KIZER/ZAIRE AND THE OFFENSIVE STRUGGLE
Bringing in Malik Zaire to give the offense a spark after back-to-back interceptions by DeShone Kizer in and of itself was not a bad decision. Kizer needed to step back and take inventory of the situation.
But once Zaire had a series in which he was completely out of sync and rusty, and then had another in which the football was snapped over his head for a safety, Brian Kelly needed to pull the plug and put Kizer back in due to the game situation.
After Stanford marched 67 yards on 11 plays, using 5:39, Kelly had to recognize that if Zaire sputtered again – which he did – there was a good chance Kizer would get just one more drive, and that’s exactly what happened.
Zaire should have played against N.C. State. That’s not up for debate at this point. Perhaps Zaire would have been a little sharper against Stanford. Perhaps he would have prepared better during Stanford week.
Kizer certainly is not at his best these days. He’s dropped to 10-8 as a starter. His accuracy has reverted to pre-2015 season when he wasn’t in the running for playing time, let alone a starting call.
He doesn’t have the “clean pockets” he had a year ago. There are instances in which he’s holding on to the football too long as the pocket collapses, fighting desperately to extend the play and make something happen.
Kizer is missing some pitch-and-catch throws, such as the pass to a wide open Kevin Stepherson in the opening series of the game, and again when he returned to the lineup and had an easy quick-out along the sideline.
His footwork is starting to go all over the place again. He actually never turned his feet on a badly-thrown third down pass to Torii Hunter, Jr., throwing across his body, which destroyed the accuracy of the throw.
He’s obviously much better rolling to his right than his left. He threw a really nice ball to Equanimeous St. Brown for 18 yards in the second quarter, which set up a field goal. In fact, that was a nice stabilizing drive after the interception that resulted in a 50-yard touchdown return.
On the ensuing drive, Kizer overcame a holding call on Hunter Bivin to complete a 3rd-and-4 pass to Stepherson. A swing pass to Hunter out of the backfield netted 20 yards (with blocks from St. Brown and Alex Bars). But Kizer missed Boykin badly rolling to his left, and then Dallas Lloyd intercepted his 4th-and-7 pass, which “wasn’t like a punt” because Lloyd returned it to the Irish 47.
Given one final chance to lead the Irish – and playing for the first time since the 8:29 mark of the third quarter (a total of 19:45 off the game clock) – he burst for a rushing first down, overcame a drop by Boykin, and weaved through a pass rush to find Hunter for a first down. He also got the ball to St. Brown for 16 and Chase Claypool for 13.
On 2nd-and-4 at the eight with 28 seconds left, left tackle Mike McGlinchey quickly lost contain on outside linebacker Mike Tyler, and Kizer was sacked. It was Tyler’s first career sack. He entered the game with seven tackles in five games.
This is where a broken philosophy needs to change.
The clock is ticking down from 20 seconds. By the time the Irish get lined up, there are 14 seconds left. There is plenty of time to run a three-step drop and loft one to the corner of the end zone. They practice fade throws during pre-game over and over and over again. What’s the difference between running the fourth down play with eight seconds as opposed to 12, which is what it was with the spike?
Why give yourself one chance to convert when you can have two? On fourth down, the defense is locked and loaded. On third down, the defense is scrambling. If you have an automatic call -- a verbal signal or a hand signal -- you can run a fade. You can run a quick out that gets you inside the five.
There are so many things that can be done instead of spiking the football. Instead, it came down to fourth down. Hunter was open, but Kizer panicked a bit, gave up on the throw and was tackled for a short gain.
It was interesting to hear Kathryn Tappen reveal the conversation she had with Kizer about “over-game-planning.” He looked explosive on his 32- and 49-yard runs. Doug Flutie said he would have thrown that first interception, too, because St. Brown had inside leverage on Meeks. But the safety clearly was coming over the top, which likely altered how Kizer threw the ball to St. Brown, and Meeks ducked underneath. St. Brown didn’t help by fading up field instead of coming back to the ball.
Kizer has shown that he is a great NFL prospect, but he’s nowhere near ready for the professional level. He has five games to prove that he is, otherwise he’ll be better served by returning to Notre Dame in 2017.
It’s certainly not all Kizer’s fault. On Sunday, Kelly suggested the play-calling needs to be better.
Harry Hiestand has developed many great players, but never a great Notre Dame offensive line. (The 2012 and 2015 offensive lines were very good, but not great.) That’s not all on Hiestand. The pass-first philosophy and a strength-and-conditioning philosophy that caters to Kelly’s pass-first offense do not benefit a power rushing attack.
The young receiving corps does not have the experience, savvy or football experiences to be as productive and consistent as Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle were. Most downplayed the loss of Brown and Carlisle. I was floored when I heard some downplay the loss of Fuller.
