Monday, May 4, 2015

My Thoughts on the White Sox' Horrific Start

After taking two games from the Kansas City Royals just over a week ago to improve to 8-9 on the season, the Chicago White Sox seemed to have rebounded from an 0-4 start to the season. However, things have officially hit rock bottom after being swept away by a mediocre Minnesota Twins team this past weekend to culminate a miserable 0-5 record last week. The White Sox are back in Chicago to open up a three-game series versus the division leading Detroit Tigers, and the season is already in jeopardy. After a flurry of promising offseason acquisitions, why are the White Sox this bad?

The White Sox can't hit, pitch, field, or run the bases, so there aren't many positives through the first 22 games. The White Sox rank 11th in the American League in batting average, dead last in home runs, RBI, runs scored, and stolen bases. In other words, this is the worst offense in the American League to date. The White Sox also rank 12th in ERA and WHIP, and are currently dead last in opponents batting average. The good news is that those numbers can't get much worse, but will they get better?

Yes, but it remains to be seen by how much.

Among the everyday players, Jose Abreu is probably the only one producing numbers close to what is expected. Leadoff man Adam Eaton is batting just .192. Melky Cabrera is homer-less and on pace for about 45 RBI. Avisail Garcia is batting .342, but is on pace for about 7 home runs and 45 RBI, Adam LaRoche is hitting just .211 and on pace for only about 65 RBI. Conor Gillaspie, Alexei Ramirez,Tyler Flowers, and Micah Johnson are collectively hitting around .215 with just one home run and 21 RBI. The White Sox offense is off to a historically bad start, but I'm still betting on them heating up and producing close to what is expected. Unfortunately, if it doesn't turn around immediately, it could be too late to make a difference in the standings.

The starting rotation had mixed expectations with Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana projected to be one of the more formidable threesomes in baseball. Obviously, there were concerns with the back end of the rotation with John Danks and Hector Noesi, but the thought was that the top three would be good enough to make up for it. After 22 games, that has not been the case as each member of the rotation is hovering around or above the 5.00 ERA mark. I don't have much hope for Danks or Noesi to turn it around, and strongly believe that Carlos Rodon should and will replace one of them (probably Noesi) by the end of the month. That move should help strengthen the depth of the rotation, but Sale, Samardzija, and Quintana need to be more consistent. Sale's ERA is skewed by one bad start, but he hasn't been dominant yet. Samardzija and Quintana both have had 3 good starts and two bad starts which has not allowed them to get on a roll yet. I still believe in the top three and Rodon should help, but time is running out if the White Sox have intentions on contending this season.

If this team is going to start winning more consistently, they need to start playing better defensively and being smarter on the basepaths. I'm not sure what else can be done to improve this, other than just executing better. This team isn't full of rookies. This are mostly veterans and they should understand the fundamentals of baseball. It can't be taught to them at this point.

The one positive with this team might be the bullpen. David Robertson, Zach Duke, Dan Jennings, and Matt Albers have been terrific, but Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka have struggled out of the gate. Based on their performances last year, I expect Putnam and Petricka to be much better going forward, and honestly believe that the bullpen will be a strength for this team. The question is, how many leads will they be asked to protect?

As far as the whole "fire Robin Ventura" thing goes, I'm not sure how much that will help. Robin Ventura isn't the reason veteran players are struggling. However, I can't argue with the decision if the White Sox decide to let him go just to shake things up. This team's performance is simply unacceptable and it needs to get better somehow, someway.

Lastly, I have decided to stop blogging for I no longer have the time necessary to post multiple blogs a week. Going forward I will continue to blog here from time to time, but most of my thoughts on the White Sox will be shared via Twitter. Be sure to follow me @etichel07.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Monday, March 2, 2015

White Sox: Three Things to Watch this Spring

With the Chicago White Sox set to begin Cactus League play on Wednesday when they take on the Los Angeles Dodgers, it is time to look at three storylines to watch as Spring Training unfolds.

1) The battle for second base. The only everyday position up for grabs this spring is at second base. Youngsters Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez are the leading candidates, but veteran Gordon Beckham will compete for the job as well. At this point, I’d say that Beckham’s chances of landing the starting gig are extremely low, but you never know if Johnson and Sanchez both struggle. It is no secret that the White Sox would love to see Micah Johnson win the job this spring with his offensive potential, but he must also prove to be above-average in the field. Johnson brings elite speed and athleticism to the lineup, and could he hit at the top of the order in the future.  During his three seasons in the minors, Johnson has shown promise with a career .297 average, .366 on-base percentage, and 125 stolen bases. If the White Sox aren’t convinced Johnson is ready yet defensively (career .958 fielding percentage), then they will likely turn to Carlos Sanchez to begin the year. Sanchez provides solid defense with a career .973 fielding percentage in the minors, and he committed just one error in 28 games last season with the White Sox. While Sanchez is considered the batter fielder, his offensive ceiling is not nearly as high as Johnson’s. Sanchez owns a career .284 average and .353 on-base percentage with 74 stolen bases in 6 seasons, which suggests he’s more of a .260 to .270 hitter with the ability to add about 15-20 steals across a full season. Either way, it would be nice to get more speed and athleticism out of the position than the White Sox have had the past several season.

2) Carlos Rodon. The White Sox selected left-handed pitcher Carlos Rodon with the 3rd overall selection in last year’s draft with the expectation that he could reach the majors quickly. Rodon will prepare to be a starter this spring and he is now slated for more starts while Chris Sale is sidelined the next three weeks. It will be interesting to see how well Rodon performs and if he forces the White Sox to let him start a game or two during the first two weeks of the regular season before Sale is ready to return. Rodon pitched a combined 123 innings between college and the minor leagues, so I would expect him to be limited to a maximum of 150-160 innings. My gut feeling is that Rodon will spend the bulk of the 2015 season working out of the bullpen, but he should see some starts as well. Assuming the White Sox are in contention around the All-Star break, don’t be surprised to see Rodon sent down to the minors to be stretched out as a starter for the final two months of the season.

3) Bullpen Roles. The additions of closer David Robertson and left-handed reliever Zach Duke should solidify the back-end of the bullpen, but there are still 2-3 holes that need to be filled. Zach Putnam and Jack Petricka had solid rookie seasons and should be reliable mid-to-late inning options once again, but the White Sox need more than four quality arms in the bullpen to be legitimate contenders. Prior to last season, I was pretty bullish on Daniel Webb by predicting that he would lead the team in saves, but control issues (42 walks in 67.2 innings) limited his success. Webb did finish 2014 with a 3.99 ERA, but a 1.49 WHIP shows that he needs to have better command to reach that next level. Francellis Montas is the player to watch and could be the wildcard in the bullpen. Montas was acquired from Boston in the Jake Peavy deal, and he has been a starter in his minor league career. Last season, Montas shined with 1.44 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 80 strikeouts in 81 innings across 15 starts, but many scouts believe his future is in the bullpen with a two-pitch arsenal that features a fastball that can top 100-mph. The White Sox feel that Montas can be a starter in the majors, but the need for another power arm out of the bullpen might force the White Sox to hold off those plans for another season or two. If Webb and Montas can reach their full potential and make the type of impact I believe they can, then the White Sox could have a dominant bullpen in 2015.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Should White Sox Fans Be Optimistic in 2015?

After a disappointing 2014 season that resulted in a 73-89 record for the Chicago White Sox, many fans were eager to see what changes would be made in the offseason.  Having said that, the flurry of moves made by general manager Rick Hahn were not expected even by the most optimistic White Sox fans. The White Sox had several holes entering the offseason, and Hahn was able fill as many as he possibly could, considering the organization’s budget and resources. The White Sox added a proven, power-hitting left handed bat in Adam LaRoche, the top closer in free agency in David Robertson, an ideal two-hole hitter in Melky Cabrera, a legitimate number two right-handed starter in Jeff Samardzija, and a quality left-handed reliever in Zach Duke. Those five impact transactions added to an already improved roster in 2014, have many White Sox fans dreaming about the postseason again. But, should they be that optimistic heading into 2015?

To reach the playoffs in 2015, the White Sox would likely need a 15-20 win improvement to either win the American League Central Division, or secure one of the two wild card spots. While the White Sox seem destined to be drastically improved in 2015, I’m not yet convinced that they are prepared to make that big of a leap in the win column. Yes, Rick Hahn and company have filled many of the team’s needs this offseason, but there are still several question marks that have me concerned.

1. This team does not have a starting second baseman. Prospects Micah Johnson, Carlos Sanchez and veteran Gordon Beckham are expected to compete for the job this spring, but none are clear favorites at this point. While the second baseman will likely bat 8th or 9th in this year’s lineup, the White Sox still need someone to provide some sort of offense at the position.

2. The back-end of the starting rotation is worrisome. Chris Sale, Jeff Samardzija, and Jose Quintana give the White Sox one of the more formidable threesomes in the American League, but they need more than that to reach the playoffs. Veterans John Danks and Hector Noesi both had ERAs over 4.70 in 2014, but they did provide some stability by eating up valuable innings.  If either Danks or Noesi can’t get the job done, then top-prospect Carlos Rodon may be called upon to provide the depth needed to reach the postseason. In my opinion, the White Sox need their fourth and fifth starters to post ERAs closer to the 4.00-4.20 range if they want to be serious contenders. At this point, I’m not convinced that either Danks or Noesi are capable of doing that.

