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Carson: Kelly’s mistakes cost Irish season opener

| Monday, September 5, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas — Notre Dame deserved to lose that game.

Not because they played worse than Texas — they didn’t — or because they had inferior talent.

But because Irish head coach Brian Kelly staked himself on two calls, neither of which paid off.

Kelly didn’t have to go for a two-quarterback system, especially not one without well-defined roles for either player. On the surface, senior Malik Zaire would’ve been a good choice, and we know junior DeShone Kizer was good enough to get the job done.

Though from seeing what we saw from the two quarterbacks Sunday night, it’s hard to see why Kelly wouldn’t have seen separation in the build-up to the season opener.

But in the grand scheme, the plan could have had some merit. If you wanted to run with the hot hand, I could’ve gotten behind that. If you wanted to define Zaire as the red-zone quarterback — like Texas did when it needed to punch it in during the second overtime with senior Tyrone Swoopes — that would’ve been fine, too.

Instead, you pulled the quarterback that led you to an opening-drive touchdown, then went three-and-out with the other guy.

When you needed a touchdown on your first drive of the second half, down 28-14, you didn’t go with the guy that got you those 14 points. You instead went with the one that had done much of nothing on two drives.


Irish sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown flips into the end zone and scores his second touchdown of the game in the loss Sunday.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Irish sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown flips into the end zone and scores his second touchdown of the game in the loss Sunday.

By the time Kelly figured things out, he’d not only wasted three drives, but also a chance for Kizer to build up a comfort level in the game.

Perhaps the Irish offense wouldn’t stall for a good part of the first half if he weren’t playing musical quarterbacks. We saw how good Kizer was in the second half when he got in a rhythm. But he never had the chance to do that during his four, non-consecutive first-half drives.

The defense wasn’t great, no. That shouldn’t have had to be the difference, though. Remember the 2014 North Carolina game, where the Irish outpaced the Tar Heels on offensive talent, not defensive? It sounds a little preposterous on the surface, sure, but there’s no reason Notre Dame couldn’t have scored more than 37 regulation points Sunday night.

It was a Heisman-caliber performance from Kizer. And you wasted it.

So let’s circle back to that defense.

A year ago, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense wasn’t particularly good. It straight-up cost Notre Dame the game at Stanford, and if it had shown up during the first quarter against Clemson, the Irish maybe would’ve won that game, too.

Of course, that defense had the best player in college football on it, Jaylon Smith. And it never really worked.

Why did I think the Irish defense was going to be anything better this year?

Notre Dame had fits all game when Texas went to tempo — and why are you going for a three-down lineman formation against a team that’s trying to run the ball down your throat? — and that showed once more when the Longhorns picked things back up again late in the second half and into overtime.

VanGorder’s now starting his third year here, and it’s been a tenure chock-full of regression. A 2012-level defense shouldn’t be the expectation, no, but with the raw talent Notre Dame has on the field, there’s no excuse for giving up 37 regulation points to Texas. None at all.

Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer tucks the ball and looks for a running lane during Notre Dame’s 50-47 loss to Texas. Kizer had 292 total yards, including 77 on the ground, in Sunday’s defeat.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer

Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer tucks the ball and looks for a running lane during Notre Dame’s 50-47 loss to Texas. Kizer had 292 total yards, including 77 on the ground, in Sunday’s defeat.

It’s probably time to admit the defense doesn’t work, but that decision should’ve been made in January, after Notre Dame gave up 82 points in two games against Stanford and Ohio State.

The Irish defense should at least be passable, and with the talent on the offensive side of the ball, there’s no reason Notre Dame shouldn’t be able to win a shoot-out against an unranked Texas team.

Kelly’s two calls kept those things from happening. Had Kelly made the decision to part ways with VanGorder a few months ago, perhaps the Irish defense would’ve been better equipped to deal with Texas’ offense. Had Kelly just made the call to go with Kizer from the start, perhaps points are scored on one of the three series Zaire ran instead. Points that would’ve been enough to win the game.

Instead, the Irish now find themselves in a position where perfection the rest of the way might not be enough.

It’s a position they shouldn’t be in.

But it’s one Kelly created. Now it’s his turn to get them out of it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.”At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer.A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa.When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

Contact Alex

    Use Zaire in the red zone with the halfback option play from 50 years ago (Yes I’m that old) that GB used with Paul Hornung.

    • Ed Roickle

      Good thinking, Terry, but that was actually 60 years ago. 50 years ago it was Hanratty and O’Brien.

      • TERRY

        Wrong – it was 50 years ago in GB.

        What was the point of your 2nd remark?

  • Tim

    1. Playing press coverage with no safety over the top is what Notre Dame was doing with the Texas wide receiver on the first couple of possessions, (i can see that from the TV and thats horrendous coaching). The wideout was just running by Notre Dame.

    2. Then the corner starts to play off the receiver and he gives him the underneath throw (which is ok) if the corner is there to STICK HIM as soon as he catches the ball. Instead upon catch our DB’s are still 2 steps away and miss the tackles.

    This is BAD COACHING.