SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Maybe this has all just been a bad dream engineered by some evil scientist plucked from the pages of a science fiction novel. Maybe Notre Dame isn’t 4-7, with all seven of those losses coming by eight or fewer points, rendering the Irish ineligible for a bowl game for the first time since 2007. Maybe this is a down year, but it’s merely an ebb, not a valley, in the program's trajectory.
“We're going to wake up from this nightmare and we're going to be 11-0, I think,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Maybe not. I just don't — they work hard. They did everything I wanted them to do.”
Kelly, of course, was being facetious. But the reality of things in South Bend after Notre Dame’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday is certainly a discomforting, crushing one from which this team can't wake up.
This is the worst season Notre Dame has had since 2007, and given this team’s preseason top-10 ranking and August expectations to compete for the College Football Playoff, it's among the worst in the program’s 128-year history. And this is being written before Notre Dame heads to Los Angeles with nothing to play for against its biggest rival, the surging top-15 USC Trojans.
Notre Dame’s seven losses have come by a combined 32 points, which is fewer than the team’s margin of victory over Army (38 points). The Irish have scored 55 more points than their opponents this season and have a 4-7 record to show for it, which is a confounding aspect to this season for the players who again were handed a close loss on Saturday.
“It’s definitely frustrating in the fact that we’ve lost by three points, five points, seven points, eight points — nothing substantial,” senior defensive end Isaac Rochell, who’s among the guys who deserved better in their final seasons at Notre Dame, said. “Those are the two frustrating things. Guys are grinding, we have great weeks of practice, guys are focused. And then we’re losing by a field goal. That’s definitely the hardest thing to deal with.”
Against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame’s defense struggled at times and its offense was completely shut down in the second half, save for Josh Adams’ 67-yard touchdown run. DeShone Kizer — who came out fine after sustaining a couple of hard hits — completed three of 15 passes in the final 30 minutes after looking masterful in the first 30.
But the general feeling about Saturday’s loss to Virginia Tech was more that Notre Dame got beat by a team clearly better than it. The same can’t be said for losses to Texas (which was humiliated in an overtime loss at Kansas on Saturday), Michigan State (which is having a worse year than Notre Dame) and Duke (which appears destined to miss a bowl). Navy, Stanford and Virginia Tech, in a forgettable-but-not-damaging eight-win season, could be understandable losses if you have a glass-half-full view of the program. N.C. State is a total outlier given the horrible, unplayable conditions in Raleigh.
“It’s never been an energy, effort, enthusiasm thing,” redshirt junior offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “It’s just a matter of execution for us and we gotta keep going back at it and clean it up and keep improving and that’s all we can ask for. There’s never a doubt in our minds that this team is going to be ready to play and ready to fight for what we want to do. There’s nothing we need to worry about with that.”
There’s no amount of sugarcoating or positivity, though, that can rationalize those losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke (all of which came under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder). Those are the difference in this season — win those three games and this is a disappointing, not disastrous, season that could be spun as a reloading year that landed the Irish in the Belk Bowl.
Instead, 2016 at best will be viewed as a rebuilding year, and that’ll only be through the lens of a successful 2017 season, which seems like a spurious thing to expect. At worst, it's the beginning of the end for Kelly's tenure in South Bend. There are no rebuilding years at Notre Dame; the Irish won’t get a better draft pick or have loads of money to spend on free agents because of finishing under .500. All Notre Dame will be left with from 2016 is a feeling of overwhelming disappointment.
“You come into the year expecting to win out and play a great season,” senior linebacker James Onwualu said. “Unfortunately it went the other way. You can’t really predict that.”
The sense, for now, is that Kelly will be back in 2017. The close-loss narrative probably helps him in that regard, not only for retaining his job but for keeping a talented group of underclassmen together for next year’s turnaround effort.
Kelly has to make the right hire at defensive coordinator and, chances are, will have to develop a new starting quarterback (Kizer is projected by plenty of mock drafters as a top-three pick next year, if he were to turn pro). There are a few other changes that need to be made, too, given that Notre Dame can’t rely on these close losses flipping to close wins next year.
What happens over the next 12 months will push the definition of Kelly’s legacy at Notre Dame. Getting to a bowl game, however low a bar that was, would’ve helped with another month of practice for guys like Chase Claypool, Tommy Kraemer, Alize Jones, Daelin Hayes, Troy Pride, Jalen Elliott and the rest of an inexperienced-yet-promising crop of freshmen and sophomores. Now, the next time those guys will get to practice with coaches and a football will be March once the clock hits zero in Los Angeles.
“These kids are wonderful kids,” Kelly said. “I mean, I'm at loss for words really as to what to tell them, you know. It's just been a difficult year.
“They work so hard. They play so hard. They have been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, it's just one of those years where — I haven't had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach, where it hasn't gone their way.”
That was an exasperated explanation by Kelly in the immediate aftermath of another crushing defeat. But the reality is Notre Dame won’t wake up in December and have its offense, defense, special teams and coaching fixed in the light of a new day. There have to be solutions found for those problems.
Otherwise, this program won't wake up from its nightmare.