Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly called timeout on the fourth play of the second half Saturday night. His defense’s error (this specific error, there were more, of course), was the presence of 12 defenders on the field.
You can’t blame a guy for trying.
Notre Dame’s defense was again shredded in defeat, yielding 31 points (the rudderless Irish special teams surrendered seven more) and nearly 500 yards of total offense in a 38-35 loss to apparent peer foe Duke.
Asked about his program’s defensive leadership post-game, Kelly’s response has since elicited disbelief from his fed up fan base. He also unwittingly offered what will prove to be his most telling excuse:
“Actually, that's probably the one area that I feel better about today,” said Kelly. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective.”
Come on, man.
THE LOWEST OF EXPECTATIONS
At first blush, Kelly’s circuitous praise serves as an affront to all humans equipped with either eyes and a television, or ears and a radio frequency.
But to better understand his meaningless refrain, step into the head man’s shoes:
Consider Kelly’s perspective on his defenseless defense akin to that of parents and their newborn. When new parents are, for instance, 30 days into their child’s life, and the newborn “only” wakes five times during the course of a night, the new parents have reason to be pleased.
Relatively speaking, it’s a win. Five isn’t so bad. It’s not worse than 10.
That’s what Saturday was for final year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and his speed bumps, 30 games into his tenure: a relative win.
That is, they weren’t definitively the worst unit on the football field. Sure they might have been, but culprits abound.
“Obviously, we put our defense in a bad situation today and they gave our offense a chance to win, quite frankly,” Kelly offered. “Those turnovers were deadly and obviously the kickoff return for a touchdown just put us in a tough situation.
“There are things that I want to get better at defensively, there's no question. But that's the least of my concerns after today.”
For most Irish fans, rioting in the streets and Zika are the only items above “get a defense” on their growing list of concerns.
The order doesn’t matter – none of the above will be cured anytime soon.
IT REALLY DOES ROLL DOWNHILL
Kelly and VanGorder benched a starting cornerback and a starting safety by the end of the first half. According to Kelly, more such moves are imminent.
Ah but don’t get too excited Irish fans – these changes will be made between the lines only, because against the headwinds of accepted wisdom and custom, Kelly and his co-conspirators in this wreckage that will prove to be the 2016 season, apparently remain above the fray.
On the contrary, quarterback DeShone Kizer, who had the gall to commit two turnovers Saturday to go along with his requisite three touchdowns (yes, Kizer averages THREE touchdowns produced per game over his 15-game starting career) was not among those spared by Kelly’s post-game cacophony of blame-game carnage.
“Below standard. It's not acceptable, his play,” said Kelly of the triggerman that has accounted for 21 touchdowns vs. six turnovers during the team’s current five-game losing skid vs. teams not from the state of Nevada.
This is Notre Dame 2016: mired at 1-3 with an exasperated head coach throwing everybody under the sun under the bus with the exception of the two people most at fault.
“Oh yeah, there’ll be personnel changes,” he said. “Every position. All 22 of them will be evaluated. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team.”
Yet those on the headsets remain above reproach, at least until director of athletics Jack Swarbrick steps in sometime between noon and 5 pm on the Monday after Thanksgiving and pulls the proverbial plug.
While Kelly’s degrees of blame might be misplaced or inaccurate, the on field participants about to fight for their own jobs during practice this week are hardly exempt.
And their refrain has grown tiresome.
“They wanted it more than us. From warm-ups to the fourth quarter, they came out to play and we didn't,” said Kizer of Duke. “We didn't execute the way we were supposed to and it's clear as day that they came in here ready to win the game.”
Don’t want it, or aren’t able to do anything about it? If it’s the latter, so be it.
If it’s the former? Why did the staff recruit you, how faulty since has been your development, and why are you on the field when there are others – it is assumed – champing at the bit to take your place?
“There's just not a continuation, there's no consistency in it,” Kelly admitted in the wake of a 14-0 early lead lost. “They can't burn for a long time. There's no passion. There's no passion for it. It looks like it's hard to play. Like we're pulling teeth. You're playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it's work.
“Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game,” he continued. “There's no fun, there's no enjoyment, there's no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that's where we got to go.”
Kelly offered a similar critique of his players – check that, Charlie Weis’ players – during his first and second seasons at the helm. Now in Year 7, it’s apparently back to the mental edge drawing board.
“I must be doing a poor job,” Kelly said.
A poor job of motivating, for whatever reason. A poor job of delegating, hiring, and firing, as it has become abundantly clear. And a poor job of finding a way to win when the odds aren’t dramatically in his favor.
He won’t quit trying to find the right message for his group, that’s not Brian Kelly. But will they still follow?
“If you want to play for me moving forward…you better have some damn fire and energy in you,” Kelly offered. “We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”
And there’s no reasonable reason to believe they’re prepared to fight in an effort to get it back.null