Notre Dame’s 2016 season begins with a loss. And the explanation for it is both simple and confounding.
The Irish lost because Brian VanGorder’s defense was no match for a Texas offense trotting out a freshman starter and a new system. They lost because they gave up three opportunities for DeShone Kizer to drive the Irish for touchdowns—something he did six times.
They lost because another offseason installing a defensive system somehow once again forgot some universal truths that every armchair quarterback in America knows all too well.
There will be positive takeaways. Young players stepping forward, like Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford. A resiliency that didn’t leave town with the senior class from 2015, a 17-point deficit erased as the Irish fought to get the game to overtime.
But ultimately, seven seasons into his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly knows the score.
“There’s no moral victories,” Kelly said postgame. “Losing is losing”
Let’s find out the five things we learned.
Three seasons into Brian VanGorder’s tenure as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, his unit is the same as it ever was.
Notre Dame’s last three big games—Stanford, Ohio State and now Texas—are a stark reminder that the Irish defense isn’t fit for primetime. Not when Tyrone Swoopes and D'Onta Foreman are pinballing through would-be tacklers. Not when Shane Buechele is getting started writing his Texas-sized legend, beating Irish defensive backs over the top. And especially not when a group of intelligent student-athletes seem to always find the banana peel to slip on in the game’s critical moments.
VanGorder’s unit—young for certain, after having to replace its well-established nucleus—was learning on the job Saturday. But failing is failing, and Kelly’s warnings to anybody that would listen about the pace of Texas’s offense seemed to be ignored by the 11 guys caught flat-footed to open the football game.
The Irish gave up 517 yards and 50 points to the Texas offense. They let Buechele throw for 280 yards on just 16 completions. They gave up big plays over the top, chain-movers in the trenches and allowed seven scores on seven red zone appearances.
More maddening, they looked lost when everybody in the stadium seemed to know what was coming but them. They failed again and again in the red zone. And with the game on the line and the Irish needing to make a stand, it was hard enough to get the right personnel on the field, let alone make a big play.
Those days of the simple-yet-consistent unit that bent but didn’t break under Bob Diaco? Gone faster than Jon Tenuta dialing up another blitz call on 3rd-and-long.
Credit certainly goes to a Texas team with intriguing and emerging talent at skill positions, not to mention three bulldozers in Swoopes, Foreman and Chris Warren. But game one of 2016 reminds many that the highest paid assistant coach in Notre Dame history isn’t getting his job done.
Brian Kelly wouldn’t say it after the game. But DeShone Kizer needs to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
It’s hardly a bold statement.
Not after Kizer propped the Irish offense on his shoulders and carried them back into the football game. Completing 15 of 24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns, while running for 77 more yards and another score, Kizer’s six scores will find their way into the record books as one of the best losing performances in school history.
But you can’t help but wonder what he’d have done with three more series—especially when Charlie Strong admitted postgame that his game plan for Zaire was to crowd the box and dare the lefty to beat him with his arm.
Zaire didn’t—and couldn’t, only throwing five times while harassed by the swarming Longhorns defense on all three of his series. And while Kelly wouldn’t make any declaration about where the offense would go moving quickly towards the home opener against Nevada, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Kizer doesn’t lead the offense moving forward.
Pinning this loss on the quarterback shuffle isn’t fair. Not when it was the defense giving up six yards a play and seven scores in seven red zone appearances. And Zaire can still play a role in this offense–just one that looks much more like what Tyrone Swoopes was doing, not as a co-leading man.
The worst-case scenario at quarterback just hit the Irish like the punch to the jaw the Longhorns delivered—Kelly’s quarterback battle took a loss to find his starter.
Without Torii Hunter, Notre Dame’s wide receiving corps is lost.
Notre Dame’s offense was irreparably harmed when senior receiver Torii Hunter took a vicious hit in the end zone, a shot to the head that by any definition of college football’s targeting rule should have resulted in a first down and ejection.
Brian Kelly was incredulous postgame, unable to understand how Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s hit to Hunter’s head didn’t draw a flag—or further review by the Big 12 officiating crew in charge of the replay booth. But perhaps more disappointing than the loss of Hunter for the rest of the game as he went to the locker room to be evaluated for a concussion was the state of Notre Dame’s receiving corps without their senior captain.
The Irish looked lost without Hunter on the field. Other than the perfect strike Kizer floated to Josh Adams in the corner of the end zone, the veteran quarterback completed just one other throw downfield for the rest of the game, connecting with CJ Sanders on a chain-moving third-down conversion for six yards.
Never was Kizer’s discomfort with his receivers more apparent than on his chance to win the game in regulation. With the game tied and the Irish offense given over three minutes to march down the field, Kizer took a sack when no receiver turned to look as an outside blitz came. Then, with communication difficult to the outside of the formation, Kelly chose to run on 3rd-and-12, keeping the ball on the ground and away from his inexperienced receivers in a crunch-time moment.
Learning on the job was always expected. But without Hunter as a foundation, the Irish receivers looked lost.
Newcomers Equanimeous St. Brown and Shaun Crawford made big-time debuts.
Sophomore Equanimous St. Brown isn’t going to be Will Fuller. But he did a pretty good impression on Sunday night, catching two touchdowns among his five grabs for 75 yards.
The lanky target, who flew under the radar this spring and preseason as other options emerged, quickly established himself as Notre Dame’s big play receiver. His nifty footwork converted a nicely thrown fade from Kizer on the game’s opening drive. His acrobatic hand plant made for another highlight-worthy touchdown grab. Two scores in his first start are a promising debut to a receiver who only managed one catch all last season.
Crawford’s debut was just as impactful. While he was on the wrong end of a deep pass in the first half, the sophomore’s first game after sitting out all of last season after an August ACL injury was everything you could’ve advertised.
Crawford’s first career interception turned the momentum of the game, setting up the Irish with a short field and easy touchdown. His two-point conversion return on a blocked extra point was the exact type of play we’d only heard of Crawford making—the right guy in the right place at the right time.
It’s tough to take too much comfort after a gutting loss like the one the Irish just experienced, but two young standouts expected to play big roles on this team seem poised for big seasons.
One loss does not make a season. But fixing what ails this team is Job No. 1 for Brian Kelly and his staff.
Notre Dame’s goals for the season are still intact. Especially on a wild weekend that saw major shakeups in the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC. So while no team should need a wake-up call after one week, perhaps it was necessary for Brian Kelly’s young team.
In case you needed a reminder, there’s going to be some heavy lifting this season. That’s what happens when you return just seven starters, replacing multiple All-Americans on both sides of the ball and are admittedly still searching for your offensive and defensive identity heading into the season.
There’s plenty of good to take away from Sunday night—though you might have to look harder at the defensive side of the ball to find it. But it’s going to take some hard coaching to make sure this group doesn’t lose control, as eight penalties, including a personal foul on middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, made quite evident.
There’s plenty of time to question tactics—the choice of playing a mostly three-down front still has me scratching my head. But coaching is done presnap. It’s up to the players to make tackles and cover receivers, or pick up blitzers and convert tough first downs.
On a Sunday night that’ll be remembered for a long time in Austin, the first sellout crowd since the 2013 season got what they paid for.
And unfortunately, Notre Dame leaves footing the bill.