Give Brian Kelly credit. He found an appropriate nickname for the egg the Irish laid Saturday afternoon, dubbing it, “The Debacle in the Desert” during his Sunday post-mortem teleconference. That game shook the core of the Irish, with Everett Golson’s five-turnover afternoon ending Notre Dame’s playoff chances in a first half from hell.
With Northwestern heading to South Bend on Saturday, the final three games of the season will test the mettle of Kelly’s young football team. With their playoff hopes destroyed, the goal is altered, but a ten-win regular season is still a tremendous achievement — it would be only the third in the past dozen years.
Let’s dig in to this week’s good, bad, and ugly before closing the books on the Sun Devils.
The Wide Receivers. Outside of one really bad, back-breaking drop by Corey Robinson, it was a nice afternoon by Notre Dame’s skill players.
The Irish receivers had explosive afternoons, with Will Fuller leading the way and slot receivers C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle doing their jobs as well. Facing aggressive man coverage for a lot of the afternoon, the Irish made the Sun Devils pay, racking up 446 receiving yards, most coming in the second half.
The Rally. It’s a stretch to give a team credit for correcting their already fatal mistakes, but the Irish made this game pretty interesting down the stretch. While the final score won’t reflect it, Notre Dame had ASU on the ropes, needing to get one defensive stop but coming up short.
Of course, falling behind 34-3 seems all but impossible against this football team. But fumbles, interceptions and deep balls tell the quick story, until the Irish regrouped at half time and made a game of it.
Notre Dame’s second half was the type of football Kelly expected from his team, with the Irish outgaining Arizona State 314-164 in the second half. The Sun Devils also continued to play aggressive in coverage and move at tempo on offense, giving the Irish an unlikely chance to be in the game with six minutes remaining, a miracle considering Notre Dame flushed 10 more points down the drain in the second half with a goal line interception and a botched field goal attempt.
C.J. Prosise & Amir Carlisle. After struggling with consistency earlier this season, Prosise has really rounded into form. His ability to turn a quick screen into a big play helped turn the momentum around for the Irish. He broke another big play in the second half that went for 59 yards and set the Irish up for a score.
Prosise seems to have found his home at slot receiver, a capable duo with Amir Carlisle, who is back to full speed after a knee injury against Purdue. Carlisle looked great as well, breaking a great catch and run on his own screen pass, not to mention the touchdown on broken coverage that pulled the Irish within three points.
The Second Half Defense* (*Until the six-minute mark)
The Irish came out for the second half with the right defensive adjustments. The understaffed group got after the Sun Devils, forcing punts when needed and allowing the Irish offense to slowly make their way back into the ball game. They even forced a critical turnover.
Jumping between a three and four-man front, Notre Dame got some solid play from a group of unsung players, with Andrew Trumbetti, Justin Utupo and Grant Blankenship all taking key snaps up front. But after making significant progress, Mike Norvell’s ASU offense took over with the ball and a three-point lead and marched down the field for a decisive score to extend their lead to 10-points.
(The rest of this belongs in the bad column.)
Matthias Farley. At this time last year, Farley was getting kicked down the alley, playing his way out of the starting lineup and out of the two deep as well. We thought that his position switch to cornerback — the deepest position (at the time) on the roster –this spring was the result, not an actual scheme-tweak to help the senior find a better home.
Right now, Farley is playing some really impressive football. Given a tough assignment at nickel back, Farley had a critical interception when the Irish were rallying, and also made two tackles for loss, including one sack. While his limitations sometime expose themselves, he’ll make more good plays than bad, and he certainly did that on Saturday.
Everett Golson’s ball security. At this point, it feels like beating a dead horse. But Golson’s struggles holding onto the football are damaging the very foundation of Notre Dame’s offense. Golson fumbled on the Irish’s first two possessions. He luckily recovered the first, and was not so lucky on the second.
(One play later, on a nifty pick play, the Sun Devils had their first touchdown.)
This isn’t a new problem. From the moment Golson stepped on campus, Kelly and the offensive staff took to breaking the quarterback of some very bad habits. While we’ve seen improvements in other parts of Golson’s game, the more trust this staff puts in Golson to clean up these self-inflicted mistakes, the more difficult it becomes to put up with the crushing mistakes.
After the game, Kelly wasn’t willing to get into specifics, but pointed to the obvious.
“It’s one of the deals where you take one step forward and two steps back, and then he comes back in the second half and he does some really good things,” Kelly said. “He’s got to strive for consistency. If he plays clean in the first half, who knows where we’d be right now.”
(You’d be 8-1, coach.)
The Offensive Line Play. What a frustrating performance by the five men in charge of taking care of the quarterback. Arizona State blitzed the Irish offense into submission in the first half, giving up five sacks in the game’s first 22 minutes.
