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Padanilam: Notre Dame not playing up to its potential

| Monday, September 19, 2016

“I think this football team in a nutshell, for everybody here today, is one that’s going to have to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

Those were the words Brian Kelly used to describe what would be required of his Notre Dame team this season at the start of fall camp. In order to play at the level that would be expected of them, they would only need to execute and be technically sound in order for their talent to flourish.

And the job of execution is a two-way street. Coaches put forth a strategy they expect to work and adjust it when it doesn’t. Players perform the task assigned to them, nothing more and certainly nothing less.

But somewhere along the line, those words grew empty, becoming nothing but a mere cliché for this Notre Dame team. Because in its two losses this season, the only thing this team has done “extraordinarily well” is fail to play up to its level of talent.

Michigan State players celebrate during Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to the Spartans on Saturday.Michael Yu | The Observer
Michigan State players celebrate during Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to the Spartans on Saturday.

After the loss to the Spartans on Saturday, Brian Kelly said the team’s shortcomings start with coaching. And that’s one of the things he’s actually right about so far.

Everyone will point to Brian VanGorder’s continued struggles as defensive coordinator. The defense once again looked overmatched, this time allowing 501 yards and 36 points to an offense that managed merely 361 yards and 28 points against Furman. Yes, Furman of the FCS’s Southern Conference, a team that went 4-7 while allowing an average of 29 points per game just last season. That same team had a better defensive performance against the Spartans than the Irish did.

The defense’s play so far this season has a lot of people crying for VanGorder’s dismissal and Saturday night certainly didn’t help his case. It probably is time for him and the Irish to go their separate ways. And, based on Kelly’s criticism of the team’s coaching after this most recent loss, it seems as though Kelly is the closest he’s ever been to pulling that trigger, despite his statement Sunday that the question about VanGorder’s abilities is “not even part of the conversation.”

But as much as he might deserve to be fired, VanGorder has seemingly become a scapegoat for every issue Notre Dame has. A lot of the blame for the team’s struggles falls on him, but the buck doesn’t stop there.

Let’s look on the other side of the ball, for instance. Brian Kelly said he had a poor day calling deep passes and failed to stretch the defense in the team’s win over Nevada, and he apparently decided not to make any adjustments this Saturday — at least not until it was too late. The Irish spent too much time early on in the intermediate and short passing game, which wasn’t finding much success against the Spartans’ press coverage. Kelly’s decision not to stretch the field led to little room for the run game — thus, a mere 57 yards on 25 carries for the team — and stunted the offense for three quarters.

It wasn’t until he let DeShone Kizer take shots down the field — picking up chunk yardage via completion or pass interference — that the rest of the passing game found any sort of rhythm. And by then it was already too late to get the running game going.

When a coach says he failed to do his job, often times he’s merely taking blame for the players. But in this case, Brian Kelly was right. He and the rest of the offensive staff that supposedly “collaborates” on the game plan waited way too long to make any adjustments to that game plan, and it cost the Irish dearly.

But that’s not to say the players don’t share any of the blame here. Because, after all, they largely are the ones who failed Saturday night.

As much as people want to blame his scheme for the defense’s problems, VanGorder isn’t responsible for the numerous missed tackles by the defense. Whether you miss tackles on first and 10 or third and five, you allow the opposing offense to extend drives thanks to renewed opportunities. Those are the types of mistakes which lead to the 36-0 run the Spartans went on during the second and third quarters. While the lack of a single sack through three games is easy to blame on VanGorder, it’s just as easy to blame it on the poor angles taken by guys like freshman cornerback Julian Love, who had Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor dead to rights but failed to capitalize on what was a perfectly called blitz by VanGorder in the second quarter.

There’s also the mental mistakes, like sophomore safety Nicco Fertitta’s unsportsmanlike conduct flag that pushed the Irish out of great field position in the second quarter and stopped a potential momentum shift to open the team’s first drive of the second half or sophomore receiver Miles Boykin’s lack of focus when he got too close to the punted ball and it kareened off his leg, giving the Spartans the ball back in Irish territory. After all, that play was followed by the first Michigan State touchdown of the evening, starting the run that didn’t end until nearly two quarters later.

DeShone Kizer and Brian VanGorder leave the field after Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday. Kathleen Donahue | The Observer
DeShone Kizer and Brian VanGorder leave the field after Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State on Saturday.

Does any of this sound like a team doing the “ordinary things extraordinarily well?”

It doesn’t matter that the Irish nearly came back Saturday. The truth is they didn’t deserve to win the game, and the team that did win is a better football team than Notre Dame is right now.

Now it’s the third week of the season, and Notre Dame is out of the playoff picture. The rest of this season for the Irish is about pride, the same pride they didn’t show until the fourth quarter Saturday.

And while it starts with the coaches, it certainly doesn’t end there. There’s plenty of blame to spread around in the program, but that also means there’s equally enough opportunity for everyone to correct their mistakes and show us what they are made of these last nine games.

Because this team is too talented not to be doing the “ordinary things extraordinarily well.”

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

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About Benjamin Padanilam

Ben is a senior and The Observer’s former Editor-in-Chief, now serving as its interim Sports Editor. He is in the Program of Liberal Studies (PLS) and also pursuing minors in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) and Business Economics. He hails from Toledo, Ohio, and has enjoyed the few highs and many lows of being a Cleveland sports fan.

Contact Benjamin