The Megaphone returns to East Lansing. And Notre Dame goes back to work.
On a weekend that served as a separation Saturday of sorts, contenders and pretenders emerged. Unfortunately for the Irish, they’re on the outside looking in, a familiar formula costing Notre Dame in a game that played out with all too much familiarity.
A porous defense, an inconsistent offense and bad special teams. Let’s get through the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s disappointing 36-28 loss.
Fourteen minutes (roughly): That’s the amount of time the Irish were playing at full octane. From the moment they took the football over with 3:45 remaining in the third quarter and went all-in to storm back.
You saw DeShone Kizer cut loose. You saw the offense stress the Spartans vertically. Defensively, the Irish managed to get stops. No, they still couldn’t get off the field quickly time—though they forced three-straight punts.
On a Saturday when everybody should be looking for building blocks, this is the best place to start.
* Lost amidst the loss in the trenches was a nice game by Quenton Nelson. The junior was rock-solid in his assignments on the inside, grading out as the best player for the Irish, per PFF College.
* Brian Kelly said postgame that this wasn’t just going to be DeShone Kizer bailing the team out. But he sure tried. Kizer wasn’t perfect and his discomfort in the pocket led to some accuracy issues. But with the game on his shoulders, he roared the team back.
Notre Dame has now scored 15 touchdowns. All but two of them have come from either Kizer’s arm or legs. While some are ready to throw in the towel for the season, Notre Dame’s coaching staff just needs to find some sense of competence from the defense, or risk wasting a historic season by Kizer.
* For the first time in his career, the elite athleticism and tantalizing promise of Jerry Tillery finally showed through. The sophomore flashed those dominant traits, making two TFLs and proving to be disruptive at times in the trenches, a much-needed development if the Irish defense is going to stop that flaming tire from burning down the defense.
* Nice to meet you, Chase Claypool. That’s one athletic dude streaking down the field. Can we find a few more opportunities for the young man?
* Most of his catches came after the Irish had to play catchup, but nice to see Torii Hunter Jr. come back and look healthy, too.
* Durham Smythe helped the Irish tight ends out of witness protection. After nearly entering the doghouse with a critical penalty that took a touchdown off the board.
* It’s hard to say how well Nyles Morgan is playing, especially when the Will linebacker position continues to struggle. But Morgan is a tackling machine, adding 10 more and eight solo stops.
Cole Luke. Upon further review, Luke’s evening was just as bad as it was in real-time. The senior cornerback’s struggles make no sense, though his confidence is likely bruised and he’s certainly pressing. That makes a smart football player do some less-than-intelligent things—Luke’s mental mistakes just as head-scratching as the physical, one-on-one losses.
There’s no need to harp or pile on, though it’s a game Luke will need to quickly forget. Especially with the Irish in need of getting on an upswing before Stanford comes to town in three weeks.
The special teams. The bar has been raised for Scott Booker’s special teams unit. And they didn’t come close to clearing it on Saturday night. A game-changing start by CJ Sanders was erased by Jalen Elliott’s holding. Miles Boykin’s mistake was a Pop Warner error if there ever was one. That’s as much on Boykin as it is on Sanders, Booker and everybody else that should be looking for the football.
Tyler Newsome was pumped up after he drilled a 71-yarder. And while his 50.3 yard average and three punts inside the 20 will look like a successful game, Newsome once again botched his first kick, failing to flip the field when the Irish needed him to do so.
Throw in Nicco Fertitta’s bone-headed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after making a nice block and it was amateur hour in a phase of the game that Kelly talked about this week as being critical.
Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame expected Drue Tranquill to play a key role in this defense. Instead, he’s been a huge part of the problem.
Tranquill was a liability again Saturday night, a key defender that was counted on to be a sure-tackling strong safety. And as intelligent, hard-working, and well-respected as Tranquill is, he’s killing the Irish defense with his inconsistencies.
