Keith Arnold

COLLEGE STATION, TX - SEPTEMBER 19:  Nevada Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian has words with linejudge Michael Shirey and referee David South at Kyle Field on September 19, 2015 in College Station, Texas.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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Polian prepares for Notre Dame

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This won’t be just any other game for Nevada head coach Brian Polian. The Wolf Pack head coach returns to South Bend this weekend, where he served as an assistant to Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009. And while his time coaching the Irish ended when Weis was dismissed by athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Polian’s fondness for Notre Dame is undiminished.

“It was an incredibly formative time in my life and my career,” Polian said on Tuesday. “I have personal feelings for the place that you can’t help…

“I’m forever indebted to Charlie Weis for giving me the opportunity at 29 years of age to go coach there. My memories of the university and my time there are very fond. They’re very warm.”

Now he faces the challenge of beating the very same program that made it possible for him to quickly climb the coaching ladder. And even if the Wolf Pack catch the Irish with an opening game loss and questions on both sides of the ball, Polian knows—and speaks from experience—that things aren’t quite as dire as they seem.

“I think there’s part of the fan base that thinks the sky is falling right now, and I can assure them, it’s not,” Polian said.

So the fourth-year head coach, just 19-20 in his three seasons after taking over for legendary coach Chris Ault, will bring his program to South Bend looking for a “signature win.” The last time the Wolf Pack visited, Ault’s more talented team—led by star quarterback Colin Kaepernick—left disappointed, shutout by Jon Tenuta’s Irish defense.

While there’s no way to draw off that disappointing experience and visit to a place Polian calls “one of the great cathedrals in college football,” he believes some of the big stages his team has played on lately will have them better prepared to deal with a soldout home crowd eager to see the Irish play well.

“Once you’ve played on the road in the SEC, it might be the same but it won’t be any harder,” Polian said, referencing last year’s visit to Texas A&M, where the Wolf Pack fought hard, but eventually lost 44-27. “There were 102,000 at Texas A&M last year and we hung in there and fought out tails off. I have no reason to think we won’t do the same this week.”

After needing overtime to beat Cal Poly last week, Polian expects to see improvement from his young team. That said, he knows Notre Dame will have the same jump, sounding almost sympathetic to the youthful nature of the Irish secondary.

“I don’t care where you are, if you’ve got three freshman playing in the defensive backfield, it’s hard—it doesn’t matter what school you’re at,” Polian said. “Freshmen are freshman. No matter how talented they are, they lack experience. And then you put them in front of 103,000 in that setting, and obviously there’s going to be some growing pains. I have no doubt that they’ll be significantly improved with that experience when they face us.”

***

Speaking of the Notre Dame secondary, the starting lineup appears to be tweaked, with Devin Studstill starting opposite Drue Tranquill. Last week, the Irish chose to go with Tranquill and Avery Sebastian. They abandoned that pairing midway through the game, pulling Tranquill in favor of Studstill when it was clear that the 230-pounder wasn’t going to be able to run vertical with the opponent.

Kelly talked about making sure Tranquill was back on his game—a very important piece of the puzzle, especially back at home as a strong safety and will Sebastian a game-time decision after suffering a concussion late in the game against Texas.

“We’ve got to get him back out there and, again, it’s a learning process,” Kelly said. “Some of the mistakes out there were ones that he’s aware of that, again, we just have to be better.

“We’ve got to communicate and teach better. We’ve got to make sure that he’s clearly understanding what we’re asking of him and making sure that we get that on game day. So we come back out and make sure that Drue understands what is expected and he needs to come through for us.”

***

A week after Jay Hayes didn’t play a snap, Kelly is hopeful the veteran defensive end will be able to contribute, sharing some of the load with junior Andrew Trumbetti.

“It was a personnel kind of game for us in terms of running Jay Hayes in and out of the game there,” Kelly conceded. “It was going to be difficult with him not at 100 percent. He should be closer this week to being able to give us reps.”

If I’m reading between the lines, I’d expect the Irish staff to do everything they can to get Hayes back to full go before putting him on the field, especially knowing that Michigan State is just a week away.

Perhaps that opens the door for freshman Daelin Hayes to get some playing time, capable of coming off the edge in speed situations. Whatever the case, the Irish need Trumbetti to be better.

