5 Questions: Notre Dame

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley stops by to answer five questions regarding the 2013 Irish.

1) Last year most Notre Dame fans felt that the program was all the way back after a perfect regular season. The 2012 season ended with the blowout loss to Alabama in the BCS national championship game. This year the Irish lost to both of the top twenty teams they faced. Is the fan base depressed that the program has seemed to take a step back after being so close to a national championship?

O'Malley: After quarterback Everett Golson was suspended in May, most Irish fans realized a run to the national title in 2013 was highly unlikely. The disturbing aspect of the 2013 season is the defense's fall from grace. Last year it allowed nine regular season touchdowns. NINE. This season, the ninth was scored by the opponent in Game 3.

Notre Dame's wins over current ranked foes Michigan State and Arizona State, plus USC, have engendered some goodwill from the fans after the early-season disappointment at Michigan (losing that game, and playing poorly, vs. a hated rival, did not sit well with most.)

Most Irish fans have adopted the team's "second season" mantra: Finish 7-0 after a 3-2 start and a BCS Berth is assured. Obviously a win at Stanford is the tallest task to that unlikely end.

2) Notre Dame demands high academic and moral standards of its student athletes in a world where most top football program have no standards other than winning. Do you believe that Brian Kelly can consistently deliver at least nine to ten wins a year which hasn't been seen since the Holtz era ended?

O'Malley: Nine to 10, yes. It's 11, 12, and ultimately 13 that are the issue. Kelly's 2012 success is going to be the barometer for most when in reality, a string of 10-2, 10-3 seasons would be outstanding vs. the schedule the team faces and with, to borrow a phrase from the head coach, "the aisle they shop down" on the recruiting trail.

The team's most likely win total this fall would be nine, with a bowl game pending. If the Irish finish 9-3, unlike in season's past, they won't be paired with a superior foe in the post-season for the sake of ratings. Notre Dame would be favored vs. teams such as Rutgers, Cincinnati, or Houston, likely in the Pinstripe Bowl with Manhattan the draw for traveling fans.

3) Why does quarterback Tommy Rees make so many Notre Dame fans want to drink heavily? He's 20-6 as a starter and ranks among the top Irish quarterbacks in many all-time statistical categories. Many Irish fans seem to want Rees replaced with any available quarterback on the roster. Why is he unpopular with so many fans?

O'Malley: Anyone that wanted Rees replaced by backup Andrew Hendrix has since recanted. If not, they should turn in their fan card, not to mention refrain from attending sporting events -- or speaking in public -- for the rest of their lives.

The prevailing perception of Rees is that he holds Kelly's read-option offense hostage, mainly because he cannot run. Did I mention he can't run? It's not an option. Exacerbating the situation are memories of an immobile Rees playing poorly in crucial losses to USC, Stanford, and Florida State in 2011 and frankly playing well but not without head-shaking mistakes in a stunning loss at Michigan that season. He's often seen as a place-holder for whoever might resurrect a stagnant Irish offense -- ubiquitous during the Kelly regime.

Rees though is arguably the team's MVP this season and inarguably its most irreplaceable player, though that speaks to the depth chart more than his overall talent level. I'd guess 40 percent of the fan base believed in Rees entering the season and that number has increased to 80 percent today, provided he's not asked to beat Stanford or another Top 10 team. He's a leader and efficient player, but not a playmaker a la Golson.

If the 2013 defense played at the level of its 2012 predecessors, Rees and the Irish would be 8-0. He's been better than most expected aside from a poor outing vs. Oklahoma, one in which he received no help.

4) Navy fans are used to seeing the Fighting Irish pound the ball successfully behind a big physical offensive line stocked with high school All-American recruits no matter who's carrying the ball. This year the running game is ranked only 92nd in the nation. What has been the problem running the ball?

O'Malley: At the outset it appeared the issue was one of choice. I.E., Kelly preferred to pass (Irish fans point to a 18-carry, 95-yard day vs. Michigan vs. Rees' 51 passes in defeat to that end.)

The offensive line has done an amazing job protecting Rees sans for one killer mistake vs. Oklahoma, but it's been sub par opening holes for a trio of Irish juniors George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, and Amir Carlisle, two of which have likely played themselves out of a major role.

The prevailing theme for November is McDaniel and freshman Tarean Folston are the tandem fans will see most going forward. Atkinson was tremendous vs. Oklahoma (18-148-TD) but has run tentatively in three games since. Carlisle hasn't made an impact since fumbling in Game Three at Purdue. McDaniel has thus emerged as the team's most trusted runner.

The offensive line though is in flux as senior guard Christian Lombard is out for the season (he played with a back injury for much of the campaign) and solid 5th-year senior left guard Chris Watt will be asked to play through a knee injury over the next two weeks. That leaves a true freshman at right guard and a true sophomore are right tackle with a first-year starter at center.

To the surprise of most, the 2013 offensive line has not been as stout in the run game as were their veteran predecessors last fall. It's unlikely they'll finish with a flourish, as Kelly will go to Rees and the air at the first sign of trouble.

5) Do most Fighting Irish fans actually know the difference between a cut block and a chop block? So many Irish fans complained about Navy's cut blocking, after one of our very rare victories against Notre Dame a few years ago, that it sounded like the Mids were blowing out three knees a game. Seriously, the ND fans complain more about a legal form of blocking than any opponents we face.

O'Malley: Irish fans have rued facing option teams since Air Force twice chop-blocked two Irish defensive linemen out of the game in 1991. Since, two incidents with Navy -- Nick Henderson in 2009 on Robert Blanton (egregious/flagged) and Aaron Santiago in 2010 vs. Zeke Motta (illegal/post-play/not flagged)-- have served as the poster-child for what's wrong with blocking at or below the knees.

When Irish LB Kerry Neal in 2010 stomped a Navy player at the goal line, Notre Dame fans saw it as a retaliatory strike for "chop blocks" when in reality, Neal was probably sick of getting a helmet placed continually (and legally) on his knee and thus finishing plays on the ground in defeat.

Perfectly legal cut blocks, executed on nearly every snap, are thus lumped with these exceptions. It didn't help that former Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown wouldn't let the Henderson/Blanton situation go five days after the '09 defeat to the Mid's, a 23-21 upset in South Bend. (Complaining about a previous loss when preparing for a Top 10 Pittsburgh team that was on tap serves as a microcosm of that 6-6 season that helped facilitate Charlie Weis' exit.)

Even current Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin voiced his displeasure at facing cut-blocking schemes prior to the 2010 contest (he was the team's first-year defensive backs coach at the time), wondering if the cut block, "should be outlawed?"

In other words, prepare for more laments if anyone on Notre Dame exits the game with a lower leg injury.

Navy fans should rejoice in the cut-blocking scheme for another reason this weekend: Senior nose guard Louis Nix, Notre Dame's best player, likely won't play because of it. Nix didn't travel to Air Force last week while battling tendinitis and a shoulder injury. He doubtless would have played if the opponent were Pittsburgh or BYU.


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