SIGNS OF LIFE
It was a bit of a surprise when Brian Kelly offered this comment following the loss to Duke in which the Blue Devils gained 498 yards total offense.
“Actually, that’s one area that I feel better about today,” said Kelly of the defense following the 38-35 loss to Duke. “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.”
What Kelly was pleased about was some actual progress in the red zone as Duke managed just one touchdown on three penetrations. Notre Dame held Duke on downs early in the second quarter and then again in the fourth quarter. The Irish also came up stout as the Blue Devils tried to punch it into the end zone with under two minutes left, only to be thwarted by a bunch of determined Irish defenders.
That’s what Kelly was talking about.
Credit sophomore linebacker Te’von Coney among several others for coming up big in these critical situations. Coney’s stop on 3rd-and-2 at the Irish 25 made it a 4th-and-1 with the game tied at 14. That set up a 4th-and-1 in which James Onwualu and Nyles Morgan stopped Jela Duncan for no gain.
Duke would take the lead less than four minutes later, but it was a statement by the Irish defense.
With the game tied at 28 and the Blue Devils at the Irish 19 with about 12 minutes remaining, Notre Dame’s defensive line did the job. Jerry Tillery – playing a mainly anonymous game after a standout performance against Michigan State – made penetration with Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell to make the stop on Duncan. Credit also goes to freshman safety Devin Studstill, who made the tackle on Quay Chamber on 3rd-and-10, holding him a yard shy of the first-down marker and setting up the fourth-down stop.
With the game tied at 35 and the Blue Devils hoping to take a late seven-point lead, junior defensive Jonathan Bonner – not Tillery – was at the three-technique as the Irish forced the short field goal. On third down, Jones made penetration with Coney again sticking his nose in there along with Onwualu, Avery Sebastian and others.
Before Irish fans get too excited and suspect significant progress in short-yardage situations, be aware of what Doug Flutie said after one of Duke’s failed fourth-down attempts.
“That is not the strength of Duke vs. Notre Dame, hammering the ball up in there,” Flutie said. “This being a 4th-and-1 is not a comfort zone for Duke at all.”
But it’s progress.
DUKE RUN GAME
With the exception of a handful of runs by quarterback Daniel Jones, just about everything the Blue Devils’ did on the ground came between the tackles.
So between the tackles, Duke – averaging 3.6 yards per carry and 154 yards per game against North Carolina Central, Wake Forest and Northwestern – gained 208 yards on 42 carries for a 5.0-yard average against the Irish.
Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, just pound-it football that, with the exception of Notre Dame’s fourth-down stands, was effective enough for the Blue Devils to balance the attack with a 290-yard passing game.
Jela Duncan came into the game with three career 100-yard games. Make that four now with his career-high 121 yards. On Duncan’s 18-yard touchdown burst in the first quarter, Morgan and Coney were locked up with offensive linemen and had no chance to get off block or get to the run fit as Duncan burst through.
Notre Dame’s defensive line had a Blue Devil of a time getting off blocks. Jerry Tillery, who had his best game in an Irish uniform against Michigan State, was credited with one assisted tackle against Duke. Think about that. With the bulk of Duke’s runs coming between the tackles, Notre Dame’s three-technique was credited with one stop.
Nose tackle Daniel Cage had a very difficult time getting off blocks and took a step backward in his development. Credit to Jarron Jones for playing a determined and productive game with seven stops, a tackle for a loss, and numerous play-altering penetrations.
“Somebody has to take control and be a leader out on the field,” Flutie said. “Create an attitude. There’s just not an attitude or a vibe about the defense that they’re going to get nasty with an offense.”
It doesn’t take a real astute football observer to recognize the importance of Dexter Williams getting more carries in an Irish offense that, up to the Duke game, relied heavily on DeShone Kizer and Josh Adams, and a bit too much of Tarean Folston, who offers little in the wake of a torn ACL last season.
Since his 54-yard run to open the Texas game, Folston has carried the football 36 times for 92 yards (2.5-yard average). He runs physically, protects the football and is the backfield’s best pass protector. But the burst is gone. The get-off is too slow. The make-you-miss ability has vanished.
With Williams, who sparked the offense with a dashing 13-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter to tie the game at 21, there is the chance of a quick score or making something out of nothing because of his burst, which we saw on his 23-yard run against Nevada.
Whereas Folston needs a freeway to run through, Williams needs just a sliver. His takeoff is unmatched, even by Adams.
