NOTRE DAME — Not even Notre Dame star quarterback DeShone Kizer was immune from Brian Kelly’s wrath this week when the Irish head coach made it clear that the execution and effort displayed during his team’s 1-2 start ain’t cuttin’ it.
Kelly called out Kizer — the coach’s only steady and reliable force on this inconsistent team — saying his quarterback was as much a part of the problem during the September slide as he has been part of the solution.
“He’s got to play with more sense of urgency,” Kelly said, lumping his quarterback into a blanket challenge for the entire team. “It’s not just him, but he’s running the offense, and there are plays that are out there to be made that we’re not making. …That starts with the guy with the keys in his hand who’s driving the car.”
Dropped passes and no running game on offense; poor tackling and mass confusion on defense; missed place kicks, costly penalties and unreliable punting on special teams — finding more urgency from Kizer, who has accounted for 13 of Notre Dame’s 15 touchdowns this season, should be well down Kelly’s to-do list.
After a disappointing 36-28 loss last weekend to Michigan State — a defeat that dropped the Irish out of any postseason playoff consideration before autumn had even officially arrived — Kelly called his team and his entire operation sloppy.
“So finding that sense of urgency, that attention to detail, that’s absolutely crucial to being a really good football team,” said Kelly, who needs a win Saturday over Duke to avoid his worst start here since going 1-3 in 2010 as the first-year Irish coach.
When asked where any blame belongs, Kelly accepted much of it personally before putting an explanatory emphasis on the youth and inexperience of his team, specifically, his defense.
“Nobody is happy with losing football games,” Kelly said, “But I know there’s guys on the horizon here that are going to play really good football for us in the foreseeable future. They’re coming on, it’s just going to take a little time.”
But who has the patience to wait on a program that’s on a recruiting roll, that’s loaded with future NFL talent, and one that mentions a playoff appearance as its only postseason goal?
For some youthful perspective, top-ranked Alabama started its 2016 season with 22 first- or second-year players named on its 44-man offensive and defensive two-deep roster, including 11 true freshmen. Second-ranked Ohio State featured 21 such players and now-unranked Notre Dame listed 19.
“The more that we can get in a number of these younger players, the quicker we’re going to evolve to the kind of consistent defensive performances that we all need here,” Kelly explained. “That’s why, from my perspective, I look at it a little bit differently than maybe everybody else in our fan base, that the sky is falling.”
The sky may still be hanging up there, but the Irish defensive statistics certainly are not. So let us count the ways, keeping in mind there are 128 FBS teams statistically ranked:
* ND is 103rd in pass-efficiency defense, 102nd in total defense, 99th in rushing defense, 94th in scoring defense and 100th in tackles for loss. It is also one of only two teams in the country (Nevada the other) to have not recorded a sack this season.
*Against Texas and Michigan State, ND allowed 10 red zone trips of which nine were converted for touchdowns. Additionally, in the last five games against Power 5 opponents dating back to 2015, the Irish defense has allowed 23 red zone trips, 19 ending in touchdowns and the other four in field goals.
* Through three games this year, Notre Dame has already allowed eight scoring drives of 75 yards or more. In defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s two-plus seasons here, the Irish have allowed 54 such lengthy drives.
* Need more? Only two teams have allowed four plays of 60 yards or more this season, Appalachian State and Notre Dame.
Despite these sobering statistics, Kelly remains steadfast in his support of VanGorder. When Kelly was asked this week if he remained confident that his coordinator’s approach and scheme are a proper fit for this program, the head coach didn’t hesitate.
“Oh absolutely,” Kelly said. “Yeah, without question, that’s not even part of the conversation.”
Perhaps it should be.
Publicly throwing his support the way of VanGorder and the Notre Dame defensive staff is probably the best move for Kelly this early in the season. Any other course might bring distraction and disruption.
But with an average of 42 points allowed during Notre Dame’s four losses in its last five games, perhaps a dose of disruption is the perfect cleaning agent for this sloppy team.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist who covers Notre Dame sports.