SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame football followers cringed a bit after the Irish lost to Texas in the season opener when Brian Kelly explained away the difficult defeat with phrases such as "we're a young team" and "we sent 10 players to the NFL after last season."
The Irish head coach was right in his assessment. But it still was unsettling to hear the main man respond with excuses for a program that carries annual playoff aspirations.
Having Nick Saban at Alabama or Urban Meyer at Ohio State pin a loss on being too young or having too many NFL draftees is unthinkable.
Kelly took a different approach and full blame late Saturday night after a 36-28 loss to No. 12 Michigan State dropped his Irish to 1-2, putting an early end to any playoff hopes for 2016.
"Obviously from our perspective, we've got to do a better job coaching," Kelly said after suffering his fourth loss in the last five games dating back to the end of last season. "That's on me, starts with me, and obviously offense, defense and special teams has got to be better to win games against good competition."
And "winning games against good competition" remains Kelly's greatest challenge. Since defeating four ranked teams during an undefeated regular season in 2012, Notre Dame is only 4-10 against top-25 opponents in its last 14 tries. And overall, Kelly is 10-13 against ranked foes during his seven seasons here.
Kelly fell on his sword and took the blame after the Michigan State loss, even though it's becoming easier every week to put the blame bullseye on the Irish defense and its coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The 36 points and 501 yards allowed to the Spartans dropped VanGorder's unit to 102nd nationally this season in total defense out of 128 teams, 99th in rushing defense and 94th in scoring defense, allowing 32 points per game.
Miscommunication, blown coverages, poor technique and lousy tackling have become the norm under VanGorder, and Kelly didn't hesitate to express his frustration Saturday when each of those breakdowns were painfully evident against MSU.
"We missed the tackles, and those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke," Kelly said. "… So we can cry all we want about what we didn't do, but we gotta start doing it."
Coming into the 2016 season opener, Notre Dame had allowed a troubling 46 scoring drives of 75 yards or more during VanGorder’s first two seasons on the job here. Irish opponents have added eight more such drives through the first three games this season.
For comparison sake, the 2012 Notre Dame defense that carried the Irish to a national title game appearance allowed only four scoring drives of 75 yards or more that entire season under coordinator Bob Diaco.
This troubling trend doesn't even mention the endless game-changing explosive plays allowed by the Irish defense, a propensity that has become a trademark of VanGorder's unit. Michigan State rushed the ball 52 times against Notre Dame and still averaged 6.4 yards on its 78 offensive plays, mainly because of missed Irish tackles and general confusion.
"We're not in good position, that's poor coaching," Kelly said. "We're not coaching it well enough."
A defense predicated on pressuring quarterbacks and forcing turnovers upon VanGorder's arrival here three seasons ago finished 78th and 70th in sacks and 110th and 41st in forced turnovers, respectively, during his first two seasons on the job, with no improvement in sight. Disturbingly, Notre Dame is one of only two teams in the country not to have recorded a sack yet this season.
So where do the answers come from to make sure this doesn't become a 7-5 or even a 6-6 season with quality teams such as Stanford, Miami, USC and others on the horizon? Even Coach Kelly is struggling to answer that one.
"Those are the guys we have, we can't trade 'em, they're not getting cut," Kelly said. "This is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team."
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer who covers University of Notre Dame sports.