The Irish exited Notre Dame Stadium for the last time in 2014. And for the second-straight week they sang the alma mater after a defeat, taking another step backwards from the home-field advantage Brian Kelly and the Irish had quietly built over the past few seasons.
The loss was Notre Dame’s fourth in five games, a third-straight defeat at a time of year where Kelly’s football teams have historically gotten better. But that’s certainly not the case in 2014, where a ravaged defense played a mix of journeymen and children, a difficult blend for any program, but especially this one.
That — combined with a slow start by the offense and struggles in the scoring areas — cost the Irish a victory. And the razor’s edge that Kelly once danced upon comfortably, has drawn blood again, another loss where one or two key plays swung the balance.
With the annual rivalry battle with USC set for Saturday afternoon, both teams enter battered and bruised. But before we get to that, let’s close the book on the Irish’s 31-28 defeat in their first ever meeting with Louisville on the gridiron.
Here are the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame vs. Louisville.
Tarean Folston. The sophomore running back is emerging as a star player. For all the clamoring for Greg Bryant, it’s been the running back who didn’t come in with a five-star tag that’s turning into the best runner the Irish have had in the backfield since Julius Jones.
Folston didn’t get 20 carries against the Cardinals elite rushing defense, but it didn’t matter. He ran for 134 yards on just 18 carries, a 7.4 average on a day where the rest of the team managed -28 yards on nine carries. (Golson’s fumble craters that number, but it’s still a stat worth mentioning.)
Even better, Folston stayed on the field in passing situations, holding his own as a pass-blocker in a situation where Cam McDaniel usually steals snaps. In case you are wondering, his head coach noticed.
“What I’m most impressed with is that when we challenged him as a complete running back, he took that challenge and he stepped up,” Kelly said Sunday.”As you saw, he was in the game late, and he did an outstanding job in pass protection, and that was the piece that was missing for him.
“He did a great job. And then tough yard running. He’s just, again, a guy that’s developed as a sophomore to the point where he’s put himself in a position to get the primetime carries and be in the game late.”
Will Fuller. Another game, another touchdown for Will Fuller. Fuller has scored a touchdown in every game this season minus Stanford, and his 14 touchdown catches are one shy of the single-season mark held by Jeff Samardzija and Golden Tate, who both caught 15 in their breakout junior seasons.
Fuller is making that move as a sophomore, and doing so as it becomes more and more apparent that he’s the team’s most dynamic pass-catching weapon. Fuller got behind the talented Louisville secondary multiple times, and likely would’ve scored another touchdown if Golson could’ve gotten a deep throw out quicker.
“He’s a factor in every game we’ve played. Louisville had probably two of the better corners in the country, and he ran by them at will,” Kelly said.
Earlier in the year, Kelly hesitated to call Fuller a No. 1 receiver. On Sunday, he acknowledged the step forward Fuller has taken in his game as the season has worn on, acknowledging his ascent in a very condensed timeline.
“He has obviously put himself in a position to be considered one of Notre Dame’s finest receivers,” Kelly said. “And he’s done it in very short order. Obviously he didn’t play very much at all last year, and he’s made a statement this year.”
Jaylon Smith. After seeming lost in the shuffle after Joe Schmidt’s injury, we saw flashes of the Jaylon Smith of September on Saturday, with the sophomore linebacker leading the team with 11 tackles, including one TFL. Probably most important was the return to Smith tracking down an opponent in the backfield, an occasion that’s frequency dropped precipitously since Schmidt’s injury.
Smith was named a finalist for the Butkus Award on Monday, a tip of the cap to a talented young player who from afar still resembles an elite linebacker. But for those that have watched the sophomore the past few weeks as the Irish defense has collapsed, they’ve seen a young player whose taken some lumps as he’s learning along the way.
That’s perfectly normal. Especially for a (still) young player learning a new position in a new scheme, forced to rely not just on his elite athleticism but to deal with some limitations that come with being slightly undersized at his position in the trenches.
As he met with the media after another difficult loss, Smith sounded wise beyond his years as he took a relatively big-picture approach to things, while also understanding that winning the next game continues to be the most important thing.
“It’s experience. The whole atmosphere. Even losing, in this case, is something we’re all learning,” Smith said. “I’m young myself. I’m a sophomore. I’m 19 years old. We’re all just continuing to learn.
“Obviously, it’s not acceptable to lose at any cost. There’s no moral victory, so you can’t look at it like that. We’re not even focused on next year right now. Right now, it’s all about our rivalry next week and finding a way to get a victory.”
