BYU v Notre Dame

After unexplainable loss, can Irish rally again?

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Few memories are shorter collectively than football fans. Every mistake is magnified in the prism of “now,” with the devastation of a difficult to understand loss like last weekend’s to Northwestern consistently taking dead aim at the foundation of a football program, regardless of its stability.

In the span of four, mistake-filled hours, (for some) opinions on the future of Brian Kelly turned drastically. That’s to be expected in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of major sports. And when you’re cashing seven-figure pay checks, people don’t tend to care if you’re playing freshman and sophomores, if your best players are suspended, or if injuries have gutted the heart of your roster.

Losing isn’t good. Especially in the spectacularly painful manner the Irish managed to last weekend, where a toxic blend of mistakes both on the field and on the sidelines merged gasoline with blowtorch, the flames killing any momentum this season could’ve salvaged with a defeat at the hands of one of the Big Ten’s most unimpressive teams.

So you can understand the bellowing for pink slips and the demands for house-cleaning. And that junk-draw dig for that list of usual suspects, if only to feel better by kicking the tires on the Grudens and the Shanahans, or hoping that this won’t ever happen again if Stoops or Meyer leave their pressure cooker for another.

But at this point, it’s worth looking past the disaster. Because now Brian Kelly’s job isn’t to explain why Northwestern managed to beat Notre Dame. It’s to not let the Wildcats beat them twice. So while most Irish fans already have the turkey cooked a week before Thanksgiving, Notre Dame’s still a 3.5-point favorite, so at least the town that’s built on picking a winner hasn’t completely given up on the Domers yet.

On Tuesday, Kelly acknowledged the stench that’s still coming off of this loss. But he rightfully put into context where this loss falls in his five-year run in South Bend, pushing away from the comparisons to the soul-stomping loss to Tulsa in 2010.

“Understand that these are some tough times,” Kelly said. “But relatively speaking I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4 and 5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparisons. You’re now in a winning environment. And you’ve won a lot of football games.

“Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 18‑2 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective.”

Perspective doesn’t get passed around these circles too often, especially not after bungled two-point conversions and goal line fumbles. But after watching mistakes compound last Saturday by the unusual suspects – the school’s record-setting kicker, its team captain running back, and a head coach that’s usually one of the better strategists in the game — Kelly quickly ended any talk about the self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom that too often haunted these parts in years past.

“We’re not going to get into that. I think you get in the game and [the mistakes] definitely affect you,” Kelly acknowledged, when asked about having worries that these mistakes might spread. “Look, it affected me. I went for two when I should have kicked the extra point, right?

“It affects everybody. I can’t fall into that. I’m not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that. But you fall into that, right? And so I can’t let our players fall into that.”

So it’s back to the basics. And even if Kelly himself wasn’t going to bring up the darkest days of his tenure in South Bend, a look at those moments should give you a good feel about how his team has responded to adversity.

For clues as to how the Irish will respond to crisis, let’s go back to those big moments:

 

Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27
October 30, 2010
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview: A week after being humiliated by Navy 35-17, the Irish took the field just three days after the tragic death of Declan Sullivan.

The Irish lost Dayne Crist early in the game with another major, season-ending knee injury. The Irish gave up two points on a blocked extra point. (Sound familiar?) And after taking a 27-18 lead over the Golden Hurricane in the third quarter, the Irish gave up 10 unanswered points before driving inside the Tulsa 20 yard line with under a minute left.

But after taking a timeout on 2nd-and-8 to discuss things, Tommy Rees underthrew Michael Floyd in the end zone and was intercepted, leaving kicker David Ruffer on the sideline without ever getting to attempt a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

The Aftermath: Kelly’s opening postgame comments were his first about the Sullivan tragedy. After answering those difficult questions, they shifted to his decision to throw the football with a true freshman quarterback with a makeable field goal in range. Here was Kelly’s response.

“We knew we had a one-on-one matchup with Mike Floyd. We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there,” Kelly said. “But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one-on-one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again. We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today. But in time we’ll make that play.”

The loss pushed the Irish into a very real scenario where a postseason bowl berth looked doubtful. Notre Dame’s two toughest opponents — a ranked Utah team and USC — still remained. As did another option offense, with an already bowl-eligible Army team awaiting for the Irish in Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame needed to win two of three just to get to .500.

