Hoonhout: Brian Kelly, Irish fall into same old ugly habits
Tobias Hoonhout | Sunday, December 30, 2018
ARLINGTON, Texas — Six years later, and the eagle still hasn’t landed.
While Clark the bald eagle may have fired up the Notre Dame half of the Cotton Bowl with his pre-game antics, post-game the cheers rang from the other half of AT&T Stadium. In the end, the bird had turned out to be more of a forewarning than a good luck charm.
Because over the course of four quarters, Clemson made Brian Kelly and the Irish fly into a window.
Again, again and again.
In a narrative that has become all too familiar for the Irish, Kelly and the Irish coaching staff failed to prepare their team for the big stage. And this time around, it should be especially tough to swallow — 2018 was supposed to be the year the script was flipped.
You’ve heard it before. This year, Kelly had learned from his mistakes; the Irish now had the athletes to play with anyone in the country, and the mental toughness to boot — after all, why else was the offseason focus all about handling “chaos?”
Twelve games and 12 wins later, it seemed to have worked. The demons were finally put to rest.
But for all the talk and action on learning from past guffaws, there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary on Saturday night.
Once again, when forced to put its money where its mouth was, Notre Dame folded like a tower of cards.
While the first quarter ended with the score knotted at three, thanks in large part to a promising start by Clark Lea’s defense to minimize the impact of Clemson’s plethora of offensive weapons, the signs were there — Notre Dame (12-1) was a deer caught in the headlights.
On offense, junior quarterback Ian Book and the Irish had a tall task from the get-go, even with the Tigers (14-0, 8-0 ACC) missing star junior defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence. It would have to be a flawless performance.
It was anything but.
On Notre Dame’s first drive, Book found an open Chase Claypool for what would have been a first down to give the Irish some momentum right out of the gate, but the junior wideout dropped the pass, forcing a Notre Dame punt. On the next drive, Book attempted to run upfield on the first play, only to be stuffed at the line and lose the football. It didn’t get much better.
Notre Dame’s only points from on the day came thanks in large part to a pass interference call that pushed the Irish into Clemson territory. It would be the only time where Chip Long’s unit managed to gain over 10 yards on consecutive plays.
Of Notre Dame’s 13 drives, only one made it into the red zone. The Irish averaged a measly 2.5 yards per carry, and Book finished well below his usual completion percentage and was sacked six times; Clemson’s pressure was clearly always on his mind, and even when he had time, the junior rushed throws he usually completes in his sleep. More often than not, Book elected to scramble, even when he didn’t need to, instead of sticking in the pocket and trying to make a play. When he finally did so, in the third quarter on third-and-22, the pass was an interception the moment it left his hand.
But for all of the offensive struggles, the defense at least came out swinging. Clark Lea’s unit held firm at the start, helping the Irish go toe-to-toe with the Tigers despite no momentum on offense. Notre Dame made sure to use its own front seven to keep freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence just as uncomfortable as Clemson was keeping Book, and with the experience in the secondary holding down the fort, for 15 minutes it worked.
And then Julian Love went down.
Losing your All-American corner in a playoff game is never a good thing. Losing him when the backup is far and away the shakiest corner on the team, and it’s suddenly a lot worse.
With Love out and Donte Vaughn in, Lawrence and the Tigers found the chink in the Irish armor. They made them pay for it.
Vaughn didn’t see the field at all against USC, and was giving up completions on over 70 percent of his targets on the year. That tendency didn’t change against the Tigers, as the junior was subsequently torched time and time again by Lawrence. Vaughn was in coverage for both touchdown bombs to freshman receiver Justyn Ross, who had a career day, and let senior receiver Hunter Renfrow haul in a 32-yard dart to set up Clemson’s third touchdown on the day, which gave the Tigers 20 unanswered points and a 23-3 lead heading into halftime.
Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think Vaughn is a bad player. But he clearly was in no way prepared to be on the field against a unit like Clemson’s offense, and it showed big time. At this time of year, it’s the little things that win football games — the margin for error is that much higher.
While Love’s absence was unpredictable, Vaughn’s lack of preparation was not, and the Irish left him on an island to suffer. As Clemson kept scoring, Lea’s unit kept unraveling; when sophomore running back Travis Etienne made the most of a questionable decision by the usually-dependable senior linebacker Te’von Coney, who bit on a read option with no safety help up the middle, the game was done and dusted.
Brian Kelly was right to insist in his postgame press conference that Irish can blame their coaching and preparation. While fans may say the calls didn’t fall Notre Dame’s way, Notre Dame was out-coached on both sides of the ball. And while Lawrence, Ross, Etienne and company may be an explosive bunch, after multiple top-10 recruiting classes under Kelly, the Irish can’t say they don’t have the talent to match up with the big boys anymore.
But, after another meltdown, it’s plausible to ask what more can the program do? Kelly has blamed himself before, but with what to show for it? When will the excuses be insurmountable? For all the positives the Irish can take from this year’s run, the ending offers more questions than answers.
Because at the end of the day Notre Dame was supposed to have figured it out by now. Instead — just like that bald eagle — it only looked dazed and confused.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.