The offense has regressed since converting 16 of its first 20 red-zone entries into touchdowns, and it’s not all on the quarterback.
DEFENSE ON THE RISE
Mike Elston has worn a lot of hats working for Brian Kelly. So has Bob Elliott. While Greg Hudson continues to get the recognition, prompting even beat reporters to ask about him instead of Elston, it is the two elder statesmen working on the defensive side of the football – Elston and Elliott -- who have stabilized the defense the last three games.
While this certainly won’t go down as one of Brian Kelly’s better coaching jobs, he does deserve credit for helping pull this defense together after Brian VanGorder ran it into the ground.
Hudson certainly deserves credit as it relates to getting the Irish defense to play hard and aggressively. The overall scheme is fundamentally sound and basic. For three games, it’s worked pretty well. The Irish have allowed just 17 offensive points in the last 10 quarters.
This is a way more explosive defense than it was under VanGorder because they truly are playing without the trepidation they once did. It’s still not a great tackling team, but it is vastly improved. In fact, it’s improved at a much faster rate than anyone could have anticipated.
The pass rush now has to be respected. It’s still not a big sack team, but they got three against Stanford and now have five in the last three games compared to one in the first four. They’re attacking the edges in way they haven’t before. More defensive line twists are helping.
There are times when the soft coverage by the cornerbacks is detrimental, but not nearly as detrimental as the big plays that were allowed under VanGorder. (Doug Flutie called them “easy access” throws.) Twenty-yard plays have been kept to a minimum. (Stanford had just one in the passing game).
As a whole, they’re flying around to the football. It looks as if they’re truly enjoying playing physically. Stanford’s Cameron Scarlett committed a very soft fumble on a Jonathan Bonner hit, but at least Bonner stayed with the play and popped it loose.
Andrew Trumbetti was as good off the edge as he’s been other than the Ohio State game. He prompted a holding penalty on left tackle A.T. Hall. Greer Martini continues to play every snap with the energy of a player contending for a playoff spot. James Onwualu has been a difference-maker. Drue Tranquill played one of his best games against Stanford.
Jarron Jones was motivated and at his best. His fumble caused/recovered on the same play was one of the great individual plays by a Notre Dame defensive lineman in the last three years. He hammered Stanford center Jesse Burkett most of the night.
Julian Love is growing quickly as a freshman cornerback. His ability to break on the football and get into the legs of a ball carrier is impressive. He shows the ability to use his size and strength to shed blocks and make plays.
Cole Luke’s technique on his second-quarter interception was textbook. He took the inside position on J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, established leverage with his hands, executed the 360-degree spin as he flipped his head from outside to inside, and made it look like it was designed for him to catch the pass and not Arcega-Whiteside.
These are all signs that the collective group of Kelly, Elston, Elliott, Hudson, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, secondary coach Todd Lyght and defensive analyst Jeff Burris have done a great job of coaching the defense into a respectable unit.
Another thing that has been accomplished is the building of defensive depth. Lots of guys are playing now, as Kelly wanted when VanGorder was let go.
After Stanford converted its only touchdown drive of the game – an 11-play, 67-yarder that consumed 5:39 -- the Cardinal got the ball back with 8:24 remaining. One of two things would have happened in the VanGorder defense: Stanford would have moved into field-goal range for a 20-10 lead, or – much more likely -- the Cardinal would have marched 80 yards for the touchdown for a 24-10 lead.
Instead, this defense made it an eight-play, 33-yard drive that resulted in a punt.
When we say this Notre Dame team has been poorly coached this season, that’s accurate, but it doesn’t pertain to the job those men have done the last three weeks, including Kelly.
The late-game leg injury suffered by outside linebacker James Onwualu will be on our radar this week and next because his presence on the Notre Dame defense has become invaluable.
He is the most valuable player of the 2016 Notre Dame defense. VanGorder would not be surprised, but most others never suspected it when the wide receiver switched to the defensive side of the ball in the spring of his freshman season.
He dabbled at safety before VanGorder put him at the Sam linebacker position, where he impressed more on the practice field than he did in games. But now in his final season of collegiate competition, Onwualu is everywhere, as he was against Stanford, this time more in the passing game than his usual pressing of the issue off the edge.
In the opening drive of the game, he broke up a pass that could have been interference, but ultimately wasn’t because of Onwualu’s positioning. Onwualu roughed up Stanford receiver Trent Irwin moments later, but again, being in the right place – over the top -- to defend the pass got him the benefit of the doubt on the call.
When Jonathan Bonner punched the ball free from Cameron Scarlett and Julian Love recovered, who was underneath Scarlett making the tackle? Onwualu.
When the Irish nearly intercepted a 3rd-and-20 pass, who was it that dropped back into pass coverage and got his hand on the ball? Onwualu.
