NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The Michigan State band exited last. Stuck in a bottle neck by the north end zone tunnel, the Spartans formation marched in place while waiting to hop their bus back to East Lansing.
Then the tuba section started clinking their horns against the goal posts on the way out. The saxophones followed suit. The trumpets came next. A few trombones join in. They all got a piece of Notre Dame Stadium, even if it was just some fluorescent paint applied to their instruments.
This qualified as the music playing over the credits of Notre Dame’s push for the College Football Playoff, which ended here on Saturday night. The whole scene qualified as a literal sad trombone, Notre Dame getting blown out by Michigan State until it didn’t, finally falling 36-28 under the weight of mistakes and miscalculations from the head coach on down to the roster’s most anonymous members.
The interesting part of Notre Dame’s season is over.
Now comes something harder than making the College Football Playoff, grinding through the next two-and-a-half months knowing you have no shot at making the College Football Playoff. The Irish aren’t rebuilding, not with an NFL quarterback in DeShone Kizer. Because that implies things are getting better. They’re not.
So forget what should have been this season for a second. The issue now is if Notre Dame can do anything to halt Brian VanGorder’s trend lines, which have been running straight downhill the past two-plus seasons.
It leaves Irish players asking themselves the most basic and most cutting of questions.
“For me it’s just do they take any pride in their own name?” said linebacker James Onwualu. “We are the University of Notre Dame. Even though we have two losses already, another loss is unacceptable, just like any other loss.”
The only solution in-season for Brian Kelly is going all-in with Kizer, more than he wants to and more than he wants to admit. The Irish head coach shot down a question about Kizer carrying the program the rest of the way after watching defensive collapse after defensive collapse after defensive collapse. And that’s fine. Kelly doesn’t need to admit this point in public. But he’d better acknowledge it in every game plan moving forward.
Because Notre Dame won’t win a single game of consequence this season unless Kizer can get the Irish over 30 points. Kelly must start there with every call sheet, every game plan, every practice format. He doesn’t need to accept what’s happening with VanGorder, but he’d better not trust anything is going to change either.
The Irish don’t have a sack, can’t stop anyone in the red zone, can’t get off the field on third down, can’t stop the run, basically can’t do any of the basics that good defenses do.
In Notre Dame’s last 19 games against Power 5 opponents, the Irish have allowed at least 30 points a dozen times. The exceptions – Texas, Virginia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, Boston College, Wake Forest and LSU – came against train wreck offenses or in biblical weather. A good offense against VanGorder on a good track? Assume 30 points against and work up from there.
“Look at college football. Defenses give up points all over,” Kelly said. “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.
“So this is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”
Kelly is right that it’s not all on VanGorder, because VanGorder had nothing to do with Michigan State bogging down the Notre Dame offense for three quarters. For that, Kelly can blame himself as Mark Dantonio outfoxed him by brilliantly breaking character.
Clearly, this isn’t the Michigan State defense of three years ago that turned Notre Dame’s offense into a hope and penalty prayer. Defensive tackle Malik McDowell was an advertisement for the accuracy of recruiting rankings. The rest of that side is simply the byproduct of good development and better coaching.
Instead of sticking to their identity of playing press coverage and beating up Notre Dame’s receivers at the line, Michigan State played off. And that turned much of last week’s practice time spent installing press coverage beaters into lost work.
“They kind of showed a lot of different things that we didn’t really expect,” said receiver Torii Hunter Jr. “We had to kind of switch it up. We practiced (press) all week and then we gotta execute, that’s the bottom line.”
The reality for Notre Dame today is Michigan State under Dantonio has surpassed what Kelly has built here. That’s an unthinkable position for this program looking back a decade to the last time the Irish needed a heroic rally against the Spartans as Brady Quinn led it against a collapsing John L Smith side.
That game got Smith fired at Michigan State, got Dantonio hired away from Cincinnati and made Kelly more upwardly mobile, jumping from Central Michigan.
A decade later we know what to expect from both programs. Michigan State will find a way to scratch out double-digit wins. Notre Dame will not. It’s truly strange for the Irish to be looking up at the Spartans, but that vantage point cannot be denied.
“We were focused on the wrong things at some points in this game and once we started going back to basics and just focused on each individual job for each play, I think we had success,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “It’s one of those things, we saw flashes of how great we can be. But it doesn’t matter if you can’t do it that way all the time.”
Michigan State doesn’t deal in flashes. It doesn’t misalign on defense. It doesn’t miss tackles. It doesn’t get exposed on special teams. It doesn’t call timeout in the fourth quarter to punt. It doesn’t have to put everything on its quarterback. Basically, the Spartans don’t beat themselves.
It all meant there would be no marquee win for Notre Dame, no recapturing of recruiting momentum, no Victory March played into the student section.
The coda to Saturday night went to the Michigan State band, tapping against the crossbar as they marched up the tunnel to shut down the stadium.
And then they turned the lights out.