3. The White Sox failed to upgrade at catcher and third base. Conor Gillaspie has been a fine player since joining the White Sox prior to the 2013 season, but he doesn’t put up the type of numbers you’d expect for a starting third baseman. Gillaspie does provide a decent batting average and on-base percentage, but his lack of power is a real concern at a corner infield position. Tyler Flowers is considered an above-average defensive catcher by his teammates for his ability to call a good game, but is inconsistencies at the plate can’t be ignored. Flowers got hot at certain points in the season to finish with decent numbers, but he has been an offensive liability and “automatic out” more times than not during his career to date.

4. The bullpen seems improved, but will that be good enough? Adding David Robertson should do wonders for the White Sox bullpen as he has been one of the most consistent relievers over the last five seasons. Zach Duke is coming off of a career year with the Milwaukee Brewers, but can he sustain that success considering it was his first quality season as a reliever? Both Zach Putnam and Jake Petricka made great strides in their rookie seasons pitching in late-inning situations, so hopefully they will continue to progress now that they will be pitching in less-pressure situations. But, outside of that, I’m not overly excited about the bullpen. The White Sox will need another quality arm or two to reach the playoffs, and it remains to be seen if that player exists on the current roster. It is possible that one or more could emerge out of intriguing group of young arms that includes Daniel Webb, Francellis Montas, Javy Guerra, or even Carlos Rodon, but I’m not sold on the bullpen until that happens.

5. My final concern surrounds the durability of Adam Eaton and the development of Avisail Garcia. It is hard to pick a team to reach the playoffs when they have question marks with their leadoff hitter and a player expected to hitter in the heart of the order (likely fifth), and that’s where the White Sox stand right now. Adam Eaton was a terrific player and provided some spark to the offense when he was completely healthy, but his reckless style of play forced him to miss nearly 40 games last season. The White Sox need to have Eaton in the lineup more often than that to have a consistent and balanced offense throughout the season. Avisail Garcia’s suffered a fluke injury last season that resulted in him only playing 46 games, thus delaying his development. Although Garcia has shown some promise in limited play, I have no idea what to expect from him if he plays 150-plus games. If both Eaton and Garcia play 150-plus games and reach their full potential, then the White Sox offense should be good enough to compete with the top teams in the American League.
Overall, the White Sox seem to be vastly improved heading into 2015, but I’m not sure they are ready to make the 15-2 jump in the win column that would be required to make the playoffs. As it stands right now, I would place the White Sox in the 83-85 wins range, which would likely leave them outside of the playoff picture. However, if certain players can take a step forward and eliminate the remaining holes and question marks this team has, it would not shock me to see the White Sox approach or even exceed 90 wins. We’ll see how it all plays out, but either way, I’m excited to see this team take the field and compete in 2015.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Monday, January 5, 2015

Final Thoughts on Notre Dame's 2014 Season

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame wrapped up the 2014 season last Tuesday with a thrilling 31-28 victory over the 23rd ranked LSU Tigers in the Music City Bowl. As expected, Malik Zaire and Everett Golson spilt the quarterback duties with Zaire getting the bulk of the snaps. Both quarterbacks played well with Zaire running the read option and the short passing game, while Golson was called on in obvious passing situations, particularly on the final drive to set-up the game winning field goal attempt. Although Zaire came away with the game’s MVP honors, the biggest story of the day was the performance of Notre Dame’s offensive line. The Irish offensive line practically dominated the line of scrimmage against the talented LSU front seven, allowing Notre Dame to control the ball and the pace of the game. That style of play kept the Irish defense off the field which was a key to winning the game given LSU’s big play potential. Even though the Irish defense struggled at times, they came up with enough big stops late in the game that gave the offense a chance to win. All things considered, it was an impressive performance for the Irish, and one that could lead to more success in 2015.

As we head into the offseason and then spring practices, there are a few comments I would like to make regarding the 2014 season and the upcoming 2015 season.

1) 2014 was a disappointing year for Notre Dame. While many experts predicted the Irish to only win 7 or 8 games, I firmly believed this team was capable of winning 9-plus games. Injuries did play a role in the team’s demise at the end of the season, but they still could have reached the nine win mark if they didn’t shoot themselves in the foot several times. Ultimately, this team was better than the 7-5 record would indicate, but they were not as good as we all thought after the 6-0 start.

2) It is way too early to make a decision on who the starting quarterback should be in 2015, but it would be hard to argue against Malik Zaire at this point. Everett Golson has shown glimpses of being great, but his careless play led to way too many turnovers that proved to be devastating to the team’s success. Regardless of who the starting quarterback is, the Music City Bowl was a perfect blueprint as to how the Irish should be playing in 2015. If Notre Dame can limit the turnovers, control the line of scrimmage, and run the football effectively, then this team can be dangerous.

3) The defense should improve in 2015. Notre Dame’s defense was playing well during the first half of the season, but the injuries added up, forcing the Irish to play too many freshman. That formula may have hurt the Irish in 2014, but it should pay dividends next season with so many young players gaining valuable experience. Then when you add in the return of captain Joe Schmidt, the Irish defense should be a much stronger unit next season.

4) 2015 is a big year for Brian Kelly and the Irish. After enjoying a strong 12-0 season in 2012, the Irish have struggled the past two seasons with a combined 15 regular season wins. Simply put, Brian Kelly was not brought here to win eight games a season. With so many young players gaining experience last season, and the vast majority of the starters returning, the Irish have no excuses in 2015. It might be too early to predict a win total because we don’t know what the exact depth chart and what the strength of the schedule will look like, but another eight win season should put Kelly on the hot-seat. The Irish certainly have some tough games on the 2015 schedule in Clemson, Stanford, USC, and Georgia Tech, but it is time to start putting together consecutive 10-plus win seasons if this program really wants to get back into national prominence.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Monday, December 29, 2014

Music City Bowl Preview: Notre Dame vs. LSU

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame will try to snap a four-game losing streak when they square off against the LSU Tigers in the Music City Bowl tomorrow afternoon. Both programs are in a less desirable bowl game after having disappointing seasons, so it’ll be interesting to see just how motivated either team is to win. With plenty of youth on both sides, this game could be an opportunity to gain some confidence and leave them optimistic heading into the 2015 season.

As you all know, starting quarterback Everett Golson was pulled during the season finale and replaced by redshirt freshman Malik Zaire. Shortly after the embarrassing loss to USC, head coach Brian Kelly stated that both Golson and Zaire would play against LSU. Earlier today, we found out that Zaire will be the “starting quarterback”. Normally, I hate having a “two-quarterback” offense, but this is one situation where I don’t mind it. While I will be rooting for Notre Dame to win as much as anyone else, it is not as necessary to win a bowl game like it would be if Notre Dame was 6-0 in the middle of October. Because Notre Dame is facing such a tough defense in LSU, I’m looking forward to seeing which quarterback will play better in a hostile situation. Probably the biggest thing to take away from this decision is that the quarterback competition will continue throughout spring and summer practices. As for tomorrow, if Notre Dame is going to win the game, they will have to play mistake-free football. The Irish might be able to withstand the impact of committing one turnover, but if they keep giving the ball away to LSU, this game will turn into a route. LSU owns the third ranked scoring defense at 16.4 points per game, so every possession will be crucial to Notre Dame’s success on offense. While the Irish have had success moving the football all season long, tomorrow will likely be their toughest test as the Tigers are allowing just 305.8 yards of total offense per game. Notre Dame’s biggest strength is the passing game which ranks 16th at 293.8 yards per game, but LSU is fourth best team in terms of passing yards allowed at 162.3 yards per game and first in defensive passing efficiency. In other words, the Irish will need to be able to run the ball to have a chance in this game. The Irish rank just 84th in rushing offense at 150.8 yards per game, but Tarean Folston came on strong during the second half the season, and Greg Bryant showcased his explosive ability in the season finale. With two talent running backs and the mobility of both Golson and Zaire from the quarterback position, the Irish have plenty of options to attack an LSU run defense that is good, but not elite.

For Notre Dame’s defense, the number one priority will be stopping the run. LSU owns the 29th ranked rushing offense at 219.5 yards per game, but a 116th ranked passing offense suggests that they are extremely one-dimensional. Anthony Jennings leads the LSU offense, but the sophomore quarterback has only thrown for 1,460 yards, ten touchdowns, and seven interceptions while completing just 48.8 percent of his passes. Given that, the Tigers will likely lean heavily on their rushing attack that is led by Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee, and Kenny Hilliard who all average over five yards per carry. If you’ve watched Notre Dame during the second half of the season, you know that they struggled mightily to stop the running game after losing middle linebacker Joe Schmidt and defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones. Schmidt and Jones will not play tomorrow, but the Irish should get a boost up the middle with the return of Sheldon Day. True freshman Nyles Morgan replaced senior and team captain Joe Schmidt at middle linebacker, but the youngster struggled at times due to lack of experience. I’m intrigued to see how Morgan will play after nearly a month off and three weeks of additional practices. I would imagine that Morgan has a much better grasp of the defense and should do a better job of calling plays and lining up his teammates correctly. If Day and Morgan can make a big impact in the middle to slow down the Tigers’ running game, then Notre Dame has a chance to hang with LSU’s offense because I don’t expect much from their passing game.

