After a holding line on Notre Dame stock following a win against Syracuse, another precipitous dip occurred against the Wolfpack of NC State in hurricane-like conditions in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is probably the lowest Notre Dame has been as a program since, well, two weeks ago after losing at home to Duke. It was said in this column following the loss to the Blue Devils that Brian Kelly likely already had his death knell moment as the Notre Dame coach and once that bell is tolled it can’t be un-rung. Not in South Bend as the head coach of the Fighting Irish. Further compounding the problem for the program is the increasing difficulty of the schedule moving forward. To date, Notre Dame’s previous opponents have a 15-16 record, with four wins against Notre Dame. The remaining schedule of opponents is 21-8. To be 2-4 heading into the difficult stretch of the season does not bode well for Kelly’s prospects moving forward.
Individual Talent On Defense
The good news regarding what we’ve seen from the Fighting Irish so far this year is they have enough individual pieces to feel that they can bounce back with proper coaching, whoever those coaches may be, especially on the defensive side of the ball. It would be silly to ignore the type of conditions that both football teams had to endure on Saturday (frankly there is a case to be made that the game shouldn’t have been played at all), and any and all positive comments about the defense take place while stipulating that they knew the other team couldn’t and wouldn’t throw. Which, in the game of football, is an advantage.
That being said, there were several individual performers that stood out. Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery were monsters at times, Jerry Tillery especially so. Tillery led the team in tackles with nine and was consistently in the opponent backfield either making plays for himself or paving the way for a teammate to cleanup. Safety Devin Studstill was all over the field making five tackles and Nyles Morgan nearly swallowed someone whole on one running play.
Daelin Hayes forced a fumble. Nicco Fertitta showed toughness in the run game. We’ve seen Julian Love and Donte Vaughn play well in situations where they were given more chances to acquit themselves. There are some young, talented pieces on this defense that are gaining invaluable experience every snap they play and the encouraging part is they seem to be getting better every game they are removed from the Brian VanGorder experience.
We know how talented the youth is on offense, there is now reason to believe that there are players on the defense to match.
The new defensive coordinators actual role in terms of putting together the game plan and making the defensive calls is unclear. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter, the players are playing hard for him. Is it any kind of coincidence that guys like Tillery and Cage are seemingly thriving under a guy who has been with the team for two weeks as opposed to VanGorder who was with them for two plus years? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The defense didn’t give up a touchdown on Saturday and was 3 for 3 preventing NC State from scoring touchdowns in the red zone. If you’ve followed the Notre Dame defense at all the past three years, that’s a big deal.
This isn’t an advocation for Hudson to become Notre Dame’s full time defensive coordinator, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but if this trend line continues on defense there is a great chance Hudson is leading someones defense next year.
The Offensive Line
To be fair I would also almost consider a hold on this unit because the coaches did them no favors with the way they called plays and their game plan going into the game, especially considering the conditions. And to be fair, they held up pretty darn well in pass protection if you consider it’s much easier for a defensive lineman to move forward on a wet field than it is for an offensive lineman to move backward. That being said, given the expectations of this unit heading into the season–I for one, predicted the team would rush for 3,000 yards this year–they’ve been on the steady decline pretty much all year. Aside from the dismal rushing performance against NC State on Saturday (38 carries for 59 yards), they also turned up a stinker against Michigan State (25 for 57).
The left side of the offensive line that features Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson had been called maybe the best duo in all of college football. That has yet to materialize or even come close to materializing. This is perhaps Notre Dame’s most pressing issue on the team. Their offensive strength has morphed from their supposed strongest unit, the offensive line, to their supposed weakness, the wide receivers. That move was illustrated on Saturday. The one thing that Notre Dame has been consistently good at all year is throw the ball, which is a problem in hurricane-like conditions. But, Kelly had so little faith in his line that he threw the ball on the first three plays and dropped back 38 times total, counting all the times Kizer was either sacked or scrambled following a drop back.
If Notre Dame wants to do anything this year, it is this unit that needs to get things figured out.
It’s not just the game plan, which to be clear, was terrible. They dropped back to pass 38 times in hurricane like conditions, including on the first three plays of the game, and when they did run it was often a slow developing play that too often relied on ball handling and a running back moving parallel to the line of scrimmage. It was as if he was so confounded by what to do in the terrible conditions that he decided to act as if they didn’t exist. And the most shocking part of this is we’ve seen Kelly implement the type of game plan that would have been best suited in these conditions for an entire SEASON. In 2012 Notre Dame was a ball control team that often went double tight end, put the quarterback under center, and ran left behind Zach Martin and Chris Watt almost exclusively. DeShone Kizer didn’t go under center once in this game, as Kelly appeared bound and determined to score 40 points when it was apparent after the first quarter that his defense was going to hold up.
As I alluded to earlier, it wasn’t just the game plan, but the overall lack of leadership that has done Kelly in this season. He had a card to play, standing next to him all game in Malik Zaire, and he didn’t play it. Because he couldn’t play it. Because he’s lost the player. Will there ever be a more obvious situation for a player like Zaire to enter the game? It would basically be a redux of the LSU contest from the 2014 Music City Bowl. One of Notre Dame’s best offensive players has been reduced to a couple plays a game gimmick stemming from a quarterback situation that Kelly couldn’t afford to screw up and which he ultimately did. This isn’t first time at quarterback for Kelly. He lost Dayne Crist. He lost Andrew Hendrix. He lost Everett Golson. Now he’s lost Zaire. And ultimately he will lose his job. And I think he knows it. A former Notre Dame linebacker from the Holtz era texted me while Kelly was needlessly calling timeout to end the game that read “It’s like he called timeout to hold onto something that has completely slipped away.” I think this is right.
What To Watch For
An Inspired Performance Against Stanford
The rain exposed a flaw in the Notre Dame coaching, but a return to the friendly confines of Notre Dame Stadium against a suddenly struggling Stanford, who may be without running back Christian McCaffrey will be a welcome scene. The offense will be able to do what they do best, which is sling it all over the field, and even with a hobbled McCaffrey, it may be difficult for Stanford to keep up, given the state of their quarterback play.
A Chase Claypool Sighting
It’s been three weeks since Claypool took his one opportunity against Michigan State and turned it into a 33 yard reception up the seam against the Spartans out of the inline tight end position. It was then that Brian Kelly told us Claypool would be more involved with the offense. He has yet to see the field on offense since. This might be a weekly feature in this column from now on. Whenever Claypool gets his chance, he will be great.