Inside the Irish

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Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Brian Kelly did not shirk the burden of responsibility after Notre Dame’s 41-8 shellacking at Miami on Saturday. The closest he came to criticizing the Irish defense was pointing out missed assignments on particular run plays, but he quickly turned even that thought into praise of Miami sophomore running back Travis Homer.

“It was the fly-sweep counter that we didn’t fit very well,” Kelly said. “Let’s give Travis Homer some credit. His acceleration through the hole …”

Following Brandon Wimbush’s 10-of-21 passing performance with two interceptions in the biggest game of his young career, the harshest thing Kelly said of the junior quarterback was simply a fact.

“He’s still developing as a quarterback and tonight was not a night to turn the football over against a quality football team,” Kelly said.

Rather than blame his players, Kelly put the onus on himself and his coaching staff.

“The Xs and the Os, the tactical part of it, was not where I thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We’ll go back and really take a good hard look at that.”

Come Sunday, Kelly’s overall point had not shifted. When discussing the interception delivered to the Hurricanes by Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book, Kelly again pointed inward to the staff who developed Book’s reading of the defense.

“We have to coach him better in that situation.”

If Notre Dame’s defense was shell-shocked by the frenzied crowd in Miami Gardens, Kelly faulted a lack of warning for that mental discomfort.

“We’ll have to take a good close look at that of making sure we prepare our guys,” he said. “I have to do a better job of making sure they are in the moment.”

By no means should Kelly have stood at the podium or sat on a conference call and criticized individual players. He has been lampooned for that in the past, and it is not a college coach’s job to publicly belittle 18- to 21-year-olds. It is, in fact, his job to defend them against such reflexive reactions. That does not change the facts of Saturday night’s fiasco, though.

The loss should be shared.

Kelly and his staff have been in atmospheres like Hard Rock Stadium’s before. They indeed did need to do a better job of setting that stage for the young Irish. They had to know Miami’s defensive speed was of a speed close to, if not equal to, Georgia’s. Developing a better scheme to counteract that needed to be priorities Nos. 1, 2 and 3.

But the players also made rudimentary mistakes. Both of Wimbush’s interceptions — his second one especially — were mistakes of his making, not remarkable plays by the Hurricanes. Most of the 65,303 in attendance could have intercepted Book’s final pass attempt.

Notre Dame’s defensive line, including senior end Andrew Trumbetti (98) and sophomore end Julian Okwara (42, right) could hardly get within an arm’s reach of Miami senior quarterback Malik Rosier on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

They may be young, but the Irish defenders needed to put the noise out of their minds. The missed fits looked to be more a symptom of a moment’s delay, not of missing a hand signal amidst the din. Senior Miami quarterback Malik Rosier never had to hurry. (Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman Daelin Hayes was credited with exactly one quarterback hurry, the only one from the Irish defense.) Notre Dame made six tackles for loss, but only one cost the Hurricanes more than two yards. There was no genuine pressure put on the home team at any point.

The 2017 version of Kelly will vaguely mention execution as something that lacked Saturday. That discretion is a credit to him.

It does not change the reality that the Irish players did not execute. Be it youth, inexperience or incompetence — and the first two are quite apparent with any look at the roster, let alone a moment watching a game — the fundamental execution will need to improve moving forward for Notre Dame to truly “dominate” as was its mantra from Sept. 10 to Nov. 10.

On the limited reach of any one position group
Aside from a rare quarterback and the once-in-a-generation Ndamukong Suh, no single player or position can change the entire outlook of a game. In Notre Dame’s case, its greatest strength is its offensive line. Without a viable passing attack, however, Miami’s defensive line was able to overcome the Irish run blocking. There was not much fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey and senior left guard Quenton Nelson were going to do about it. The Hurricanes knew they had to worry about Notre Dame’s ground game. They keyed on it, and the athletic defensive linemen outraced Irish junior running back Josh Adams to the edge time and time again.

Notre Dame should and will continue to attract top-flight offensive line recruits.

“We have a great history of getting great offensive linemen here,” Kelly said Tuesday in answering a forward-looking query. “… We should be really good at running the football here at Notre Dame.”

A brother of this scribe undoubtedly delighted hearing that. Every Christmas he insists on spending the hour between Christmas Eve services and Christmas Eve’s feast asking why the Irish don’t focus more on a power run game. His argumentative style devolves to one similar to his 10-year-old stepdaughter’s. Any reasonable response is met with Why? or How? or Why not? Eventually the cheesy potatoes, cheesy spinach and pork roast are served. His questions abate.

His point is valid, but it is also very incomplete.

Notre Dame cannot rely solely on a power run game until it has a well-rounded offense. Superior defensive lines will make sure of that.

At some point, the Irish will theoretically boast a defensive front capable of neutralizing a one-dimensional attack in a similar fashion. It is not outside the realm of possibility those players are already contributing, led by Hayes and classmates Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. Freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovaioloa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish have acquitted themselves quite well this season, even more so when compared to summer’s expectations.

Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has improved that front drastically this season, yet it remains far below the level of Miami’s, Georgia’s and even North Carolina State’s. Elko’s progress has been more than ever could have been anticipated. Closing the entire gap in one year was never feasible.