Cole Luke. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did their best to match the sophomore cornerback with Louisville’s DeVante Parker. Luke held his own, with Parker catching three balls against him, though Luke had two pass breakups.
But it was the catch that didn’t have Luke in coverage that burnt the Irish, with Parker matched up with Devin Butler that turned into a 21-yard touchdown.
“Outstanding,” Kelly said, when asked to evaluate Luke’s play. “Except we didn’t get the matchup on the touchdown. We had matched them up all day and didn’t get that matchup and they threw a touchdown.”
Kelly didn’t mention the gameplan to shadow Parker with Luke all game. But that’s both a testament to the improvement Luke has shown this season. It’ll also likely be the assignment with USC’s Nelson Agholor, who after exploding the previous four games was held to just three catches for 24 yards against UCLA.
The Effort from the Young Guys. Nobody wants to find moral victories out there, but not too many people had Jacob Matuska, Greer Martini and Isaac Rochell contributing sacks against Louisville. Add to that a productive afternoon for Nyles Morgan (10 tackles and a 1/2 TFL) until his ejection for targeting and the incremental steps are starting to show up.
Morgan’s ejection will cost him the first half against USC, putting Greer Martini into the starting lineup. That’s an awful long way down the preseason contingency plans for the Irish defense at a position that couldn’t be more important in this system.
After calling the targeting penalty a “careless mistake” after the game, Kelly took the long view when asked about the play of his freshman middle linebacker, reminding everybody that while he appears to be struggling now, that the sky is still the limit for Morgan.
“Oh, he’s going to be a terrific player. He just shouldn’t be on the field right now,” Kelly said. “He’s a great kid, we love him. He’ll learn, because the kid does everything we ask him to do. He’s going to get an opportunity to be a complete player. It’s just going to take a little bit more time.”
Greg Bryant. That’s the type of return Notre Dame can use in the punt game. Bryant showed a way to impact the game as a punt returner, nearly taking a kick to the house as the Irish rallied back from a large halftime deficit.
Bryant’s still making too many mistakes back there — no fair catch early, and the huge collision with James Onwualu was a near-crisis that was barely averted. But Bryant made a game-changing play.
Now go make a few more against USC.
The Third Down Defense. The Irish defense killed themselves early against Louisville, allowing the Cardinals to convert three key third downs that extended touchdown drives to open the game.
The mistakes were critical ones. After after allowing just four conversions on 39 attempts of 3rd and 10 or longer, the Irish defense gave up three back-breakers to put Louisville up early.
The Irish defense recovered, allowing the Cardinal to convert just six of 14 third downs, but the three long early ones killed them.
Tackling. This one might seem a little all-encompassing, but that’s kind of the point. There are some pretty elusive skill players on Louisville’s roster, but that might have been the worst tackling we’ve seen from an Irish team since the BCS title game had Zeke Motta performing fly-bys on Alabama All-Americans.
Those misses were headlined by Austin Collinsworth trying to play with one arm. Or Nyles Morgan flying by or misdiagnosing plays. Or young defensive linemen doing their best to chase down a play and miss it.
The Rush Defense. In a game where Notre Dame knew it absolutely needed to stop the run, they gave up 226 yards. Yes, it took Louisville 50 carries to do it, but still — there were just too many big runs happening, a product of injuries and missed assignments that’s timed up with the injury to Joe Schmidt.
The guys got better as the game wore on. But once again, in need of a critical drive on defense, the Irish weren’t able to get it.
Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated ($) had this key stat that shows how far the D has fallen since Schmidt’s injury. In 30+ quarters of football with Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones manning the middle, the Irish gave up just 25 rushes of 10 yards-or more. In the 13 quarters since Schmidt’s broken ankle? Notre Dame’s given up 31.
Red Zone Offense. I said it very early in the game when the Irish settled for three points on their opening drive, but celebrating a made field goal masked the issue of not getting seven.
The Irish might have scored on four of five red zone drives (with the missed chip-shot field goal the back-breaker), but scoring only two touchdowns isn’t going to get it done.
Give Louisville’s defense credit. They’re a Top 10 red zone defense and a Top 5 group when it comes to allowing touchdowns in the red zone. But with a chance to win the game with a touchdown near the end, the Irish ended up needing to settle for a field goal, and even that short-circuited.
It’s popular to criticize the playcalling near the goal line. But ultimately it comes down to making the plays and being assignment correct. That didn’t happen on the final drive, with Kelly trying to run clock down and get seven, but unable to do it after struggles up front blocking derailed the final series.
