In 2014, Notre Dame didn’t fall out of playoff contention until it flew home from the Desert in early November. Then things unraveled.
Last year, the regular season’s final snap turned the trick. And then they fell apart amid injuries and suspensions in Glendale.
Now? Now it’s not even autumn and Brian Kelly’s Irish are mired at 1-2, squarely among the sport’s also-rans.
The reasons why are plentiful. The special teams are hampered by mental mistakes. The offense, so powerful at times in Austin and against, well, Nevada, came up woefully short Saturday night in South Bend.
And the defense?
Well unless Kelly petitions college football to allow running clocks, there’s no chance Brian VanGorder’s Keystone Kops crew can hold up for 60 minutes against a team with a living, breathing quarterback surrounded by Power 5 scholarship athletes.
‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’
Which begs the question, with nine games remaining in Kelly’s seventh season at the helm: Now what?
YOU REAP WHAT YOU SOW
“We can't trade em, they're not getting cut.”
Kelly was referring to his fledgling, flailing defensive tacklers. He unwittingly was likewise offering an unfortunate in-season truism of the unit’s failed leader and leadership.
These are the point totals produced by Power 5 Conference foes vs. Notre Dame over the last 20 contests dating back to and beginning with a rain-soaked victory over Stanford in October 2014:
14, 43, 31, 55, 43, 31, 49, 28, 3, 27, 22, 24, 31, 30, 7, 16, 38, 44, 50, 36.
The outliers post Koyack-Cardinal Miracle – the games that didn’t include a minimum of three touchdowns scored against the Irish – are easy to identify:
- 3 points (Texas 2015)
- 7 points (Wake Forest 2015)
- 16 points (Boston College 2016).
Combined records of those three foes? 11-25.
What though the odds be (as long as they’re small)…
Which is why two weeks ago in this space it was made clear Kelly’s biggest error in his Notre Dame tenure won’t prove to be a bad end-game decision against Tulsa, or Northwestern, or even a defensive plan of attack at Texas, but one he made in January 2016.
Now the 2016 team is stuck with a rudderless defensive ship and the result is an infuriating unit that can’t tackle, rush the passer, communicate when it matters, or cover downfield.
(Aside from that, how did you like the play Mrs. Lincoln?)
Kelly, like you, is finally at his wits’ end.
Which begs the question: what took so long?
“Obviously from our perspective we've got to do a better job coaching,” said Kelly in his first of 16 references to himself or the coaching staff in a post-game press conference that lasted less than seven minutes. “That's on me, starts with me, and obviously offense, defense, and special teams has got to be better to win games against good competition.
“This is everywhere, and this is on me,” he added. “We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”
They are, but the most frustrating aspect of the 2016 season is that pieces were in place.
- The offense is flawed, sure, but Notre Dame’s offense is good enough to beat every defense on schedule including Texas and Michigan State (it wasn’t Saturday night, necessarily, but reasonable minds can agree that it is.)
- The squad’s special teams boast a strong kicker, punter, return man, and, for the first time in several seasons, coverage units. But most among that collection have intermittently failed over a three-game stretch, too.
- The defense?
“Little things like guys not doing what they’re supposed to, it’s been a big thing for our defense for the last few years,” said senior defensive end Isaac Rochell. “Individuals need to do their job. That’s the name of the game.”
But do they know how? And do they know exactly what that job entails?
Kelly questioned as much in the wake of defeat, the program’s fourth in its last five outings.
“That's poor coaching. We're not coaching it well enough,” said Kelly of a Michigan State’s decisive third-down conversion on the game’s final possession. “Obviously if our players can't execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that's on me.
“That falls on my shoulders, and we're not getting that done. So we're either not capable of running that coverage or we're not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job.”
For what it’s worth, Kelly’s Irish will be favored in each of their next three contests including a true road game in Raleigh – interesting in that the Irish are spectacularly bad (2-7 during the VanGorder Error) in true road tilts.
With Stanford on deck thereafter (just a hunch, but the Cardinal might find some room to operate against Brian VanGorder’s defense) would a 5-3 recording heading into a manageable November – with the ultimate goal of a 4-0 final month – qualify as an unmitigated success?
And are the Irish capable of such a run considering each opponent is likewise allowed to possess the football?
“We can cry all we want about what we didn’t do, but we have to start doing it,” said Kelly.
Sooner rather than later, or Duke and its backup quarterback and roster wrought with graduation losses will put a 28 or 30-spot on the board next week – and it might just be enough.
The playoffs are lost. The Irish, to those outside the program’s walls, have nothing to play for but competitive pride.
But shouldn’t that be enough?
The final nine games of 2016 might serve as Kelly’s biggest challenge yet.