Carson: Kelly’s mistakes cost Irish season opener
Alex Carson | 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.
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.
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.