NOTRE DAME — Rock bottom arrived for Brian VanGorder shortly before 7 p.m. Saturday evening when an unknown Duke kicker named A.J. Reed hit a 19-yard field goal to complete one of the most disappointing upset losses in Irish football history.
Mighty Notre Dame isn't supposed to lose at home as a three-touchdown favorite to an opponent known much more for its basketball successes than anything it has ever done on the football field. But mighty Notre Dame did lose, falling to Duke 38-35 in a listless performance that is as difficult to explain as it will be to fix.
"There's no passion for it. It looks like it's hard to play, like we're pulling teeth," is how Irish head coach Brian Kelly explained this latest loss, and a 1-3 record that matches the worst Notre Dame start since Kelly's first season here in 2010.
So, not surprisingly, Kelly started his DIY rebuilding project in the most logical way — by firing his embattled defensive coordinator.
"Our defense simply isn't where it should be," Kelly said of VanGorder's dismissal. "And I believe this change is necessary for the best interest of our program and our student-athletes."
The opponent may change week-to-week, but the problems remained the same against Duke. Inconsistency on offense (see three turnovers), sketchy special teams play (see kickoff TD return allowed), and more dismal defense (see shoddy tackling) made for a sickening afternoon during what was supposed to be a get-well game for Notre Dame.
Somebody had to take the fall after a fifth loss in the last six games dating back to late last season.
"Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there," Kelly said. "He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame. He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn't working."
Things were so bad Saturday that immediately after the game, Kelly awkwardly listed Duke's 498 total yards and 31 offensive points as signs of Irish defensive improvement.
"Actually [defensive coaching], that's probably the one area I feel better about today," Kelly strangely said of holding Duke 2 yards short of becoming the third opponent this season to gain 500. "We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. Coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective."
And yet, VanGorder was gone less than 24 hours later, with veteran coach and former Notre Dame defensive analyst Greg Hudson set to take over.
So what's next, where does this program go from here? Keep in mind, the Irish now must win five of their final eight games just to become bowl eligible. And with so much confusion and chaos running through this team, those 15 bowl practices may be as important as anything that happens the rest of this regular season.
Kelly vowed that personnel changes are coming and any lineup decisions will be guided much more by effort and energy than history and hierarchy.
"I don't care what your resumé says," Kelly explained. "I don't care if you were a five-star [recruit], if you had a hundred tackles, or 80 receptions, or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it, severely."
A regular-season schedule that less than a month ago didn't look overly daunting now provides no guarantees for Kelly's lifeless Irish.
"Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game," he said of his players. "There's no fun, there's no enjoyment, there's no energy."
There's also no leadership.
Kelly was confident during training camp that the talent was in place to absorb the loss of 10 players to the NFL after last season. He wasn't so sure as to who would fill the leadership void.
Nick Martin, Sheldon Day, Mathias Farley, Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith last year made up one of the strongest group of Irish captains since Zack Martin, Manti Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore essentially willed the 2012 Irish to the national championship game.
This year, Kelly and his staff settled on four fine players to captain the team in Torii Hunter Jr., Mike McGlinchey, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu. But these four are all soft-spoken lead-by-example guys on a team in desperate need of an in-your-face attitude adjustment.
In fact, all but Rochell admitted that they were surprised to even be elected as a team captain.
That prevailing passiveness has at least in part put the Irish on course to maybe its worst season since 2007 when Charlie Weis and Jimmy Clausen went 3-9 … yet, even that team beat Duke.
Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.