Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 3, 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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4 OCT. 3, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED N otre Dame football followers collectively cringed shortly after the Irish lost on Sept. 17 to Michigan State when Brian Kelly explained away the difficult defeat with phrases such as "we're playing true freshmen" and "we've asked a lot of young players to step up into new roles" and "we put 10 guys in the NFL last year." The Irish head coach wasn't being disingenuous with his assessment. But it was unsettling to hear Kelly offer those types of expla- nations for a top program that's on a recruiting roll, that's loaded with NFL tal- ent for years to come, and one that mentions a College Football Playoff appearance as its only postseason goal. C o u l d a n y o n e i m a g i n e e l i t e coaches such as Nick Saban at Al- abama or Urban Meyer at Ohio State blaming any defeat on a roster thinned by the NFL Draft or because their players are too young and inex- perienced? Of course not. For perspective sake, Alabama started its 2016 season with 22 first- or second-year players listed on its 44-man offensive and defensive two deep, including 11 true freshmen. Ohio State featured 21 such youthful players and Notre Dame listed 19. To Kelly's defense, the veteran Irish coach changed course last week during Duke discussions and stayed clear of alibis after his team's slug- gish start squashed any Irish playoff hopes well before the regular season even reached the halfway point. "Obviously from our perspective," Kelly said, "we've got to do a better job coaching. That's on me, starts with me, and obviously offense, defense and special teams have got to be better to win games against good competition." And "winning games against good competition" continues to be Kelly's greatest challenge during his seventh season here. Since defeating four ranked opponents during an un- defeated regular season in 2012, the recent loss to MSU dropped Kelly to 5-10 against top-25 teams in his last 15 tries. Kelly fell on his sword after the Michigan State loss, took the blame and sent his unconditional support behind defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "Colleagues," Kelly said when asked about any relationship strain with his embattled defensive coor- dinator. "Colleagues in it together to get the most out of our players. He's coaching his butt off." But as the losses mount and the heat builds, Kelly will continue to be asked whether he needs to take an expanded role coaching the Irish defense. Miscommunication, blown cover- ages, poor technique and lousy tack- ling have become the norm under VanGorder's defensive leadership, and Kelly didn't hesitate to express his frus- tration when each of those breakdowns were painfully evident against MSU and Texas already this season, and in consecutive losses to Stanford and Ohio State, dating back to the end of 2015. "We can cry all we want about what we didn't do," Kelly said, "but we have to start doing it." Despite sustained recruiting success and plenty of NFL-caliber talent, the Notre Dame defense has buried itself so far this season near the bottom of the NCAA pack in nearly every statistical category, including the two biggies — total yards (No. 102 out of 128 schools, giving up 439.3 yards per game) and points allowed (No. 94, surrender- ing 32.0 per contest). Big plays and long drives continue to be the root of the Irish defensive deficien- cies under VanGorder. Irish opponents have averaged nearly six yards per offensive play during VanGorder 's three seasons here, helping opponents to more than 50 scoring drives of at least 75 yards since his arrival in 2014. For comparison sake, the 2012 Notre Dame defense that carried the Irish to a na- tional title game appearance under coordinator Bob Di- aco allowed only four scoring drives of 75 yards or more that entire season. "We're not in good position, and that's poor coaching," Kelly said of this season's struggles. "We're not coaching it well enough." And it's hard to argue. An Irish defense predicated on disruption and pressure entered its game against Duke Sept. 24 as one of only two 128 FBS teams in the coun- try without a sack all season — un- imaginable with at least 10 NFL pros- pects on the Notre Dame defense. So where do the answers come from to make sure this doesn't become a 7-5 or even a 6-6 season with quality teams such as Stanford, Miami, USC and others coming up? Even Kelly is struggling to answer that one. "Those are the guys we have, we can't trade 'em, and they're not get- ting cut," he said. "This is every- where, and this is on me. We have to clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team." And one that's stuck in a three-year search for a defensive identity … youth and inexperience reasons aside. ✦ The Blame Game Not Getting It Anymore UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Head coach Brian Kelly said the bottom line is he and his staff simply need to "do a better job coaching." PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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