Five things we learned: Northwestern 43, Notre Dame 40

233 Comments

Apologies to Van Morrison’s mother. There didn’t have to be days like this.

Notre Dame’s overtime 43-40 loss to Northwestern Saturday is a game that defies explanation. Turnovers. Mistakes. Coaching blunders. They all add up to the worst Saturday Brian Kelly has ever had at Notre Dame Stadium, and perhaps one of the worst defeats in his 20-plus year coaching career.

Watch a replay of the game

Playing against a hapless Northwestern team, the Wildcats came back from an 11-point deficit in the game’s final minutes to force overtime. They did so courtesy of mistakes both mental and physical, by players both young and old, and a head coach who certainly should know better.

Credit Pat Fitzgerald and the Wildcats for pulling off the upset, keeping their dwindling bowl hopes alive by getting their fourth win of the year. But make no mistake, this game was lost by Notre Dame.

Finding new ways to stub their toes, the Irish loss pushes Notre Dame out of realistic New Years Day bowl contention, likely outside the Top 25, and into a final two-game stretch that should have everybody on “free-fall” alert.

Let’s finding out what else we learned.

***

***

“Millions of excuses, but no single reason.” However you slice it, this loss is on Brian Kelly. 

Great Notre Dame football coaches can lose to Northwestern. So while some will want to run Brian Kelly out of town for this defeat, history won’t likely define him by this horrifying defeat. Just ask Lou Holtz.

The last time Northwestern visited South Bend, the Wildcats pulled off an even bigger upset, shocking an Irish team that was nearly four-touchdown favorites. And that means Kelly will have to endure a week like the one Holtz battled through early in the 1995 season.

But maybe Kelly can learn from Dr. Lou on how to handle this. The former Irish coach responded to a fan letter in the days after the difficult loss with this message, one Kelly would be wise to grasp:

Dear Bill:

Thank you very much for your letter. I really am sorry about the way we played against Northwestern, and yet I can’t quite understand it. I think I could give you a million different excuses, Bill, but not a single reason. All I know to do at a time like this is to follow your advice and persevere.

You were most kind to write.

That’s got to be how the Irish feel after this loss. There are millions of different excuses, but no single reason. It’s easy to point to the obvious. Bad math on a two-point play. Cam McDaniel’s game-clinching fumble. Two turnovers as the Irish are on the verge of crossing the goal line. A defense that gave up over 500 yards to the worst Power Five offense in college football.

But make no mistake. This one is on Kelly. And now the Irish head coach will have to go on a puzzling search to pick up the pieces before preparing for a Louisville team that’ll be smelling blood.

In his postgame comments, Kelly said all the right things. At his most succinct, he said the obvious:

“We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to play better.”

***

***

 

This is not the same defense we saw in September. 

Notre Dame’s self-destruction will be well-chronicled this week. And after getting past Kelly, quarterback Everett Golson and critical fumbles by Chris Brown and Cam McDaniel, the spotlight will turn to Brian VanGorder and his crumbling defense.

The shine has come off VanGorder, who went from meme to punchline in roughly 60 days. The first-year defensive coordinator watched his team give up 547 yards to a team that averages just 322 yards a game. Against the least explosive offense in all of power-five football, the young Irish defense was gashed early and often by big plays.

The razor-thin edge VanGorder’s defense lived on in September is long gone. And so is most of the personnel that had this group playing well.

Sheldon Day was in a brace from hip to ankle on the sideline, not a good sign for Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman. Jarron Jones looked like a fraction of the player who destroyed the interior of Florida State’s defensive line. The loss of Daniel Cage forced a defensive line with Jacob Matuska, Grant Blankenship and Andrew Trumbetti into action. That’s like looking at the 2007 front four.

Without Joe Schmidt, the linebacking corps look lost. That includes Jaylon Smith, who started the season on an All-American trajectory and could be lost in orbit at this point. Nyles Morgan struggled mightily again, and then lost his cool, trying even harder to find his way into the back of the doghouse.

The secondary is in even worse shape. Brian Kelly and the defensive staff decided Drue Tranquill would get the start over Max Redfield. The freshman safety, who up until this afternoon was one of the best surprises of the season, did his best to make the staff regret it nearly every play he was involved in.

And while Austin Collinsworth’s scoop-and-score was the type of senior memory the captain deserved, from that play forward, the veteran looked overwhelmed, the long layoff and shoulder injury nullifying him for most of the game. There’s enough pressure on the secondary without without accounting for a pass rush that’s non-existent.

It’s worth point out that even with these injuries, it wasn’t all bad for the defense. They forced four turnovers, keeping the Irish even in that all-important battle. Collinsworth’s touchdown recovery and Matthias Farley’s end-zone interception kept the Irish in it. Cole Luke’s interception should’ve bailed Notre Dame out again. But that feels a little bit like beautiful window dressing on a burning house.

