RALEIGH, N.C. – Notre Dame football is broken.
It’s not ailing or struggling or in a rut.
It’s broken, shattered to smithereens, and quite likely, beyond the point of no return, at least as it relates to the second half of the 2016 regular season.
It’s astonishing how it has reached this point considering one year ago, the Irish were in the running for a playoff bid well into the month of November.
Since then, Notre Dame has lost a ton of NFL talent, a defense, a defensive coordinator and, this week in Raleigh, an offense as well.
The special teams have been lost for a long time.
A despondent Brian Kelly sloshed his way into the post-game interview room a beaten man. His demeanor and body language reflected the state of the Notre Dame football program.
He was more than the losing coach of a 10-3 decision to N.C. State; he was the lost coach of the 2-4 Irish.
IN SEARCH OF AN OFFENSIVE SPARK
“I was very pleased with our physicality, our toughness and our tackling,” Kelly said. “Just extremely disappointed in the offensive execution and obviously the lack of our ability to manage the snapping, which was atrocious as well.”
His words displayed how he’s handling the latest calamity – an ill-conceived, misguided plan of attack -- only this time, on his side of the football.
Make no mistake, the demise of the Irish rushing attack didn’t come Saturday in Carter-Finley Stadium. The erosion of the ground game has taken time, accomplished with a series of game plans designed to emphasize the passing attack at the expense of the ground game.
The Irish reached a new low against the Wolfpack, promising a package to fit the atmospheric conditions and then doing everything in their power to steer clear of any semblance of a rushing attack that might stave off a 113-yard total offense effort on 64 snaps (1.8 per snap).
The field-position game was disregarded from the opening kickoff. The importance of flipping the field was a foreign concept. Passes were thrown into and with the wind with a miniscule percentage of completing it before a sudden gust of wind blew it awry.
The situation begged for Malik Zaire to replace DeShone Kizer, not because Kizer was doing anything wrong per se, but because in this instance, in these conditions, Zaire gave Notre Dame – if not the best chance to win – the best chance to provide an offensive spark.
But when pressed to respond to an inquiry into his thoughts regarding Zaire, Kelly responded as if Zaire’s assets were undefined. This is the same Zaire who just a few short weeks ago gave the offense the best chance to succeed paired with Kizer.
“We kind of did,” said Kelly when asked if he considered the wildcat. “Kizer had 15 carries. The offense could’ve been tweaked in that regard…
“(Zaire) is not really a wildcat guy. (N.C. State quarterback Jalan) McClendon’s a big fella. He’s a big, physical kid. But no, it was never a thought that we would go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”
Notre Dame didn’t need to go “strictly into that kind of offensive structure.” N.C. State didn’t, although Ryan Finley wasn’t ready to play in the weather conditions presented by Hurricane Matthew, and it wasn’t very wise or productive for the Wolfpack to go back to Finley in lieu of McClendon. McClendon was the spark they needed to turn field position into the lone touchdown of the day – a blocked punt for a touchdown.
If Zaire is not really a wildcat guy, why was he in competition with Kizer in August in the first place? Granted, his passing improved, but it was never going to be up to par with Kizer’s, just as Kizer’s running ability, although effective, will never match Zaire’s.
Even if Kelly didn’t think of tabbing Zaire for a spark, N.C. State planted the seed by using McClendon and using him effectively. And yet it was never a serious consideration for Irish, just as the imbalance in the run-pass intentions were never fully addressed.
“No, I don’t think I would second-guess that,” said Kelly of his decision to emphasize the pass. “We still had 38 carries. It was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football when we did throw it. We just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”
Three pass plays were called by the Irish in the opening drive, which began at their own 20. Notre Dame needed to throw the football in a driving rainstorm heading into the wind in the opening drive of the game?
Perhaps the Irish just aren’t good enough to run the football. Perhaps all that four-star talent up front along the offensive line just isn’t that good, or at least not on par with N.C. State’s. Perhaps Harry Hiestand is overrated and doesn’t gain the cohesion necessary to be a quality, consistent running team.
Nobody believes any of those things. Nobody believes that the North Carolina State offensive line is more talented or should be more cohesive than Notre Dame’s. Nobody believes Hiestand is overrated in his area of expertise.
Why is one of the best run-blocking offensive line coaches in the country on the staff if they’re not going to utilize his assets? Cut him free and let him coach for an offense that values the running game.
Halfway through the 2016 season, this coaching staff has shown itself to be ill-prepared to begin this journey. Brian VanGorder had the wrong plan against Texas. Kelly flat-out admitted that the following week. The defensive players weren’t responding to VanGorder, to the point where he had to be fired after four games.
Notre Dame’s special teams are so badly mismanaged and so ill-prepared for any level of consistency, each week is a disaster waiting to happen, including a new-fangled punt scheme that cost the Irish the N.C. State game.
Now, watching and listening to a despondent Kelly after the game, one couldn’t help but wonder if the guy had reached the edge.
“When your team is flat and not playing with that energy, you kind of sense it,” Kelly said. “They were excited to play today and you want to be there for them. You want to make the right call, you want to put them in the right position.”
Kelly, always confident and resolute in his decision-making, stopped to give long, hard consideration to leading his team astray.
“You had two guys back there, maybe you second-guess yourself,” said Kelly of the disastrous special teams decision to have two, and not three, protectors for punter Tyler Newsome.
“Maybe we should’ve been in a three-man wall there instead of rugby. You second-guess yourself in games like this where your team is ready to play and excited to play.”
If Notre Dame coaches aren’t going to provide any input, or Kelly is not going to take it, which presumably VanGorder didn’t either, what good does it do to hire quality coaches? Why is Mike Sanford at Notre Dame? How is his knowledge helping Notre Dame, other than the individual attention he gives to his quarterbacks?
What do analysts provide if their input and guidance fall by the wayside because of game plans that do not maximize the talent or fit the situation?
Fortunately, loyal soldier Mike Elston stepped forward following the firing of VanGorder and quietly put together the shell of a defense that not only stopped the bleeding, but raised optimism on the defensive side of the football while Greg Hudson gained the accolades.
Then the offense ran amuck against N.C. State, due largely to a plan that couldn’t work.
“We’ve got some inexperienced guys,” said Kelly of his team. “I get it. But they have to grow up. That will be the emphasis.”
They have grown up. The question is: Who will coach the coaches? Who will pull Kelly out of the mental funk that enveloped him after this trying loss? Where does the leadership come from when it’s not coming from the top?
What happens from here may fall on the shoulders of the players. The question is not whether Kelly has lost this team. The question after a fourth loss in six games is whether the team has lost Kelly.