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:

Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth

Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson

Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC

[+] EnlargeEverett Golson
AP Photo/Joe RaymondEverett Golson returns as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame after missing all of the past season due to issues related to academics.
Projected win percentage (from Stats & Info): 0.538 (pre-suspensions)

Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)

Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.

High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.

Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.

Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)

Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.

They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe

Fighting Irish morning links

August, 13, 2014
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BVG speaking to us today. What do you guys want to hear?

Irish lunch links

August, 7, 2014
8/07/14
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I'll take Rory again this weekend. You?

Sheldon Day slims down, speaks up

August, 7, 2014
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CULVER, Ind. -- Has there been a more valuable offseason tool for Notre Dame than the grouptext?

NFL draft pick TJ Jones has mentioned it as a way of keeping in touch with current Irish receivers. Jaylon Smith said in the spring that linebackers past and present kept the conversation going the same way following the 2013 season.

Sure enough this spring, with media members and fans at seemingly every turn asking how the defensive line would replace a pair of NFL draft picks from a season ago, a new position group caught on to the fad.

[+] EnlargeSheldon Day
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDefensive end Sheldon Day, 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, has dropped weight since last season and is excited to focus more on rushing the passer.
Junior Sheldon Day led the charge. The only returning starter to what had been the backbone of Notre Dame's defense in recent years had heard enough questions about losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. Enough that he became fed up, challenging his fellow linemen this offseason.

"I feel like it was the media saying we’re the weak link of this year’s defense -- 'What is the D-line going to do?' And all of this," Day said. "I took it upon myself that I’ve never been that guy where I’m part of the weak link. I refuse to be a part of that. I just kind of reached out to them and said, ‘Do you guys want to be viewed like this? If not, then we need to do this, this, this and this.'"

The early returns have pleased Brian Kelly thus far.

"Our defensive line is a 180 in terms of where they are this year compared to last year, as how they work as a group," the fifth-year Irish coach said. "They have been outstanding and that's led by Sheldon Day. Sheldon Day has been a great leader for us with that group."

Day's emergence as a leader is surprising if for no other reason than his personality, like that of most others, was minimized by the larger-than-life Nix, who went to Houston in the third round of the NFL draft in May. Day laughed when asked if he was just waiting for the nose guard to leave town before showing his true colors.

"It’s not that I was waiting for him to get out of here; I feel like I was just waiting my time," Day said. "Sometimes it’s not appropriate for you to talk if you’re not the older guy or the leader of the D-line."

There is little doubt who leads the unit now, as Day has played 24 games over two seasons, having started during a sophomore campaign that saw him notch 5.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pounder enjoys the simplified approach of moving inside in new coordinator Brian VanGorder's 4-3 front, saying that the defensive linemen get off the ball quicker rather than catching the offensive linemen. To do that, Day dropped five pounds, subbing honey buns and other sugars for high-protein meats and greens.

Of the sacrifice of honey buns, he cracked: "I walk past a Sam’s Club and it hurts my heart."

A pain well worth it, however, in the name of getting a better burst toward the quarterback.

"It was a mutual agreement. I felt like last year I had to gain all that weight to hold the O-linemen and set up the linebackers," Day said. "This year as I’m coming off the ball, I have to be quicker, more explosive. I met with our nutritionist and she helped me come up with a plan and I’ve been following it."

#CFBrank: Smith at No. 91

July, 29, 2014
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ESPN.com takes on the task this week of ranking the top 100 players throughout college football. Notre Dame fans will be happy to see a familiar face at No. 91, as rising sophomore Jaylon Smith ties for that spot as one of the premier players in the nation.
The former five-star prospect enters his sophomore campaign as the Irish's leading returning tackler. Having moved from the outside to the inside this past spring, Smith figures to rarely come off the field, welcoming a heavier workload as the QB of the defense.

As for how we arrived to that conclusion, along with our other 99 findings, colleague Heather Dinich does a nice job here of explaining the process of sorting this list out.

As always, your thoughts are welcome on the matter, be it in the mailbag or on Twitter. Be sure to use the hashtag #CFBRank when staking your claim.

Irish lunch links: Criminoles?

July, 10, 2014
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At this point, there is probably a small fortune to be made in the creative T-shirt game when it comes to sports. Notre Dame fans are no strangers to this, as phrases such as "Catholics vs. Convicts" are still used regularly to describe past matchups. (Meanwhile others, such as "Catholics vs. Cousins," failed to really take off.)

Could we have a new slogan on our hands in 2014? Some fans seem to think so.

A T-shirt with the phrase "Catholics vs. Criminoles" has surfaced this offseason, in anticipation of the Irish's Oct. 18 matchup at Florida State. These are two of the most storied programs in college football history, and, of course, Seminoles quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston has faced no shortage of scrutiny for off-the-field issues, the most recent being his theft of crab legs.

The shirt does touch on that, showing a picture of a crab next to the name "Criminoles." (There is a leprechaun doing the Heisman pose next to "Catholics.")

If Notre Dame can go into Tallahassee in three months and come out victorious, perhaps we'll see this headline take off. The teams will, after all, play each other more regularly now -- roughly every three years -- with Notre Dame's ACC affiliation. But if the game proves to be unremarkable, I doubt we'll even remember this shirt, much like the many Notre Dame/Alabama shirts that surfaced before the 2013 BCS title game.

On to the rest of the links ...
Will Mahone is no longer enrolled at Notre Dame, but the South Bend Tribune's Bob Wieneke reports that the receiver would like to return to the school, quoting Mahone's attorney, James Gentile, as saying that Mahone believes he is not allowed to go back to Notre Dame as long as felony charges against him are pending.
“That’s what the school has told him,” Gentile said. “If for some reason those felonies are reduced or something happens, then he’s free to reapply.”

The report says that Mahone was in Mahoning County Court for a pre-trial hearing Monday at which a July 23 preliminary hearing was set. Mahone entered not guilty pleas on the misdemeanor charges against him, and he is not required to enter a plea on the felony charges until after the preliminary hearing.
“He’s working hard. He’s doing a lot of things to straighten himself out. He’s working hard on himself right now,” Gentile said. “He’s trying to understand what happened here and why it happened and maybe address some of the issues. That’s what he’s trying to do.”

As for the rest of your Irish links ...

Irish lunch links

June, 26, 2014
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Not sure which tweet I like more: Hulk Hogan's or Jurgen Klinsmann's.

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