Notre Dame will play better on defense then they have recently, but Leonard Fournette and company will be too hard to shut down and too much for the Irish offense to keep up with.

Prediction: LSU 30, Notre Dame 20

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

White Sox Acquire Samardzija; Sign Robertson

The Chicago White Sox took a huge step towards contending in 2015 by acquiring right-handed starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija and closer David Robertson on the first day of the winter meetings.

To land Samardzija and pitching prospect Michael Ynoa, the White Sox sent infielder Marcus Semien, pitcher Chris Bassitt, catcher Josh Phegley, and first baseman Rangel Ravelo to the Oakland Athletics. While Samardzija only has one year remaining on his contract before he becomes a free-agent, this is a good trade considering the White Sox did not have to surrender any of their top prospects to get a top-tier starting pitcher. Samardzija will likely slide nicely between lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, giving the White Sox a formidable trio at the top of their rotation. Samardzija is coming of a 7-13 season in 33 starts, but his record is deceiving. The righty tossed a combined 219.2 innings with the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics, while striking out 202 batters and owning an impressive 2.99 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. It remains to be seen if the White Sox will be able to work out an extension to keep Samardzija on the south side for several years, but even if they don’t, the White Sox will receive a compensatory draft pick by simply offer Samardzija a qualifying offer at the end of the season.

Robertson comes to the White Sox as a free-agent after agreeing to a four-year, $46 million deal. I’ll be the first to admit that paying $46 million to closer is a hefty price, but if you saw the White Sox bullpen last season, you will agree that they desperately needed dramatic improvements. Robertson saved 39 games in 44 opportunities while striking out 96 batters in 64.1 innings during his first season as a closer with the New York Yankees. While that was the only season Robertson has served as his team’s closer, the veteran reliever has been remarkably consistent over the past four seasons. Robertson has hurled more than 60 innings pitched while striking out at least 77 batters and owning an ERA under 3.08 and a WHIP under 1.04 in each of the last four years. Considering that most relievers are a volatile bunch, Robertson’s consistency will be a welcomed addition to one the league’s worst bullpens in 2014.

With the two moves, the White Sox have fulfilled arguably their two biggest holes on the roster with two of the better options available on the market. Add that to the signings of first baseman/designated hitter Adam LaRoche (.259 avg, 26 HR, and 92 RBI) and left-handed reliever Zach Duke (2.45 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 11.4 K/9); the White Sox appear to be going all-in in 2015. Having said that, there is still work that needs to be done if the White Sox want to be a serious threat to make a playoff run.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Week 12 Recap: USC 49, Notre Dame 14

Notre Dame’s disappointing finish to the 2014 season came to a disastrous end yesterday when the USC Trojans pummeled the Fighting Irish, 49-14. The Trojans got off to a fast start and never looked back as the Irish delivered a lackluster performance to close the campaign at 7-5. The only good news to take away from yesterday is that an excruciating season is finally over. Now, the Irish will have a few weeks to recover and prepare for a bowl game.

USC had no problems against a depleted Irish defense, scoring 35 points in the first half. Quarterback Cody Kessler lit up the Irish secondary with 372 yards passing and six touchdowns. The Trojans also added 205 rushing yards with Javorius Allen (93 yards) and Justin Davis (81 yards) leading the way. I knew that Notre Dame would have trouble against USC’s offense since I predicted the Trojans would put up 41 points, but they made it look even easier than I could have imagined. I guess it really shouldn’t be a surprise considering all of the injuries, and it didn’t help with several more occurring during the blowout loss. At one point, Notre Dame had three true freshmen and a 5th-year journeyman in Justin Utupo playing the bulk of the defensive line snaps. Regardless of the injuries, this game should have been more competitive if the Notre Dame offense did its job.

In a game where everyone knew the Irish would have to keep up with the Trojans offensively, Notre Dame laid an egg. Quarterback Everett Golson was very erratic by completing just seven of his eighteen pass attempts for 75 yards and one interception. Golson was also credited with a fumble when he tried to throw a pass while being hit, which would eventually lead to him being benched before halftime. Sophomore Malik Zaire replaced Golson and played well by throwing for 170 yards and rushing for another 18 yards and a touchdown. Zaire showed his inexperience by completing just nine of his twenty passes, but he made some nice throws and at least provided a little bit of a spark to the offense. As promising as Zaire looked, the brightest spot of the game was Greg Bryant. The sophomore running back looked electric at times, rushing for 79 yards and a touchdown on seven carries. Bryant has been hampered with injuries throughout much of his time at Notre Dame, but it appears that he is ready to breakout. It’ll be interesting to see how much Brian Kelly utilizes Bryant in the bowl game, but his future looks bright. With Cam McDaniel departing, Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant should provide a formidable one-two punch for the Fighting Irish next season.

Before I wrap up the 2014 season, I’d like to take a moment to address a couple of things that I read over the weekend. Throughout the years, I have learned how to avoid reading emotionally charged comments from angry fans or Notre Dame haters after a loss, but yesterday the comments found me. I follow several Notre Dame beat reporters on Twitter, and a few of them either retweeted or responded to some fans’ reactions.

First, the idea that Notre Dame should reject an offer to go to a bowl game is moronic. While I am frustrated with how they are playing and don’t want to see another embarrassment, this team desperately needs the extra fifteen practices that you get for going to a bowl game. This team is very young and could use those three weeks to get better and playing in a bowl game against another quality opponent is a valuable experience for such a young team.

Second, the notion that Brian Kelly should be fired is idiotic. Obviously, this season was a disappointment (especially after starting 6-0), but that is not grounds for termination. Realistically, this team was projected to win about seven or eight games (I said nine) by just about every national pundit, so going 7-5 isn’t a shock to most people. I know people don’t want to hear the excuses, but this team was devastated with injuries on defense and were forced to play a lot of young players. With having a young team even prior to the injuries, Notre Dame should be positioned for a good season next year. At this point, firing Kelly would do more harm than it would help this program. Now, if the Irish win seven or eight games next year, then the “Fire Kelly” claims will warrant much greater attention.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, November 28, 2014

Week 12 Preview: Notre Dame at USC

The 2014 regular season comes to an end tomorrow afternoon when Notre Dame (7-4) travels to southern California to take on their rival USC Trojans (7-4). With both teams out of playoff contention and no chance of making a significant bowl game, this game is all about pride. The Trojans dominated this rivalry for nearly a decade in the 2000s, but the Irish have had the upper-hand in recent years by winning three of the last four matchups. Who will prevail tomorrow?

The story for Notre Dame on offense has become a broken record. They must protect the football and minimize careless mistakes. If the Irish can do that, they will likely win because they should be able to move the football with relative ease against a USC defense that ranks 71st in total defense (402.6 yards per game) and 53rd in scoring defense (24.6 points per game). Like they have all season, the Irish should have success through the air as the Trojans’ defense has struggled against the pass by allowing 267.5 yards per game, good for 108th in the country. Everett Golson will likely throw for over 300 yards, so if he can avoid multiple turnovers, then the Irish should score 30-plus points. Although the Trojans have played poorly against the pass, they have excelled versus the run by allowing 135.1 yards per game which places them 30th in the nation. While that means USC has an above average run defense, Notre Dame should be able to find some running room since I expect the Trojans to be more worried about the pass. Tarean Folston will get the bulk of the carries, but Brian Kelly hinted that Greg Bryant will likely get some carries now that he is fully healthy. It would be nice to see one of them break off a long touchdown run in a game that figures to be very tight.

The Irish defense has been a disaster over the last several weeks, and I do not think that will change much tomorrow. With a number of injuries and many inexperienced players playing significant minutes, the Irish will likely struggle to stop an explosive USC offense. Quarterback Cody Kessler (30 TDs and 4 INT) leads a Trojan offense that is averaging 441.5 yards per contest and 33.8 points per game. Kessler has completed 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,133 yards which places him among the nation’s best passers. Considering that Notre Dame’s defensive line and secondary is very depleted, it could be a very long day for the Irish defense. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, then they will have to create some turnovers to give their offense more possessions to keep up the amount of points USC should be able to put up. If worrying about the passing game wasn’t enough, the Irish will have their hands full trying to stop USC’s rushing attack. Javorius Allen has been a workhorse for the Trojans by accounting for 1,244 yards and nine touchdowns on 231 carries. Allen has rushed for over 100 yards in eight out of eleven games, and I would be shocked if he didn’t rush for well over 100 yards tomorrow afternoon. As you can see, the Trojans should have no problems moving the football and putting up points against a defense that has been lousy for over a month.

Both teams will move the chains and light up the scoreboard, but Notre Dame’s tendency to make critical mistakes will cost them once again. USC wins a shootout.