Who made the diving PBU on a pass to tight end Dalton Schultz late in the first half? Onwualu.
Who ran across the field to make a hit on Ryan Burns late in the third quarter to prevent a 2nd-and-6 conversion run? Onwualu.
No one uses his skills to make more big, impactful plays for the Irish defense than Onwualu.
There’s no greater cliché in college football than the announcers in the booth throwing it down to the sideline reporter to talk about what he or she is witnessing from the players around the bench area.
NBC focused on the Irish at various points of the Stanford game as the players jumped up and down, swayed back and forth locked arm in arm, smiling, even laughing, at all the fun they were having.
What are we talking about here? Look at the players involved. They’re all or virtually all backups with little-to-no chance of playing in the game. It’s good that those who won’t play are enthused. Credit to them for keeping the spirits uplifted. Perhaps their enthusiasm will rub off on those who are playing.
But this is a testament to how ill-prepared this football team was to play high-caliber football in 2016. We’re still talking about playing football with passion and enthusiasm? We’re still talking about having fun and being motivated to play the game? They’re manufacturing enthusiasm because the game itself, the heat of the battle, and representing Notre Dame in uniform apparently isn’t enough.
Wow. If that’s what it takes, do it. But wow.
At 2-5, understandably, it becomes more difficult to stay the course. But that was the case in the Michigan State game when a 1-1 Irish team had no sense of urgency. That was the case in the Duke game when a 1-2 Notre Dame team treated football “like work,” according to Brian Kelly.
If that’s what it takes, go for it. But at some point you’re going to have to get over the manufactured fun and energy. You’re going to have to focus on the nuances of the game without having to make a conscious effort to be excited to play. Notre Dame’s energy is up, but the Irish continue to lose games, perhaps because so much emphasis is placed on demeanor as opposed to how to defeat the opponent.
It’s good that the players are staying the course, and if you talk to the leadership of the team, it seems genuine. But what are we talking about here? For Notre Dame to have to resort to such canned enthusiasm is kind of sad, but such is the state of Fighting Irish football.
The Notre Dame team remains a proverbial embryo in football development as it relates to winning and losing games.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Interesting point by Flutie about the absence of Christian McCaffrey and its impact on the Stanford passing game. He led the team in receiving last year and through five games this year, too.
• Still haven’t seen what Daelin Hayes can do as a pass rusher, but he showed power and explosiveness tackling Bryce Love in the open field.
• Conrad Ukropina has missed field goals from 49, 44, and 45 the last two weeks. All three hit the left upright and kicked back into the end zone.
• Stanford’s Solomon Thomas has really become a quality defensive lineman. He’s noticeably improved over last year, and he was pretty good last year.
• Tyler Newsome, who was locked in basically all season, has not found his groove during the first seven games. Makes you wonder if not kicking off, in favor of Justin Yoon who has done a nice job, is impacting his punting.
• Really good to see Tarean Folston play to his ability, looking healthier than he’s been since the injury to Texas in the 2015 opener.
• Struck by the congenial relationship between the Notre Dame and Stanford players. You see that every post-game, but this was different. I sense that they hate to lose to the other, but that they don’t hate each other. Lot of long, pleasant exchanges after the game, except by someone from the Stanford strength and conditioning employee who said “bye bye” to Kelly. To use another cliché, you’re better than that, Stanford.
• Great blocks by Bivin, Bars, Smythe and Weishar on Folston’s 4th-and-1 conversion.
• On 68-yard run that was negated by a holding penalty on Michael Rector, a couple of pups relinquished the edge – Daelin Hayes and Asmar Bilal.
• Thought the whistle on Bryce Love run late in the second quarter was a bit premature. He wasn’t down. He was still churning his feet. But after the whistle sounded – you can hear it -- Cole Luke stole the football for what would have been a score. Can’t replay a forward progress call, but man, that would have been huge.
• Alex Bars has a long way to go. Like Steve Elmer, he’s probably a better guard, but they need him at tackle.
• Glad it went incomplete, but would have loved to have seen the pass to Michael Rector late in the first half had it been on target with Donte Vaughn on his back. A joy to watch his enthusiasm to play.
• How does Bryce Love not get credit for Stanford’s last touchdown? He’s either down just before the goal line or it’s a touchdown. Why that is called a fumble recovery for a touchdown makes no sense.
• Tremendous two-point conversion call by David Shaw and his staff.
• Notre Dame’s kick return following Stanford’s go-ahead score was so atrociously blocked that I thought I was watching the Fiesta Bowl again.
• Great graphic by NBC: Notre Dame’s unanswered point streaks against Texas (17), Michigan State (36), Duke (21), Stanford (17).
• As desperate as this sounds, shouldn’t the ball have remained live after Kizer’s fumble and Quenton Nelson’s backward push of the football to Josh Adams? Grasping for straws, I suppose.