And in that corner… The Nevada Wolf Pack

TUCSON, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Running back James Butler #20 of the Nevada Wolf Pack leaps over safety Trent Matthews #16 of the Colorado State Rams as he rushes the football during the fourth quarter of the Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl at Arizona Stadium on December 29, 2015 in Tucson, Arizona. The Wolf Pack defeated the Rams 28-23. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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The Irish have a home opener to prepare for. And a week after being the centerpiece on the biggest opening weekend college football can remember, they’ve got a distinctly different job—getting ready for a game that’s far from buzz worthy.

That doesn’t mean the Nevada Wolf Pack should be taken lightly. Even after squeaking out an overtime victory against FCS Cal Poly, Brian Polian brings his young team into South Bend intent on being the latest former Notre Dame assistant to topple the Irish.

With an experienced quarterback and a talented ground game, Polian must feel good after watching the Notre Dame defense struggle with Texas. Even as he did his best to assuage Irish fans that the sky wasn’t falling, there’s likely more confidence coming from Reno than if Notre Dame was riding high off a comeback victory.

Joining us during a busy week is the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Chris Murray. Murray is the RGJ’s sports columnist, and has had a front row seat for Brian Polian’s takeover of the Wolf Pack’s football program. He’s done the dirty work that comes with helping Irish fans get beyond a tough night in Austin and get ready for the home opener.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Seemed like a tale of two halves last Saturday as Nevada pulled out an overtime win against Cal Poly. At their best, the Wolf Pack made things look easy. At their worse, things got beyond interesting, especially when Cal Poly had a chance to win on a two-point conversion attempt late. What’d you make of the Wolf Pack’s 2016 debut?

I would grade it a C- or D+ overall simply for being pushed into overtime by an FCS team that went 4-7 last season. Of course, Cal Poly runs a triple-option and has led the FCS in rushing three straight seasons, so it was an odd matchup. The defense actually looked fine but the offense didn’t take advantage of a Cal Poly defense that allowed more than 35 points per game to FCS foes last year.

The offensive looked great in the first quarter but did almost nothing for the rest of the game, including just 14 plays (and two first downs) on four series in the second half. That was worrisome as was the fact Nevada couldn’t put away Cal Poly after a strong first 15 minutes. It will take us a couple of months to see if this was an anomaly or a foreshadowing of how the rest of the season will play out. Obviously, Nevada hopes it is the former.

 

Notre Dame fans have known Brian Polian since Charlie Weis had him on his coaching staff. Polian seemed a long way from a head coaching gig in those years, known mostly for his huge recruiting win landing Manti Te’o. You had an excellent profile of Polian before the season started, but what’s his tenure been like in Reno?

Slow-moving might be the best way to put it. He’s now one-game below .500 since he became Nevada’s head coach in 2013 (19-20 overall) and while he’s clearly improved the Wolf Pack’s classroom efforts and kept the team out of the “bad part of the newspaper,” as Nevada’s athletic director put it, the Wolf Pack seems stuck at the 7-6 mark, which is where it was in the two years before Polian was hired.

The offense has declined during his tenure while the defense has improved. This was expected to be the breakthrough season and it still could but that first impression wasn’t the best. Wolf Pack fans also don’t seem to be completely on board as the season-opening attendance was under 20,000, its lowest for a home opener since 2010 (when Nevada counted actual attendance rather than tickets distributed). After this season, Polian has only one year left on his contract, so it’s kind of a make-or-break season. He did say that without his stint at Notre Dame he wouldn’t be a head coach today. He was very complementary of his time in South Bend.

 

Quarterback Tyler Stewart seemed to pick up where he left off after a nice junior season — showing some much improved accuracy against Cal Poly when they committed to stopping the run. Obviously, he’ll face a stiffer opponent next Saturday. But is it as simple as saying the offense will succeed if Stewart plays well? Or is getting James Butler and the ground game rolling behind an experienced offensive line more important?

Given how much emphasis Nevada puts on its rushing attack, I think it’s fair to say that how the Wolf Pack will run the ball will dictate its offensive success. Obviously the quarterback has a huge role in every offense and that’s no different for Nevada. If the Wolf Pack is going to compete for a Mountain West West Division title or flirt with nine or 10 wins, Stewart has to be a top-50 quarterback in the nation.

He doesn’t have to carry the team like Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo did in recent seasons, but he has guide a more explosive passing attack, which is under the direction of first-year coordinator Tim Cramsey. Still, the Wolf Pack is going to run the ball 60 percent of the time and wants to pound away on first and second down and then use play action. So, the run game is the biggest key.