Prediction: USC 41, Notre Dame 38

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, November 24, 2014

Week 11 Recap: Louisville 31, Notre Dame 28

Notre Dame’s recent struggles continued last Saturday when the Fighting Irish fell to the Louisville Cardinals, 31-28. The Irish started off slow and trailed the Cardinals 17-6 at halftime, but a nice second half effort made for an exciting finish. In fact, Notre Dame scored 14 unanswered points to take a 20-17 lead in the third quarter, but the Cardinals running game was virtually unstoppable which led to two more Louisville touchdowns to give them a 31-20 lead. The Irish would cut the lead to 31-28 when Everett Golson found Will Fuller for a 28 yard touchdown, and then added a two-point conversion on a Golson scramble. Notre Dame would have a chance to either take the lead or tie the game in the final minutes, but they came away empty when a promising drive stalled and Kyle Brindza missed a game-tying 32-yard field goal. With the defeat, the Irish have now lost four of their last five games to add to a disappointing finish to a once promising season.

Notre Dame’s offense got off to a decent start against a great Louisville defense by converting on two field goal attempts in their first three drives, but the offense struggled for the rest of the first half. After Golson threw another ill-advised pass into the arms of a Louisville defender, it looked like the Irish offense would be plagued by turnovers once again. However, Golson responded quite nicely by playing well in the second half and finishing the afternoon with 236 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Tarean Folston had another impressive performance with 134 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, while wide receiver Will Fuller added 109 yards and a touchdown to his outstanding season. Unfortunately, the Irish offense was unable to overcome their struggles in the first half which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.

The Irish struggled once again on defense by allowing 409 yards of total offense, highlighted by a dominating 229 yards rushing. The Notre Dame front seven proved to be no match versus the Louisville rushing attack as the Cardinals carried the ball 50 times on the afternoon which contributed to a 10-minute advantage in time of possession. After falling behind 17-6, Notre Dame’s defense did play pretty well during the second quarter and part of the third quarter, but Louisville was able to score when needed as the Irish tried to mount a comeback. If the struggles weren’t enough, the Irish also continue to lose impact players on their defense which led to nine freshman playing significant minutes on defense. Regardless of the inexperience, the Irish need to be much better on defense moving forward. The only real positive to take away from the recent struggles is that a lot of freshmen are getting valuable experience which should bode well for the future.

Unfortunately, many Irish fans are tired of waiting for next year…

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, November 21, 2014

Week 11 Preview: Notre Dame vs Louisville

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (7-3) will try to avoid a three-game losing streak when they host the Louisville Cardinals (7-3, 24th ranked) tomorrow afternoon. After last week’s debacle, Notre Dame’s hopes of playing in a prestigious bowl game have most likely evaporated, thus leaving the Irish to play for pride the rest of the season. After two disappointing defeats and losses in three of their last four games, Notre Dame should not need any extra motivation to get a much needed victory, but tomorrow is Senior Day. As is the case every year, the Irish will want to do whatever it takes to get a win and send the seniors off on a positive note.

Notre Dame’s offense will get their toughest test since facing Stanford because the Louisville Cardinals’ defense ranks 10th in the country in scoring defense at 17.8 points per game and 5th in total defense by allowing just 285.7 yards per contest. As well as Louisville has played defensively, they have not played many explosive offenses and they struggled to slow down Florida State when they surrendered 42 points. Given that, I believe the Irish can have success as they have all season. Of course, the biggest problem this season has been the turnovers and Louisville’s defense has thrived on creating takeaways. The Cardinals are tied for 11th in the country with 25 takeaways this season, so Everett Golson and company must protect the ball much better than they have the previous weeks. In addition to the turnovers, Louisville’s defense is tied for 9th in the nation with 33 team sacks, so protecting Golson could be an issue. To counter this, I expect to see plenty of wide receiver screens and short passes, so the offensive line must make solid initial contact to avoid a repeat performance from the Arizona State game. I’m sure Brian Kelly will attempt to establish a running game, but that could be difficult against the 2nd ranked rush defense that is allowing a measly 87.4 yards per game. Notre Dame’s success in the “run game” might have to come from less conventional plays such as read-options, jet-sweeps, draws, and the aforementioned screen passes that will essentially serve as a running play. Notre Dame will not be able to line up, and run it straight at this Cardinals’ defense, so Kelly will have to be creative in order to maintain solid drives throughout the game. Based on the expected game plan, I am predicting Will Fuller and Corey Robinson to put up some high reception and nice yardage totals to lead the Irish offensive attack.

To put it lightly, Notre Dame’s defense is an absolute mess right now. However, they have an opportunity to turn it around against a Louisville offense that will be led by a true freshman quarterback. Reggie Bonnafon has taken over the reins after starting quarterback Will Gardner fell to a season-ending injury. Bonnafon has attempted 92 passes while appearing in seven games, so he does have some experience under his belt. The most notable difference between Gardner and Bonnafon is his ability to run, so the Irish defense could be challenged considering their troubles against some mobile quarterbacks this season. Bonnafon rushed for 76 yards on 13 carries last week, so it will be important for the Irish front-seven to stay disciplined and keep containment. In addition to Bonnafon, the Irish will have to deal with a pair of 400-plus-yard rushers in Brandon Radcliff (445 yards) and Michael Dyer (414 yards). For Notre Dame to have success on defense, they must bottle up Radcliff and Dyer on first and second down to force obvious passing situations. If that occurs, then defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder can dial up some blitzes and different coverage schemes to try to confuse the young quarterback. As much as Notre Dame’s offense has struggled to hold onto the football, the Irish defense has been opportunistic and I look for them to create a few turnovers tomorrow.

Both teams will likely turn the football over multiple times, but I think the Irish will come out with something to prove and make enough plays to win the game.

Prediction: Notre Dame 31, Louisville 27

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Week 10 Recap: Northwestern 43, Notre Dame 40

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame followed up their disappointing loss with another lousy performance that led to a 43-40 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats. With all due respect to Northwestern, this is a game that Notre Dame should have won, but they once again gave it away with too many costly errors and turnovers. The Irish had a 40-29 lead in the fourth quarter before the Wildcats scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to trim their deficit to 40-37. With the Irish trying to secure the game on their final drive, senior running back and team captain Cam McDaniel coughed up the football to give Northwestern a chance to kick a game tying 45-yard field goal with 19 seconds remaining. After the Irish failed to get a first down on their first possession of overtime, Kyle Brindza missed a 42-yard field goal. That miss allowed Northwestern to kick a game winning 41-yard field goal to stun the Irish in South Bend.

Like last week, the offense had success moving the football and scoring points, but the turnovers ultimately sealed Notre Dame’s fate.  The Irish committed four turnovers on the afternoon, with Everett Golson being responsible for two of them with an interception and a fumble. Along with the aforementioned McDaniel fumble, Chris Brown also put the ball on the ground when the Irish were knocking on the door for another touchdown. Considering that Golson’s fumble also happened deep inside the red zone, the Irish literally took 14 points off the board. Couple that with Golson’s interception that was returned to the Notre Dame 5-yard line that set up an easy Northwestern touchdown, those three turnovers were at least a 21-point swing. Add the two missed field goals and a botch PAT attempt that resulted in two points for Northwestern, and that is another 9-point swing. Despite the mistakes, you have to give the Wildcats credit for capitalizing on all of the miscues, but this routine is getting really old, really fast. Notre Dame needs to clean up their mistakes right now before they find themselves sitting at 7-5 at the end of the season. Although it is hard to point out the positives from yesterday, it should be noted that wide receiver Will Fuller had another monster game with 159 yards and three touchdowns on nine receptions. Fuller now has 13 touchdowns on the season to tie him for the best in the country. Quite frankly, it is becoming a farce that he has yet to be listed among the 80-plus wide receivers on the Biletnikoff Award watch list.

While the offense is not doing the defense any favors with all the turnovers, Brian VanGorder’s unit has been playing extremely poorly the past five weeks. In fact, the Irish have surrendered 42.2 points per game over their last five contests. While injuries have forced several freshmen and inexperienced players into the lineup, the defense still needs to be better. The most worrisome aspect of the defense has been the inability to stop the opponent from running the football right down their throats. Especially in the past two weeks, the loss of defensive leader Joe Schmidt has proved to be even a bigger than anyone could have ever imagined. Notre Dame’s defense looks lost out there right now, and that was evident more than ever yesterday when they allowed a Northwestern offense to gain 547 yards of total offense and score 43 points. As a quick reminder, these are the same Wildcats that managed to score just nine points last week against a miserable Michigan team. With a pair of 7-3 teams remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule, this defense will have to grow up and improve very quickly if they want to finish the season with a couple of impressive wins.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, November 14, 2014

Week 10 Preview: Notre Dame vs Northwestern

Notre Dame (7-2) will try to get back on track tomorrow afternoon when they host the Northwestern Wildcats (3-6). While last week’s disappointing defeat eliminated the Fighting Irish from postseason contention, they still have plenty to play for down the stretch. Sitting at 18th ranked, Notre Dame will need to win their final three games to improve their resume in order to reach a more prestigious bowl game. How will the Irish respond?

