NOTRE DAME, Ind. – By next week you’ll know.
Until then, until Michigan State comes and goes, this Notre Dame football team will remain as unfinished as the stadium it calls home. Because while this dismissal of Nevada told us something about Brian Kelly’s program, last weekend’s double overtime loss at Texas still told us more.
Notre Dame is good, but it’s not clear how good.
And whether the Irish have the material to qualify as great, watching Shaun Crawford leave the field on crutches suggests no.
Basically, the Irish look like two dozen other programs after the season’s first couple weeks. You know something about Notre Dame but not everything. And the parts you don’t know will probably determine what kind of seventh season Kelly can stage in South Bend.
So far, the guy who should know best about this team likes what he sees.
We’ll take his word for it, until next Saturday night.
“I like its will to prepare. I like its resiliency,” Kelly said. “Got a really good quarterback. It's always good to have one of those. I don't know if you guys know that. It's a good thing to have when you go into a game like Michigan State.
“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there, I think we got a fighting shot against anybody we play.”
If DeShone Kizer can answer the bell every week, Kelly is spot on. The junior was spectacularly anonymous against Nevada, accounting for as many touchdowns (three) as incompletions (three). He threw his first interception too, a hanger released too late for Kevin Stepherson.
Kizer wasn’t perfect against the Wolf Pack. But he was closer than anyone would give him credit for, including himself. He finished 15-of-18 for 156 yards, two scores and that pick. He rushed for 35 yards and another touchdown. He helped the Irish offense score five touchdowns in six red zone trips.
“I’m getting eaten up with that pick. That kills me,” Kizer said. “To under-throw a guy in that situation shows a little softness on my part. That’s going to eat me up for a while.”
At times Kizer’s quotes feel so that’s-exactly-what-you-want-him-to-say that it seems like he’s reading from a quote sheet. It’s not that you wonder if he’s being disingenuous. It’s just that you wonder if he’s 100 percent human.
But this is exactly the kind of quarterback Notre Dame needs to make an honest College Football Playoff charge. Really good won’t cut it considering the Irish defense. Great is required to not only counterbalance that side of the ball, but also bring Notre Dame’s younger receivers along at an unreasonable pace. There, Kizer appears to be hitting the mark.
“I look to him in a lot of areas to improve my game,” said receiver C.J. Sanders. “I’ve seen a lot of growth but the biggest thing is just confidence. He knows he can go out there and make all the throws. With his confidence level, he’s through the roof.
“It just shows that he wants to be great. That’s just really special about him. No matter if it’s in practice, he never wants to get a rep off. He’s a leader.”
Installed as the clear No. 1, Kizer is now Notre Dame’s captain without a “C” on his jersey. He is the alpha dog of not only the offense but likely the team. He’s Notre Dame’s best pro prospect and its best quote. He’s the face of the program by such a wide margin that it’s hard to believe he wasn’t even the full-time starter a week ago.
This is where I might tempt you to wonder if Notre Dame would be undefeated if Kelly had gone all-in on Kizer for the opener, if he’d squinted hard enough to see the difference between quarterbacks in August. Let’s not go there. Because obsessing about that non-decision is a distraction from the biggest unknown remaining, basically if the Irish can win double-digit games in spite of their defense.
Yes, Brian VanGorder was better against Nevada.
The Irish allowed just 300 yards and one junk touchdown against some third-team defenders. The run defense turned the feel-good James Butler story into less than a sidebar. Quarterback Tyler Stewart may be the worst quarterback you see in Notre Dame Stadium this year.
But to say Notre Dame turned a corner defensively is so charitable you could deduct it on your tax returns.
The Irish defense has a long way to go, but credit them for taking a step in that direction by turning to freshman safety Devin Studstill and sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney in the starting lineup. Julian Love and Donte Vaughn will move up with Crawford out with that Achilles tear. Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem made debuts on the defensive line.
This is all good news. It’s also the kind of youth movement elite defenses don’t make because they’ve recruited them out of consideration.
“It’s time for everybody to step up and rise to the occasion,” said cornerback Cole Luke. “We don’t have time for you to have your freshman year, your comfortability year where you just get your feet wet. We gotta go now. We gotta go full throttle. We don’t have time to waste.”
Kizer is good enough to get Notre Dame halfway to the College Football Playoff. For the defense to do some lifting, VanGorder and his staff must accelerate player development in a way they haven’t the past two years.
Next Saturday night we’ll start to find out if they can.
By Sunday morning, you’ll have your answers.