Fighting Irish fans that tuned into Notre Dame’s annual rivalry game against Southern California this past Saturday hoping the ailing program would show signs of rejuvenation were sorely disappointed. Instead they witnessed an intersectional death march where Notre Dame limped into the Coliseum and endured sixty minutes of agony before the Trojans finally put an end to the disappointment and misery that was the 2014 football season. Unfortunately for the Brian Kelly-led Irish, it was far from a mercy killing.
Quarterback Everett Golson’s struggles and downward spiral continued. The former Heisman candidate strung together six drives for a paltry 82-yards and a goose egg on the scoreboard before finally being yanked from the starting lineup. Sadly, signs are beginning to emerge that Golson’s confidence has been severely damaged, possibly beyond repair. On the rare occasion the senior signal caller doesn’t abandon the pocket, he displays happy feet, particularly when facing an impending blitz. Everett also appears to have lost faith in what he sees from the defense, missing a wide open Will Fuller on several plays, including one where Fuller was so open he literally did jumping jacks near the sideline without a defender anywhere in sight. But Golson was far from the only problem.
Notre Dame’s defense looked more like dry erase “x’s” drawn up on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s white board than actual defenders. The Trojan offense massacred the Irish defensive squad, with USC quarterback Cody Kessler becoming the first quarterback in Notre Dame’s 127 year history to throw six touchdowns in one game against the Fighting Irish. And Kessler accomplished that feat early in the third quarter, meaning the savagery could have been so much worse.
The Trojan offense was so effective that USC had six different wide receivers that averaged 10 yards or more per reception. Overall, out of USC’s ten offensive drives that didn’t include backup players or involve garbage time, seven resulted in touchdowns. The only notch on the Irish defense’s belt was Notre Dame’s ability to hold USC under four yards per carry with a depleted defensive line, though the Trojans still managed to rack up 205 yards on the ground.
One of the only bright spots came courtesy of Malik Zaire, a backup quarterback who had yet to complete a pass prior to entering the USC game in Everett Golson’s stead. Zaire proved to be an instant catalyst for Kelly’s offense, hitting wide receiver Chris Brown on a gorgeous 49-yard pass. The redshirt freshman thrower capped off his first drive with an athletic 11-yard touchdown scamper, scoring in only three plays, a feat that fellow quarterback Everett Golson was unable to accomplish in twenty-nine attempts against USC.
Zaire and fellow redshirt freshman, running back Greg Bryant, proved to be extremely efficient running the zone read option, an area where Golson reportedly struggled. Despite having impressive touch and placement with the football – as well as being a weapon with his legs – Notre Dame’s offense continued to self-destruct with numerous dropped passes. Wide receiver Will Fuller has established himself as one of the top pass catchers in the country, but he still struggles with allowing passes to get into his body.
The 2015 football season was supposed to be the year Notre Dame seriously competes for a national championship. Instead, the narrative will be whether or not Kelly can turn the program around. And whether or not he will be able to pull it off is a fair question.
Notre Dame had a quarterback controversy on its hands well before Brian Kelly finally heeded the advice of experts and sat Golson, but now the issue is officially out in the open. Who will start for Notre Dame in its bowl game? If the Zaire era truly did begin in Los Angeles this past weekend, a rough road still awaits the Fighting Irish. Zaire is young, and the path to experience is rarely smooth. As redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett illustrated this season at Ohio State, even an inexperienced quarterback who succeeds to the point of being mentioned in the Heisman race drops a game they shouldn’t, such as Ohio State’s loss to a poor Virginia Tech team. It would be unreasonable to not expect growing pains with a green starter at quarterback.
There is also concern as to which defense Notre Dame will field next season: the one that stunned critics and shut out the Michigan Wolverines for the first time in program history, or the defense that allowed 30 points or more for seven straight games, and surrendered 40 points or more four times. Was VanGorder’s scheme exposed or was Notre Dame’s defensive meltdown due to an injury outbreak that impacted every segment of the defense?
The only thing that remains clear throughout all of the speculation is that Notre Dame is not where it needs to be as a program, and the Fighting Irish have regressed every season (9-4 in 2013 and currently 7-5 in 2014) since the 12-1 record in 2012. Whatever the future may hold for Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly, Irish fans have eight long months to stew in the failed expectations of the 2014 season.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected].