NOTRE DAME, Ind. – The No. 1 jersey remained in the locker room Saturday because NCAA rules prevented offensive lineman Quenton Nelson from wearing it.
It should stay there.
Because after this 38-35 loss to Duke, that jersey has been reduced to a symbol of Notre Dame’s misread of both a season and a program. When Brian Kelly concocted the idea to rotate the No. 1 to honor Notre Dame’s perch atop the college football record books in winning percentage it smacked of forced narrative.
Notre Dame didn’t need a new tradition anymore than it needed to enter the field for warmups through a mostly empty student section. Four weeks into the most disastrous campaign of the Kelly era the sartorial move has been revealed as nothing more than naked hubris.
Of all that went wrong inside Notre Dame Stadium yesterday, the worst involved decimal points.
Notre Dame is no longer college football’s all-time winningest program.
That honor now belongs to Michigan, which shows no signs of doing anything other than expanding its miniscule edge.
Notre Dame played the kind of uninspired football not seen in this stadium since the days of Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis.
At least when Kelly sputtered to a 1-3 start in his debut season here you could tell the Irish were building. There’s only so much to be done with a surgically repaired Dayne Crist, freshman Tommy Rees and walk-on Nate Montana. This is Notre Dame collapsing with a future first-round pick at quarterback in DeShone Kizer. This is Notre Dame as Kelly intended to build it, from defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on down to a roster with one comical sack.
This is Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly.
“I'm a 1-3 coach, we're all 1-3 coaches, so we're in the same boat as all of our players,” Kelly said. “So let's be clear on that.”
Except Kelly made sure that he wasn’t after backing VanGorder a few minutes earlier, claiming he liked what he saw from a defense that allowed 498 yards, four touchdowns and a game-winning field goal drive against a kicker who hadn’t made one all year.
After ripping his entire roster other than running back Dexter Williams and long snapper Scott Daly, Kelly is simply playacting to compliment VanGorder after an afternoon like this. Firing VanGorder on the spot doesn’t solve the problem. But praising the defensive staff makes Kelly look ignorant to the entire operation.
“Actually, (defensive coaching) is probably the one area that I feel better about today,” Kelly said. “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.
“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.”
The student section chanted “Fire VanGorder” during and after the game, perhaps oblivious to the fact his son Montgomery is among them as Notre Dame’s holder. And to believe a coordinator change in season will suddenly make the Irish more athletic at safety or better in the pass rush is as misguided as complimenting him in the first place.
Notre Dame has allowed more than 200 yards rushing to all three Power 5 opponents this year. It has one sack. It’s allowed 30 points or more to 13 of the past 20 Power 5 opponents. It caved to end games against Stanford, Texas, Michigan State and Duke.
The Irish are on pace to hit historic worsts in yardage allowed per game and points surrendered. They’re 50 yards worse than VanGorder’s first season and about a field goal worse in scoring from that same campaign. All told, Kelly’s gamble on his coaching buddy has proven to be a historic failure.
Notre Dame has allowed a national-worst five plays of at least 60 yards this season.
It allowed five during Bob Diaco’s four seasons as defensive coordinator.
“I guess there’s no easy answer,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “The only thing I’ll say now is to keep moving forward. We just gotta find a way.”
Yet Kelly has neither a map nor a compass today.
Because while the defense may be his biggest problem, it’s no longer his only problem.
After a day like this it’s fair to wonder if he’s lost the locker room after indicting the passion of his entire roster, save running back Dexter Williams. Kelly ripped his side for treating football like a job, laboring through another joyless game day. Yet it’s all a self-fulfilling prophecy because no player would call getting ripped by a head coach through the media fun.
Kelly left his players to face inquisitions about how much they love football or whether they cared enough to keep working. And the answers matter less than how Kelly’s commentary forced the question.
“It’s tough when guys are sick all week, trying to get energy to get going. It’s tough. Guys have tests all week. That’s what we face at a university like this, but we can’t let it get in our way,” said linebacker James Onwualu. “We gotta go back to the drawing board. We gotta figure some things out.
“Guys just have to look at themselves and figure out what they want from the year. Do they want to get better or do they want to continue to lose? That includes myself.”
Credit the players for handling this mess like adults.
Notre Dame now needs the coaching staff to do the same.
Kelly cannot go to the whip again without losing the locker room, assuming he hasn’t already. To put his players in position to defend their alleged apathy is no way to bring them back from a weekend like this. And yet that’s exactly where he went.
“There's no passion. There's no passion for it,” Kelly said. “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.
“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.”
Where is that exactly? Nobody knows. Maybe Kelly included.