Brian Kelly promises personnel changes following loss to Duke
Tobias Hoonhout | Monday, September 26, 2016
After last week’s playoff-crushing loss to Michigan State, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, “There’s no panic.”
How times change.
Fast forward a week, and Notre Dame is now 1-3, losing to a Duke team that many thought would be a walk in the park. In a season that is now about playing for pride, Team 128 failed to defend their home turf against a Blue Devils team that had had only scored 27 points combined over its last two games with arguably mediocre opponents in Wake Forest and Northwestern. And who then scored 28 in one half against the Irish.
Despite all the talk centering around Brian VanGorder and his firing Sunday, Kelly was very clear where he thought the problem lay after Saturday’s game.
“Once you feel like you’ve got something going pretty good, we tend to make a mistake and let teams back into the game,” Kelly said. “So, I told our guys essentially that we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction, we’ll have to re-evaluate what we’re doing, who we’re doing it with, and how we’re doing it, all of those things. … Every position, every position, all 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team.”
Defensively, the first half was a disaster. Duke freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, who had not thrown a touchdown since week one, torched the Irish secondary for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Neither were defended well. In the second half, the starters in the Irish secondary all sat out at one point or another, and three freshmen and one sixth-year transfer played snaps instead.
For much of the half, the personnel shift worked. The Irish managed to get their first sack of the year, courtesy of junior linebacker Nyles Morgan, and freshman corner Donte Vaughn intercepted Jones in the end zone for the first pick of his career. Yet once again, when it mattered most, the curse of this defense reared its ugly head — missed tackles. Up seven with six minutes left, freshman safety Devin Studstill missed a tackle on senior receiver Anthony Nash, who sprinted another 50 yards to score and tie the game. Duke went on to kick the go-ahead field goal on its next possession and keep the Irish offense from staging a last-minute comeback.
The turnover in personnel on defense clearly says something about where this team’s mentality is. Kelly and the remaining staff are rethinking who needs to be on the field. It’s now up to the players to stay cohesive and focused. From a leadership perspective, that seems to be the goal.
“Any time you have a situation like this, when you have a losing record, that’s the first thing that happens, people start pointing fingers,” senior captain Isaac Rochelle said after the game. “We haven’t had that issue up to this point, but we have to stick together, and we’ll emphasize it so it doesn’t become an issue.”
Fellow captain and linebacker James Onwualu furthered the mindset.
“You need to find [that passion] in yourself, you look to the man next to you and you fight for him,” he said. “You play and practice for the next week and that’s really all that matters. … Guys just have to look at themselves and figure out what they want from the year. Do they want to get better or do they want to continue to lose? And that includes myself.”
The problems extends beyond the defense, though. As Kelly said, the whole team is under scrutiny at this point. The loss to Duke was not because of one play or a single player. Every facet of the team had its troubles Saturday. On special teams, there was the 96-yard Duke kickoff return and the missed 42-yard field goal. For the defense, there was the poor play and waste of a timeout early in the second half because too many players were on the field, as well as giving up almost 500 yards to a mediocre offense. Even offensively, despite totaling 534 yards of offense, the Irish failed to deliver when clock was winding down and the game was on the line.
For Kelly, the solution is simple.
“[We need] guys that have fire and grit and, we had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire,” Kelly said. “That is Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw. One guy. So, if you want to play for me moving forward, you better, I don’t care what your resume says, I don’t care if you were a five star, if you had a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”
Notre Dame next plays Syracuse, a team that the Irish are favored to beat by double digits. But Duke was a three-touchdown underdog, too.
There is no “on paper” anymore. As Kelly has said, it’s time for the Irish to re-evaluate themselves and find out who really deserves to play.