At this point, most will believe what they want. So whether you want to fire your coach now or batten down the hatches and ride out the storm, one thing is clear—with five losses (close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, I’ve been reminded), Brian Kelly has a program in crisis; each loss feeling like another sledgehammer to the foundation that seemed close to unbreakable as recently as August.
But as the defeats pile up, Kelly’s search for answers continues. And even if every loss hinges on a different culprit, they all point back to the man atop the program.
With a week off and fall break upon us, the distance could provide some introspection. Not just for the head coach, but for the administrators in charge of overseeing the school’s most visible outlet.
There’s no good in this scenario, not with a campus transformation doubling down on a football program that has turned the stadium into the literal centerpoint of campus. But with an off week before returning to action, it’s hard to find much good in where this season has taken us.
But that’s the gig.
So let’s take an analytical approach to the good, bad and ugly this week—merging our eyeballs with the grading system at PFF, who breaks down every snap of every college football game across the country.
James Onwualu. Notre Dame’s senior captain played a complete game, leading the unit with a +3.6 grade on the evening, notching five solo tackles and playing exceptionally in coverage with three pass breakups.
The senior leader of the defense limped off the field late in the game, tweaking something that had him still walking gingerly into his postgame comments, where he said all the right things as one of the leaders of this football team.
“I’m mean, it’s difficult. I’ve never been in this position before, and a lot of people in the locker room haven’t,” Onwualu said. “But we’re just going to keep pushing and working through this adversity.”
Andrew Trumbetti. I’ve been harder on Trumbetti than maybe every defender on this roster, so it’s only fair that I put him up top for the effort he showed Saturday night. With the Irish needing a pass rushing presence, Trumbetti showed that he was actually capable of getting after the quarterback, generating three quarterback hurries by PFF’s count, though he was only credited for one in the official scoring. Trumbetti also drew a big holding penalty when he was tackled coming around the edge.
Playing 22 snaps, Trumbetti generated a +2.4 grade as a pass rusher but a negative grade on the 10 snaps he had against the run, a reminder that small doses might be the best way to get the most out of the junior.
Mike McGlinchey & Quenton Nelson (as Run Blockers): Notre Dame’s vaunted left side blocked like the maulers we expected to see all season. At least in the run game.
Both dominated at the point of attack as the Irish found early success on the ground, keyed by a quick start, and the hulking duo physically imposing their will. It wasn’t quite as easy against the pass, as both McGlinchey and Nelson gave up a sack and graded out as barely breaking even.
We’ll save the rest of our commentary for later sections—an idea of where this group goes wrong crystal clear after second viewing.
Cole Luke & Drue Tranquill: The veterans still remaining in Notre Dame’s secondary played good games. Cole Luke came up with a clutch interception and had what looked to be the game’s defining play taken away by an early whistle—a strip and score blown dead by a Pac-12 ref who had an obstructed view of the great play Luke made on the receiver.
Tranquill looked at home playing downhill, leading the defense with eight tackles, and doing all of his damage as a run defender. Regardless of scheme, Tranquill is never going to be any better than just adequate against the pass, but the junior is playing at a much more consistent level, perfect timing as the second half of the season will include option attacks like Navy and Army, and run heavy opponents like Virginia Tech.
Torii Hunter & Tarean Folston: We may have expected too many big things from this duo, but on Saturday night they both provided a nice spark. Hunter made a handful of big plays and Folston showed the type of vision and hard-running that made him trusted by Brian Kelly before his knee betrayed him.
Getting Folston back healthy and in the mix was a great development. Hunter caught four of his seven targets, getting loose in the secondary when he was given a chance to catch and run.
The Other Offensive Linemen (Sam Mustipher, Hunter Bivin, and Alex Bars): Let’s leave snapping out of this for a moment. Sam Mustipher’s challenges weren’t just making sure his shotgun snaps hit their targets. Mustipher gave up a sack and also struggled terribly in run blocking, the interior of the offensive line having zero answers for Stanford’s Solomon Thomas.
Bivin was no better. He was flagged for two penalties, he struggled with both run and pass blocking, and the senior hardly looking like the answer as the first man in for injured guard Colin McGovern, who sat out with a concussion.
Bars’ struggles are part of any first-year starter’s learning curve. But playing next to two other first-year starters, the right side is clearly struggling to hold up against both good pass rushers and disruptive defensive fronts.
DeShone Kizer. Criticize the decision to look elsewhere in the fourth quarter (especially in hindsight). But don’t forget that Kizer’s play was what made the move even a consideration.
From jump street, the junior’s game seemed off. His first drive started with Kizer air-mailing a throw over Kevin Stepherson’s head and then missing badly on a crossing route to Torii Hunter after failing to set his feet. And it didn’t really get better from there.
Both interceptions Kizer threw were back-breakers. And they were hardly the only mistakes he made. Kizer missed some open receivers, struggled with Stanford’s pass rush and looked uncomfortable against a defense that gave up a ton of points the last two weeks. (Worth noting: The Cardinal welcomed back a few key starters on the defensive side of the ball.)
Player development rarely happens in a straight line. And while we all worked ourselves into a frenzy when Kizer lit up Texas, that’s looking less and less impressive by the week. And while there’s every chance that Kizer’s NFL potential is still as sky high as most of us believe, the reality of the situation is that it’s much harder throwing to this group of young receivers —behind this offensive line—than it was to Will Fuller and company.
“I think that everybody’s got to improve around him. I really don’t think it’s just about DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said Sunday. “We have got to protect him better, I think we have got to run more precise routes. I think the play calling has to improve. I just think it’s always the quarterback is going to be the center of the storm and that certainly comes with the position.”
So while some will call this (another) indictment on the head coach as a quarterback developer, or wonder if the shine is gone from Mike Sanford, the reality of the situation is that Kizer’s tasked with more on his shoulders this season, and it’s showing.
The Rest of it.
This could be 1,000 words or 100, the result is the result: Losing stinks. And it takes down an entire autumn in South Bend and the good will of Notre Dame nation is long, long gone.
So the week off comes at a perfect time. It allows some separation, maybe even some perspective. Not just for a young team that’s in desperate need of getting out of the spotlight. But for a coaching staff that needs to catch its breath.
Watch the Irish play and you don’t see a team that’s quit or a team that’s getting blown out. You see something even more frustrating, a team that finds different ways to lose, each falling within a close enough margin to magnify a coaching decision here or there, with the head coach struggling to push the right buttons on a young team too inconsistent to close out games.
But with school out and five games remaining, this journey isn’t over. So instead of looking at the depths this season could continue to plunge, Kelly hopes his young team takes a few days to hit reset and return to the battle.
“I just want them to get away and then when they come back fully committed with a great attitude, ready to prepare and to get over this slide that we’re in in terms of finishing out football games,” Kelly said. “We have got to be able to get through this and that’s going to require great attitude and great preparation. So that’s really what I focused on. Get away, avoid the noise as best you can, come back ready to go, reenergized, and ready to win every game that we play over the next five weeks.”