Notre Dame hasn’t walked off a football field victorious since it left that lyrical little bandbox of a ballpark known as Fenway Park last November.
Hapless Boston College – possessors of the worst offense known to the free world – the victim.
Not coincidentally, the weekend of November 21, 2015 likewise marks the last time the Irish haven’t been on the receiving end of at least 38 points courtesy the opposition. An aggregate 132 have been scored over the last three contests against coordinator Brian VanGorder’s broken bunch; a whopping 1,435 yards allowed in the three consecutive defeats.
And you thought lost rhythm due to rotating quarterbacks was going to be a problem.
Sunday night, a record-setting crowd inside Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium rediscovered the reality a long off-season somehow blunted. And shame on us for forgetting it – South Bend’s sobering truth, one that completely offsets the offensive machine Brian Kelly has at his disposal under the Dome:
The program’s defense is in the midst of its worst run in history.
Longhorns freshman Shane Buechele highlighted that fact through the air, denting Notre Dame’s secondary for scores of 19 and 72 yards along with another long pitch-and-catch from 68 yards out that ended at the shadow of the Irish goal. (In keeping with recent custom, Texas of course tacked on a touchdown shortly thereafter.)
As for the old fashioned method of pigskin progress, running right up the gut and making an opponent wish it were somewhere else? That heavy lifting was done by the Longhorns massive duo of D’onta Foreman (131 yards and a score) and backup quarterback Tyrone Swoopes, the latter scoring three touchdowns including the game winner in overtime No. 2.
Texas picked up exactly where most 2015 foes left off, adding to last year’s remarkable total of 28 aggregate touchdown marches by the opposition that traveled a minimum of 70 yards.
The Longhorns offense produced four, plus another just two yards shy of 70. And if the hosts weren’t mandated by college football’s overtime rules to begin possessions from the Irish 25-yard line rather than their own, another pair surely would have materialized.
No offense, whether it features two quarterbacks or merely the right one instead, can or will overcome a defense this flawed. The unit’s myriad issues start at the top of the food chain and there’s thus no easy fix in sight.
STARTING WITH A WHIMPER
Stanford kicked off Notre Dame’s improbable three-game losing skid last Thanksgiving Saturday when it scored touchdowns on its first two possessions en route to 38 points. Ohio State followed a month later by hitting pay dirt on four of its first five drives, the first 28 of 41 scored that day in the Desert.
Sunday night, Texas followed suit, notching three touchdown marches in five first half possessions: 75, 88, and 80 yards out.
I’ve seen ketchup bottles start faster than a Brian VanGorder-coached defense.
“We misfit plays and Swoopes is obviously very difficult to tackle,” said Kelly post-game. “He’s a big, physical player. Clearly we were not in some positions to make some tackles and when we were, they ran through tackles as well.”
They passed with surprising aplomb, too. A defense that by design should be well-suited to confuse a true freshman quarterback was instead riddled by rookie starter Shane Buechele: 16-26 passing, 280 yards and two scores, the lone blotch a second-half interception by up-and-coming Irish cornerback Shaun Crawford.
This unforeseen aerial carnage included a dropped bomb touchdown by Texas speedster John Burt (don’t worry, he connected for a long score later) and a staggering 17.5 yard average per pass completion by Longhorns pass catchers overall.
Unless VanGorder’s defense finds a way to give up yards by sea rather than just through ground and air attacks, it’s pretty much hit rock bottom.
“Look, we were in Cover 3 when we got beat,” said Kelly of his leaky secondary that exacerbated known issues up front. “We weren’t even in man-to-man. The inability to play Cover 3 and not be effective in that requires better coaching on our part. If we can’t line up and play Cover 3 better, we’re not coaching very well.”
They are not. And the only argument involved is if the defense’s chief flaw is that it’s simply not sound or merely far too soft.
Kelly was nonetheless steadfast that better days lie ahead.
“They’re going to get better as a football team. This is a team that’s going to get better to better as the year goes on,” he said. “We have to coach better. We have to be better as coaches. I think it starts with me and our staff coaching better. And then our players have to do their jobs.
“I think we have some really key ingredients to this football team that as a coach you really want.”
The key ingredient Kelly referenced was a never-say-die attitude despite another sizeable deficit. An additional ingredient he wouldn’t admit to was DeShone Kizer’s should-be stranglehold on the starting quarterback spot hereafter.
Of course, the latter doesn’t matter. Not when 50 points are scored against.
No quarterback is going to consistently offset such a total. Nor will the resilient head coach, not after he eschewed his chance to fix Notre Dame’s fatal flaw last January by making a change atop the defensive brain trust.
Now Notre Dame’s 2016 football season is directly tied to VanGorder’s defense morphing from “among the worst” to a level less damaging to the squad’s overall cause.
The program’s known weakness remains, and Kelly’s fiddling last January may burn down his cause this fall.