Notre Dame’s offense can be summed up in one word, turnovers. When the Irish can avoid multiple turnovers, they can probably play with every team in the country. The problem is that they are averaging about three turnovers a game over the last six weeks, and it finally came back to haunt them against Arizona State. Tomorrow’s matchup will be the first chance for Everett Golson and company to improve on the discouraging trend. Northwestern has had rough season, but their defense has been a respectable unit for most of their games. The Wildcats rank 48th in country by allowing 373.7 yards per game (209.7 passing yards and 164 rushing yards); leading to an impressive 30th ranked scoring defense at just 22.3 points per game. As you can see, Northwestern’s defense is more susceptible to the run than the pass, so this should be a great opportunity for Notre Dame to get the running game going again. Tarean Folston was a disappointment last week mainly because the Irish fell behind so big and that he isn’t a great pass blocker, but he should rebound nicely this week. Look for Brian Kelly to try to establish the running game early and make a statement to play physical football against a Big Ten team. Kelly also hinted during his press conference that the Irish will have to take what Northwestern’s defense gives them, meaning that I expect to see plenty of screens, slants, and quick outs on the afternoon. While Northwestern has been good on defense, Notre Dame should have a big advantage talent wise, so hopefully they will be able to move the ball methodically down the field.

The Irish defense has fallen on hard times after starting the season strong, but this week presents a great chance to improve. Northwestern has had a difficult time moving the ball all season by averaging a mere 322.7 yards of total offense which places them 114th in the nation. The Wildcats’ struggles on offense have been both on the ground (109.9 yards per game) and through the air (212.8 yards per game), so there is no reason why the Irish can’t have success on defense. Quarterback Trevor Siemian leads the Northwestern offense, but he has had trouble this season by throwing eight interceptions and only five touchdowns. If Northwestern is going to attack the Notre Dame defense, then running back Justin Jackson would be their best option. Jackson has 761 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 175 carries, so he could find so running lanes against the banged up Irish defense. Freshman linebacker Nyles Morgan didn’t play well last week against Arizona State’s up-tempo attack, but I expect the youngster to play much better tomorrow with less pressure surrounding him. Along with Morgan, the Irish also have five other freshmen playing significant snaps, so now is perfect time for them to get some much needed experience against a less-powered offense.

I think the Irish will come out strong and fast to prove that last week’s performance was a fluke by jumping out to an early lead and never look back.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Northwestern 13

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Week 9 Recap: Arizona State 55, Notre Dame 31

In a must win game to stay alive for playoff consideration, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame laid an egg against the Arizona State Sun Devils. The afternoon started off nicely with Kyle Brindza converting on a 46-yard field goal attempt after a 14-play, 59 yard opening drive. From there, a series of mistakes and unfortunate bounces led to five turnovers that would be too much for the Irish to overcome. Three of the five turnovers fueled the Sun Devils to a 34-3 lead late in the first half, but Notre Dame would score four unanswered touchdowns to cut the lead to 34-31 with 6:37 remaining in the game. However, the furious comeback would prove to be false hope as the Sun Devils responded with a quick 5-play, 75 yard touchdown drive to extend the lead to 41-31. Arizona State would add two more scores on a pick-six that bounced off of Corey Robinson’s chest, and a Taylor Kelly touchdown run in the final minute. Overall, it was a disappointing performance for the Irish because the turnovers were what ultimately proved to be the difference. Don’t get me wrong, Arizona State deserves all the credit in the world for capitalizing on those mistakes, but the final score was not indicative to how closely matched these two teams should have been.

Obviously, the big story on offense was the turnovers. Everett Golson has flirted with disaster several times this season, but this time it finally came back to end Notre Dame’s playoffs. Golson committed five turnovers on the afternoon, and those mistakes proved to be the difference in the game. Even though all five turnovers were not entirely Golson’s fault, the bottom line is that these mistakes need to stop. Golson has committed 17 turnovers in the last 6 games, and Notre Dame will not be a playoff contender next season if the trend continues. With three games remaining, I’d like to see if Golson can limit the mistakes and prove that he actually understands that he can’t be careless with the football. The two batted balls and the Robinson bobble were mostly fluky plays, but the fumble and the interception in the end zone were inexcusable. Those are “freshman mistakes” and ones that can’t continue to happen. It seems foolish to consider making a switch at the quarterback position considering how many touchdowns Golson has been responsible for, but there needs to be some accountability for his actions. Personally, I’d love to see Brian Kelly bench Golson next Saturday for a series if he commits another unacceptable turnover. With the playoffs no longer a possibility, Golson needs to learn that he can’t continue to play sloppy and careless football.

When the other team scores 55 points, it is hard to make a case that the defense played well, but I will give them credit for keeping the Irish in the game during the second half. Considering the Sun Devils had touchdown drives of 13 yards, 23 yards, 8 yards, and two pick-sixes, Notre Dame’s offense basically handed the Sun Devils 35 points. Having said that, Arizona State deserves credit for playing up-tempo and forcing Notre Dame to make quick adjustments at the line. I thought that Notre Dame had trouble stopping the run up the middle, demonstrating how important the loss of Joe Schmidt will be moving forward. The Sun Devils rushed for 188 yards on 45 carries and really moved the ball with ease at critical times of the game. Notre Dame’s defense played their best football during the third quarter and for half of the fourth quarter when they forced four punts and an interception during a span of five Arizona State drives. That stretch allowed Notre Dame’s offense to mount a comeback, but in the end they dug themselves too big of a hole to overcome.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Friday, November 7, 2014

Week 9 Preview: Notre Dame at Arizona State

When Notre Dame (7-1, 10th ranked) travels to Tempe to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils (7-1, 9th), it is essentially an elimination game. Both programs would have to win out and need some help to make the playoffs, but the loser is definitely out of contention for one of the final four spots. Last season, the Fighting Irish defeated the Sun Devils 37-34 in the Shamrock Series, but who will prevail tomorrow afternoon?

Notre Dame’s offense has been one of the better units in the country by averaging 35.4 points per game (30th ranked) and gaining 458.3 yards per contest (33rd ranked), and they will look to continue that success against an improving Arizona State defense. The Sun Devils have allowed 24.1 points per game (50th ranked) and 385.3 yards per contest (58th ranked), but they have not allowed more than 16 points in their last three games. While the Sun Devils’ defense is trending upwards, they have not faced an offense like Notre Dame’s in recent weeks. Everett Golson has been responsible for the majority of Notre Dame’s scoring this season, accounting for 29 touchdowns (22 passing and 7 rushing) on 2,311 yards passing and 272 yards rushing. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, Golson will have to shine once again while also limiting his turnovers to zero or one. In what figures to be an offensive game, the Irish must score on most of their possessions and they can’t help the Sun Devils out by giving them a short field. Although Golson should play well, the key to this game could be the running game led by Tarean Folston. Arizona State has struggled against the run by allowing 180.9 yards per game, which places them 88th in the country. In addition, Folston has been on quite a roll lately by rushing for 367 yards in the past three games, so I expect him to have another big game by easily eclipsing the 100-yard rushing plateau for the third consecutive week. If that happens, the Irish have a great chance at winning this game.

The Irish suffered a huge blow by losing their linebacker and defensive leader in Joe Schmidt last week. Schmidt is out for the season after dislocating and fracturing his ankle, so Notre Dame will need to move on quickly. True freshman Nyles Morgan will start and take over the play calling duties on defense, so we’ll find out real quickly how he and the Irish will respond to the loss of Schmidt. There is no doubt that Morgan has the talent considering he was a “blue-chip” recruit, but his discipline, knowledge, and maturity will no doubt be tested tomorrow. I expect Morgan to play well, but the pre-snap alignment for the entire defense might be a step behind if the Sun Devils play up-tempo offensively. Notre Dame’s defense got off to a great start to the season, but they have struggled mightily during the past three weeks by surrendering a combined 113 points.  Despite the recent struggles, Brian VanGorder’s defense still ranks 29th in scoring defense at 21.6 points per game and 40th in total defense by allowing 359.1 yards per contest. Arizona State possesses a balanced attack offensively by averaging 291.1 yards passing and 192.5 yards rushing per game which has led to a scoring average of 34.4 points per game. The Sun Devils are led by quarterback Taylor Kelly, running back D.J. Foster, and wide receiver Jaelen Strong. Kelly missed three games due to injury, but the senior has played well this season by passing for 1,010 yards and rushing for 230 yards, while accounting for 11 touchdowns (nine passing and two rushing). I think that VanGorder needs to dial up the blitz early and often to force Kelly to make early throws and to see how well his healing right foot responds to the pressure. Another reason to bring the blitz is to limit the amount of time the Irish secondary needs to cover Jaelen Strong. Strong is one of the top receivers in the country and he poses serious matchup problems with his 6-3, 212 pound frame and explosive speed. Strong has had a fantastic season so far with 821 yards and eight touchdowns on 57 catches, so limiting his big play potential will be another key for the Irish. If worrying about Strong wasn’t enough, Notre Dame also will need to focus on stopping D.J. Foster. The junior running back has 1,153 yards of total offense with 701 yards rushing and 452 yards passing, so shutting him down completely will be a difficult task. Notre Dame’s rushing defense has been great all season, but last week’s contest against the run-heavy Navy Midshipmen has dropped the Irish to 31st in the nation by allowing an average on 131.9 yards per game. Based on their success the first seven games, I think that the Irish have a great shot of holding Foster to under 100 yards, and they might have to in order to win this game. Arizona State will likely need to match Notre Dame score-for-score, and it appears they have the talent to do so.

