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Mazurek: Brian Kelly’s decisions continue to lead to Notre Dame’s defeats

| Sunday, October 16, 2016

In his post-game press conference, Stanford head coach David Shaw said “defensively, we won the game.”

I respect Shaw, as he’s proved he’s a heck of a head coach. But in this instance, Shaw is dead wrong.

Stanford didn’t win the ugly, sloppy, mistake-laden affair; Notre Dame lost it.

How else could one possibly describe what happened Saturday?

Notre Dame led 10-0 at halftime and all was going well. The defense was solid; it bent but then forced a key turnover when Stanford got near the red zone. There were no major mishaps on special teams and, lo-and-behold, the Irish remembered they had a running game and milked it for 108 yards in the first half.

And then came the meltdown.

Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer had, what looked like, two brain farts in the second half that resulted in two Stanford interceptions, including one returned by the Cardinal for a touchdown. Kelly, looking to gain some momentum, benched Kizer and put in his backup — senior Malik Zaire — who hadn’t seen meaningful action since the Texas game. Zaire ended the game with three rushing yards and zero passing yards.

Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer throws a pass during Notre Dame's 17-10 loss to Stanford on Saturday.Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback DeShone Kizer throws a pass during Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Kizer tallied 83 rushing yards and 154 passing yards in the game.

On top of the quarterback change, a bad snap from junior center Sam Mustipher sailed over Zaire’s head and out the back of the end zone for a safety.

Then in the fourth quarter, Stanford scored its only offensive touchdown of the night and needed a 2-point conversion to make it a seven-point game. An offside penalty gave the Cardinal an extra yard and a half and an unsportsmanlike conduct call on graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones basically put Stanford in the end zone.

And those were just the unusual mistakes. For the fifth game this year, the Irish offense failed to come up with the tying drive, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly abandoned the running game right on cue in the second half.

At this point in the season, I’m not surprised — and that’s a very bad thing.

It’s one thing to lose to a team that’s better or stronger or more talented than you. It’s another to lose five games due to sloppy mistakes and bad calls.

I understand Kelly’s desire for a momentum shift in the second half, but benching your future first-round draft pick isn’t the way to do it, even if Kizer threw two interceptions.

And once Zaire is in the game, why would you go with a pass-first attack? Zaire is best when he’s running the option, and the ground game was rather successful up to that point for the Irish.

After the game, Kelly said Kizer will be the undisputed starter going forward, but that’s not even a question you should be asked with someone as talented as Kizer.

Now the bad snap and the defensive penalties are not directly Kelly’s fault, but they point to a lack of mental toughness — something Kelly said he’s stressed the last few weeks. Kelly is not responsible for every bad play the Irish made in the game. No head coach is. But at the end of those close games, the head coach does have to put his players in the best possible situation to win.

So far this year, Kelly has not done that. He’s put in Zaire when Kizer’s been the better player. He’s run the ball when passing would have been more effective, and he’s passed the ball when running would have been more effective. You can debate the merits of armchair coaching, but the fact that it happens on a weekly basis for Kelly says a lot.

Senior quarterback Malik Zaire stands in the pocket in Notre Dame's 17-10 loss to Stanford on Saturday. Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Malik Zaire stands in the pocket during Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

What’s worst about Kelly’s mishaps is they wreck the team’s confidence. At home, under the lights and with a halftime lead was the perfect setting for the Irish to break out and win a close game. But after that Stanford game slipped through their fingers, I’m not sure how anyone on the team can have any confidence they can win the next one.

If Kizer throws an interception that next time out, why should the offense believe in him, particularly if the head coach doesn’t? If the defense gives up a touchdown in the fourth quarter, why should it believe the offense will get one back?

Kelly is right about one thing: Notre Dame has had a chance to win each of its five losses. But until he improves his in-game coaching decisions, the close losses will continue to pile up.

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

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

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