Held together by duct tape, twine and every bit of adhesive Brian Kelly could find, Notre Dame’s 2014 season officially exploded Saturday afternoon. The wreckage included a decimated defense incapable of stopping anyone and an offense in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis.
With a four-game losing streak ending the Irish’s regular season at 7-5, Notre Dame made an unranked USC team look like a vintage Pete Carroll squad. The Trojans sprinted to 577 yards of offense and could’ve added plenty more if they wanted to do so. On defense, Steve Sarkisian’s team finally forced Everett Golson to the sidelines, benched as Malik Zaire took over down 35 points after Golson put together four straight punts followed up by two turnovers.
The regular season is over, with the Irish losing five of their last six to end this season with a thud. After flying back to South Bend tonight, they’ll have a few weeks to perform the autopsy on the season that was before learning their bowl fate.
So let’s get to the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s most lopsided defeat of the Kelly era.
Notre Dame has a quarterback controversy.
It seemed preposterous just a month ago that the Irish would find themselves in this position. But after giving Everett Golson the hook in the second quarter, Malik Zaire provided a spark for the Irish offense and turned the month of December into a very interesting one around the Gug.
“Today we thought we had some things early on that we didn’t execute on,” Kelly said after the game. “And that’s why we made a change at the QB position.”
Zaire turned the Irish offense around in short order. His three-play scoring drive took less than a minute and included everything Irish fans have been begging for from Golson. A run from Greg Bryant. A 49-yard completion to Chris Brown. And an 11-yard quarterback keeper for the score.
Zaire moved the Irish into field goal range just before half as well, though Kyle Brindza’s attempt clanged off the left upright.
Asked after the game how he thought Zaire played, Kelly liked what he saw from a young quarterback playing his first significant minutes.
“We tried to get a spark offensively and I think Malik gave us that spark,” Kelly said. “He did some pretty good things.”
On paper, a 9 of 20 afternoon against the 111th-best pass defense in the country isn’t enough to make this change a no-brainer. But credit Zaire for showing the type of competitive spirit and energy this team desperately needed, especially after the game was out of hand.
“The only message I wanted to convey was that we need to play with a lot of heart and that we need to have a no-quit attitude,” Zaire said after the game. “I felt like we were in the game until the clock hit zero. We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different.”
Something’s wrong with Everett Golson. After playing productive football amidst his turnover problems, Golson’s struggles against USC’s defense were the biggest surprise of Saturday afternoon.
And now that makes December a key month of practice at a position that seemed at its strongest in October.
Notre Dame’s defense is absolutely decimated.
Notre Dame didn’t have much of a chance on defense heading into the game. And that was before the Irish lost six more players from their two-deep.
On the defensive line, the Irish lost Jacob Matuska and Jay Hayes. At linebacker, Greer Martini went down. And in the secondary the Irish lost Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth. Cody Riggs didn’t even dress, wearing a walking boot from the sideline. Add those losses to Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt, and there wasn’t much the Irish coaching staff could do.
“We knew we were shorthanded. We’ve lost a lot of players on defense over the last five weeks,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s been a very difficult run for us with key players on defense. And having to play so many freshman on defense. We just haven’t been able to stop anybody, and it’s been a difficult run for us.”
That was evident from the start, as the Irish tried their best to stop the run by loading the box. But that left Notre Dame’s young secondary in man coverage, and led to Cody Kessler’s career day.
“We loaded up against the run. We were in man coverage all day,” Kelly acknowledged. “We knew it was pick your poison today. And we just don’t have a lot of answers in that situation.”
That’s to be expected at just about any program when you reach this level of injuries. And against an offense that just had too much talent, Kelly all but acknowledged the hole his young defense was playing from.
“They played as hard as they can. It’s just there’s a deficiency there personnel wise,” Kelly said.
Greg Bryant took advantage of his opportunities on Saturday.
If you’re looking for a silver-lining to the drubbing, sophomore running back Greg Bryant took advantage of his increased reps on Saturday afternoon. After making a big play in the punt return game against Louisville, Bryant led the Irish in rush yards with 79, breaking into the USC secondary more than a few times.
“It was nice to get him in and get him more touches, that’s what our intentions were,” Kelly said after the game. “We got him in on kickoff as well and I thought he ran hard.
“The more he’s in the game he’s starting to feel more comfortable running the ball. He’s a nice addition to our offense where we have a backfield now where we feel those kids are just getting better and better.”
Bryant looked especially effective running with Zaire in the backfield. Multiple times the Irish hit the Trojans with a zone-read play, with both quarterback and running back picking up a big gain.
While Bryant did most of his damage with the game well in hand, he’ll take this momentum into bowl practice. And paired with Tarean Folston the Irish have a two-headed running back depth chart that’ll look awfully nice in 2015.
Mike McGlinchey appears to have made his move at right tackle.
It took until the final game of the regular season, but Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand decided to put sophomore Mike McGlinchey in at right tackle and the first-year performer held his own.
The massive right tackle paired with fellow sophomore Steve Elmer to keep the quarterback protected, often times against USC All-American Leonard Williams.
“Other than the last play, our quarterback was clean when he was in there. And obviously that’s the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “When you go to right tackle, you want your quarterback upright. So the initial observation, and again, I didn’t watch the film so I can’t give you the specifics, our first thought is can he hold up on the edge, especially when Leonard Williams is lined up over you.”
That wasn’t the case with Christian Lombard, who got beat on the strip-sack fumble that spelled the demise of Golson. And while McGlinchey is still learning how to keep his feet and play against pass rushers, he’s a promising piece of the future along an offensive line with four starters likely returning.
Remember this game. Because Brian Kelly and his team certainly will.
As Cody Kessler was setting records and USC scored more first half points against Notre Dame than any opponent since 1998, the Irish were all but helpless. That made for a painful afternoon, and one that’ll likely serve as a reference point during an important offseason that’s taken the Irish as far away from the mountain top as they’ve been since Kelly took over the program.
“It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike,” Kelly said. “Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today, we got our butts beat. And it wasn’t as close as the score.”
Kelly was careful to put into context where he sees this football team. And with Jack Swabrick and Father John Jenkins standing inside the small media tent, Kelly made a careful distinction as to where this team sat.
“This is not a program situation. This is a personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about young guys growing up and maturing.”
That’s a hard to understand distinction, but one where Kelly still deserves the benefit of the doubt. But as the Irish try and piece together an eighth victory that’s remained elusive for most of November, Kelly made it clear that the final weeks for this football team will be steeped in competition.
“They got punched in the nose today. So you want to see a response, too,” Kelly explained. “The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available. We’re going to have to see something from this group.”