This game should be a shootout, but I think Everett Golson will prove to be the difference. Golson has an ability to make plays in the clutch and he has thrived in big-game situations.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Arizona State 34

Twitter: @etichel07

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Week 8 Recap: Notre Dame 49, Navy 39

Notre Dame started off fast last night versus Navy by jumping out to a 28-7 lead, but the Midshipmen fought their way back to score 24 unanswered points to take a 31-28 lead late in the third quarter. However, the Irish responded with two touchdowns to start the fourth quarter and they added another score late to seal the 49-39 victory. It wasn’t the prettiest game for the Irish, but they got the win. Unfortunately, a close win against a service academy will likely not impress the playoff committee. Regardless of what the committee thinks right now, Notre Dame just needs to keep winning and they will probably be hard to leave out of the final four come December.

Other than the third quarter, Notre Dame was terrific on offense last night by racking up 533 yards of total offense and scoring seven touchdowns. The Irish were led by the impressive performances of Everett Golson and Tarean Folston. Golson threw for 315 yards and three touchdowns while adding 33 yards of rushing and another three scores. Folston enjoyed his third consecutive outstanding game with 149 yards rushing and 38 yards receiving. Folston has totaled 367 yards rushing and 109 yards receiving over the past three weeks to solidify his case as the lead running back. Right now, it is hard to imagine that there are many quarterback-running back duos playing more effectively than Golson and Folston, so the Irish offense should continue to cause problems for the remaining four teams on their schedule. While the offense was successful for most of the night, there was one error that changed the momentum of the game. Whether it was a bad play call, wrong route, or just a bad throw; the interception thrown by Golson right before the half was simply inexcusable. That turnover, followed by an unacceptable cover bust, led to a Navy field goal that cut the Irish lead to 28-17 at halftime. Since Notre Dame was driving and appeared capable of scoring again before the half, the costly miscue resulted in a likely 10-point swing and wiped away the probability of a commanding 35-14 lead at halftime. As a result, Navy was able to continue playing their game offensively and they gave the Irish all they could handle for four quarters. Ultimately, Notre Dame’s talent would prevail, but it was another frustrating game in this historic series.

Notre Dame’s defense had plenty of difficulties stopping Navy’s triple option attack by allowing the Midshipmen to accumulate 454 yards of total offense. Of course, most of the success came on the ground with 336 yard rushing on 60 attempts, but Keenan Reynolds completed a few big passes to help Navy keep up with the Irish offense, including a 42 yard completion and two touchdowns. Reynolds also added 47 yards on the ground, but the big threat in the running game was Noah Copeland. Copeland scampered for 138 yards on 16 carries and gashed the Irish defense for a 54 yard gain on fourth-and-two. That long run set up a Navy touchdown on the next play to give them a 31-28 lead. Everyone knew what Navy was going to do offensively, but the Irish couldn’t stop them. Part of Notre Dame’s struggles on defense was the injuries that forced the Irish to play even more of their younger players. At one point, I believe the Irish had five true freshmen and four sophomores playing together on defense. That combination is not ideal when you need discipline and knowledge to effectively stop Navy’s triple option. With or without the injuries, Navy’s offense just executed better than Notre Dame’s defense and the Midshipmen deserve all the credit for playing such a great game.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, October 31, 2014

Week 8 Preview: Notre Dame vs. Navy

Notre Dame (6-1, 10th ranked) will look to get back on track tomorrow night when they travel to Landover, Maryland to take on the Navy Midshipmen (4-4) at FedEx Field. After the tough loss at Florida State, the Fighting Irish have had plenty of time to move on and get ready for Navy following a bye week. This week, the Irish also learned where they stand initially in the new college football rankings by being slotted at number ten. Despite the lower than expected ranking, Notre Dame’s mission remains the same. If the Irish win their final five games, they should find themselves right in the thick of things at the end of the year. With many teams ranked inside the top 15 playing each other over the next month or so, the Irish have an opportunity to rise in the polls if they keep winning. Will the Midshipmen end Notre Dame’s playoff hopes, or will the Irish take care of business and keep the dream alive?

Notre Dame’s offense will have to be efficient because they don’t know how many times they will possess the ball with Navy’s ball control offense. Depending on how successful Navy’s rushing attack is, the Irish might only have 6-8 possession for the entire game, so scoring on every possession is ideal. The good news is that Navy’s defense isn’t particularly strong considering they have allowed 411.5 yards per game and 27.6 points per game, both ranking 75th in the country. Furthermore, the Midshipmen are equally below average against the run and pass, checking in at 75th (170.9 yards per game) and 73rd (240.6 yards per game) respectively. Given that, it would be safe to assume the Irish should have no trouble moving the ball and scoring plenty of points. Of course, the main issue has been the turnovers committed by mainly Everett Golson, so ball security will be critical in game where every possession is valuable. Since Brian Kelly knows that they need to be efficient on offense, look for him to call plenty of high percentage passing plays. I expect the Irish to run the ball very well with Tarean Folston leading the way after two impressive weeks in a row, and we should see a ton of short and intermediate passing routes. Don’t get me wrong, Brian Kelly will take a few shots down the field, but Notre Dame doesn’t need a bunch of deep passes to win. If Golson can get the ball out of his hands quickly to his talented wide receivers, then they should be able to get a ton of yards after the catch with their speed and athleticism. Overall, it should be a comfortable day for the Irish on offense.

When Navy’s offense lines up against Notre Dame’s defense we all know what to expect. The Midshipmen run the triple option probably about 90 percent of the time, so it will be all about discipline and assignments for the Irish defense. The first read in the triple option is the fullback dive, so Notre Dame’s inside linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt will need to read the play immediately and tackle the fullback close to the line of scrimmage. If the option extends to either edge of the defense, containment and proper assignments is the key to stopping Navy. There isn’t a whole lot to break down with Navy’s offense, since they run the same play all game long, but the Irish still need to be aware of the pass when it does occur. Navy loves to run it until the secondary is cheating and selling out on the run, and then that’s when they will hit the defense over the top with a pass. The best way to stop Navy’s offense is to hold them on first and second down to little or no gain and force an obvious pass on third down. That will allow Notre Dame’s defense to make a play and create a key turnover which would kill Navy’s chance at staying in the game. Navy is not built to come from behind, so if Notre Dame can get a few stops early on, it’ll be a long day for Navy on offense.

Navy will have some success early offensively, but Notre Dame’s offense scores early and often which makes it too hard for the Midshipmen to keep up.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Navy 14

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, October 20, 2014

Week 7 Recap: Florida State 31, Notre Dame 27

Notre Dame’s undefeated season came to an end on Saturday when Florida State prevailed in an instant classic, 31-27. The Fighting Irish played a tremendous game both offensively and defensively, giving the Seminoles everything they could handle for 60 minutes. Of course, the game ended with a little drama when an offensive pass interference penalty wiped out the likely game-winning touchdown for Notre Dame. Before I get into the recap, I have something to say about call.

I initially thought the call was on C.J. Prosise (#20), and that would have been atrocious considering the Florida State defensive back initiated the contact on Prosise and held him the entire time. Later, I learned that the call was actually on Will Fuller (#7) who was the outside receiver. Fuller did run into the Florida State defender, and I can see why the flag was thrown. However, the defensive back that was covering Fuller broke to the inside to stay with Fuller and Florida State’s secondary busted the coverage. There was no one in the vicinity of Corey Robinson (even with the contact made by Fuller), and thus the contact had no impact on the outcome of the play. By rule, it was the correct call. All I will say is that I wish the referee would have put the play into context and understand that the contact was meaningless to the play. Regardless of my opinion, the officials saw it the other way and they made the call. I won’t say that Notre Dame got screwed over, but I do think it was an unfortunate way for the game to end. The bottom line is that Notre Dame just could not make one last play to finish off the Seminoles. It was one the greatest college football games I have ever watched, but I just wish it ended in an Irish victory. Despite the loss, Notre Dame proved that they are one of the elite programs in the nation and showed that they can play with anyone in the country. If the Irish win out, I think the selection committee will have a hard time leaving Notre Dame out of the final four. The Irish may need some help from other teams, but the championship quest is not over. Hopefully, Notre Dame will get another crack at Florida State in the playoffs.

Brian Kelly put together one of the best offensive game plans I have ever seen since he came to Notre Dame. The play calling was nearly perfect throughout the game, allowing the Irish to gain 470 yards against the Seminoles. Everett Golson was sharp on the evening by completing 60 percent of his passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns. I thought he played with great poise and composure in a hostile environment by leading the Irish offense on several long drives. Golson was able to spread the ball around nicely with six receivers catching multiple passes, but his top targets were once again Corey Robinson and Will Fuller. Robinson caught eight passes for 99 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Fuller added eight receptions, 79 yards, and one touchdown. Perhaps the key to Notre Dame’s offensive success was the running game powered by the push that their offensive line was able to maintain against the Seminole front. Running back Tarean Folston was the beneficiary of the wide running lanes by ripping off 120 yards on 21 carries. Golson added 33 yards with a few scrambles, but Brian Kelly rode the hot-handed Folston all night long with Cam McDaniel and Greg Bryant each only carrying the ball once. As successful as the Irish were offensively, it wasn’t enough to pull out the road win. However, I believe this was arguably their best effort of the season and it should bode well for the remaining five games if they can repeat this performance.

Just like Brian Kelly did with the offense, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder installed the best game plan possible to defeat Florida State. VanGorder did a great job designing schemes to disguise the blitz and give Jameis Winston a variety of different looks. Notre Dame’s defensive front seven was pressuring Winston all night long and they made it difficult for Florida State to move the ball. As good as the pass rush was, Notre Dame’s defensive success was fueled by a dominating performance to shut down the Florida State running game. The Irish held the Seminoles to just 1.9 yards per carry with 50 yards on 26 attempts. In fact, Notre Dame’s run defense was so stout that the Seminoles practically abandoned the running game and went with short, quick throws in the second half. While the Irish were still pressuring Winston, he was able to get the ball out quickly and expose Notre Dame’s depleted secondary.  That would end up being the difference in the game as Florida State was able to score just enough in the second half to defeat Notre Dame.

Overall, it was an outstanding game played on both sides of the ball for the Irish. I truly believe that Notre Dame outplayed Florida State (particularly in the trenches), so I am hoping that this does not eliminate the Irish from playoff contention. I think I can speak for many true college football fans that a rematch on New Year’s Day would be warranted if Notre Dame can win their final five games. We’ll see what happens; there is a ton of football still to be played.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, October 17, 2014

Week 7 Preview: Notre Dame vs. Florida State

College Football’s biggest game of the weekend and arguably the season will take place tomorrow night when the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (6-0, 5th ranked) head down to Tallahassee to take on the defending champion Florida State Seminoles (6-0, 2nd ranked). This game serves as essentially a playoff game as both programs might not be able to withstand losing one game and still make the playoffs. While both teams are undefeated, I would argue that neither team has played their best football yet. Which team will put it all together for one night and make a statement with a big victory?

The Irish offense starts and ends with Everett Golson. While Golson has been tremendous through six games this season with 1,683 yards passing, 209 yards rushing, and 20 total touchdowns, he has also turned the ball over nine times in the last three games. Obviously, Notre Dame will not beat Florida State if Golson turns the ball over three times, so that is a big key to the game. However, I don’t think Golson will have to be flawless to pull out a victory because Florida State has had their own issues with turnovers as well with a margin of -1 that ranks 77th in the country. That is important to note because while Golson has been careless with the ball at times, the last thing he needs to do is be conservative. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, Golson will have to be aggressive and take chances by trying to fit the ball in some tight windows and pick up some key yardage with his legs. Although Golson is the leader of this offense, he also has some help. Wide receiver Will Fuller has had a breakout season so far with 504 yards receiving and seven touchdowns on 35 catches. Fuller has emerged as both a deep threat and a guy that can make a play with the ball in his hands after a short pass, and I don’t think there is a defensive back in the country that can cover him one-on-one. As great as the Irish passing game has been, the rushing attack has been sluggish at times. Last week, Notre Dame had their best day on the ground since the opener versus Rice by rushing for 219 yards. Contrary to what people might think, Florida State’s run defense hasn’t been great this season. The Seminoles are ranked a mediocre 53rd in country by allowing 144.8 yards per game, so look for Brian Kelly to try to run the ball early and often to control the clock and set up some play action passes for later in the game.

Notre Dame’s defense looked terrible at times last week, but they made enough plays to win the game. Simply put, the Irish can’t be as sloppy and confused as they were last week against this Florida State offense. The Seminoles are led by their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston and wide receiver Rashad Greene. Winston has thrown for 1,605 yards and 11 touchdowns while completing an impressive 70 percent of his passes, but he has also thrown five interceptions in five games. Winston favorite target is the aforementioned Greene, who has 683 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 44 catches. Notre Dame will have to double cover Greene or bracket him on certain passing downs to force Winston to throw the ball to somebody else. The Seminoles also have a good rushing attack, but they will be without sophomore Mario Pender who has averaged 6.3 yards a carry. Therefore, Florida State will rely heavily on Karlos Williams and Dalvin Cook. Williams, a senior, is the more notable back that missed last week with injury, but he still has 353 yards and five touchdowns in five games. With Williams out last week, Cook had a breakout performance with 122 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries. Those two backs will likely have their hands full against a Notre Dame rushing defense that ranks 18th in the nation with 110.5 yards allowed per game. In my opinion, the Irish will win this game if they can pressure Winston without overload blitzing. Defensive Coordinator Brian VanGorder needs to show Winston numerous different looks by disguising where the blitz is coming from and changing coverage schemes. If Notre Dame can put pressure on Winston with just four or five rushers, then I think they will force him to make some mistakes and allow the Irish to make a big play on defense.

Before the season started, I had this game penciled as the only automatic loss on the schedule, but that’s changed a little bit. I do not think that Florida State is as good as they were last year, and I believe that Notre Dame is a little better than I thought they would be back in August. Having said that, I still think the Seminoles are slightly better than the Irish and will have an advantage playing at home. This game will be very close and it could come down to the final possession which would leave the door barely open for the loser to remain in playoff contention.

When I started doing these predictions I told myself I would be objective no matter what, so…Florida State wins, but I hope that I am wrong!

Prediction: Florida State 30, Notre Dame 27

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, October 13, 2014

Week 6 Recap: Notre Dame 50, North Carolina 43

Notre Dame survived a major scare last Saturday when they narrowly defeated North Carolina, 50-43. The Tar Heels were aided by another three turnovers by Everett Golson that helped spot them a 14-0 lead. Despite the turnovers and overall sloppy play, the Irish were able to move the ball efficiently all afternoon and made enough plays on defense to win the game. Coming away with a win is always a good thing, but the Irish will have to be much better this Saturday when the take on the defending champion Florida State Seminoles.

As expected, Notre Dame had a ton of success offensively to the tune of 50 points and 519 yards of total offense. Everett Golson did commit three turnovers that led to three easy North Carolina touchdowns, but he also did a lot of great things. Golson threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns while adding another 71 yards on the ground. Golson continues to lead this Irish offense to one of the most explosive units I have ever seen at Notre Dame, but they can still be better if they limit the mistakes. I was hoping that either Tarean Folston or Greg Bryant would rip off a long run, but Folston definitely provided many big chunk plays that were desperately needed out of the running back position. Folston got the Irish offense started after trailing 14-0 by catching a screen pass and running for 37 yards. Overall, Folston was the best player for the Irish on offense and racked up 169 yards of total offense and three touchdowns.  In addition to Folston, wide receiver Will Fuller continued his strong season by adding two more touchdown receptions and 133 yards on seven catches. Notre Dame will need more big performances and a lot fewer turnovers going forward if they want to remain undefeated.

As bad as the defense struggled at times, they also were not helped out by the Irish offense. The three Golson turnovers directly led to 21 points due to one pick-six and two short fields, so the 43 points surrendered made it seem like the defense struggle the entire game. Notre Dame allowed a staggering 510 yards of total offense and they had plenty of difficulties with North Carolina’s up-tempo attack. The Irish had a hard time lining up defensively and were caught off guard by allowing many big plays. However, Notre Dame’s defense did step up and make some plays when it was needed the most.  When Notre Dame scored to make it 14-7, the defense forced a punt after the Tar Heels gained one first down and they had a three-and-out after the Irish tied the game 14-14. With those two stops, the Irish were able to score three unanswered touchdowns to give them a 21-14 lead and some momentum going forward. In addition to the key stops, Notre Dame’s defense came away with two huge turnovers that led to two Irish touchdowns, one of which coming right before halftime that set up a Folston 6-yd touchdown run to give Notre Dame a 28-20 lead. Then with Notre Dame leading 43-36 midway through the fourth quarter, Cole Luke intercepted an ill-advised pass that allowed the Irish to go on a 10-play, 81 yard touchdown drive to seal the victory. It certainly wasn’t the defense’s best effort, but it was enough to win the game.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, October 10, 2014

Week 6 Preview: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina

The Fighting Irish of Notre Dame (5-0, 6th ranked) will look to continue their undefeated season when they host the North Carolina Tar Heels (2-3) tomorrow afternoon. When the season began this game looked like it would be one of the tougher matchups on the schedule, but North Carolina has struggled mightily on defense which has hampered their success. Despite that, the Tar Heels still possess a prolific offense and could challenge the Irish if they are looking ahead to next week’s tilt at Florida State.