The Response: Entering as nearly touchdown home underdogs, the Irish hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2006, an 11-game run. But facing an offense that had averaged 41 points a game, the Irish won the turnover battle 2-0, got a huge blocked punt by Robert Blanton for a touchdown and Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the second half’s opening kickoff.

Tommy Rees completed 13 of 20 passes for just 129 yards. But three of those went for touchdowns with Floyd catching one and Duval Kamara catching two as students stormed the field after a cathartic 28-3 victory.

“Today for our football team was a moment that you really can’t explain unless you’re with us all the time, and that moment is shared between players and coaches. We were able to do that in the locker room after the game,” Kelly said after the victory. “Our seniors were playing in their last game. Through the last three weeks we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group. In those times to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

 

Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
September 10, 2011
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview:: Few losses hurt more than this one. Notre Dame’s defense gave up 28 second-half points and the Irish offense’s 513 yards were all but negated by five turnovers as a broken coverage late in the game allowed Denard Robinson and company to walk out of an electric evening in Michigan Stadium with a win for the ages, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

After losing in painful ways the previous two seasons, the Irish looked like they had pulled out a clutch victory when Tommy Rees hit Theo Riddick on a 29-yard touchdown with 30 seconds to go. But Jeremy Gallon was left wide open in the secondary, setting up the game-winning touchdown.

The Aftermath: A week after self-destructing against USF, the Irish did so on an ever larger stage, an unlikely 0-2 football team that left the equivalent of 55 points on the board because of turnovers in just two weeks.

With a visit from Michigan State just days away (who had beat the Irish on their famed Little Giants fake field goal attempt a year prior), Kelly sounded resolute that he and his team could get things turned around.

“I really believe that you haven’t won a game yet, but you haven’t been beaten,” Kelly told his team. “We’ve really had a hand in beating ourselves. If we do not beat ourselves, we’ve got a chance to be the kind of football team that we believe we can be.”

The laundry list of improvements seemed quite daunting. In addition to an offense that was self-destructing, the secondary did the same. The Irish short-yardage units were abysmal. And the Irish had now lost seven of eight games that were within four points.

The Response: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13.

Few remember that the Irish offense only gained 275 yards. Or that the Spartans won the turnover battle 3-2. Notre Dame’s defense came to play, picking off Kirk Cousins in the shadow of their end zone and stopping a Mark Dantonio fake field goal attempt for good measure as well.

On special teams, George Atkinson provided the big play, an 89-yard kickoff return pushing the Irish up 14-3. On defense, freshman Aaron Lynch was relentless as a pass rusher.

The Irish essentially iced victory when Michael Floyd scored on a 22-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter. While Cierre Wood’s 14 carries led the team, Jonas Gray made his early mark on the team, gaining 5.4 yards a carry on his 12 touches.

“We just had to find a way to win. And that was the theme this week. By any means, just find a way to win the football game,” Kelly said afterwards.

 

Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21
November 9, 2013
Gut-Punch Level: Painful

Overview: Things seemed to go wrong from the drop, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt ejected in the first quarter for targeting, gutting an already injury-depleted Irish team. But the Irish pulled ahead late in the third quarter when Rees and TJ Jones connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass.

But the lead wouldn’t hold, as Devin Street matched Jones’ big play with a 63-yard score to tie the game and James Connor pushed Pitt ahead early in the fourth quarter as two late interceptions by Rees allowed the score to hold up.

“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said.

Critics wondered about playcalling, with the Irish running for 5.8 a carry, but giving freshman Tarean Folston just four carries among the team’s 24 attempts. And Jones’ individual effort, 149 yards on six catches, wasn’t enough to overcome three turnovers, including one by the Irish receiver in scoring position.

The Aftermath: The loss killed the Irish’s BCS dreams and was also a rare November nightmare for a team that had played historically well down the stretch. With the defensive front gutted, the Irish were forced to play unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, and it showed as the Pitt offense wore down the Irish defense. But Kelly didn’t use that as an excuse.

