Griffin: Irish play evokes memories of 2014
Renee Griffin | Friday, September 23, 2016
In the beginning, there was hope.
Hope that Notre Dame would finally break through in 2016 and reach the College Football Playoff, the promised land that had seemed at times so close and at times so far in the years since the national championship loss to Alabama.
The preseason hype wasn’t limited to fans. Irish head coach Brian Kelly said before the season that his primary goal was to qualify for the playoff, and the Irish snagged the No. 10 ranking in the AP preseason top 25.
The 10-3 record of 2015 was nothing to sneeze at, after all. Not crazy to expect year-to-year improvement, right?
Wrong, as was proven under the lights in Austin in Week One and at Notre Dame Stadium in Week Three. This is not the same team as last year, and not in a good way.
In hindsight, it was unlikely that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s 2016 defense would even rival the 45th-ranked front of the previous season, considering it lost eight of its top-10 tacklers (Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate, Max Redfield, Keivarae Russell, Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day and Matthias Farley).
The lack of stability on defense was underestimated, perhaps because, as Kelly himself said Tuesday, his usual response to struggles on defense is to get his offense to score more points.
Clearly, the burden of making up for the defense’s deficiencies has been too large to bear this season. DeShone Kizer may be improved from his first year as starter, but he was not given the chance to show it when Kelly elected to punt on fourth-and-seven, down by eight points, in the final minutes against the Spartans. He was handicapped against Texas, too, as a result of Kelly’s indecision at quarterback.
The departure of three of the top four receiving targets from 2015 – Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle – doesn’t help, either.
The running game was supposed to be reliable, with senior Tarean Folston taking his position back from graduated C.J. Prosise, and yet Notre Dame had 57 rushing yards on 25 carries on Saturday. The Spartans’ front is famously physical, true, but it also allowed 30 more yards than that to an FCS team.
Three games into 2016, Notre Dame’s fall from grace — or, more literally, the fall from the top 10 of the AP poll to not being ranked at all — makes this team more similar to the Irish squad of 2014 than to that of 2015.
The second half of 2014, that is. As a reminder, Notre Dame started 6-0 that year, ranked No. 5 in the country, before traveling to No. 2 Florida State for a matchup with the highest of stakes. The Irish lost on a controversial call.
Hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff were not entirely lost yet, especially with a win against Nevada – excuse me, Navy – the following week.
Then Notre Dame found itself down 31 points against No. 11 Arizona State in the next game. Everett Golson and the offense staged a comeback to pull within three points, but failed to finish; the 55-31 defeat tossed the Irish out of the top 10.
Twenty-one days later, Notre Dame ended the regular season with a mediocre 7-5 record after losing three straight to Northwestern, Louisville and USC. The defense gave up 44.5 points per game in that last stretch.
A few comparisons come to mind.
Some remained hopeful after the ill-fated trip to Texas to open the 2016 season, attributing the 50-47 loss to the Longhorns’ offensive firepower and the Irish indecision at quarterback.
Notre Dame still had a hypothetical, albeit distant, chance at the playoff. The 39-10 win over Nevada in Week Two indicated improvement.
Then came the 36-28 loss to Michigan State, which proved beyond all doubt that this team was not playoff-caliber. Whether the rest of the 2016 campaign will mimic the downward spiral of 2014 remains to be seen.