When asked about the step backwards in the red zone, Kelly wasn’t willing to make any blanket statements, though acknowledged the special teams struggles and turnovers for any statistical drop off. But just like he said when Tommy Rees was playing quarterback, it comes down to making the plays in a tougher offensive environment.
“It’s really hard for me to give you a great answer other than we take a lot of time and effort to break down that area of the field and think we come away with the plan that’s going to allow us to score touchdowns in that area,” Kelly said. “But it’s still about execution.”
Safety Play. At this point, we can only speculate what Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have done to be stuck behind Collinsworth and Drue Tranquill at safety. Because for the second consecutive game, the safety play has stunk, and Notre Dame’s best two athletes at the position still haven’t been able to work their way back onto the field.
Shumate was the missing player when the 10-man Irish gave up a critical third-down conversion to Northwestern, a junior who should know better. Redfield had mostly been an invisible presence on the back line, outside of an interception against Michigan and a missed sideline tackle against Arizona State, a play that caught the ire of analyst and former All-American linebacker Chris Spielman.
Most fans see the safety play and think that Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are cutting off their nose to spite their face. And there’s plenty of ammunition for that school of thought, especially after watching Collinsworth and Tranquill struggle in space against both talented and less-than-talented personnel.
But here’s what Kelly said about the situation on Sunday, asked specifically about the absence of the Shumate and Redfield.
“We would like to have the two young guys back there… but we haven’t been consistent enough,” Kelly said, while correcting himself after calling Shumate young. “That’s forced Austin into the game, and he’s not 100 percent. He’s giving us everything he has, though.”
When effort is the best thing you can say about your injured safety, you’re essentially saying everything you need to about the guys that are being replaced. So if the message hasn’t gotten to Shumate and Redfield, there’s a chance it might not happen this year.
But with a very talented group of receivers on USC’s roster, the Irish will need to match athletes in the secondary. That means Redfield and Shumate need to do what it takes to sharpen their gaze in practice.
But Kelly was rightfully asked if the schematics of the defense weren’t part of the problem. After reminding the head coach of his comments about making it easy enough for Jaylon Smith to get on the field and allow him to use his skills, Kelly agreed to a point, before drilling down further and acknowledging the elephant in the room.
“It’s a dramatic shift from where we were last year to this year in terms of the scheme that we’re playing,” Kelly acknowledged. “So we’re never going to put it all on the players. It’s part coaching, as well. You’re right in the premise of your question in that we’ve got to get the best players on the field, but they also have to be the most productive players, so it’s also about production while they’re on the field.
“Max and Elijah are not on the field not just because there’s mental mistakes, but there’s production lapses, as well. So it’s a little bit of both in that sense. In other words, it’s not just simply the scheme, it’s also about production, and we’ve got to keep an eye on both of those things.”
It’s worth mentioning to people who continue to call for Redfield and Shumate to play. Those opinions were likely formed not by anything they saw on the field, but by the stars affixed to their recruiting rankings. Those have been rendered useless since they stepped foot on campus.
“We haven’t given up on them, let’s put it that way,” Kelly said. “We still believe in them. But they’ve got to continue to show more consistency in practice.”
Making a Field Goal. The dynamics of a successful field goal operation are three-fold: Snap, hold and kick.
Of course, that’s the simple version. But with the school’s all-time leader in field goals stepping up to tie the football game, the final two pieces of that puzzle seemed to executed at a less-than-satisfactory rate.
On the sidelines, we saw Kyle Brindza, Kelly and holder Malik Zaire talk about the hold, with Brindza frustrated and animated as he talked to Zaire.
Here’s the slo-mo version of the kick in question.
Without question, it takes a little bit too long for Zaire’s hands to clear the kicking area. The ball is late getting to the correct position on the ground.
But the ball is there, and Brindza — a senior kicker who snap-hooked two misses last week that contributed greatly to the loss against Northwestern — needs to just rip it. It’s a 32-yarder that doesn’t need anything more than brute force and direction.
Instead, Brindza pushes the ball wide right — like a golfer giving up on a swing before it’s off his club. The view of the conversation on the sideline didn’t look like a veteran coaching up a young guy. It looked like Sergio Garcia blaming a difficult lie or a Bubba Watson yelling at his caddy.
On Saturday, Kelly backed his veteran kicker. On Sunday, after reviewing the tape, his viewpoint shifted.
“I think we needed a little bit better hold, and we needed a little bit better kick. I don’t think it’s all on the holder, and I don’t think it’s all on the kicker. I think it was a combination of both.”
In a results based business, Brindza’s taken a nose dive at a time of year where his mistakes have been remarkably painful. In Notre Dame’s two home losses, Brindza’s missed field goals have been the difference in the final tally.