AUSTIN, Texas – Every year, from one end of the country to the next, the first week of the college football season spawns an overreaction. A handful of upsets occur, and a few more close calls prompt an examination in absolutes and certainties.
Usually, it’s a jump of the gun. First games are tricky. They can be fraught with mistakes, indecision and nerves. New players are broken in. Young players easily get caught in the centrifuge, particularly on the road where rabid fans quench their thirst for an outburst of emotion for the first time in nearly three-quarters of a year.
But every now and then, it’s not an overreaction. It’s not premature or a jump of the gun. Sometimes, it is what it is. Hope and promise are replaced by no end in sight.
That’s where Notre Dame is defensively following its 50-47 double-overtime loss to Texas, which couldn’t even compete against the Irish a year ago when Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory over the Longhorns was a foregone conclusion before the first half was over.
To pin the catastrophe that is the Notre Dame defense on one man is often times a stretch. There are extenuating circumstances that contribute to the demise of an entire unit. This, too, is not on one man, although with Brian VanGorder’s vast experience as an SEC and NFL defensive coordinator, it’s difficult to look beyond him and him alone.
And yet this could have been solved during the off-season if the man making the calls, Brian Kelly, had simply pulled the plug on VanGorder’s Notre Dame tenure, bit the bullet by dismissing a long-time friend and associate, and turned the page to give the aching defense a new perspective and a whiff of fresh air.
But that’s not what Kelly did. What Kelly did was enable this to happen all over again. Instead of answering the program’s call for help, he allowed VanGorder to go down a well-worn path in which scheme superseded sound fundamentals, proper technique, and a plan in which the players could sink their teeth into and believe in.
Kelly allowed this to happen. He enabled it, and in the process, he sold his defensive players a bill of goods.
Coaching continuity is important, but sometimes you just have to cut bait. Texas head coach Charlie Strong has five new coaches this year. The great coaches purge their staff of misfits, and by any standard, VanGorder is and always has been a square peg in a round hole for Notre Dame.
It is dangerous for rank amateurs like the media to dabble into areas in which it is not qualified, such as defensive schemes and the proper use of defensive personnel. We enter at our own risk, hypothesizing about matters that are better left for the masterminds who concoct these game plans.
Yet it seemed from the opening minutes of Notre Dame’s shootout with Texas that the best way to deal with a couple of loads like running backs D’Onta Foreman and Chris Warren was to beef up the personnel along the defensive front seven and force scatter-armed Tyrone Swoopes and freshman Shane Buechele – who was making his collegiate debut – to beat the Irish through the air.
Slight problem. Even with nickel personnel, specifically designed to offset an unproven passing game, the Irish couldn’t stop Buechele and the penchant for big plays through the air, the same foibles that absolutely haunted the Irish in 2015-16.
“It’s more about our personnel and matching our personnel against them,” Kelly said. “It’s about having the defensive personnel that best fits what gets our best players on the field more than anything else.”
What he was saying as it related to the first game of the season was that Notre Dame, with the loss of Sheldon Day in the middle of the defensive front, does not have the personnel between the ends to handle a power running game.
It’s going to be a long season if the Irish can’t match up against a pound-it-out attack. Notre Dame’s three “power” opponents – Michigan State in Week Three, Stanford in Week 6 and USC in Week 12 – will beat the Irish about the head and shoulders and relish it.
That means fifth-year senior Jarron Jones, junior Daniel Cage and sophomore Jerry Tillery can’t match up, even against an offensive line like the Longhorns’ which is young and entered the game banged up. Isaac Rochell can handle the pounding in the middle, but that weakens the Irish at end.
So if the Irish were playing to their strengths, putting an extra 190-pound defensive back on the field was better than utilizing a 300-pounder…without the supposed benefit of an added sound cover man in the passing game.
It will be a long year at this rate. It won’t be the last time the Irish surrender 50 points in a game.
THE NEXT MOVE
What should Kelly have done? Whom should he have hired as defensive coordinator?