It’s easy to take some of the bad that comes with Tranquill in coverage if he’s a sledgehammer against the run. But the junior who has heroically returned from two major knee injuries has been really suspect, when the team needs him to be a rock as they break in Devin Studstill. He led the Irish in missed tackles on Saturday night, the only defender who graded out (per PFF College) worse than Luke.
Tranquill is still a young player, injuries essentially robbing him of a full season—and two key springs—of development. But the junior needs to find his rhythm quickly, or Notre Dame needs to push Avery Sebastian into a much larger role.
The pass rush. That’s three weeks and no sacks. And while the Irish did manage to make things slightly uncomfortable for Tyler O’Connor, the Irish are the only Power Five team not to have tackled the opposing team’s quarterback behind the line of scrimmage.
Spin it any way you want, and that’s a big problem. Especially when you’re trying to help a young secondary.
The defensive personnel. Perhaps some of the comfort that comes with calling for Brian VanGorder’s head is that it ignores the other possibility. Namely, that Notre Dame’s defensive personnel just isn’t that good.
Yes, it’s becoming more and more obvious that VanGorder isn’t a good fit. (Yes, I know that’s an understatement.) But it’s also becoming more and more obvious that the Irish just aren’t that good on defense.
It’s pretty clear that Notre Dame’s staff has swung and missed on the defensive side of the football, all those high-profile recruits struggling to live up to their ranking. It’s also clear that you can have a handful of talented players on the field, but they’re quickly erased if one or two aren’t doing their job.
The Irish can’t rush the passer. That’s less on VanGorder’s exotic schemes or Keith Gilmore’s teaching techniques than it is on Andrew Trumbetti or the rest of the personnel that can’t win their one on one battle, especially a few seasons of recruiting misses at defensive end.
Freshmen are freshmen. They’re seeing and doing things for the first time. And right now, Notre Dame is relying on too many of them, young kids and inexperienced talent trying to hold up their end of the bargain while Morgan, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu play better-than-average football. That the Irish don’t have any other veterans capable of beating out the kids shows you how difficult it is to transition systems and do so while upgrading talent.
Running a high-priced and unsuccessful coach out of town is always an option—and it looks like that’s the way this will end up. But when you think about Kelly’s fiery comments from postgame, through the subpar personnel lens, this comment feels a little bit different.
“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.
Another loss against a quality team. If Notre Dame wants to measure itself against the best, they won’t like what they see. The Irish have lost four of their last five, Nevada the only win. That type of slide during the seventh season of a head coach’s tenure isn’t a datapoint you want to see.
Of course, there’s context for everything. The Irish lost 10 players to the NFL. They’re breaking in an unprecedented amount of new starters—three more than the worst team in Notre Dame history. And that was before preseason and injury attrition hit.
It might be our fault for believing this team could reload and compete for a playoff berth. Because only Ohio State and Alabama have proven they’re up to that task. But adjusting expectations in mid-September is an ugly place to be. And yet that’s where we stand, with Notre Dame finding another way to shoot themselves in the foot when taking on a team that’s capable of matching up with them athletically.
So the focus shifts. And while some Irish fans might check out for the fall, it’d be a surprise if Kelly’s team did. Especially a young roster that’ll now get younger and younger, the goals more incremental now than ever.
“The focus just becomes on what I just talked about: each individual getting better, each individual improving from week and week,” Kelly said on Sunday. “The focus being really much more smaller in a sense. All we’re looking for is to find a way to win and beat Duke. That’s really the goal that’s in front of us.”
It’s been a few years since Irish fans saw their postseason dreams ruined in September. But for the players and coaches who put in a year-round commitment, there’s been too much work put in to abandon things now.
“This is work. We’ve got some work to do. But we got a group that will fight and compete. I’m proud of the way they go out and represent Notre Dame on the field,” Kelly said. “We got to clean up a lot of things. We’ll continue to work with a lot of young players. I’m confident that we’ll be a better football team in November than we are in September.”