AUSTIN, Texas – They delayed the inevitable by taking another look.
So while Charlie Strong body surfed above his players during the delirium here, the officials wanted a second glimpse of Tyrone Swoopes’ game-winning six-yard run, the Longhorns’ 18-wheeler who had run over Brian VanGorder’s defense built for speed. There was no need. The 102,315 record crowd had seen all it needed to see by the time this four-hour, 50-47 double overtime epic ended.
Texas was tough. Notre Dame was not.
And it all leaves Brian Kelly with a host of problems, some of his own making on Sunday night and others baked into the program long before Notre Dame arrived at Darrell K Royal Texas Memorial Stadium.
Let’s start with the quickest of fixes, one Kelly refused to make last night, perhaps only because he wanted to tell Malik Zaire first that this two-quarterback system is finished. DeShone Kizer must be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback the rest of the season and DeShone Kizer should be Notre Dame’s only quarterback the rest of the season.
Putting up six touchdowns in this hostile environment is impressive on its own merits. Doing so with Kizer’s right hand tied behind Kelly’s back for three Zaire series makes it even more so.
“Once we did get the flow up and going you could see how explosive this offense actually is spreading the ball around from the run game to the pass game,” Kizer said. “We have playmakers all over the field.”
More concerning than Kelly’s overthink of the quarterback situation was the fact it even got to this. In theory, playing Kizer and Zaire could have turbo-charged Notre Dame’s offense. In practice, it was a disaster. Zaire labored pre- and post-snap. Two three-and-outs flanked a timid 11-play, 41-yard series when Zaire looked like a quarterback driving the offense with the parking break on.
That wasn’t the Zaire who torched Texas last year. It wasn’t even the Zaire who grinded out the Music City Bowl. It was a player the coaching staff failed to prepare for this moment. By rotating quarterbacks, Notre Dame got the worst out of Zaire.
“I want to play better and if it means playing two, if it means playing one, now we have something that I can go and evaluate,” Kelly said. “We’ve got film to watch. Now I can make some informed decisions, if you will, moving forward.”
So what was the point of training camp?
If Kelly can only now make an informed decision it means there was no insight in August, that a month of intense preparation was a farce of evaluation. Notre Dame’s coaching staff has won with less at quarterback. By failing to get a real read on the program’s most important position, by adopting a policy of quarterback appeasement, Kelly lost with more.
The Irish still own a quarterback depth chart virtually every program in America would kill for. And that includes Texas, which managed to put up 517 yards despite playing a quarterback who’d never played before and another quarterback who’s yet to complete a pass this season.
Shane Buechele finished 16-of-26 for 280 yards, two touchdowns and one interception in a sparkling debut. Swoopes rushed for three touchdowns and attempted one pass.
And that gets to the more sinister issue facing Notre Dame now.
Like the two quarterback system, the VanGorder experiment has failed. Unlike Notre Dame’s options on offense, this can’t be corrected by removing the word “or” from the depth chart.
“It took us a while to wake up,” said linebacker James Onwualu. “You got guys out there, first-time guys. Any team has that. A couple guys went down. Just took us a little longer to settle in than we thought.”
That a defensive coordinator unable to fast track young talent the past two years couldn’t at Texas shouldn’t surprise. The shock is Notre Dame’s talent level on defense might be worse than expected if Kelly is to be believed the 3-3-5 approach was designed to get the program’s best personnel on the field.
Against the Longhorns that meant eventually benching Drue Tranquill and Nick Coleman. It meant relying on Avery Sebastian until Swoopes knocked him out of the game. It meant not testing Jay Hayes’ ankle or Daelin Hayes’ speed. It meant the debut of VanGorder’s speed package at Texas was the defensive equivalent of when Charlie Weis tried to install the read option for Georgia Tech nine years ago.
Weis couldn’t run a modern college offense. VanGorder can’t defend one.
Recruiting shifts in the defensive backfield, advertised as necessary to update Bob Diaco’s college-style scheme, resulted in Notre Dame finishing the game with a freshman nickel and two freshman safeties.
Suddenly, Notre Dame is stuck in a rebuilding year.
Reloading? Simply a summer fantasy.
Notre Dame is what the scoreboard says it was last night, a program that will need Kizer to play like this every week to salvage the season.
“They’re a group that believes they can win any game they play and regardless of the circumstances, they’re gonna keep battling,” Kelly said. “They’re gonna get better too. This is a team that’s gonna get better as the year goes on.”
Kelly can start that process today by installing Kizer has his No. 1 and only.
The rest of it, the writing of the worst-case survival guidebook for VanGorder’s defense, will take longer. And that’s going to mean more nights like this.
“You hate to lose,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “Especially on the road you hate to lose, but there’s some good things we can take from it. It’s not all bad. I think our team did a really good job of coming back from a pretty bad deficit.
“We were resilient, I think that says a lot about our team moving forward, but it does suck.”