NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame’s season went over the brink on Saturday, shoved there by a red-shirt freshman quarterback and a Duke program that had struggled to score against Wake Forest and Northwestern.
Now at 1-3, Notre Dame’s worst start since Brian Kelly’s debut season, the Irish might not be able to get back on track this fall despite having a future NFL quarterback in DeShone Kizer So what’s next? Here are three takeaways from the 38-35 loss to Duke that saw public pressure jump from Brian VanGorder to the man who retained him for a third season.
Go Young On Defense
At this point could it get any worse?
That’s message board logic in most instances but might not be after Duke put nearly 500 yards on Notre Dame’s defense despite starting red-shirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones.
The Irish barely got pressure on Jones despite recording the team’s first sack of the season, thanks to a Nyles Morgan blitz in the third quarter. Jones hit on 24-of-32 passes for 290 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception, basically matching his counterpart Kizer.
Notre Dame’s defense allowed 208 yards rushing and has surrendered at least 30 points against 13 of the past 20 FBS opponents. VanGorder’s defense is broken. Going young won’t fix it, but turning to freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Jalen Elliott probably won’t wreck it more either.
Vaughn made the first interception of his college career on Saturday, perfectly playing a Jones’ lob in the end zone. Now it’s a question if he’ll replace Nick Coleman in the starting lineup. Coleman was pulled on defense and special teams, where he missed a tackle on Shaun Wilson’s 96-yard kickoff return score in the first quarter.
“Absolutely,” Kelly said on going young. “And not just Donte Vaughn. Every position, every position, all 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. And that's the quarterback, all the way down to, maybe, the long snapper's OK. We're not going to touch him. But everybody else is vulnerable.”
It’s hard to know what Kelly can do offensively with personnel, although guard Tristen Hoge might get a look over Colin McGovern. Dexter Williams could take Tarean Folston’s carries. There’s no fix at tight end. The young receivers are already playing.
One change Kelly put on the table might qualify as in playing quarterback Brandon Wimbush over Kizer or Malik Zaire. Kelly didn’t rule that out despite planning to red-shirt the sophomore quarterback.
“That's a possibility,” Kelly said. “That's a definite possibility.”
Dexter Williams Auditions For Bigger Role
Brian Kelly said just one player played with passion against Duke.
While that’s a scathing indictment of the entire roster, it was also meant to be a compliment to Dexter Williams, who carried five times for 27 yards and a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
“Guys that have fire and grit and, we had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. That is Dexter Williams,” Kelly said. “He's the only one. He's the only one that I saw. One guy.
“So, if you want to play for me moving forward, I don't care what your resume says, I don't care if you were a five star, if you had a 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”
To take Kelly at his word, Williams will start next week against Syracuse. Josh Adams was ineffective in his 14 carries for 60 yards. Tarean Folston may be slipping out of the rotation following a five-carry, 17-yard day. DeShone Kizer matched Adams with 60 yards rushing to lead the Irish.
On the flip side, Duke’s Jela Duncan carried 21 times for 121 yards.
“I think your job is always up for grabs,” Adams said. “Whoever’s working hard, whoever is giving spark should be out there. They’re leading not by talking leading, they’re leading by example. Your job is always up for grabs.
“I think that we don’t have enough guys that are passionate.”
Special Teams Trip Irish, Again
It’s easy to forget that Duke lost arguably its best player in the first quarter when special teams ace DeVon Edwards went down with a knee injury believed to include ligament damage that may be season-threatening. Edwards already had six career kickoff return touchdowns.
So when Edwards was helped off the field by trainers it seemed to blunt Duke’s best chance to score. Instead, on Notre Dame’s very next kickoff, replacement Shaun Wilson went 96 yards for a touchdown, with cornerback Nick Coleman the last chance to tackle him before the junior got flying down the sideline.
Coupled with Justin Yoon’s missed field goal attempt from 42 yards, Notre Dame’s special teams had another rough performance. It appeared the Irish even trotted out a 10-man punt return unit in the second half.
Tyler Newsome averaged 47 yards per punt but the Irish netted just 36.5 yards on those four attempts.
After last week’s breakdowns against Michigan State, where the Irish muffed a punt return, had a kickoff return touchdown called back and committed a needless personal foul, it’s hard to know what Kelly can trust in that phase of the game.