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

After living on the edge with a close victory over USC and then two weeks later Navy, the Irish regression was a disappointing development for a team that had hopefully left turnover problems behind in their loss to Oklahoma.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

The Response: On Senior Day, a bludgeoned Irish defense was carried by a surprising offensive attack, with Notre Dame’s ground game leading the way to victory. Played in intermittent snow, Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for a big 61-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first series, but won it on the ground, with the Irish running for 235 yards against a BYU defense that was statistically among the best in the country.

With the wind howling and the weather nasty, the Irish seized the opportunity to win the game with their offensive line, limiting mistakes (and the opportunity to make them) in a 23-13 victory that saw Notre Dame control the time of possession.

“Well, as I told our team, first and foremost, getting a win at home is always extremely satisfying in that we always want to defend our home stadium,” Kelly said, noting the Irish run of winning 12 of 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, before turning the attention to his graduating seniors. “Certainly getting a win for them is important. We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again. But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”

And in that corner… The Syracuse Orange

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Head coach of the Syracuse Orange Dino Babers speaks with quarterback Eric Dungey #2 and running back Dontae Strickland #4 during the first half against the Colgate Raiders on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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With the season at a tipping point, the Irish hit the road. Outside the friendly (or not so friendly, of late) confines of Notre Dame Stadium, Brian Kelly’s team hits the road and travels to New York, where Syracuse awaits.

New head coach Dino Babers has installed his up-tempo offense and the system is already taking hold. The defense hasn’t caught up, helping to launch Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign on the way to a very uneven start.

So before we get to this weekend’s shootout, let’s dig into the challenge that’s ahead. To get us ready, we’re joined by the Daily Orange’s Chris Libonati. He’s an assistant sports editor and football beat writer for one of the country’s premier student newspapers.

In addition to juggling his studies on magazine journalism and public policy, Chris breaks down what Notre Dame should expect from the Orange this weekend in the Meadowlands.

 

Dino Babers is four games into his tenure at Syracuse. The offense seems to have taken to his up-tempo attack. The defense… feels like a work in progress. Can you give us a progress report on the program since Babers took over?

I think the offense has clearly improved from last season, and the defense has regressed. The problem right now is going to be cycling through Scott Shafer’s players that don’t really fit Babers’ systems or creating spots where they can fit. Although that seems a bit unfair, that’s the reality of coaching changes. It’s easy to see that the program could improve after this season, but it’s just speculation for the time being.

 

Notre Dame relieved defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of his duties on Sunday following another poor performance. Syracuse is actually ranked BELOW Notre Dame in scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. Brian Ward came with Babers from Bowling Green. Is he overmatched? Or is the personnel just that bad?

I don’t necessarily think all of the defensive problems fall on Ward. Scott Shafer ran a high risk-high reward system that required players to be more aggressive in chasing big plays, big hits, etc. The Tampa 2 is almost a 180 for players that are used to that type of a system. For the most part, the Tampa 2 is a bend-don’t-break system, but it appears that the transition is going to take a little while.

One of the best examples is the very first Louisville touchdown. A ball fake easily made the safeties bite and Lamar Jackson threw a long touchdown over the top of the defense. Right now, it’s big plays that have affected Syracuse. Teams really haven’t put together consistent drives. It’s more three-minute drives and under that are killing SU.

 

Now the offense should terrify Irish fans. Specifically what Amba Etta-Tawo is doing. The Maryland transfer put up pedestrian numbers before coming to Syracuse, where he’s coming off of a historic game against UConn. How is he doing this? And how big of a surprise has his emergence been?

It’s kind of amazing to watch. You ask yourself if he can top a performance, and he just did it last week. That said, some of that is the system taking advantage of his best skills. He’s been very good in space, and he’s even better on deep throws. Several times, he’s been adjusted on the boundaries of the field, out-jumped corners or come back to an underthrown ball. And when he doesn’t do that, he burns the corner.

I haven’t seen him really run a crossing route or anything over the short-middle of the field (he has run a few screens and is good in open space), but he hasn’t really needed to. What defenses could try to do is shade a safety over the top, but the Baylor-style spread has its outside receivers almost out to the sidelines, which means safeties have to shade way over. That’ll open up the middle of the field for guys like Brisly Estime and Ervin Philips or potentially expose defenses in the run game.

