NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Helplessness. Despair. Nowhere to turn, or rather, no idea where to turn.
From Brian Kelly to the half a dozen or so players that represented the Irish in the interview room following Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke, there was no button to push, no direction toward normalcy, no answers to the questions that continue to pile up on this wayward 1-3 football team.
We spent last week talking about the message the leadership of this team would share with the players following the loss to Michigan State. One of our Saturday morning stories centered around that message, the building blocks upon which to construct a second win, and the areas where individuals could make improvement.
Now what’s the message? How do you stick with the message? How can you afford not to adjust it? What good are words at this point?
Last week, after writing that the Irish were on the “cusp of mutiny,” I reevaluated what was written and determined that such a statement at that point was neither accurate nor fair.
Turns out it wasn’t that far off after all, or at least it certainly isn’t now after Brian Kelly passionately pleaded his case for his players’ lack of passion. Actually, more than a mutiny, it’s simple acceptance – particularly on defense – that there is no solution with Brian VanGorder as the defensive coordinator.
Can’t tackle, can’t come up with the critical stop, can’t prevent massive plays and can’t stop massive drives that lead to catastrophic plays. The air and life that the VanGorder fiasco has sucked out of this team has, indeed, placed it in cardiac arrest.
The offense is now following suit as an erratic, sporadic, mistake-prone unit that is playing like it can’t do enough to erase the mistakes on the other side of the football.
Some suggested the season was over after last week. That was a bit premature considering there were nine games remaining with Duke at home and Syracuse in New Jersey on tap. Now, it doesn’t seem to be such an overreaction.
DEFENSE DIES AGAIN
Kelly said one of the areas he felt the best about in the loss to Duke was the performance of the Irish defense. Clearly, the third quarter is what swayed his thinking because after allowing three touchdowns and 239 yards total offense in the first half, the defense came out and forced a punt, forced another punt, intercepted a pass and came up with a 4th-and-1 stop at the Irish 19.
But reality in football rarely hides for long. Bad is bad, and this Notre Dame defense always returns to form.
After taking a 35-28 lead with 7:46 remaining, Notre Dame’s defense needed just three plays, 75 yards and 59 seconds for the Blue Devils to tie the football game, culminating with a 64-yard pass to Anthony Nash for a touchdown.
Then, when DeShone Kizer made a critical error by throwing a ball up for grabs on 3rd-and-20 instead of allowing punter Tyler Newsome to flip the field, the defense allowed quarterback Daniel Jones and running back Jela Duncan to march the Blue Devils down the field for the game-winning field goal.
Of course, Notre Dame would have had one more timeout if the defense – on what was about to be the fourth snap of the third quarter – didn’t have to call timeout because 12 men were on the field.
Kelly said that the coaching staff apparently must constantly remind the players who’s on what defensive scheme, otherwise players could haphazardly wander onto the field, as one did with 13:25 left in the third quarter.
It turned out to be a pretty critical timeout.
MATT JOHNS, COME ON DOWN!
During the pre-season, I wondered who this year’s Matt Johns would be. You may recall that Johns – the quarterback at Virginia – led four long touchdown drives and deserved to come out the winner in Notre Dame’s miraculous last-minute victory in Kizer’s brilliant debut last year.
Having watched Duke’s Daniel Jones in games against North Carolina Central, Wake Forest and Northwestern, I really believed that he would not be this year’s Matt Johns, even though nondescript quarterbacks have been beating the Irish for many a coaching regime.
So what happens? Johns, I mean Jones, completed 24-of-32 for 290 yards, three touchdowns and an interception – a beautiful turn-and-look pick by freshman Donte Vaughn.
Does it really matter whether a quarterback is actually a capable signalcaller for this level? Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley said any quarterback with a pulse will do, and it’s true. That’s not to say Jones won’t develop into a fine quarterback for David Cutcliffe, who, as many know, has been the Manning whisperer for years.
But it’s impossible to accurately evaluate a quarterback that plays against Notre Dame because they ALL look good. Add Jones to the list.
DOWN THE DRAIN
Saturday morning seemed like a good time to offer the areas of Notre Dame’s game in which the Irish were playing well through three games.
There weren’t many such categories, certainly none on the defensive side of the ball. But of the 40 major statistical categories on offense, defense and special teams, there were 10 in which the Irish ranked among the nation’s top 40, or approximately the top one-third of the FBS.
One of those 10 categories was kickoff coverage. The Irish entered the Duke game allowing just 14 yards per eight kick return, which ranked seventh in the country.
Compounding the horror of allowing a 96-yard kickoff return by Shaun Wilson was the fact that Wilson was subbing for an established, truly great kick returner in DeVon Edwards, who suffered what is expected to be a season-ending knee injury on his first kick return.
Maybe now we’ll be asking: Who is this year’s Shaun Wilson?