NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Brian Kelly kept saying it over and over again.
The realization of what he was saying kept oozing through the fractures in the foundation that widened a bit more and lengthened right into a catastrophic second loss of the season to Michigan State.
“We had a lot of missed fits. The safety fits were poor. We missed some fits with our fronts,” said Kelly following No. 18 Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to the No. 12 Spartans Saturday night under the lights.
“We’ve got to coach better. This means communicating what we want to our players, and then our players have to execute it.”
Kelly was just getting started. The more he talked, the more riled he became, pointing the finger inward numerous times, but offering messages between the lines that clearly spread the blame to his coaching staff.
He didn’t name names; he didn’t have to.
“Those are the guys we have,” Kelly said. “We can’t trade ‘em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them, so I don’t want to hear anybody…
“I told our staff: Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get them better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays. Those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke. They’re going to have to make some tackles. We can cry all we want about what we didn’t do, but we’ve got to start doing it.”
While ultimate responsibility falls on Kelly, which he acknowledged, even the boss knows the root of the problem. Notre Dame’s inexperienced defense, which became softer and softer as the Michigan State game transpired, has lost all belief in its coordinator.
Asked specifically about the 3rd-and-7 in the waning moments when Michigan State’s Donnie Corley knelt down to make an uncontested catch without detectable coverage, Kelly intensified his rant.
“That’s poor coaching,” Kelly said. “We’re not coaching it well enough. Obviously, if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top with the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders and we’re not getting that done.”
Behind close doors, Kelly undoubtedly isn’t nearly as magnanimous.
It’s too late to notice it now. The time to take action was following the 2015 season when it was clear that the Irish defense was a poor fundamental unit with nothing to fall back on except a thick and ineffective playbook.
It also was clear at that time that the Irish special teams had just been schooled into destruction in the Fiesta Bowl as Urban Meyer and the Ohio State staff exposed those units for their lack of preparation and sound fundamentals.
The impact of those non-decisions came to a head Saturday night on the field. It bubbled out in Kelly’s words to the media.
Yes, he would fall on the sword for all. But this time, there was more to it. This time, he didn’t have to name names. He clearly was talking about VanGorder.
“We’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough,” Kelly said.
Kelly grew impatient when asked if DeShone Kizer, as usual, a shining beacon amidst all the chaos around him, had to carry the entire load. It was a legitimate question.
The question struck a sore spot with Kelly. What was he thinking? Maybe something along these lines: So my quarterback has to do it all!?! No, the defense has to share the burden!
“We’re sloppy as a football team,” Kelly said. “That’s not a referendum on who’s got to carry whom. We’re too sloppy overall as a football team.”
Although the Irish players did not throw the coaching staff under the bus, chinks in the armor were revealed.
Asked specifically about Kelly’s claim that the coaching staff had to do a better job, and what his reaction was to the head coach taking responsibility for the team’s failures, outside linebacker James Onwualu commented like a leader.
He also didn’t disagree with Kelly’s assessment of the coaching staff’s culpability.
“We’re all a team and that’s what it shows,” Onwualu said. “(Kelly) knows that he has to do better, but obviously his players know that we’re the ones out there performing. No matter what they coach us, it’s making plays at the end of the day.
“We all have stuff that we want to get better at and that includes the coaches.”
Mild-mannered Torii Hunter, Jr. was glad to be back in the lineup after missing the Nevada game with a concussion. He’s not the blamer-type. Yet he spoke what all have come to accept.
“I think it’s good that he’s holding himself accountable because it’s a team thing,” Hunter said. “Coaches have to coach better and players have to play better.”
While these sentiments certainly were not offered in a venomous, damning fashion, they were revealing. Players are not oblivious to reality. It doesn’t take a grizzled football lifer to recognize when a team is not being prepared properly for success.
This football team not only isn’t getting better; it can’t as it is currently configured.
NOT SO RADICAL
When it was suggested a couple of weeks ago that the defensive approach chosen by VanGorder against Texas was grounds for dismissal just one game into the 2016 season, the notion seemed a bit outrageous in the light of day.
Fire the coordinator after one game? Throw the defense into turmoil? Who would lead them?
It seems much less radical two weeks later as it has become increasingly clear that any offense with a pulse and the capable bodies to have success against the Irish will exploit the lack of preparation and basic, fundamental characteristics of a sound defense.
The outrageous has become plausible. Catastrophic change has become a sensible path. It is clear – from his outspoken words to his glares at his defensive coordinator along the sideline – that Kelly, too, like Irish faithful, has lost belief in his No. 2 man.
Is there anyone within the Notre Dame football organization who can offer solid footing upon which to stand defensively? What is the worst thing that could happen at this point? Is there not a man within the spend-at-will organization who can command the respect of the players on the defensive side of the football?
It doesn’t matter if there are nine quarterbacks on the Irish slate who weren’t starters last season. They’ll find a way to have success against a defense that now is so undermanned in the secondary that it simply can’t make plays. The confidence is badly shaken, both in terms of the ability to make plays and the confidence that they are being instructed correctly.
VanGorder made some appealing shifts with personnel up front that spiked the energy and productivity of the defensive front seven in the first quarter. The incorporation of freshmen Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes, the insertion of Greer Martini back into the linebacker corps, and the inclusion of a healthier (but not there yet) Jay Hayes provided an infusion of diversity and flexibility.
It didn’t, however, offer a sack of quarterback Tyler O’Connor. The Irish currently are on pace for, well, to put it in stark numbers, zero sacks over 12 regular-season games.
If it could be less than zero, it would be.
THE NEXT PHASE
In games like this against established top 10 teams, it doesn’t matter how good the Irish offense is, which is far from flawless. The ground game was abysmal when it was needed the most.
Human nature cannot be completely changed. Like the work crew under a company’s CEO, it is a mountainous climb to salvage productivity when belief is shattered. As it relates to football, when the men in the trenches on both sides of the ball have been pillaged, there is no place to turn for relief.
Fortunately for the Irish, Duke and Syracuse – Notre Dame’s next two opponents – do not have enough manpower to defeat the Irish…or so it appears as the sun did indeed rise in South Bend Sunday morning.
If Kelly and his staff were out-coached by Mark Dantonio and his staff, which a blind man could spot from 100 miles away, so will Duke’s David Cutcliffe. Cutcliffe just won’t have enough bullets in the gun.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers will attack Notre Dame’s defense with the kind of fast-paced offensive approach that truly will be reminiscent of the North Carolina game in 2014. Babers, too, lacks the essentials on the Orange roster, most especially on defense, to defeat Notre Dame. The Irish will win, but it may be a 62-45 game.
Kelly is too good of a leader to allow this to all fall apart. The players have too much at stake collectively and individually for them to pack it in. But this feels like a program on the verge of collapse.
Saturday night, it felt like a team on the cusp of mutiny, and if not mutiny, certainly tuning out the garbled message from the defensive coordinator.
In the seventh year of the Kelly era, this resembles – other than the quarterback play, which is significant – a regime fighting for survival. The time to revive it was January.
Pulling the plug on a defensive system may be radical, but not any more radical than a system that has proven time and again over the last 25 games to be an utter disaster.