 

Babers was candid about saying he’d have rather Brian Kelly didn’t fire VanGorder before they traveled to New York, and that he’d prefer the game be played at home in the Carrier Dome rather than the Meadowlands. Let’s talk about this neutral site game? Is it strictly economics? Or what’s the purpose of taking this game to the New York Metro area?

I think just talking about this probably reveals this project as a bit of a failure. Playing this game in the New York Metro area was supposed to expand Syracuse’s brand as “New York’s College Team.” Syracuse scheduled high-profile games against USC (2012), Penn State (2013) and Notre Dame (2014) at MetLife, but hasn’t won any of those games. When it comes down to it, SU put its brand against a national brand and the fan splits at those games were not in the Orange’s favor. This crowd will almost certainly be pro-UND and it’s considered a “home game” for SU.

What the series has done is take a home game away from the Carrier Dome and it pits SU against a top-level program when its still trying to make bowl games on a consistent basis. A smarter series would have been to play Rutgers, but Kyle Flood reportedly nixed that when he was RU’s coach.

 

We’ve seen just about every offense score points on Notre Dame. How many do you think Syracuse needs to score to beat the Irish this weekend?

A lot. I know that’s not specific, but SU’s defense has really struggled against good offenses. DeShone Kizer may have struggled at times this year, but I’d bet he has a decent game against Syracuse. I think the Orange would have to hang at least 40 points on UND to win on Saturday. That’ll be tough if Eric Dungey can’t play for some reason. He didn’t come out for interviews on Tuesday because he was getting treatment for an undisclosed injury. Dino Babers declined to talk about the injury on Wednesday. My guess is that Dungey plays, but if he can’t Zack Mahoney will have to step in for him. Mahoney’s deep ball isn’t quite as good as Dungey’s, which could limit Etta-Tawo’s deep-play ability.

Kelly goes back to basics with defense

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish reacts in the first half of the game against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly met with the media on Tuesday, revealing a few details about the defensive changes he plans to implement. And while he kept any specific schematic or personnel tweaks to himself, his comments helped clarify why he made the decision to relieve Brian VanGorder of his duties Sunday morning.

At the second inflection point of his tenure in South Bend, Kelly is once again betting on himself. We saw him do this to great success after he made the unconventional decision to name Chuck Martin his offensive coordinator after the 2011 season—betting on his protege instead of Ed Warinner, who then left to go to Ohio State after being passed up.

That’s not to say this move has the ceiling of Kelly’s last great pivot—an undefeated regular season that ended with a date in the national title game. You could just as easily argue it’s a survival play.

So perhaps that’s why Kelly was less interested in defining what Greg Hudson’s new job title means, and more resolute on clarifying that this defense will operate the way the head coach sees fit.

“He’s going to adapt to what I want to run. His style is going to be Coach Kelly’s style,” Kelly explained.

“I’ll worry about the implementation, the scheme. I’ll take care of that for him right now. As he gets more comfortable with what we have and what our system is about, then he will be much more involved in what we do.

“But right now, we’ll write the music and he’ll be the lead singer. I don’t know if that’s a great analogy, if that makes any sense. He’s going to be out front, but he just got here. In terms of assuming this role, he’s learning everything as well.”

For those worried that the Irish head coach was shirking responsibility for his team’s 1-3 start, Kelly certainly is acting like a coach who is doing the opposite. He’s doubling down, and in doing so, acknowledging some of the fatal flaws that became exposed each and every game Brian VanGorder continued to coach.

The head coach will simplify game plans, asking his young team to do less but do it better. The staff will learn from the opening night debacle in Texas, a game plan that stressed scheme over personnel, a decision that was largely emblematic of how VanGorder handled his time in South Bend.

“We can’t defend everything. We can’t defend everything, but we have to be sound,” Kelly said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

Kelly’s other major move will be developing a better rotation. After seven recruiting cycles, the roster has a deeper talent pool than VanGorder was willing to access. And for all the talk of sub-packages and defensive specialization, Kelly sounded like a coach who knew he needed to take things back to the basics.