We can talk about the batted passes, both turning into touchdowns for Arizona State. We can talk about the missed assignments, inconsistencies that had Kelly scratching his head after practicing all week on the blitz schemes.
At this point, the progress the Irish showed up front the past few weeks has been flushed down the toilet. While Stanley seems to be at home playing left tackle, you could argue that the rest of the offensive line looks out of sorts. After struggling at tackle, Steve Elmer is making an argument that he’s not a right guard, either. Christian Lombard, whose “steady” play is why he’s starting instead of sophomore Mike McGlinchey, was far from solid on Saturday, whiffing on more than one occassion.
Kelly and Harry Hiestand settled on a starting five late in camp, eventually shifting things around after a few weeks. While most of us categorized it as a champagne problem because of an enviable depth chart, it’s turned out to be the fatal flaw of this group. While you’ve got to give Kelly credit for shifting early in the season, this unit still makes too many mental mistakes and gets beaten at the point of attack as well.
While there are still three important data points (and a bowl game) available for evaluation, next spring should be an open competition, as the riches of the past few recruiting classes deserve a chance to compete before everything spoils.
* For as many snaps as Ben Koyack has played this year, there were some pretty bad ones on display Saturday. Particularly in his protection of Golson. The senior tight end caught an ear full for inexplicably missing the block off the backside of Golson’s third interception, with the quarterback hit as he threw. He also plain whiffed on a few assignments that were head-scratchers, and his effort seemed to lack when it was vitally needed.
For a player expected to be one of Notre Dame’s most complete, Koyack laid an egg on Saturday.
* Elijah Shumate‘s pass interference penalty late in the second quarter could’ve been a big interception if Shumate would’ve showed the confidence to look for the football. That’s what Matthias Farley did after Taylor Kelly lofted a throw his way, and it became a game-changing interception. Shumate instead ran through a receiver.
* The Irish struggled defensively when Arizona State shifted late and moved at tempo. That’s part of the pain that comes with playing Nyles Morgan at middle linebacker, where the freshman was doing his best to read and react, but too often needed to think.
* Oh boy was Golson’s interception on the first drive of the third quarter a bad one. It would’ve been the perfect quick strike coming out of halftime. And to think it would’ve been a touchdown if Golson’s throw to Amir Carlisle on the post route wouldn’t have forced Carlisle to stumble just shy of the end zone.
* The short-yardage ground game left a lot to be desired. The Irish needed to use a bunch of clock to get running touchdowns, forced to go to fourth down to score on Cam McDaniel’s first plunge and third on his second score. Getting the touchdowns were key. But it took a lot of time.
* At this point, I don’t let Hunter Smith onto the field without gloves on. Or I change holders. For two guys (Scott Daly and Smith) who live together and eat and sleep the center exchange, there are just too many mistakes there, with the pressure of the moment likely crumbling the confidence of both players.
* Max Redfield made 10 tackles Saturday afternoon. But the one he missed on Arizona State’s critical scoring drive in the fourth quarter was rightfully criticized by Chris Spielman on the broadcast. With D.J. Foster tight-roping up the ASU sideline, Redfield had a chance to push him out of bounds shy of the first down. Instead, he went for what looked like a kill shot and ended up whiffing entirely.
That’s a brutal miss for the young safety and hopefully one he learns from.
* For as great as Corey Robinson‘s hands have been this year, the gift-wrapped interception he gave to Lloyd Carrington was a shocker.
* Notre Dame’s sudden change defense. I asked Kelly after the game what the difference was between the usually excellent sudden change defense the Irish played under Bob Diaco and the struggles the team is having now. He wanted no part of it.
In the moment, it’s a difficult question to answer. But when the Irish look back at this season and some of the wonderful progress they made with some really young players, they’ll need to spend some time focusing on their play right after turnovers. Brian VanGorder’s unit hasn’t done well when they absolutely need to, both in the red zone and coming off turnovers.
Inexplicable Mistakes. It’s difficult to get a grasp on what just happened on Saturday. The Irish went to Arizona State and really just short-circuited, with critical mistakes dooming Notre Dame and ending their hopes at a playoff bid. After putting together a nice, balanced, extended drive on their first possession, things fell apart. Maybe that’s too kind. Things shattered.
How this football team rebounds this weekend will be interesting. If Kelly has shown anything during his five seasons in South Bend, it’s that his team does not quit. So while the playoff chase is over, there’s plenty of work to do.
For the offense, it means that you can’t exchange five great plays for one terrible one. That’s essentially what the Irish did on Saturday, and no matter how prolifically they moved the ball in the second half, if you’re giving away the football it’s not going to matter.
With three games left, there is still plenty of story to write. But the Debacle in the Desert will be a loss hard to forget.