Griffin: Irish flirting with rock bottom
Renee Griffin | Monday, September 26, 2016
The loss to Michigan State a week ago confirmed that Notre Dame had exited the playoff hunt. The loss to Duke on Saturday showed that it has instead entered the hunt for rock bottom.
And, like the variety of Blue Devils players who found the end zone in Notre Dame Stadium, rock bottom might be something the Irish (1-3) haven’t actually hit yet.
There were a number of times Saturday when it seemed the team could sink no lower. First, when it allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown and 78-yard touchdown drive to Duke to close out the first quarter, surrendering a 14-point lead in a span of fewer than six minutes.
Then, when Duke (2-2) recovered a fumble by junior quarterback DeShone Kizer and immediately scored on a 25-yard pass over the head of Irish junior safety Drue Tranquill to take the lead.
Then, when the Notre Dame defense allowed the Blue Devils — a team that scored 14 points against Wake Forest and 13 against Northwestern — to march down the field in 2:06, with cornerback Cole Luke getting burned on the 30-yard touchdown toss that gave the visitors a lead heading into halftime.
Then, in many ways, it got worse.
In the first half, Duke’s ability to stay even with the Irish — a team that was considered a playoff contender a single month ago — could be largely blamed on the defense’s inability to tackle and stay tight in coverage.
In the second half, the beleaguered defense stood tall in a few crucial moments with an interception, a sack and several stops in and-short situations (though, notably, it still allowed more than 250 yards). It was the renowned Notre Dame offense, led by Kizer, that failed to do its job and outperform Duke when it mattered most.
The home team’s six offensive drives in the second half ended in the following: fumble, touchdown, punt, touchdown, interception, turnover on downs. The interception paved the way for Duke’s go-ahead field goal, and the final turnover trashed any hope of avoiding the embarrassment of defeat.
Sure, there were touchdowns, but this is a team that is built on the idea that its offense will make up for lacking defense. It didn’t do that on Saturday, nor on the Saturday before that, nor on the season-opening Sunday night in Austin, Texas.
What are the realistic chances it will be able to do so in the future?
After the game, head coach Brian Kelly said poor execution was the main issue. He is not wrong; the team played badly. Four games in, the team has more often played badly than played well.
Kelly proposed to fix these issues of execution with personnel changes, exempting no position except the long-snapper from scrutiny, making sure to put the players with the most “fire and grit” on the field.
But more fire, grit, passion — whichever buzzword comes to mind — probably does not come easily to a team that is 1-3 and full of young players that have never been on a team with a losing record.
If those emotions Kelly talked about were absent for a crucial home matchup against the Spartans, or for a potentially redeeming game against the mediocre Blue Devils the following week, then I find it hard to believe they will arise for a road game against a high-tempo offense like Syracuse, which the defense already struggled against in week 1, or against a top-10 team like Stanford with one of the best runners in the country.
For that reason, I’m not sure that the loss to Duke — as disheartening as it was — was rock bottom for the Irish this year. If Kelly is going to avoid becoming a “1-4 coach,” or a “1-5 coach,” or even a “1-6 coach,” then more has to change for Notre Dame than just fire and grit.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.