The situation begged for a Bob Diaco clone. Irish fans grew weary of Diaco’s bend-but-don’t-break, keep-the-ball-in-front approach. And yet with an offense as high-powered as this one, it is absolutely the right fit. Keep the score down and give DeShone Kizer and his offense enough possessions. The math says you’ll come out on top virtually every time.
Instead, Notre Dame has a coordinator who gambles and has not taught his troops the basic fundamentals of sound defensive football.
Kelly should have known that. He’s too smart not to know that, and yet he’s allowed it to happen.
There are numerous options outside the program. Current defensive assistants Keith Gilmore and Mike Elston have very limited coordinator experience. Todd Lyght is not ready for such responsibilities.
It might have been a bit unorthodox, and by no means is he in his prime, but the Irish have a former defensive coordinator on their support staff in Bob Elliott, who has never strayed too far from the game after taking over as special assistant to the head coach following the 2014 season.
He’s had health issues that could preclude him from taking over. But his coordinating experience dates back to 1980 and as recently as 2008.
At least Elliott would have been someone the players could believe in. Even now, defensive backs young and old frequently cite him as the guy who has helped their individual games the most, and he’s two years removed from an assistant’s job. He is respected.
It’s difficult to make a change now, but if you want to try to salvage something out of this season/defense before it gets ugly, drastic measures are in order. Making changes with 11 regular-season games to go is a rare and difficult decision. But this sucker is headed south if significant change is not made.
If there were some semblance of progress, it would be different. But Notre Dame is going to take some lumps if Kelly does not make a bold move. Does this involve a Jack Swarbrick intervention? It calls for that.
NOT A TOUGH DECISION
Speaking of making the right call, the quarterback issues heading into the season with the two-headed monster should and can easily be put to rest. DeShone Kizer has everything you need in a quarterback. They don’t need two quarterbacks to run the offense. They don’t need a special one for the red zone.
Kizer clearly has the ability to turn this into a 40-point per game offense. He will provide the passing; he will provide the running. He will take charge of the situation and lead to the best of his ability, which translates into a mature, cerebral, rising star.
Much has been made of Malik Zaire’s personality and how he would handle such news. That is part of the dynamics of running a football team, and sometimes a coach is forced into a juggling act. It’s not a matter of being forceful and simply saying, ‘Whatever happens happens.’ It’s not always that simple. A coach sometimes has to make a decision that appeases if not succumbs to negative forces.
It’s not that Zaire can’t lead the Irish to victory as well. But this is going to take a complete and total maximization of Notre Dame’s offensive weaponry, and Kizer continues to show time and time again that he clearly is in the process of mastering it.
With this defense, every series counts.
One more thing: the targeting penalty that should have been called but wasn’t on the helmet-to-helmet hit on Torii Hunter, Jr. is frustrating. Kelly has a beef, and a serious discussion with the ACC supervisor of officials, Dennis Hennigan, is in order.
That play has to be reviewed. The 2016 rule change allows for that to be reviewed. So instead of being vigilant – they were overly vigilant the last couple years – it’s as if the rule change prompted them to sway way in the other direction.
But let’s be real here. Both Kelly and Kizer offered a fairly vociferous beef at the non-call after the game, and that had little to do with Notre Dame losing. Yes, Justin Yoon’s subsequent field-goal attempt was tipped and the Irish still trailed, 31-28.
But the play occurred with less than a minute remaining in the third quarter. On the ensuing Notre Dame drive, the offense scored to take a 35-31 lead. Then the defense forced a punt after four snaps. Notre Dame regained control of the football and managed just one first down in the next two drives after scoring 21 unanswered points.
The opportunity presented itself. The offense failed to maintain its roll, and after forcing an interception and a pair of punts, the defense surrendered a 68-yard touchdown drive with the game on the line.
“It wasn’t even reviewed, which just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Kelly said. “He certainly was hit in the head on that play in the end zone. It’s just unfortunate that it wasn’t officiated or reviewed in the manner I thought it should have been.”
The Irish had numerous opportunities to over come the non-call. In fact, they did. Notre Dame had a chance to build upon it, which would have put the non-targeting call behind them.
The Irish have enough problems without looking for scapegoats. The culprit(s) lie within.