NOTRE DAME, Ind. – From a sense of urgency to a state of emergency.
The 2016 Notre Dame football team took another step backward – make that a precipitous drop off the college football cliff – in its 38-35 loss to Duke for its second straight home heartbreaker and fifth loss in its last six games dating back to 2015.
If you want to know what a shattered football team looks like, gaze into the eyes of DeShone Kizer, James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey.
Asked to respond to questions for which they have no answers, they were among the players who were offered up as a human sacrifice to represent Notre Dame football moments after Brian Kelly questioned the very manhood of all 22 offensive and defensive starters.
“I don’t care what your resume says,” said an irate Kelly. “I don’t care if you were a five-star, if you have a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdowns. You better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”
Whereas Kelly fell on the sword last week following Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State, he turned that metal into a weapon of mass destruction on virtually an entire football roster, save for running back Dexter Williams and long-snapper Scott Daly.
Open blade, full force, minimal survivors.
“There’s no passion,” Kelly fumed. “There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth.
“We’ve got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy.”
Kelly presumably had his offense in mind when making those statements because as anyone can see at this stage of the disorder created by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, fun and confidence is simply not feasible.
The defense is so fundamentally unsound -- so prone to mistakes and missed tackles -- that they can’t possibly settle into a comfort zone.
They’re so concerned about all the addendums to their respective roles that they’re never quite sure what exactly that role is. A playbook with footnotes and writing in the margins looks like gibberish after 25 games of chaos.
At least last year, there were NFL-caliber players to help right the ship, which they seldom did. This group would have trouble with FCS competition, let alone Power 5 conference teams that are now 3-0 against the Irish.
LOSING A TEAM
While one can understand the frustration Kelly must feel, his rage against his players – which he undoubtedly shared with them after the game – should have remained in the locker room.
He tried to control his anger. He tried to squash the temptation to lambaste his team publicly. It worked for a few minutes, and then the bomb detonated.
“You’re playing football for Notre Dame!” Kelly steamed. “It looks like it’s work! Last I checked, they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun. There’s no enjoyment. There’s no energy.”
Whereas last week he truly took responsibility for the team’s shortcomings, he negated any chemistry formed during Duke week by dumping it completely in the lap of his players. Justified or not, that does not play well with today’s elite athlete.
One of two things is at play here, and it really can be only one of two things, or some combination of both: either he and his staff have recruited the wrong players or they’re doing a terrible job of coaching the players they have brought in.
The 2016 Notre Dame football team has been coached wretchedly this month, from the disastrous schematic approach defensively against Texas to the inability to get the players to hit their emotional mark in back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Duke.
Some were asked to put on a brave face, and they did so. They were hesitant, not really sure how to respond, particularly to questions pertaining to the head coach’s strong denunciation of the players.
“Obviously, I agree with what the head coach is telling the team,” McGlinchey said. “We didn’t maintain that consistency that we’ve been working for all week and throughout the game. That’s a testament to the lack of enthusiasm and energy.
“Coach Kelly is sending a strong message to our football team that something needs to be changed. It (requires) a workmanlike attitude to fix the problem. It starts with every player in here. All we can do is change our approach and our attitude.”
Added linebacker James Onwualu: “We’re now in a different situation than 1-2. We’re 1-3 now so we obviously have some things to change. I have confidence in the coaches that they’ll figure it out.”
BEATEN UP, BEATEN DOWN
This looks like a team closing out the long grind in November, not one that has yet to play a game in October. The passion is absent due largely to the life and spirit that has been sucked out of the hapless defensive players who either don’t know how to tackle or simply can’t.
Notre Dame has been out-coached – badly – by Charlie Strong, Mark Dantonio and David Cutcliffe. While it’s true that softness permeates certain segments of this team – beginning first and foremost along the defensive line – this is, at the very least, a shared blame.
The responsibility of any coaching staff is to find the buttons to push that provide a spark. Kizer – who begged off a Wednesday press conference after staying up most of the night tending to his academics – had the look of a player at the end of his rope mentally and physically.
“They wanted it more than us,” Kizer said. “From warm-ups to the fourth quarter, they came out to play and we didn’t.
“(Kelly) has given me the keys to the offense and let me run it. To go 1-3 and not come up on some big drives at the end of the game, that all falls on me as the commander of the offense. It’s my job to execute it, and I haven’t done that well lately.”
That was Kizer’s trademark a year ago when he led game-winning or potential game-winning drives against Virginia, Clemson, USC, Temple and Stanford.
Without some of the NFL players Kelly has repeatedly referred to, Kizer and the offense has failed to take advantage of late-game opportunities in all three September losses.
They fight, to be sure, but there has been two “blown saves” – a 35-31 lead with 10:57 left against Texas and a 35-28 lead over Duke with 7:46 remaining.
In the final drive against Texas in regulation, the Irish didn’t get beyond their 31. In the final drive against Michigan State, the Irish reached their own 37. In the final drive against Duke, hopes died at the Notre Dame 44.
Three games, three final drives, none reaching opposing territory.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
Whereas the suggestion that Notre Dame was on the “cusp of mutiny” a week ago ultimately seemed a bit premature during Duke week, there was no question after the loss to the Blue Devils that this is a shattered football team that clearly is showing signs of packing it in.
The team is disjointed, undisciplined and downright soft. In a six-play sequence to start the second half, the Irish had 12 men on the field, prompting a timeout less than two minutes into the third quarter. There were 10 men on the field for the ensuing punt.
Who is in charge of this mess?
Kelly doesn’t necessarily have to backtrack from his harsh private and public words to/of his team, but he’s going to have to show some dexterity managing the disparaging message.
Today’s modern elite athlete does not take kindly to blame, and the “it’s on the coaching staff” mantra from the previous week is now a faded memory, replaced by the public bludgeoning he gave his players Saturday night.
Syracuse, which is averaging 86 snaps per game and just under 500 yards total offense, will show the Irish defense a pace it hasn’t seen since the North Carolina game of 2014. That’s not something the Irish defense needs at this time, but like it or not, here it comes.
There are only 16 teams in the country that allow more yards per play than the Orange defense, which means a colossal shootout awaits in the Meadowlands.
Kelly has a mountainous, in-season reconstruction on his hands that encompasses the mental, physical and emotional aspects of his players…and probably his coaches, too.
His strong words, though certainly understandable under the circumstances, undoubtedly jeopardize his relationship with his players moving forward.
It was easy to say after the loss to Michigan State that there was plenty for which to play. With Duke and Syracuse up next, back-to-back victories would have put the Irish above the .500 mark with opportunities to turn the season around.
Even for the most wild-eyed optimist, and there can’t be very many of those left on the team after Saturday night, the specific goals and the optimism required to achieve them are a fuzzy image somewhere off in the stratosphere.
A broken football team must now once again try to connect the pieces that were never interlocked in the first place, and even that’s assuming none of the pieces have been lost for good.