The Irish faced the nation’s top defense last week, but they will now see one of the worst units in the country. North Carolina has allowed a staggering 42 points and 505.8 yards per game, so expect Notre Dame to have a ton of success. My only concern in this game would be if the Irish came out flat after last weeks’ emotional high from beating Stanford. To avoid any let down, I hope and believe that Brian Kelly will be very aggressive early on to try and score a quick touchdown or two in the first quarter. Considering that the Tar Heels are efficient on offense as well, Notre Dame will need to score early and often to keep North Carolina from staying in this game. I expect Everett Golson to have another great performance in the passing game against 121st ranked passing defense, but it would be encouraging to see a turnover free afternoon from the quarterback. If everything goes as planned, the Irish should have a decent lead in the second half which will allow Notre Dame to work on their running game. We all know that Cam McDaniel is a reliable back, but the Irish need more explosiveness from their running backs. I’d love to see either Greg Bryant or Tarean Folston break a 50+ yard run at some point tomorrow to showcase that the Irish are capable of big plays out of their running game. Stanford dropped 8 defenders on many occasions last week because they were much more fearful of the pass than the rush. If Notre Dame wants to be at their best offensively, they need to be more balanced with their big play potential. If not, then Golson will continue to see extra defenders in his throwing lanes which will make it difficult to move the ball consistently.

While Stanford was unquestionably Notre Dame’s toughest opponent of the season, North Carolina will probably be the best offense the Irish have seen so far. The Tar Heels are averaging 36 points and 415.4 yards per contest, so Notre Dame’s 3rd ranked scoring defense will certainly be tested. North Carolina owns the 89th ranked rushing offense at 138.6 yards per game, so I don’t think they will be able to pound the ball against Notre Dame’s 10th ranked rushing defense at 95.8 yards per game. In addition, it is likely that North Carolina will be playing from behind most of the afternoon, so expect the Tar Heels to rely heavily on their passing game which checks in at 35th in the country with 276.8 yards per game. The Tar Heels are led by their quarterback Marquise Williams who has been outstanding this season with 1,083 yards passing, 243 yards rushing, and 11 total touchdowns. Williams is undoubtedly the Tar Heels’ best player on offense and containing him will be the key for Notre Dame’s defense. Considering how mobile Williams can be, I would expect defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to be less aggressive in his play calling then he was last week. While the heavy blitz packages may disrupt any college quarterback, it could also free up a ton of running room for the quarterback if he can make the first guy miss. In any event, I’m sure Jaylon Smith will be asked to shadow Williams on some plays and he should be able to run him down in most instances. Notre Dame has yet to allow more than 17 points in a game this season, but they’ll have to be at their best to keep that streak going.

After an emotional victory last week against Stanford, the Irish could come out sluggish, but Notre Dame’s offense will be way too much for North Carolina to handle.

Prediction: Notre Dame 48, North Carolina 24

Twitter: @etichel07

Monday, October 6, 2014

Week 5 Recap: Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14

Notre Dame got their first signature win of the season on Saturday when the Fighting Irish prevailed over Stanford in an instant classic. After the Cardinal scored a touchdown with just over three minutes remaining to give Stanford a 14-10 lead, Everett Golson led the Irish on a game-winning 65-yard touchdown drive. On fourth-and-11, Golson found Ben Koyack in the corner of the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown with 61 seconds left in give the Irish a 17-14 lead. Stanford tried to make a late push to set up a game-tying field goal attempt, but the game ended when defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder dialed up a safety blitz. The aggressive play call allowed Elijah Shumate to get to Kevin Hogan untouched, forcing Hogan to throw the ball away as he was falling to the ground. With no receiver in sight and Hogan still in the pocket, intentional grounding was called, thus ending the game with a 10-second run off since Stanford was out of timeouts. In the end, this rivalry lived up to the hype and the Irish came away with a thrilling victory to improve to 5-0.

Based on the score it would look like Notre Dame struggled to move the ball on offense, but that wasn’t the case. While the Irish were certainly not at their best offensively, they did accumulate 370 yards of total offense versus the nation’s top defense, but they also left a lot of points off the board by botching two field goal attempts and committing a turnover inside the red zone. Ultimately, the Irish were able to overcome those errors thanks to several big chunk plays throughout the afternoon. The Irish did gain 129 yards rushing on 32 carries, but a majority of those yards came on a 33-yard draw by Everett Golson and 26-yard run by C.J. Prosise. Without those two plays, Notre Dame had just 70 yards rushing on 30 carries. Despite averaging only 2.33 yards per carry on those 30 attempts, Brian Kelly stayed committed to the run game to set up the passing game and help control the tempo of the game. Golson was not his sharpest by completing 20 of 43 passes for 241 yards, but he connected for several big passes (five completions of 15+ yards) and accounted for both touchdowns. Golson’s completion percentage took a hit, but that was mainly due to him making wise decisions and throwing the ball away on multiple occasions. Golson did force a few throws, one of which resulted in a costly interception inside the red zone, but overall he played smart. Despite the interception and also losing the ball on a fumble in the first quarter that set up Stanford’s first score, Golson responded in a big way and made some huge plays that fueled the Irish to victory.

As well as Stanford’s defense played, Notre Dame’s defense was even better. In fact, I would consider their performance as a dominant effort by holding the Cardinal to 205 yards of offense. The Irish simply shutdown the Cardinal rushing attack by holding them to 47 yards on 32 carries. Any time that you can hold your opponent to 1.5 yards per carry, you will force your opponent in third-and-long situations all game long. Because of that, Kevin Hogan connected on 50 percent of his passes for a low total of 158 yards passing. Coming into the game, I thought Ty Montgomery could give the Irish fits, but Notre Dame’s defense did an outstanding job by limiting the talented wide receiver to 26 yards on nine touches. Notre Dame got many key contributions from several players, but two players stood out in particular. Jaylon Smith played like a man possessed by racking up 14 tackles, a sack, and 2.5 tackles for loss. The other was cornerback Cole Luke who intercepted two passes, had one sack, four tackles, and one pass breakup. Honestly, I was concerned about the defense coming into the season due to lack of experience. However, I think it is safe to say that this unit is very fast, very talented, and very aggressive. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been a great addition to the coaching staff and has this unit playing as well as it ever has under Brian Kelly.

-Eric Tichelbaut

Twitter: @etichel07

Friday, October 3, 2014

Week 5 Preview: Notre Dame vs. Stanford

With no disrespect to the first four opponents, Notre Dame (4-0, 9th ranked) will get their toughest test of the young season when Stanford (3-1, 14th ranked) visits South Bend tomorrow afternoon. This game marks the first of four major hurdles that stand in the way of Notre Dame’s path to the playoffs. Make no mistake about it, the Irish must play a much cleaner game if they want to get past the Cardinal in what should be a close contest.

Notre Dame’s biggest advantage over Stanford is the explosive nature of their offense led by Everett Golson. Minus the turnovers last weekend, Golson has been spectacular this season, but he will face the nation’s top passing defense, total defense, and scoring defense. Stanford is allowing just 74 passing yards per game, 198 total yards per game, and 6.5 points per game. As good as the Cardinal has been defensively, I think it is safe to say that the Irish offense will far exceed those averages. It is no secret that Brian Kelly wants to get the running game going, but I don’t think Notre Dame can pound the ball consistently against Stanford’s stout defense. If Notre Dame is going to win this game, they will have to execute the screen passes like they did last week, then hit Stanford’s secondary hard with the vertical passing game. Brian Kelly might be conservative early on to settle his offense in, but I expect to see many deep passes to Will Fuller, Corey Robinson, and company. I think Notre Dame has a distinct advantage with the speed, height, and athleticism that their receiving corps possesses and they need to try to prove that often. If Notre Dame wins this game, it will be because they connected on several passes of 20 yards or more.

Stanford’s defense deserves all the hype they have received, but don’t overlook Notre Dame’s defensive unit either. The Irish rank 4th in scoring defense at 11.5 points per game, and have excelled by allowing their opponents to reach the red zone only nine times in four games. Furthermore, the Irish have done a good job keeping their opponents off the board by allowing just six scores in those nine occasions. On the other hand, Stanford has had problems of their own when they have entered into the red zone. The Cardinal has only scored on 12 of their 19 red zone appearances that ranks them 118th in the country. A big key to this game will be whether or not Stanford can improve on that mark and get the ball in the end zone. When Stanford does get into the red zone, Notre Dame’s biggest concern will be wide receiver Ty Montgomery. Montgomery caught ten touchdowns last season and already has three scores this season. Everyone knows that Stanford loves to run the ball, but Montgomery is probably their best player on offense, so the Irish need to double cover him in certain situations. One thing to watch will be how aggressive defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is with his game plan. Notre Dame has faced several mobile quarterbacks this season which has hampered their ability to blitz as much as they would like. While Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan is an underrated athlete and can pick up some yards with his legs, look for VanGorder to dial up plenty of blitzes to keep Hogan off balance and force some bad throws. Turnovers and big plays will be decisive in any close game, so the Irish need to pressure Hogan to try to get an edge in those areas.

This game will be a dog fight like always, but the difference between Notre Dame’s offense and Stanford’s offense is greater than the two defensive units. Notre Dame will make enough big plays to pull off a close win.

Prediction: Notre Dame 20, Stanford 16