LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame wrapped up the fifth-worst season since 1899 on Saturday with a 45-27 loss to No. 12 USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
A year ago, Notre Dame was five hours north in the Bay Area and was a Conrad Ukropina field goal away from finishing 11-1 and being considered for a spot in the College Football Playoff. How did things get so bad so quickly at Notre Dame?
With the 2016 season in the books, there are three key points as to why Notre Dame went from 10-3 to 4-8:
1. Retaining defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Yes, Notre Dame fired its seven-figure defensive coordinator after four ineffective games in September, but Kelly said he never considered firing VanGorder after the 2015 season. If 2016 indeed is the end or beginning of the end of the Kelly era, not making a coordinator switch after the Fiesta Bowl can be pointed to as the first crack in the foundation in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s defense was inconsistent and wholly mediocre in 2015, even with future NFL players on every unit (Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell, Matthias Farley). If those guys couldn’t effectively run VanGorder’s complex, pro-style defense, why would 2016’s inexperienced group be able to handle it?
That’s, of course, a rhetorical question, because Notre Dame’s defense experienced massive breakdowns in the first four weeks of the season. It’s not a coincidence that Notre Dame’s three worst losses of the season — to Texas, Michigan State and Duke, all of which will not make a bowl game this year — came under VanGorder’s watch. Notre Dame allowed 6.2 yards per play (103rd) and 33.5 points per game (100th) in September.
If Notre Dame wins those games, 2016 is a seven-win disappointment, not an eight-loss disaster. This was never going to be a championship-caliber defense, but a better scheme could’ve at least allowed Notre Dame to go to a bowl game, which would give them a better chance of turning things around in 2017 based on recent history.
2. Lack of a running game. Notre Dame finished the 2016 season in the middle of the pack in terms of yards per rush (4.47, 66th) and in the bottom third in rushing attempts per game (36.5, 96th) among FBS teams. For whatever reason — ineffective/banged-up running backs, an offensive line that didn’t meet high expectations or a lack of coaching commitment to the run — Notre Dame didn't succeed on the ground, which put far too much strain on quarterback DeShone Kizer.
Kizer handled that pressure well early in the season, though an offensive lull against Michigan State helped the Spartans rip off 36 unanswered points. He was benched after failing to do much against Stanford and wasn’t effective in the second half against Virginia Tech, two games in which Notre Dame led by double digits early and ultimately lost.
In 2015, Kizer was effective when he wasn’t the sole star in the offense. And while having a get-out-of-jail-free card in Will Fuller to play was certainly beneficial, having a 1,000-yard rusher in C.J. Prosise and a record-setting freshman in Josh Adams helped Kizer quickly adapt to his newfound starting role.
So even in a year in which he roundly impressed NFL scouts, Kizer had a lower completion percentage (58.7 percent) than he did in 2015 (62.9 percent). Yes, he missed some throws, but a significant part of his off-and-on struggles this year was because he didn’t have a consistent running game on which to lean.
3. Far too many mistakes outside offense and defense. Notre Dame probably could’ve overcame some of the VanGorder/running game deficiencies had it not 1) committed so many special teams mistakes and 2) not seen Kelly & Co. make a number of curious coaching decisions.
Special teams turnovers against Michigan State and Miami were costly, as was allowing Duke to return a kickoff for a touchdown that sparked the Blue Devils’ comeback from an early 14-0 deficit. A wrongly-enforced too-many-men-on-the-field penalty against Navy halted any momentum Notre Dame had in that game. And N.C. State’s blocked punt in Hurricane Matthew resulted in the game-deciding touchdown in Raleigh. Only against Miami did Notre Dame overcome a catastrophic special teams mistake.
Kelly’s decision to play both Kizer and Zaire against Texas backfired; had Kizer simply been named the starting quarterback, perhaps Notre Dame’s offense scores enough points against a bad Texas defense to overcome its own defensive deficiencies. Notre Dame called for far too many passing plays in the windy, rainy quagmire at N.C. State. Benching Kizer for Zaire against Stanford was an ineffective move, too. And kicking a field goal on fourth down instead of going for it in the fourth quarter against Navy resulted in Notre Dame not getting the ball back in that 28-27 loss.
Those were the obvious ones. Similarly concerning, though, was how Notre Dame consistently started strong but methodically blew double-digit leads against Duke, Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech, and scored the first touchdown in every game but N.C. State. When things began to turn, neither the players nor the coaching staff were able to stop their opponents’ surge, except for that outlier win over Miami.
Kelly said Saturday he’ll begin evaluating his coaching staff on Monday, and if he does stay with the program, a few changes are in order (hiring a permanent defensive coordinator is priority No. 1, and tight ends coach/special teams coordinator Scott Booker’s job likely is in jeopardy). Kelly will have to take a hard look at his coaching staff and offensive structure going forward, since if he is back for 2017, he’ll likely be coaching for his job.
“I thought we could play with anybody this year,” Kelly said. “We just had not been able to sustain consists performance for four quarters. We had shown a propensity for some self-inflicted wounds, whether they be in special teams or offense or defense. I think we eliminated a lot of those from earlier in the year on offense or defense. And they’re all correctable through experience, through our offseason program.”
For the sake of everyone in South Bend, they’ll have to hope Kelly is right about the issues that manifested themselves in 2016 are correctable. Because if not, it’ll be a long road back to prominence for this program, no matter who’s coaching it.