SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two months ago, Notre Dame’s goal was to make the College Football Playoff. A month ago, it was downgraded to winning 10 games. Three weeks ago, it became simply making a bowl game.
And now? The expectations have taken such a nosedive that avoiding a repeat of 2007’s disastrous 3-9 record is objective No. 1.
The latest detonation of the 2016 season came Saturday, when Notre Dame’s defense stepped up but its offense didn’t come through. DeShone Kizer was benched in favor of Malik Zaire for three ineffective series as a Christian McCaffrey-less Stanford pushed back in the second half for a 17-10 win.
The glass-half-full message coming from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and the players who talked with the media Saturday was that every one of this year’s losses has been by eight points or fewer. The glass-actually-doesn’t-have-water-in-it view is Notre Dame has five losses through seven games, only has wins over Nevada and Syracuse and has to face teams currently with winning records in its final five games.
“We're 2-5, and we're going to get reminded of it by everybody in the country about a million times,” Kelly said. “We're 2-5, I'm 2-5, everybody is 2-5, so no one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better, and that will cure a lot of things.”
[MORE FROM ND-STANFORD: Brian Kelly benches DeShone Kizer for Malik Zaire seeking energy Notre Dame didn't get]
There have been failures in every facet of Notre Dame’s program this year, starting with coaching and trickling all the way down to special teams. The one position that looked infallible — at least in dry conditions — was the quarterback, but even that crumbled on Saturday.
Notre Dame captains James Onwualu and Torii Hunter Jr. said that Kelly hasn’t lost the team, or at least parts of it, viewpoints at least backed up by the fact this team hasn’t been blown out this year (as opposed to Oregon, for instance). But this season’s story isn’t that Notre Dame was one or two plays away from winning a bunch of games — that’s a narrative that fit the 2015 team well.
Instead, it’s something different every week as to why Notre Dame has five losses. Against Texas, it was the defense and Kelly’s insistence on playing both Kizer (who was effective) and Zaire (who was not) for over half the game. Against Michigan State, it was an offense that stalled for a large swath of the game and a defense that couldn’t corral a Spartans offense that’s proven to be sub-optimal this year. Against Duke, it was another catastrophic defensive showing that ultimately was the final nail in the Brian VanGorder-era coffin. Against N.C. State, it was calling for Kizer to throw 38 times in a hurricane. And against Stanford, it was a struggling offense that ineffectively changed quarterbacks in the second half.
There are, of course, more reasons than those as to why Notre Dame lost those five games. But the point is that this team as a whole hasn’t put together a complete team win against a worthy opponent this season.
“We understand that we’re very, very capable of getting out of the hole that we’re in,” left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We’re all staying extremely positive, it’s just a matter of finishing games. We’re right there and it’s just an experience that we’re going through and it’s obviously tough to handle but we’ll get there. We’re confident in that and we’re going to get ourselves out of this rut for sure, and guys are positive about that.”
Notre Dame players will get a chance to clear their heads over fall break next week, which coincides with the team’s bye. Getting away from classwork — midterms were last week — and the grind of practice and meetings and the like probably will be productive for this team. But it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be productive enough for Notre Dame to turn this season around or, at the least, get to four or five wins.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we’re ready to go back out there and work and get better, because we’re this close every week to getting over that hump,” Hunter said. “I think guys see that and we’ll keep working.”
Things, of course, could still threaten to get worse. Notre Dame players talked in positive terms after the game, focusing on how close they’re coming to winning as opposed to how many times they’ve lost. If Notre Dame comes back from the bye week and the effort and attention in practice and meetings aren’t there, these seven-point losses could turn into 30-point ones.
We’re past the tipping point of 2016, and the best Notre Dame can do now is salvage a few things from the rubble. Going into the reclamation project with the right attitude is a start, but not the solution.
“Just look at the guys you play with — I don’t know how many, but it’s over 100, and I love each and every one of them,” nose guard Jarron Jones said. “Our coaches are amazing. They’ve been nothing but great. And when you have a support system like that, a group of guys like that who you’re around, you don’t want to do nothing but push for them and work hard for them. That’s what drives me.
“Just my teammates, my coaches, the staff, I love them like a big family. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t recruit me, obviously, and I’m forever indebted for being allowed to play here at Notre Dame, and I’m going to continue to fight for Notre Dame no matter what the record is.”