Even as Notre Dame lurched from defeat to defeat through its first six games, there was one position that seemed impervious to struggles (as long as the game wasn’t played in a hurricane).
But in Notre Dame’s 17-10 loss to Stanford Saturday night, the last line of defense against an unmitigated disaster of a season fell. DeShone Kizer threw two interceptions and was ineffective through the air over the game’s first two and a half quarters, then was benched for three series in favor of Malik Zaire, who was unable to provide the spark coach Brian Kelly hoped to get. Kizer re-entered for the game’s final drive, pushed Notre Dame to the Stanford eight-yard line, but sandwiched two sacks around a spiked ball to effectively end the game.
Coach Brian Kelly said he made it clear to Kizer he hadn’t lost his starting job, and that the insertion of Zaire into the game was a short-term attempt to catch lightning in a bottle.
“I think the one that I talked to DeShone about that he's unequivocally the starting quarterback and that I was looking for a shot in the arm, and that maybe this was the way to break through this block that we have about the energy coming out of the team,” Kelly said. “Obviously, it didn't work, right, we had to go back to DeShone. So, I think from that standpoint he knows that we got to go back to him and that's the guy to lead us from that perspective. So, yeah, I don't know, you can take a lot of different angles on it, he knows that he's going to be our starter, it gave him a different vantage point. I told him that these are ones that you can grow from.
“But it's not him alone. It's the other 10 guys that have to play better around him as well.”
That last point is one Kelly drove home Sunday as a shell-shocked Notre Dame begins looking forward to a bye week that, as it usually does, coincides with the university’s fall break.
Notre Dame’s defense has stepped up in a big way in its last 10 quarters, over which it’s allowed only two touchdowns. The changes Kelly and linebackers coach Mike Elston have made in the wake of Brian VanGorder’s ineffective scheme have worked, and Greg Hudson’s rah-rah attitude has injected some life into this group. Of course, there are qualifiers to it — Notre Dame held N.C. State to three offensive points in unplayable conditions in Raleigh, and Stanford was without 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey yesterday — but the Irish defense no longer is the disastrous, wholly unreliable unit it was under VanGorder.
That’s what makes Notre Dame’s offensive struggles even more stunning — the safe bet two weeks ago was that, if Kelly & Co. fixed the defense, the offense would be more than effective enough to win enough games to get Notre Dame into a bowl game.
Instead, Kizer, Zaire and the Irish offense averaged only 4.8 yards per play, their lowest total in non-hurricane conditions in two years (the Irish averaged 4.9 yards per play against Stanford in 2014). The right side of the offensive line, which was without guard Colin McGovern (concussion), struggled and outside of a few hard-nosed runs from Tarean Folston, Notre Dame’s running backs again struggled to carve up many yards. Add in a few dropped passes and poorly-run routes from receivers and far too many missed throws and sacks from Kizer and Zaire, and Notre Dame’s offense sputtered to zero points in the second half.
“Everybody's got to improve around him — I really don't think it's just about DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said. “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, but and he can do things better and he knows that as well, but this is collectively an entire offensive issue. It's not just one thing. So, I think as the offense gets better at the details across the board, I think we'll see improvement in his position.”
At 2-5, Notre Dame could be rendered ineligible for a bowl by Election Day and is on a treacherous path toward a 3-9 disaster of a season. For the Irish offense, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time — all of a sudden, this group has to hit the reset button, and has to do so quickly.
“We have got to be able to get through this and that's going to require great attitude and great preparation,” Kelly said. “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.”