Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Three-Point Stance: Pressure on VanGorder

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – What can Brian Kelly do to fix his defense … Like it or not DeShone Kizer must shoulder the load … special teams sabotage Notre Dame early.

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame’s hopes to make the College Football Playoff didn’t survive September. The hard part for the Irish is figuring out what comes next as Brian Kelly faces difficult decisions moving forward.

Three thoughts from Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State…

Pressure Mounts On VanGorder

Brian Kelly did everything during his postgame press conference but call out defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder after the Irish defense broke down against Michigan State. The Spartans, despite starting a career reserve at quarterback in Tyler O’Connor and working behind an underwhelming offensive line, passed the ball with success early and then beat Notre Dame over the head with a power run game late.

The Spartans finished with 501 yards total offense and averaged 6.4 yards per play. They averaged 5.0 yards per rush and scored three touchdowns on the ground. The mess included a 73-yard touchdown run by Gerald Holmes and Donnie Corley’s snatch over Cole Luke’s head.

“I mean, we had a lot of missed fits, safety fits were poor, we missed some fits with our fronts,” Kelly said. “Again, we gotta coach better. This means communicating what we want to our players and then our players have to execute them.”

Basically, it was more of the same from VanGorder’s side.

In the past 19 games against Power 5 conference opponents, which dates back to the North Carolina win two years ago, Notre Dame’s defense has allowed at least 30 points 12 times. The exceptions to that rule were Boston College, Wake Forest, Virginia, Texas, Clemson, LSU and Georgia Tech.

Five of those teams finished with losing records.

Kelly worked over VanGorder on the sidelines in the final minutes of the loss as Michigan State used a mistaken coverage by Luke on Corley’s 28-yard grab and a failure by the defense to contain R.J. Shelton on a 23-yard catch to ice the game. The Spartans were expertly creative with Shelton in the game, using the versatile player in motion and all over formations.

Shelton, who actually threw an interception when these teams met three years ago, finished with 11 offensive touches for 96 yards and one touchdown.

Kelly said he had no thought of going for it on 4th-and-7 with less than four minutes to go because he had faith in his defense. However, that faith was not rewarded.

“Again, we gotta coach better,” Kelly said. “This means communicating what we want to our players and then our players have to execute them.”

Can Kizer carry Irish?

Brian Kelly has no interest in putting the entire program on DeShone Kizer.

When asked if the junior quarterback will carry Notre Dame forward in light of consistent defensive breakdowns, Kelly shot down the question with vigor. He correctly noted the defense failed for long stretches He correctly noted that special teams blunders helped turn the game in Michigan State’s favor.

Yet on Notre Dame’s 62 offensive snaps, 46 were either Kizer passes or Kizer runs.

That’s 74 percent of the Irish offense relying directly on the quarterback.

“Those are the typical questions that you get when, you know, after three games, we give up some points,” Kelly said. “Look at college football. Defenses give up points all over. What we have to do is clean up some things and we're going to continue to work on it, but, no, DeShone Kizer is not going to be asked to carry us. The entire football team, and my coaching staff in particular, is in a position where they have to coach better. I've got to coach better. We've got kids that fight and have resolve.”

Kizer threw for a career-high 344 yards against Michigan State but labored to do it, hitting on 20-of-37 passes, taking two sacks and throwing two touchdowns. He also rushed for two scores.

The Irish have scored 15 offensive touchdowns this season and Kizer has rushed or passed for 13 of them. The other two were Tarean Folston’s option pitch against Nevada and Dexter Williams’ garbage time touchdown later in the same game.

Other than that, it’s all Kizer.

“I take this 100 percent on my back,” Kizer said. “We didn't score as many points as we should have to win the game and as the commander of the offense that's 100 percent on me.”

Special Teams Sabotage

What could have been electric proved ominous.

C.J. Sanders fielded the opening kickoff and raced it back for a touchdown, elevating Notre Dame Stadium only to have it sink following a holding call against freshman safety Jalen Elliott. The miscue was part of a brutal first half for the Irish special teams units that helped squander one of the better home atmospheres of the Kelly era.

Early in the second quarter Sanders couldn’t call off Notre Dame’s punt return team after Jake Hartbarger’s punt bounced short and rolled into Miles Boykin’s leg. Collin Caflisch recovered. One play later Tyler O’Connor went to Donnie Corley in the end zone, who managed to wrestle the ball away from Cole Luke for a 38-yard score.

The Irish appeared ill-prepared for the two-point conversion that followed as Michigan State moved ahead 8-7. That score was the start of a 36-0 run by the Spartans to grab control of the game.

Michigan State also pinned Notre Dame back at its one-yard line after a punt during the second quarter.

Even when Notre Dame did it right on special teams the Irish couldn’t capitalize. Tyler Newsome boomed a career-best 73-yard punt midway through the second quarter that put Michigan State at its eight-yard line. Then the Spartans drove 11 plays and 92 yards, capped by O’Connor’s 10-yard touchdown pass to R.J. Shelton.

“We're sloppy as a football team,” Kelly said. “So we gotta clean up the whole deal. So this is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”


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