Brian Kelly emotionally described how prepared Williams was to play against Duke. More than five carries would have been a proper reward, but it’s a start. A one-two punch of Adams and Williams with Folston still playing a role in short-yardage and pass pro would be the best use of Notre Dame’s running backs moving forward. Folston threw the block for Adams on a 3rd-and-1 conversion that eventually led to Notre Dame’s go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Williams now has 13 carries for 83 yards (6.4) and two touchdowns.
WHY KIZER CAME UNDER SCRUTINY
Brian Kelly’s declaration that all 22 starting positions would be open, including quarterback, was a reaction in anger and frustration with the way his team played, including DeShone Kizer.
Brandon Wimbush is not going to burn a year of eligibility unless both Kizer and Malik Zaire are injured. Zaire is not going to move ahead of Kizer. Kizer is and remains the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
But it was a bit of a scattered performance by Kizer, who has upped the ante virtually every time he has made one of his 15 starts. This game was the exception. Instead of doing everything he could to give Notre Dame its best chance to win, he played a hand in the loss…and still led the team to five touchdowns.
It has been pointed out a couple times now that Kizer said he was up all night tending to academics Tuesday, which prompted him to beg off from Wednesday’s midday press conference. So the kid was running on some sleep deprivation and showed himself to be erratic at times against Duke.
There were accuracy issues with some passes. He showed a lack of concentration on the fumbled snap when he ran before looking the football into his hands. The desperation pass from his own end zone that resulted in an interception and that ultimately led to Duke’s game-winning field-goal drive reminded me of Tommy Rees’ last pass in a Notre Dame uniform against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Just throw it and let’s get this over with.
Kizer looked like he had gone 12 rounds of a boxing match by the end of the game. He wasn’t dialed in for 60 minutes. He hasn’t led game-winning drives like he did last year. In fact, the Irish haven’t reached the opposing team’s territory in any of the late-game drives against Texas, Michigan State and Duke.
He also doesn’t have Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Steve Elmer, Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Chris Brown or Alize Jones on the field with him anymore.
To expect Kizer to be better than he was in the previous game – every time – is unrealistic. It should be noted that Kizer threw for 381 yards and two touchdowns against Duke, averaging better than 17 yards per completion and 10 yards per attempt. He’s on pace for a 33-touchdown regular season. He has an average of 11 rushing attempts per game with five rushing touchdowns.
He’s being asked to account for too much of Notre Dame’s offense, which is why implementing Dexter Williams into the rushing attack with Josh Adams and Kizer is important. Of Notre Dame’s 1,823 total yards, Kizer has accounted for 1,282 of them (1,096 passing, 186 rushing). That’s 70 percent of the offense. He needs to be Notre Dame’s third running option, not it’s second, otherwise he won’t make it through the season.
Kizer certainly didn’t lose the game for the Irish. But he was not as sharp as we’ve come to expect. He led the Irish to just three touchdowns in their final 10 drives against the Blue Devils and needs some help…starting with the defense.
SUDDEN CHANGE = SUDDEN DEATH
There were few things more predictable during the VanGorder regime than a) the certainty that any drive that reached 70 yards would result in a touchdown, b) red-zone stops were as frequent as an eclipse and c) if it was a sudden-change situation, the opponent was going to score quickly.
In Notre Dame’s last 15 games – starting with the Georgia Tech game in Week 3 last year – the Irish defense has allowed a touchdown on three plays or less 16 times! In the games in which a rapid-fire score has occurred, the Irish are 6-6.
Not all of the limited-play scores have been “sudden change” scores following a turnover. There was the 83-yard run by Marquis Young of UMass, the 75-yard reception by JuJu Smith-Schuster and 83-yard grab by Adoree Jackson of USC, the 51-yarder by Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd, and the 80-yard run by Boston College quarterback Jeff Smith last year.
This season, the 72-yard reception by Texas’ John Burt, the 73-yard run by Michigan State’s Gerald Holmes, and Saturday’s 64-yard scoot up the sideline by Duke’s Anthony Nash have been added to the list.
Presented with a sudden change-scenario versus Duke after Kizer fumbled a snap at the Irish 25, Daniel Jones found Quay Chambers for a quick score as Drue Tranquill and James Onwualu quarreled about who should have done what.
Of the 16 quick/long scores in the last 15 games, six have been sudden-change, which are generally categorized by opposing drives that start in Notre Dame territory, including Deshaun Watson’s 21-yard touchdown run after a C.J. Sanders fumbled kick return vs. Clemson and Donnie Corley’s 38-yard score over Cole Luke in the Michigan State game this year.