At this point, there’s no hiding this group. Not without a base defense, a simplified scheme that can serve as the bedrock of this unit. Under Bob Diaco, the Irish had that. But with nothing but kids and leftovers on the field, there’s nothing to lean on. So VanGorder is going to have to pull a rabbit out of a seemingly empty hat these next two weeks.

***

***

Notre Dame’s special teams finally cost them a football game. 

Heading into this season Kyle Brindza was set to go down in Notre Dame’s record books as the school’s best kicker. Now he can’t even be counted on to make an extra point or come through in the clutch — his best trait heading into 2014.

A week after a change at holder, Notre Dame’s brutal special teams unit cost the Irish dearly, with Malik Zaire fumbling an extra-point snap, allowing a Wildcat defender to block and return a point-after attempt for a two-point play. That three-point swing turned out to be rather important.

Brindza also hooked two critical field goal attempts wide left (including one in overtime, the goat to Northwestern kicker Jack Mitchell’s heroic day). The senior kicker who before this season had ice water in his veins, just couldn’t get it done in any facet, shanking a 17-yard punt when a good kick was desperately needed as well.

It’s not all on him. A kicker without confidence in his battery is a lost soul. After the game, Kelly talked about the struggles with the PAT battery when he decided to make the controversial decision to go for two in an 11-point game. That decision created a two-possession game, a margin needed for Northwestern’s comeback to even be possible.

A year after the Irish ended the season with woeful coverage units and in need of rebuilding a broken facet of the game, it looks like Notre Dame will have to do it again, only with a unit even more critical to the team’s success.

***

***

Whatever happens going forward, Everett Golson needs to believe in himself. 

The box score will show more turnovers from Everett Golson. A fumbled zone read play that cost the Irish greatly. An interception that bounced off a lineman’s helmet and once again into the wrong team’s arms. But after hurting his shoulder early in the second half, Golson played well enough for his team to win.

A stat-line of 21 for 40 for 287 and three touchdowns and one interception on a cold, blustery day is not the problem. (There were probably five drops in that total.) Nor was his afternoon running the football, a career-high 78 rushing yards that included a 61-yard touchdown that opened the scoring.

But if there’s a worry you should have moving forward, it’s that Golson has lost some of the self-belief and unteachable football instincts that make him the dangerous quarterback that he is. And that’s something Brian Kelly can stop.

If I’m Kelly this week, I’m doubling-down on Golson. This is his team, and Golson is his quarterback. We can spend hours debating Malik Zaire and competition next year, but ultimately it’s no secret to anybody inside the program that Golson is the team’s quarterback for this season and next. So the mission moving forward is to make sure this loss is Golson’s rock bottom, and he plays out the season on an upwards trajectory.

Kelly showed that faith in his quarterback down the stretch, choosing to throw for critical third-down conversions instead of running the ball. And Golson came through. But with multiple fires burning in the Irish kitchen, Kelly should put the most talked about one out now.

Golson is his quarterback. Period.

***

***

Next Year might still be the year. But Brian Kelly and his coaching staff are going to need to do some serious coaching, and go to see what the kids can do. 

In many ways, Cam McDaniel’s fumble might be a blessing in disguise. Because while the senior captain is a wonderful team leader and a player that deserves respect, he’s not one of the team’s best three running backs. And he’s certainly not going to be a part of the equation for an Irish team that now needs to look to a bright future in 2015.

With three losses, it’s time for Kelly and his coaching staff to make some tough decisions. And that might mean coaching for 2015. That’s not to minimize the next two football games. Both are critical to the present and the future. But in some 50-50 matchups where veterans are playing, it’s time to see what the kids can do.

That means giving Mike McGlinchey a shot at right tackle, working him into the rotation with fifth-year veteran Christian Lombard. It also means looking at players like Colin McGovern and the rest of the talented depth chart likely chomping at the bit while the offensive line plays just adequately.

If the secondary is at bare bones, let’s see Nick Watkins get in the mix in the secondary, especially with Cody Riggs injured and Watkins already playing through his freshman eligibility.

If the Pinstripe Bowl was when Kelly forced Max Redfield into the lineup, the head coach and his talented sophomore safety need to kiss and make up, because Redfield is a part of the future, even if it’s been a bumpy road the past few months. So is Tranquill, but in a role better suited for his skillset. Veteran Matthias Farley showed he’s a part of that group too, another huge game for a veteran that’s gone through the fire and emerged a better player.

The next project should be Greg Bryant. The sophomore running back showed some frustration on social media in the immediate aftermath of the football game, but he needs to play his way through inexperience. That’s easier to do with McDaniel fumbling away the game and missing pass blocking assignments as well.

After nightmares like today, looking forward is difficult. But while Saturday’s shocking loss took 2014 off track, Kelly would be wise not to let it do the same to next season.