NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It is a testament to the players on the 2016 team.
Jarron Jones was near tears after his valiant effort went for naught. Mike McGlinchey, Greer Martini, Drue Tranquill and others promised there’s still plenty left in the tank.
A bye week will only make the will of the players stronger as they prepare for the final five-game stretch, beginning with Miami back in Notre Dame Stadium in two weeks where the Irish have lost three in a row for the first time since 2007.
The foundation of this program lies in the will of the players.
What makes this team continue the fight following a devastating 17-10 loss to Stanford?
The character of the group. A core group of players who are desperately fighting to avoid a losing tag that will follow them for the rest of their lives every time “the 2016 season” is mentioned. A spirit that has yet to burn out, but has been doused five times with the game on the line.
The remnants of Hurricane Matthew stand as a symbol to the downpour that continues to rain down on a Notre Dame team as clueless how to win as a Stanford program is locked into winning, even when its own version of 2016 football is a shadow of recent successes.
“The second-half mantra was keep playing hard, good things will happen,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw, who raised his career mark with The Tree to 58-16 while avoiding his first three-game losing streak since succeeding Jim Harbaugh following the 2010 season. “Just keep playing hard. Don’t worry about the mistake you just made.
“We started to feel it on the sidelines, a feeling we haven’t felt for what feels like a month, a feeling of confidence, energy and passion…There’s no time to be tired. Can’t be tired. It’s time to play our best football, and thankfully at the end of the game, guys made some plays to finish the game out.”
It’s a mantra the Fighting Irish must cling to as if their lives depended upon it.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
Brian Kelly likes to say “you can’t start winning until you start losing,” which is coach-speak for mistakes lead to defeat.
The Notre Dame players felt all of those positive vibes along the sideline, too. The players rocked back and forth in unison, trying to manufacture enthusiasm and belief that this time, it was going to be different. This time, the offense was going to complete the game-tying or game-winning drive.
But at a time when the Irish should be using the principles of success to build a better and stronger team as opposed to mere enthusiasm, they’re still trying to create the belief that they’re going to win. Stanford knows it has what it takes to pull out such games while the Irish can only hope.
It’s a vicious cycle. You want to believe it’s possible. Plays are made to inspire and further the positive momentum. But when failure with the game on the line is the only inhabitant of the memory bank – all such successes from a year ago are long gone – there’s the doubt in the deepest recesses of the psyche.
Mix that doubt with Stanford’s decade of success. For the Cardinal, an accumulation of experiences spits out a conclusion. Stanford wins these games and Notre Dame loses them.
It’s the difference between a consistent winning culture and one that only experiences a level of consistent success when it draws the inside straight or all the stars align just right.
It makes the Notre Dame players’ response to the latest devastation all the more inspiring and sad at the same time.
WANTING TO BELIEVE
“We’re going to have a great outlook and attitude moving forward,” said captain Mike McGlinchey. “That’s the character and attitude of the guys in the locker room and the character of the coaches leading us.
“I’m proud of the way we compete, I’m proud of the way we go to work. We have to keep the same mindset. We obviously know we can do it. We’re always there.”
“It’s tough, but all we can do is learn and move forward,” said junior safety Drue Tranquill. “I’m not going to change the outcome of that game. No one in here is going to change the outcome of that game. The only thing we can control is how we come to work next Monday.”
“This team has gone through a rough patch,” said junior linebacker Greer Martini. “But for us, it’s all about putting our head down and going to work. We will get through this. We’re going to get over this hump, and when we do, we’re going to be good. Notre Dame football will become good again.”
“Every man in this locker room is trying to get better every week,” said captain James Onwualu. “It’s difficult. But we’re just going to keep pushing and work through this adversity. When things aren’t working out, you keep working harder.”
“No matter how hard things get, we’ve got to stay the course,” said fifth-year senior Jarron Jones. “We have to believe in our coaches, believe in each other, and believe we can work our way out of this…Push each other, love each other, play for each other…I felt like this was the most energetic game we’ve ever had in our four years here. We’re going to keep fighting.”