Yet another problem that now rests on the plate of interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Wish David Cutcliffe had had an opportunity to coordinate Charlie Weis’ offense at Notre Dame, as he was hired to do in 2005 before undergoing triple-bypass surgery. Wish Cutcliffe were about 10 years younger (he’s 62). By the way, since the first game of the 2013 season, Duke is 29-15; Notre Dame is 28-15.
• Here’s the problem: Notre Dame needs to play Duke in basketball, not football.
• Great respect for the Duke secondary. Cornerback Breon Borders is a great college football player. The Blue Devils basically played the whole game without another quality player, DeVon Edwards, who suffered a knee injury less than three minutes into the game. Borders has 12 career interceptions and should have had his 13th. Last year’s starting free safety, Jeremy Cash, was a first-team All-American.
For the record, Duke’s defensive coordinator is Jim Knowles. Derek Jones coaches the cornerbacks, Matt Guerrieri instructs the safeties.
• Did you see how Duke tackled? Make no mistake, they’re hardly a lock-down unit. The Irish managed 534 yards total offense. But when the Blue Devils have an opportunity finish a tackle, they generally do it, particularly their secondary.
• Never thought Justin Yoon would struggle the way he has this year, although he has really aided Notre Dame’s kick coverage unit (Duke’s 96-yard kickoff return not withstanding). Of course, he started slowly last year and then made his final 12 field-goal attempts to finish 15-of-17. Through four games this year, he is 2-of-4 with Saturday’s 42-yard attempt missing badly to the right.
• Chase Claypool has been outstanding on Notre Dame’s coverage teams this year. But Claypool and Julian Okwara ran by Duke kick returner Shaun Wilson, followed by Nick Coleman’s missed arm tackle. Avery Sebastian had a head of steam and looked to be in position to run Wilson down, but he just wasn’t fast enough. Jalen Elliott and Greer Martini were sealed off to spring Wilson.
• Who is Notre Dame’s last consistent blocking tight end? Durham Smythe just doesn’t have enough punch on a consistent basis. He squares up nicely, but he’s just not strong enough. Are last year’s injuries limiting his strength build-up?
• Bad ball protection by Kevin Stepherson on his first-quarter fumble. But that was one helluva fumble recovery when safety Corbin McCarthy couldn’t come up with the handle. Also encouraging to see Stepherson not only break free for a perfectly-thrown 44-yard touchdown, but his crisp double move 20-yard reception midway through the second quarter. Torii Hunter, Jr. moves to the slot when Stepherson plays the X.
• Okay, raise your hand if you knew the second time Malik Zaire touched the ball, it was a pass?
• Never thought I’d say this, but Avery Sebastian has to play. He defended back-to-back passes down the middle, which hasn’t been said too often about Notre Dame’s secondary this year. He prevented a touchdown after Jela Duncan slipped out of a tackle attempt. If not for Sebastian, the Irish would have given up a touchdown, not a field goal on Duke’s game-winning drive. Sebastian also was blatantly held (not called) on a second-quarter kick return.
• Donte Vaughn did everything right on his second-half interception. Active feet off the snap, good recovery after falling a step behind, and ran with the receiver as long as he could before he had to turn and make a play on T.J. Rahming. Used his big frame to shield Rahming from the football. Well played by the 6-foot-2, 200-pound freshman.
• Although he came back in the second half and played, right guard Colin McGovern took a brutal upper body blow that bent him backwards. He left the game and was temporarily replaced by Hunter Bivin. Will be interested to check on McGovern’s health this week. Would guess it was a back ailment.
• Miles Boykin showed up in the passing game with a 20-yard reception, the first of his career. He also threw a nice downfield block along the sideline on Josh Adams’ 15-yard run.
• Did Dexter Williams want that 13-yard touchdown run? He ran through two tackles, by four defenders, and then another would-be tackler at the goal line. Now reward him.
• Was that a block in the back by C.J. Sanders on Josh Adams’ nine-yard touchdown run in the third quarter? Close, really close.
• Missed tackles often are created by a high target point. Exhibit A: James Onwualu in the open field against Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, who was able to squirm for a nine-yard gain because Onwualu had no leverage.
• Will leave you with one final depressing defensive stat, just to fully capture the 30-game Brian VanGorder era. Notre Dame has not recovered a fumble in four games. Hard to recover one when you have forced one yet.