“I can’t have 15 different personnel packages. We’ve got a couple personal packages. That’s it,” Kelly said. “There can’t be cross-training into three different personnel packages. We’ve streamlined that to the point where the guys are going to know by hopefully Thursday exactly where they fit in each group.”

With just days to prepare a defense that’s already at rock bottom, implementing any gigantic scheme change was always out of the question. But in looking for a new identity, Kelly also acknowledged some of the breaking points that forced him to make the change.

 

Even in transition, Babers expects Notre Dame’s best

SYRACUSE, NY - SEPTEMBER 02: Amba Etta-Tawo #7 of the Syracuse Orange pulls in a touchdown reception as Cortney Mimms #26 of the Colgate Raiders defends during the first quarter on September 2, 2016 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s defense is starting fresh with Greg Hudson, at least temporarily, at the helm. But Syracuse head coach Dino Babers doesn’t expect the instability to lead to a weakened opponent.

In fact, he thinks it’ll have the opposite effect.

“What normally happens in those situations is just like in a cowboy movies you circle the wagons and you find out who wants to fight and who doesn’t want to fight,” Babers said Monday. “So we’re going to get an angry mama bear that’s been wounded, that’s going to be fighting and clawing and coming out with all they have, and really wish they wouldn’t had done anything and wish they would have won the game last week.”

But the Irish didn’t win against Duke. And Brian Kelly’s decision to remove Brian VanGorder of his duties after just four games leads Notre Dame’s young defense into some uncharted territory.

Because the Irish will have to find a way to slow down a Syracuse offense that might not have as good of personnel as Texas, but is better at running the up-tempo, spread attack that the Longhorns installed this offseason. And Babers comes from the same Art Briles coaching tree that Sterlin Gilbert.

So Notre Dame will need to find a way to tackle receivers in space. And they’ll need to find a way to get an offense off the field that’s run more plays than every team in college football but three.

While Kelly promised both personnel and scheme changes, what can be done in a week remains to be seen. But with the Irish offense going up against a defense that’s actually worse statistically in every major category than Notre Dame’s, finding any success on the defensive side of the ball will be key.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Duke

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 24:  Anthony Nash #83 of the Duke Blue Devils runs for a touchdown during the second half of a game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on September 24, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s move was emphatic. Brian VanGorder’s departure confirms that a 1-3 record is unacceptable. And the demise of this team was as swift as the departure of a colleague Brian Kelly has known for the bulk of his 25-plus year coaching career.

But that’s the job. And the move likely wasn’t easy for a head coach who saw himself as close to tenured as any man this side of Lou Holtz had been, and is now clearly in uncharted territory.

“I’m under review, as well,” Kelly acknowledged on Sunday afternoon. “We’re all in this together: All the players, coaches, everybody. So players’ jobs are on the line. Every job is being evaluated as the players. All coaches’ jobs are on the line as well.”

With Greg Hudson now directing the defense, and Syracuse having run more offensive plays than every program but three, the challenge this weekend is stark. So let’s move forward ourselves and finish off the good, the bad and the ugly.

 

THE GOOD

Dexter WilliamsBrian Kelly gave him credit, so let’s start there. Williams ran hard, looked explosive and flashed on special teams.

It’s time for Williams to get some more reps, even if it means taking away from Josh Adams’ leading load as well as Tarean Folston‘s.

 

Donte Vaughn. Notre Dame’s freshman cornerback wasn’t perfect—he got beat inside a few times on slant routes that everybody in the building saw coming. But he came up big and made a play, something Notre Dame’s defensive backs haven’t done since Shaun Crawford went down for the season.

His length and cover skills should be put to the test again next weekend when Syracuse’s Amba Etta-Tawo looks to replicate his monster 270-yard performance against UConn. The focus will be on Cole Luke, Vaughn, Julian Love and Nick Coleman.

 

Kevin Stepherson. The freshman only caught three balls, but all of them were big gainers,  including his beautiful 44-yard touchdown catch. With Torii Hunter unable to push the lid off opponents, Stepherson might be a better fit for the X moving forward, assuming he continues to learn the playbook and run precise routes.

 

The Weather. Looked like a heckuva day in South Bend, at least from a weather perspective.

