Brian Kelly’s football team isn’t ready for primetime. Not when the offense lays an egg and the special teams implodes. Not when the defense gives up plays big, small, and everywhere in between.
But the Irish have heart. And after it looked like Notre Dame was going to get run out of its own stadium in the most disappointing loss of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend, they didn’t—gallantly marching back and bringing the home crowd to life, as Michigan State’s seemingly insurmountable late third-quarter lead of 29 points was down to just one score with enough time for some late-game magic by DeShone Kizer.
But the Irish lost their second game of the season, falling to Michigan State 36-29. And while there are no prizes for good efforts, they never got closer than the ball in DeShone Kizer’s scorching hands with under four minutes to go and the Spartans’ on their heels.
But instead of rolling the dice on Kizer and the offense on 4th-and-7 at their own 32-yard line, Kelly punted with 3:37 left, putting the weight of the game on his defense. And from there, Brian VanGorder’s unit did what it has done for much of his tenure in South Bend—put themselves in a position to succeed, only to implode— a broken coverage on 3rd-and-7 icing the game for the Spartans.
The loss is a dagger for the Irish. With their playoff goals officially dashed, it’s back to the drawing board for Kelly and his young team.
Here’s what we learned:
Notre Dame’s touted offensive line got handled by Michigan State’s front seven.
Before the Irish offense went up-tempo and vertical against the Spartans, they tried to go toe-to-toe in the trenches. And it didn’t work.
Notre Dame’s running game was nonexistent on Saturday night, the Irish picking up just 57 yards on 25 official attempts. A week after Josh Adams looked like he was on the ascent, the Spartans had him stuck in neutral, just 29 yards on 12 carries.
The Irish offensive line, a group that some thought was the best in the nation heading into the season, had its lunch handed to them by Malik McDowell and the Spartans front seven. Kizer was harassed early and often, the pocket collapsing and several blitz pickups missed.
Three games in, Notre Dame’s offensive front is still searching for its identity. And after struggling in an unfriendly environment against Texas, they were exposed on their home field on Saturday night.
Another good opponent, another big score against Notre Dame’s defense.
With 36 points allowed to Michigan State, the Irish defense let another quality opponent put up a big number on them. Add in Texas’ 37 in regulation, Ohio State’s 44, Stanford’s 38 and Pitt’s 30, and only Nevada, Boston College and Wake Forest have failed to hit 30 since the Irish held Temple to 20 points last Halloween.
The Spartans put up 501 yards of offense. They ran for 260, averaging five-yards a touch. They owned the time of possession, holding the ball for just shy of 38 minutes. And they converted third downs, with Notre Dame failing to get off the field in the first half before breaking down completely in the third quarter.
With most doing their best to discount Texas’ success in the trenches to scheme or tempo, Michigan State spent a few plays playing with pace before settling down and slugging it out. And they won going away, the handful of nice stops made by Irish defenders erased by bad run fits or schematic breakdowns.
It’s a familiar song, but one that still haunts. Another good opponent, another big number put up against the Irish.
A young secondary needed Cole Luke to step up. Instead he might have played the worst game of his career.
Notre Dame’s young secondary fought hard. But their leader struggled, and Cole Luke’s tough Saturday night ultimately doomed the Irish defense.
The best defensive back on the Irish roster didn’t play like it Saturday night. And after two weeks watching Nick Coleman wear a bullseye, the football seemed to find Luke, often times ending in a big Michigan State play.
The Spartans flipped the game’s momentum when Luke was beat on a long touchdown, Donnie Corley ripping the ball out of Luke’s hands, turning what looked like an interception into a touchdown. The senior missed a key open-field tackle in the red zone that turned into a touchdown for the Spartans and was a critical part of the blown coverage on 3rd-and-ballgame late in the fourth quarter.
There’s no replacing key pieces like Shaun Crawford or Max Redfield, two building blocks whose absence is certainly felt with true freshman now playing in their place. But Luke’s struggles, especially coming against a critical opponent, doomed the Irish, and now force the veteran to rebuild his confidence before the season goes sideways.
A team that needed to do the ordinary things well didn’t—and the mistakes proved costly.
On a frustrating Saturday night where many Irish fans are throwing hand grenades and waiting for daylight to look for any real answers, Kelly probably encapsulated his team’s problems best.
“We’re sloppy as a football team. There is not a referendum on who’s got to carry who, or the defense can’t do that,” Kelly said. “We’re too sloppy overall as a football team… Two huge mistakes on special teams and the difference in the game was eight points. So we gotta clean up the whole deal. So this is everywhere, and this is on me. We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”
A kickoff return for touchdown overturned on a holding call. A blown punt return that one play later turned into a Michigan State touchdown. Those tend to be forgotten when the defense is giving up big plays and the head coach is deciding to punt instead of roll the dice with his quarterback.
The Irish aren’t good enough to win sloppy. And they proved it Saturday night.
Notre Dame’s not just playing for the future. This coaching staff will be coaching for their jobs, too.
Brian Kelly isn’t going to address the status of his defensive coordinator. But in his attempts to repeatedly fall on the sword for his team’s loss, Kelly’s commentary on the blown assignment that allowed the defense to convert on third-and-long might as well have been directed straight at VanGorder.
“We’re in a position we gotta make that play, obviously. They got two verticals, pretty standard deal… and we’re not in good position,” Kelly explained. “That’s poor coaching. We’re not coaching it well enough.
“Obviously if our players can’t execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that’s on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we’re not getting that done. So we’re either not capable of running that coverage or we’re not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job.”
Ultimately, Kelly’s the man in charge of his program. And he’s also the one who put his defense in VanGorder’s hands. And that decision hasn’t looked like a good one since VanGorder’s defense befuddled opponents early in his first season, with no game tape to prepare from.
But scheme is one thing, personnel is another. And even as the Irish reload a roster that lost more talent than any one team since the Holtz era, this staff will likely be evaluated—and retained–by its ability to teach and improve this young roster.
Because Kelly isn’t going anywhere. And while he’s yet to fire a coach in his time in South Bend, course correction isn’t something he’s afraid of.
“Those are the guys we have. We can’t trade em. They’re not getting cut. We recruited them. I told our staff, ‘Those are our guys, so we’ve got to get ’em better. We’ve got to put them in better position to make plays,'” Kelly said emphatically.
“Those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke, and they’re going to have to make some tackles the following week against the next opposition. So we can cry all we want about what we didn’t do, but we gotta start doing it.”