 

Defensively, it’s tough to take much from a season opener against an opponent like Cal Poly. But Scott Boone’s troops came up with some big plays when they needed to, especially in overtime. Who are a few defenders who need to play big on Saturday in South Bend.

Yeah, there’s not much Notre Dame can derive from the Wolf Pack’s opener, which Scott Boone likes. He’s made some changes in the offseason that will debut against Notre Dame and is hopeful that’s an advantage because the Irish haven’t seen the Wolf Pack’s traditional defense yet this season.

The top two playmakers are the safeties: Dameon Baber, who was second-team All-MW last year as a true freshman (he didn’t debut until game four because he was going to redshirt) and Asauni Rufus, who led Nevada with 105 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman. Both of those guys are excellent athletes, especially Baber, who originally committed to Oregon State out of high school.

The front seven is young, with six new starters. If there’s one guy you want to key on who could give Notre Dame trouble it is sophomore defensive end Malik Reed, who the coaches are high on. He has to get pressure in the backfield all game long if Nevada has a shot at the upset.

 

Notre Dame’s coming off a short week and an emotional loss. Polian knows Notre Dame. Can Nevada play better than the last time they came to South Bend, when Colin Kaepernick, Chris Ault and a very good Nevada team got blown away?

Nevada is hoping it does better than that 35-0 performance. There are two things playing in Nevada’s favor: (1) The extra prep time. Nevada played Friday and Notre Dame late Sunday. That’s two extra days or prep. Plus, Notre Dame is playing Nevada between two big games (Texas and Michigan State). Not matter what they say, the Irish aren’t going to treat Nevada like those other two teams; and (2) The Wolf Pack has played at Texas A&M (in 2015) and Florida State and UCLA (in 2013) in recent seasons, so the big stage shouldn’t be an issue.

The Wolf Pack played Texas A&M tough (44-27 with Nevada inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes before essentially taking a knee) in front of 103,000 fans. So, 80,000 at Notre Dame shouldn’t be an issue. That doesn’t mean Nevada is going to threaten in this one, but the size of the game shouldn’t derail them. Nevada’s 2009 roster that lost at Notre Dame, 35-0, was one of the most talented in school history. The Wolf Pack just didn’t show up in that game. Even though this Nevada team isn’t as talented, it should do better than 35-0.

***

Do yourself a favor and catch up by giving Chris a follow on Twitter @MurrayRGJ. Also spend a few minutes reading his profile on Brian Polian, which I really enjoyed. 

 

Irish move forward to Nevada

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, center, watches as his players run off the field during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Texas , Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
AP / Eric Gay
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Brian Kelly‘s weekly Tuesday press conference came early, a Sunday kickoff and a holiday Monday making it even tougher to get past the season-opening loss to Texas. But even if a faulty camera made for some interesting press conference shenanigans, Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach is moving on.

For the Irish, that means putting Texas behind them. That also means a head coach preaching the message of finishing the job to his young team, a reminder that it was Notre Dame that gave up a fourth-quarter lead after roaring back from a 17-point deficit.

So with Nevada rapidly approaching, Kelly and his team are turning the page.

“The message to the team yesterday was about closing and finishing, and hard-fought games on the road against quality opposition you’ve got to finish,” Kelly said. “That’s what we did not do in this game, we didn’t finish and that will be a ‘watch word’ for this group as we move forward.”

For most, the immediate question was Kelly’s starting quarterback. But with the calendar compressed, Kelly still hasn’t formally discussed the job with the two candidates.  While that’ll lead to some grumbling by fans and outsiders who saw Sunday night in Austin as a decisive vote for DeShone Kizer’s candidacy, Kelly doesn’t expect this to linger on.

“Look, they’re both really good players. I think we could all agree in this room. Now it’s not about anything else but how you accept your role,” Kelly said.

“He’s got to prepare himself as if he’s the starter. So I think all of that is about your attitude and how you accept that role and how it’s embraced. That to me is the most important element of this.”

***

Questions about Notre Dame’s defense continued Tuesday. When asked about his team’s scheme and their ability to slow down the Longhorns, Kelly thought his team’s issues were less about communication and handling Texas’ up-tempo attack and more about executing the game plan.

“Tempo was not a factor this the game for us. Our guys played a lot of plays in very humid conditions. It wasn’t an issue in terms of communication,” Kelly said. Our mistakes were one where we weren’t in the wrong coverage or the fronts…. It was just—we’ve got to execute better, tackle better.”

In a similar tone, Kelly seemed to dismiss some of the criticism directed at defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Echoing comments he made the day before during his media teleconference, Kelly once again preached patience as he pushed back at the idea that VanGorder’s job status should be in question.

“It’s great conversation for everybody to have, but it’s so short-sighted of what really happened in the Texas game,” Kelly said, when asked if he thought he had the right man for the defensive coordinator job. “If we’re 10 or 11 games into the season and we have to outscore everybody, I’ll take the questions, you know? And I would say, ‘fair enough.’

“We’re in game one of a brand new offense that we saw for the first time, and we got ten guys that went to the NFL off this team. So I just think we’re jumping the gun. If we’re ten games into this and we’re giving up 50 points a game, I’ll have to answer your questions. Right now, as I said yesterday, I think you all should relax a little bit.

“I think our defense is going to be fine.”

 

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

Texas wide receiver John Burt (1) runs from Notre Dame defensive back Nick Coleman, right, during a 72-yard touchdown reception in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
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The sun came up in South Bend Monday morning. But likely well before that, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff were in the office—a day behind on preparations for Nevada, with an unexpected loss already on their resume.

Moving forward is the only option for a young Irish football team who showed plenty of character on Sunday night, though none of that adds up to a victory. And while there’ll be plenty of opportunities to diagnose all that ails this football team, let’s go through the good, the bad and the ugly from Sunday night’s 50-47 double-overtime loss.

 

THE GOOD

DeShone Kizer. Notre Dame’s junior quarterback played exceptional football, throwing for five touchdowns and running for another against the Longhorns. With Kizer at quarterback, the Irish scored six touchdowns… leading us into a discussion everybody (or at least the one typing this) is already sick of.

Kizer’s poise has improved from his redshirt freshman campaign. His ability to stand tall in the pocket and throw is unmatched. And for as good as we all believe Malik Zaire to be as a runner of the football, Kizer’s Football IQ and comfort making split-second decisions make him probably at least Zaire’s equal when it comes to the lethalness of the zone read.

He wasn’t perfect. With the game on the line and more than three minutes remaining, the Irish couldn’t do anything more than go three-and-out. But Notre Dame’s part-time quarterback just because a Heisman Trophy candidate, making the decision to pick a starter all but academic.

 

C.J. SandersNotre Dame’s slot receiver and return man was a dynamic piece of the puzzle for the Irish. His 25-yard score in overtime made things easy for the Irish offense. His dazzling 40-yard punt return helped set the Irish up as well.

With no depth behind him at slot receiver other than former walk-on Chris Finke, Sanders needed to play big. And he did.

 

Equanimous St. Brown. It’s interesting to look at the expectations of a sophomore receiver with one catch to his name. Especially after most in the media forgot about his potential breakout after seeing others step to the forefront.

“Well he’s a stud. We expected it out of him,” DeShone Kizer said after the game. “We treated him as if he was a veteran because quite frankly, all the reps he got last year as well as all the things he did this year, he is a veteran. So we’re relying on him to make big plays just like he did today.”

Two touchdowns in game one was a nice way to start.

 

Isaac Rochell. Notre Dame’s veteran defensive lineman was about the only guy up front who consistently held his own in the trenches. He tallied nine total tackles and made 2.5 TFLs, graded out by PFF College as the team’s best defender.

With the Irish struggling to find a good fit in their odd front, Rochell moved inside and out as Brian VanGorder looked for a solution. Rochell was a consistent force up front, and also a workhorse, playing a ridiculous 87 snaps.

 

Nyles Morgan. While I was tempted to keep him out of the good category after he took a 15-yard personal foul penalty, Morgan made 13 tackles from his middle linebacker spot, leading the Irish defense. Nine of those stops were solo.

In a brawl that required Morgan to play big and go head-to-head with not just a 250-pound running back or quarterback but also interior offensive linemen, Morgan did a nice job holding up under pressure.

 

Quick Hits: 

It was great to see Tarean Folston back on the field, his 54-yard run on the first series of the game a nice reminder that Folston didn’t forget how to play the position.

What a great knack for blocking kicks Jarron Jones has shown. The length and power the fifth-year senior brings to the point of attack is a true weapon.

Justin Yoon‘s consecutive field goal streak ended when his 36-yarder was blocked. But he made a clutch kick in overtime and did a nice job with four touchbacks on six kickoffs.

Notre Dame’s offense made it through the game without a turnover. That’s the first time the Irish have lost without committing one, Kelly now 19-1 in games where the Irish put up a goose egg in that category.

Those worries about Devin Studstill not being up for it turned out to be unfounded. Studstill played 47 snaps, doing a nice job as Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive back, per PFF College.

 

THE BAD

The Defensive Front. If there’s a surprise for most Irish fans, it’s the battle Notre Dame’s defensive line lost to the Texas front. Even with three of the five Longhorn starters battling nagging injuries, Texas won the war at the point of attack, scoring five rushing touchdowns and running for 237 net yards.

The decision to start Andrew Trumbetti is one that’ll look questionable when the tape goes on. No doubt it was a move necessitated by the injury to Jay Hayes, who didn’t play, but Trumbetti was overwhelmed as a run defender and no better as a pass rusher.

Jarron Jones only logged 26 snaps and Daniel Cage only played 33. That’s not going to get it done for the Irish when they need those big bodies in the trenches, especially considering how impactful Cage was when he was on the field.

 

The big plays. Nick Coleman won’t want to watch this tape again. Asked to play three deep against Texas’ receiving weapons, Coleman got torched multiple times, unable to run with John Burt, who got vertical on the Irish defense.

“We were in cover three when we got beat. We weren’t even man-to-man,” Kelly explained, a surprise to most. “The inability to play cover three requires better coaching on our part.

“I thought we put ourselves in a tough position when we let the ball get thrown over our head. That’s one thing were the game changed a little bit.”

Texas took dead aim at Coleman until Shaun Crawford was moved outside and Julian Love came in at nickel. Drue Tranquill also subbed out, Studstill taking his reps while Sebastian stayed on the field. The loss of Nick Watkins loomed large on Sunday night, an additional cover corner needed, especially if Coleman is going to commit a defensive back’s cardinal sin.

 

Missed tackles. Sure, it’s easy to call it a missed tackle when you’re trying to take down a 250-pound bowling ball. But there just wasn’t enough sure tackling when Notre Dame had a chance to slow down Texas’ runners—and it consistently blew up in the Irish defense’s face.

An unofficial tally revealed some key misses by Avery Sebastian, inserted into the lineup because of his ability to do the little things and know the system. He was hardly alone—Morgan missed a handful, Jerry Tillery ran through a few TFLs, including one that came on the game’s final play.

Greer Martini’s debut at Will had him playing like a guy learning a new position—understandable since he moved there late in training camp.

 

Tyler Newsome. Notre Dame’s eccentric punter has a booming leg. But he had a case of the shanks on Sunday night—not the first time the young specialist has struggled on the big stage to flip the field.

Newsome’s first punt was a bomb. The rest? Not as much. And while his 24 yarder late in the game didn’t come back to bite the Irish, Newsome needs to sharpen up his mental approach to get past this tough outing.

 

Torii Hunter’s missed targeting call. At this point, it’s over. Notre Dame can expect acknowledgment of the mistake, but it’s not changing the game. Watching the hit again, the ball looked tucked into Hunter’s arm and possessed before he was hit in the head—a blow that we’ve seen called so often, especially with a newfound emphasis on the penalty.

Perhaps the refs just missed it. Perhaps the replay officials missed it too, with ESPN’s cameras so focused on Torii Hunter’s reaction in the stands to the critical timing of the penalty.

However it happened, it was a brutal no-call, especially with Notre Dame’s history of having these flags go against them.

 

The Offensive Line. I’m hesitant to fully call the offensive line play “bad,” but I’m going to do it. Notre Dame did run for 206 yards, but take away the 83 yards on two carries (Folston & Kizer) and it’s 2.8 yards per carry. That’s just not good enough—not against a Texas defensive front that was overwhelmed last season and lost its best interior players.

Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson are expected to be All-American caliber players. But the right side of the offensive line struggled and Sam Mustipher got called for a snap infraction in a critical situation. Most importantly, when the Irish needed to move the point of attack and get the ground game going late in the game they couldn’t do it.

Sure, Texas brought a ton of heat. But I have a very high bar set for this group and they didn’t live up to it.

 

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. Nobody expected to be calling for the defensive coordinator’s head after week one. And while I certainly didn’t go easy on VanGorder, it’s worth pointing to the personnel the Irish have playing—a reminder that even Bob Diaco would struggle if you take away guys like Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo and Aaron Lynch.

Of course, that doesn’t excuse anything. But if you thought Kelly was going to scrap the plan for the season after one tough weekend, think again.

Here are his comments when essentially asked to evaluate his defensive coordinator:

“I mean it’s the first game, and you go into the first game and — first time starters, and we have a lot of young guys that got their first start,” Kelly explained.  “We’ll critically evaluate and I think everybody needs to tap the brakes and relax.

“This is a football team that showed great resolve, took the lead down 17 points in the fourth quarter up 35-31, and we needed to come up with one more stop or one more better offensive possession, you know, to win the football game and we didn’t do that.

“So this narrative about it’s all the defense’s fault is, you know, just Monday morning quarterbacking. If we get a better punt, if we flip field position, if we make a catch or a throw we’re talking about some different things.”

Getting some distance from the loss, Kelly’s confidence is understandable, especially considering he knows his personnel—and their limitations—better than anyone. But the margin for error this season is zero. And seeing the deficiencies in this defense against Texas, expect opponents to pounce.

Five things we learned: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47

AUSTIN, TX - SEPTEMBER 04:  Tyrone Swoopes #18 of the Texas Longhorns dives in for the game winning touchdown in the second overtime against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium on September 4, 2016 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Notre Dame’s 2016 season begins with a loss. And the explanation for it is both simple and confounding.

The Irish lost because Brian VanGorder’s defense was no match for a Texas offense trotting out a freshman starter and a new system. They lost because they gave up three opportunities for DeShone Kizer to drive the Irish for touchdowns—something he did six times.

They lost because another offseason installing a defensive system somehow once again forgot some universal truths that every armchair quarterback in America knows all too well.

There will be positive takeaways. Young players stepping forward, like Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford. A resiliency that didn’t leave town with the senior class from 2015, a 17-point deficit erased as the Irish fought to get the game to overtime.

But ultimately, seven seasons into his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly knows the score.

“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said postgame. “Losing is losing”

Let’s find out the five things we learned.

 

Three seasons into Brian VanGorder’s tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his unit is the same as it ever was. 

Notre Dame’s last three big games—Stanford, Ohio State and now Texas—are a stark reminder that the Irish defense isn’t fit for primetime. Not when Tyrone Swoopes and D'Onta Foreman are pinballing through would-be tacklers. Not when Shane Buechele is getting started writing his Texas-sized legend, beating Irish defensive backs over the top. And especially not when a group of intelligent student-athletes seem to always find the banana peel to slip on in the game’s critical moments.

VanGorder’s unit—young for certain, after having to replace its well-established nucleus—was learning on the job Saturday. But failing is failing, and Kelly’s warnings to anybody that would listen about the pace of Texas’s offense seemed to be ignored by the 11 guys caught flat-footed to open the football game.

The Irish gave up 517 yards and 50 points to the Texas offense. They let Buechele throw for 280 yards on just 16 completions. They gave up big plays over the top, chain-movers in the trenches and allowed seven scores on seven red zone appearances.

More maddening, they looked lost when everybody in the stadium seemed to know what was coming but them. They failed again and again in the red zone. And with the game on the line and the Irish needing to make a stand, it was hard enough to get the right personnel on the field, let alone make a big play.

Those days of the simple-yet-consistent unit that bent but didn’t break under Bob Diaco? Gone faster than Jon Tenuta dialing up another blitz call on 3rd-and-long.

Credit certainly goes to a Texas team with intriguing and emerging talent at skill positions, not to mention three bulldozers in Swoopes, Foreman and Chris Warren. But game one of 2016 reminds many that the highest paid assistant coach in Notre Dame history isn’t getting his job done.

 

Brian Kelly wouldn’t say it after the game. But DeShone Kizer needs to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. 

It’s hardly a bold statement.

Not after Kizer propped the Irish offense on his shoulders and carried them back into the football game. Completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 77 more yards and another score, Kizer’s six scores will find their way into the record books as one of the best losing performances in school history.

But you can’t help but wonder what he’d have done with three more series—especially when Charlie Strong admitted postgame that his game plan for Zaire was to crowd the box and dare the lefty to beat him with his arm.

Zaire didn’t—and couldn’t, only throwing five times while harassed by the swarming Longhorns defense on all three of his series. And while Kelly wouldn’t make any declaration about where the offense would go moving quickly towards the home opener against Nevada, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Kizer doesn’t lead the offense moving forward.

Pinning this loss on the quarterback shuffle isn’t fair. Not when it was the defense giving up six yards a play and seven scores in seven red zone appearances. And Zaire can still play a role in this offense–just one that looks much more like what Tyrone Swoopes was doing, not as a co-leading man.

The worst-case scenario at quarterback just hit the Irish like the punch to the jaw the Longhorns delivered—Kelly’s quarterback battle took a loss to find his starter.

 

Without Torii Hunter, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is lost. 

Notre Dame’s offense was irreparably harmed when senior receiver Torii Hunter took a vicious hit in the end zone, a shot to the head that by any definition of college football’s targeting rule should have resulted in a first down and ejection.

Brian Kelly was incredulous postgame, unable to understand how Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s hit to Hunter’s head didn’t draw a flag—or further review by the Big 12 officiating crew in charge of the replay booth. But perhaps more disappointing than the loss of Hunter for the rest of the game as he went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion was the state of Notre Dame’s receiving corps without their senior captain.

The Irish looked lost without Hunter on the field. Other than the perfect strike Kizer floated to Josh Adams in the corner of the end zone, the veteran quarterback completed just one other throw downfield for the rest of the game, connecting with CJ Sanders on a chain-moving third-down conversion for six yards.

Never was Kizer’s discomfort with his receivers more apparent than on his chance to win the game in regulation. With the game tied and the Irish offense given over three minutes to march down the field, Kizer took a sack when no receiver turned to look as an outside blitz came. Then, with communication difficult to the outside of the formation, Kelly chose to run on 3rd-and-12, keeping the ball on the ground and away from his inexperienced receivers in a crunch-time moment.

Learning on the job was always expected. But without Hunter as a foundation, the Irish receivers looked lost.

 

Newcomers Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford made big-time debuts. 

Sophomore Equanimous St. Brown isn’t going to be Will Fuller. But he did a pretty good impression on Sunday night, catching two touchdowns among his five grabs for 75 yards.

The lanky target, who flew under the radar this spring and preseason as other options emerged, quickly established himself as Notre Dame’s big play receiver. His nifty footwork converted a nicely thrown fade from Kizer on the game’s opening drive. His acrobatic hand plant made for another highlight-worthy touchdown grab. Two scores in his first start are a promising debut to a receiver who only managed one catch all last season.

Crawford’s debut was just as impactful. While he was on the wrong end of a deep pass in the first half, the sophomore’s first game after sitting out all of last season after an August ACL injury was everything you could’ve advertised.

Crawford’s first career interception turned the momentum of the game, setting up the Irish with a short field and easy touchdown. His two-point conversion return on a blocked extra point was the exact type of play we’d only heard of Crawford making—the right guy in the right place at the right time.

It’s tough to take too much comfort after a gutting loss like the one the Irish just experienced, but two young standouts expected to play big roles on this team seem poised for big seasons.

 

One loss does not make a season. But fixing what ails this team is Job No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff. 

Notre Dame’s goals for the season are still intact. Especially on a wild weekend that saw major shakeups in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. So while no team should need a wake-up call after one week, perhaps it was necessary for Brian Kelly’s young team.

In case you needed a reminder, there’s going to be some heavy lifting this season. That’s what happens when you return just seven starters, replacing multiple All-Americans on both sides of the ball and are admittedly still searching for your offensive and defensive identity heading into the season.

There’s plenty of good to take away from Sunday night—though you might have to look harder at the defensive side of the ball to find it. But it’s going to take some hard coaching to make sure this group doesn’t lose control, as eight penalties, including a personal foul on middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, made quite evident.

There’s plenty of time to question tactics—the choice of playing a mostly three-down front still has me scratching my head. But coaching is done presnap. It’s up to the players to make tackles and cover receivers, or pick up blitzers and convert tough first downs.

On a Sunday night that’ll be remembered for a long time in Austin, the first sellout crowd since the 2013 season got what they paid for.

And unfortunately, Notre Dame leaves footing the bill.