“It’s tough, obviously it’s really tough,” said senior cornerback Cole Luke. “Obviously we have a bunch of tough guys. Bad times go away; tough people don’t.”
REASON TO BELIEVE
Here are words you never thought you’d hear. The Notre Dame defense has become the backbone of the 2016 team.
Since Brian Kelly fired Brian VanGorder and shifted his focus to the defensive side of the football, the unit led by Mike Elston and Greg Hudson has played winning football. Not championship football, but winning football.
The defense has allowed two touchdowns in the last 10 quarters. Big plays have been minimized. Syracuse, N.C. State and Stanford have had to work extremely hard to put a notch in the scoring column. The Irish defense has allowed:
• Six points in the second half to Syracuse
• Three points to N.C. State
• 10 points to Stanford
That’s 19 points allowed by the defense in the last 10 quarters. The defense has done its job while the offense that was on a record-setting pace has scored 13 points in the last eight quarters.
“(The defense) was solid,” Kelly said. “The thing I wanted to do was keep the points down and limit the big plays.
“You can’t be everything you want to be defensively with just those two things, but you can keep your football team in what I felt was a good position to win games. We just haven’t been able to do the things I expected to do to win games.”
Now it’s time for Kelly to turn all of his attention back on the offense. The defense is in capable hands with Mike Elston and Greg Hudson running the show.
The Irish found the start of a rushing attack against Stanford. Most of it came in the first half when they rushed for 108 yards, although 49- and 32-yard runs by DeShone Kizer accounted for most of it. It’s tough to build a powerful ground game when the offensive line is built to pass block.
Clearly, Kizer is pressing, and the loss of Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle – which was dismissed by some due to the promise of a bunch of young receivers – has proven significant.
Has Kizer become less of a quarterback? Yes, due in large part to a receiving corps that doesn’t have the savvy and wherewithal of last year’s crew, as well as Kizer’s burden to carry the whole load. That forced mindset has led to his mistakes.
There was nothing wrong with the insertion of Malik Zaire to create a spark. But Kelly needed to make a tough call after the snap out of the end zone. Fair or not to Zaire, he needed to go back to Kizer and put the game on his shoulders, heavy though they may be.
The only solace in the aftermath of the seventh loss in the last nine games is that Kelly is surrounded by a bunch of young players who refuse to give up the fight. After a bye week, the team will come out against Miami with the desire to turn things around. It’s in their DNA.
“When things aren’t going well in the family, you keep it in the family,” Kelly said. “We’re going to work on it together. There’s a commitment that I love about this group that really energizes you to do everything you can to get them through this really difficult time.”
Will it be enough? Maybe not in the short term. But for those hoping a new head coach will be leading them next year, it’s unlikely. Kelly will not be fired after this season. He will be back with 55 of the 61 players listed on this week’s depth chart. He needs to hire a quality defensive coordinator who can build upon the basic fundamentals that have been built on defense the last three weeks.
Will the ground game ever be truly emphasized the way it needs to be done at Notre Dame? Probably not. But with a veteran offense returning, there is hope long-term that the 2017 team will benefit from the struggles of the 2016 squad. Today’s young receiving corps will be much better prepared to mesh with Kizer, presuming Kizer returns, which is no given. The entire offensive line will return intact.
Predicting the record through the balance of the schedule is not possible, despite doomsday speculation of 3-9. This team continues to put itself in position to win. Its five losses have come by a total of 28 points. The worm will turn at some point. Maybe it will only be against Navy and Army…or perhaps just one of the two.
The fight amongst the players is impressive. The bye week will help re-charge the batteries once again. The players are plugged in.
This no longer is about 2016 per se. It’s about where Notre Dame goes over the last five games of ’16, a very outside shot at a bowl game, and then through the 12 regular-season games in ’17.
That’s 17 games minimum. Kelly’s future at Notre Dame will be determined over those 17 games. If it hasn’t straightened out by then, the program will go in a different direction.
That may not sound very encouraging. But until there’s actual evidence that the 2017 team will be led by someone else, that is the reality of Notre Dame football.
In other words, “grim” and bear it.