Analysis: Notre Dame bye week revelations, from mind control to lessons from Ara

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Perhaps the most creative in the deluge of suggestions pushed in this direction, with the hope they end up somehow in Brian Kelly’s hands, was the recommendation of a mind control class.

For the record, the beset Notre Dame head football coach has yet to request a peek at the voluminous cache of coaching advice intended for him through this particular third party.

How mind control would specifically work in helping Kelly fix his 2-5 football team is as follows: “Block negative images picturing a black frame around them and placing a beautiful image with a white frame,” the e-mailer detailed.

Perhaps Kelly did stumble upon the concept on his own during Notre Dame’s bye week Saturday. The Irish moved up two spots nationally in total defense while sitting idle — from 65th to 63rd — heading into Saturday’s home matchup with the slumping Miami Hurricanes (4-3).

Notre Dame was 106th on Sept. 25, when Brian VanGorder was fired as defensive coordinator after 30 games on the Irish sidelines and replaced with analyst Greg Hudson and a redirected Kelly.

Miami represents the first of five remaining opponents — all with total offenses that rank higher than ND’s own (66th) — that will test that statistical and aesthetic improvement.

The number that plays best in Kelly’s favor this week, though, is his record coming out of a bye week — 19-2 in his career, 8-1 while at Notre Dame.

With that backdrop, here are the three most pertinent threads as Kelly tries to quell the seven-year itch with a loud and frustrated portion of his fan base:

How Ara coped with crisis

One of the best resources available to Kelly is 93-year-old coaching icon Ara Parseghian. Still living locally. Still lucid and insightful. Still with a dark chapter in his coaching past that ND’s head coach from 1964-74 turned into a transformative experience.

In between launching his head coaching career at alma mater Miami (Ohio) to the tune of 39-6-1 and his uber-successful run at Notre Dame with a couple of national titles, Parseghian spent eight seasons at Northwestern.

And in year 2 there (1957), he went 0-9, dropping his bottom line there at the time to 4-13-1.

The late Tom Pagna was Parseghian’s right-hand man and confidante during their run together at Notre Dame and were long-time friends who coached five seasons together before that.

In a 2007 interview with the Tribune, Pagna said what Parseghian avoided doing in 1957 was to make too many major changes during the season and save those for the offseason.

"That's the time you examine everything you've done and are doing and look to refine it and make it better," Pagna said. “We studied more film, talked theory to each other, reduced our practices. We'd go out to other colleges in the spring and study different coaches and different ways of doing things. And you know what, we got better.

"Two of the biggest things (Parseghian) did were that he got more involved in recruiting,” Pagna added on the same subject in 2009. “And he analyzed every breakdown and went about fixing it. The No. 1 problem, for example, was missed tackles.

"Just practicing tackling in practice wasn't enough to fix it. The reason they were missing so many tackles then — and you see it today — is that the defensive players often don't bring their bodies under control. They're so eager to make the tackle, one little head fake or hip fake or misstep, and the guy is by you."

One concept Kelly is employing that Parseghian did in 1957 is resisting the notion to tighten the screws and instead emphasize having fun.

“If you don't make it fun, it's a war,” Pagna said of coaches who lose their teams in addition to losing games. “And nobody wants to lose a war.”

Find the pressure points

Whatever direction Kelly goes in long term with his defense — 3-4 or 4-3, Hudson or an outside hire — developing a pass rush has to be at the top of the list.

And developing is the operative word.

Notre Dame could certainly stand to increase its success rate with elite talent at the positions that most affect the pass rush, but better evaluation, a more pass rush-friendly scheme and polishing players with raw potential may even be more important in the process.

A case in point, Virginia Tech. The Hokies sacked Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya — the same Brad Kaaya the Irish will face Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium — eight times this past Thursday night in a 37-16 beatdown of the Hurricanes.

After garnering three sacks on Oct. 15 vs. Stanford, the Irish have six for the season, and are tied for 125th with New Mexico State among the 128 FBS schools in sacks per game.

And that, with Notre Dame having played only one team to date — North Carolina State (24th) — that ranks among the top 55 teams nationally in sacks allowed.

As far as Virginia Tech goes, three players — Woody Baron (2.5), Vinny Minota (2) and Trevon Hill (1.5) — accounted for six of tech’s sacks on Thursday night. All three were three-star prospects coming out of high school and none of them were ranked among the top 20 nationally at their position in their respective high school senior seasons.

Bigger picture, among the nation’s top 15 individual players in sacks, there were no five-star prospects among them and only four four-stars coming out of high school. ND offered scholarships to two of the 15 —Florida State’s Demarcus Walker and Northwestern’s Ifeadi Odenigbo.

And from 2010-14, of the 26 players who ranked among the top five pass-rushers nationally during that period (one repeat, two ties), there were only four who ranked among the top 250 prospects nationally in their respective classes coming out of high school.

How quickly can coaching and scheme make a difference? Miami under first-year head coach Mark Richt, stands 17th nationally in sacks after ranking 70th under deposed Al Golden last season and vaulted from 105th to first in tackles for loss. That defense rolls into South Bend with a No. 22 total defense standing.

Historical outlier?

Perhaps the Nov. 11, 2017 meeting between Notre Dame and Miami at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., will be the one that rekindles the high-stakes, high-drama feel of the Lou Holtz Era meetings.

Saturday’s clash surprisingly is quite the opposite, at least the high-stakes part.

In the 25 previous meetings the teams have combined to bring more losses than the eight they share this season only twice. And that’s with 11 of the 25 games constituting ND’s regular-season finale or its bowl game.

The two instances were a 1979 matchup in ND’s regular-season finale in which a 6-4 Irish team met a 4-5 Miami squad, and in 2010 when two 7-5 teams met in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas on Dec. 31.

Also surprisingly, only twice have the teams squared off as unbeatens — in 1980 (3-0 ND vs. 4-0 Miami) and in 1988 (5-0 ND vs. 4-0 Miami).

Incidentally, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Catholics vs. Convicts” — centered on the 1988 clash in South Bend — will have a private screening on campus, Friday night.

Notre Dame leads the series 17-7-1 overall, and 8-1 in games played in Notre Dame Stadium. The only home loss to the Hurricanes was a 31-13 setback in 1984 under coach Gerry Faust.

The two schools remain fierce recruiting rivals, and Miami claimed the latest tug-of-war when Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., three-star safety Amari Carter verbally committed to the Hurricanes on Saturday.

Four players in ND’s current class of 18 committed prospects — defensive tackle Darnell Ewell, offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, defensive end Jonathon MacCollister and tight end Brock Wright — hold offers from Miami.

And roughly a third of ND’s roster (26 of 83 scholarship players, 31 percent) were offered a scholarship from Miami coming out of high school, including 11 players in the freshman class.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team out of the tunnel prior to the start of ND's game against Nevada at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 10. (Tribune Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ)