Different week, same nightmare.
Notre Dame’s fifth loss of the season may have unraveled differently than the previous four, but the end result was the same—a late-game rally that came up short and a few very large questions for the man in charge of the program.
Stanford ended their two-game losing streak by scoring 17 second-half points to top the Irish 17-10. And on an evening where you could’ve excused both sidelines from showing the apathy that seemed to surround this game, both teams played desperate for a win, with the Cardinal swarming DeShone Kizer on the game’s final snap.
“This is a bitter pill to swallow,” Brian Kelly said after the game. “I love those kids in there. They had great energy. They wanted to win. They did everything that they knew in terms of what they felt like they could do to win, and they just came up a little short again.”
Let’s find out what we learned.
DeShone Kizer may be in a slump, but Brian Kelly is over-thinking his quarterback position.
DeShone Kizer played poorly. Before he returned to the field for the game’s final drive, Kizer was just seven of 16 for 99 yards, with two interceptions, including a game-changing pick-six that starting the second half’s swing.
But he’s still Notre Dame’s best option at the position, even if Kelly had to see Malik Zaire one more time to know it.
Looking for a spark, Kelly turned to Zaire. And instead of turning the offense around, the senior backup put together three series where the Irish went three-and-out, safety, three-and-out, seven plays for a grand total of minus-nine yards.
“That was a head coaching decision,” Kelly explained postgame. “I just felt like it was important to try to get some energy back. We lost some energy, and I thought going to Malik would do that.”
The move backfired, with the offense shutout in the second half and Stanford controlling the clock and possession of the football. And while the struggles were hardly exclusive to either quarterback, Kizer’s return to the game wasn’t enough to bail the Irish out—an impressive drive done in by Solomon Thomas and the Stanford defense in the shadow of the north end zone.
Zaire’s time in South Bend has been star-crossed. A job lost by injury, two depth chart battles ending with him on the outside looking in. But fairness isn’t a tenet of major college football. And doing what’s fair isn’t helping the team.
So in a season where Kelly desperately searches for a rabbit in every hat, he once again came up empty when he tried calling Zaire’s number, taking three possessions away from the one quarterback who gave the Irish their best shot to win the game.
Sam Mustipher’s snapping has become a problem. But the whole offensive line is in a slump.
The hurricane was gone. But Sam Mustipher’s problems were not. And the Irish center had another tough day at the office, sailing a snap by Zaire that gave Stanford two points and another by Kizer that cost the Irish 11 yards.
On the sideline, Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand huddled, likely deciding whether or not to insert sophomore center Tristen Hoge into the lineup. They didn’t, and Mustipher got back on track. But with another fire brewing during a season filled with flames, after the game Kelly said all the right things about his embattled center.
“Listen, Sam is a great kid. He wants to do it right. He feels terrible. But we’ll just keep working at it, and it’s just an unfortunate situation,” Kelly said.
Mustipher’s shotgun struggles might have been the ones to stand out, but he wasn’t alone. Hunter Bivin had a difficult matchup all evening in at right guard for Colin McGovern, and Stanford’s three sacks felt like double that with Notre Dame’s quarterbacks constantly under siege.
Notre Dame gained just 307 yards, a few long runs and a 33-yard completion to Torii Hunter buoying that total. And a week after having no answer for the NC State front four, the Irish offensive line struggled against Stanford as well.
Jarron Jones is back to playing like Jarron Jones. And developing into a leader while he’s doing it.
Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones made the game’s most impressive play, putting his blocker on roller skates, steam-rolling his way to quarterback Ryan Burns, sacking, striping and recovering the fumble he forced. It was an incredible display of raw power and athleticism, and a continued uptick for Jones as he plays his way back into a dominant force.
A season that started with Jones only being a part-time participant has turned into a final season where the Rochester native returns to the form that had so many excited before injuries ruined his 2015 before it started. But more interestingly, Jones’ postgame comments showed a commitment that Kelly applauded postgame, and leadership traits that weren’t always observable now seem to be the fuel that will drive Jones through the home stretch of his final season in South Bend.
“No matter how hard things get, I mean, I’ve never even been in this situation before. No matter how hard things get, we’ve got to stay the course,” Jones said. “We’ve got to still believe in our coaches, believe in each other. Believe that we can get each other out of this and all we have to do is push each other, love each other and play for each other, which we did today.”
Notre Dame’s young defense took another step forward–even if it doesn’t make the loss sit any better.
The young Irish defense that replaced Brian VanGorder and restructured their scheme went nine-consecutive quarters without giving up an offensive touchdown. And while that kind of progress sure feels empty after a demoralizing loss, Greg Hudson has infused an energy into a unit that was left for dead in September, and has managed to transform itself even while it relies on multiple freshmen in the secondary.
The Irish held Stanford to just 296 yards. While Bryce Love found some success, his 23 carries for 129 yards paced the evening, the defense played well enough to win for the second-straight week, a risk-averse strategy helping to eliminate some of the inconsistencies that doomed VanGorder’s unit.
“They’re learning a lot as we go, so we want to minimize big plays, which I think we’ve done a really good job of keeping the points down,” Kelly said.
“The thing that I wanted to do when we made the change was keep the points down and limit the big plays.”
Hudson has managed to do that, relying mostly on a three-man front. He’s found a way to get to the quarterback and protect his back-end, the secondary willing to give up the underneath throw to avoid the one over the top. And on a Saturday night where the Irish lined up Troy Pride, Julian Love, Devin Studstill, Jalen Elliott and Donte Vaughn for major snaps, the experience that group is earning will hopefully pay off in the future.
Brian Kelly hasn’t lost his football team. But this team goes into the off week hoping this is rock bottom.
This is a team in search for answers. Because even with energy, effort and enthusiasm, Kelly’s football team isn’t winning games. That leaves this team looking inward, a week off hopefully offering some breathing room and a chance to slow down a snowball that keeps rolling.
“We’re going through a tough spot. But they’re committed to wanting to get through this together,” Kelly said. “Their attitude is incredible, their commitment is incredible. I love coaching this group.”
Kelly spoke of holding this group to a “high standard,” partially an explanation for postgame performance and fiery sideline behavior that’s drawn scorn, particularly as the focus turns to the head coach amidst the most difficult run of Kelly’s time in South Bend. But as the walls close in, there didn’t appear to be any fractures in team unity.
“If everybody out there doesn’t think we love each other and play for each other, then I don’t know what kind of game they are watching,” Jones said postgame. “I felt like this was the most energetic game we’ve ever had, in my four years here.”
That sentiment was echoed by captains Mike McGlinchey, Torii Hunter and James Onwualu as well. It’s often accompanied by a frustration that has all parties—head coach, players, and likely administrators—wondering when things will turn.
So as the university breaks for a week, the football team will trudge on, searching for answers and doing it as united as a 2-5 team can be.
“I told the guys, this is the no-apology zone. Nobody needs to apologize to anybody,” Kelly said. “It’s one of those things where everybody knows where we’re at.
“We’re 2-5, and we’re going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times. We’re 2-5, I’m 2-5, everybody is 2-5, so no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better, and that will cure a lot of things.”