 

THE BAD

The tackling. That was one of the worst tackling performances I can remember. Especially against a team that was anemic on offense heading into the weekend. Name a defender and you’ll recall a missed tackle.

Drue Tranquill held on to a few early, then had some ugly whiffs. Cole Luke, a guy Brian Kelly called the team’s smartest football player last week, sure looked lost a few times, too. And with hopes that Devin Studstill is the answer at free safety, Studstill did his best to make us wonder about that, too. He took some horrific routes to footballs, a difficult day at the office for a young kid who needs to learn quickly.

When your senior captain outside linebacker is getting run over by a quarterback for a first down and you’re thinking, “at least he made the tackle,” the bar has been lowered pretty significantly. But another week of “thudding” at practice might be needed—even with heavy installation coming soon.

 

The special teams. A missed field goal proved costly. So did some horrific tackling and coverage on the kickoff return that let Duke back into the game. And for the fourth time this season, Tyler Newsome flubbed his first kick of the game. (All but asking for the nickname Mulligan to emerge.)

Scott Booker has a ton of kids on his run teams. But they’ve got to get some consistency out there if they want CJ Sanders to help turn this into a positive, not another unit to hide.

 

The pass rush. Yes, the drought is over, with Nyles Morgan getting the first sack of the season for the Irish. But man—this team has a gigantic hole on it and finding any type of pass rush is critical.

Sure, Duke’s quick passing game took advantage of the Irish’s leaky secondary and didn’t let Notre Dame get to the quarterback. But at this point, every snap you’re giving Andrew Trumbetti over a kid who can get to the quarterback—Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem, or anyone—feels lost.

 

The coaching. Kelly raised more than a few eyebrows when he said the following, when asked about an evaluation of his defensive coaching and game plan.

“That’s probably the one area that I feel better about today. We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today,” Kelly said.

That was likely a time-buyer until a long night of thinking, because morning brought clarity for the head man.

 

THE UGLY

The State of the Program. With the game tied 28-28 heading into the fourth quarter, one team was jumping around like they’d won the lotto. The other was all but biting their fingernails, kicking dirty and looking lethargic.

If anything set off Kelly postgame—even more so than the defense his troops were displaying—it was the lack of effort.

“There’s no passion for it. It looks like it’s hard to play. Like we’re pulling teeth,” Kelly said. “You’re playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it’s work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.

“There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s where we got to go.”

In Kelly’s first few seasons in South Bend, he was criticized for having his team celebrate victories, even the ugly ones. But somewhere this program lost track of the ultimate goal and that likely falls on the head coach to fix that problem as soon as possible.

 

Firing a staffer. Notre Dame’s head coach likely saw what many of us saw as well. But a decision like that from the cheap-seats is one thing, a decision from inside the program is another.

Follow Notre Dame long enough, and you’ll tire of thinking about the carousel that’s come and gone—Davie, O’Leary, Willingham, Weis, armies of loyal assistants who have spent years working to climb the summit. And for most, life after Notre Dame isn’t the same.

Sure, there’s Urban Meyer, Dan Mullen and Charlie Strong. But there are a few dozen others who have come to a program with noble ambitions—willing to do it right and win on and off the field—but they fail too often on Saturdays.

So as ND Nation almost united in celebration of the move, it’s worth a quick word to a fanbase that always fashions itself as possessing proper etiquette.

Few come to your office and celebrate the worst day of your professional career. Less dig into your family’s Twitter account, hoping to break a story or confirm news they celebrate jubilantly. Sure, some of that comes with the territory. And certainly VanGorder was well compensated for his time in South Bend.

But ultimately, this Sunday hopefully provided some perspective. Baseball lost one of its brightest young stars. Golf lost one of its icons. And many many more things of consequence took place—inside the sporting world and out.

But when it comes to VanGorder, a quick reminder of something that has nothing to do with sports. A man has lost his job. A family will uproot once again. And the dynamics on the current football team—where Montgomery VanGorder still plays an important role—won’t ever be the same.

“I will tell you this: Brian is as fine a defensive coach as there is out there. He knows the game. He loves Notre Dame,” Kelly said on Sunday. “He wanted to succeed as much as anybody here, but it wasn’t working.”

There should be no harm in that.