SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After opening the season with a double-overtime loss to Texas, Brian Kelly’s postgame message was about pumping the brakes on criticism of the defense and focusing on the resiliency Notre Dame showed in that 50-47 loss.
Kelly took a decidedly different tone after Notre Dame’s 36-28 loss to No. 12 Michigan State Saturday night. There was no “relax, guys” approach to the media’s questioning, specifically about a defense that allowed 501 yards on 78 plays (6.4 yards per play) and failed to come up with a late third down stop that could’ve put the ball back in DeShone Kizer’s hands with a chance to tie the game.
Instead, Kelly took responsibility for the loss and challenged himself and the Irish coaching staff to do a better job after Notre Dame crashed out of the College Football Playoff race three weeks into the 2016 season.
“Those are the (players) we have,” Kelly said. “We can't trade 'em, they're not getting cut. We recruited them, so I don't want to hear anybody — I told our staff: Those are our guys, so we've gotta get them better. We've got to put them in better position to make plays.
“Those are our guys. Give Michigan State credit, they broke through some tackles, and they deserved to win today. We missed the tackles, and those are our guys that are going to be out there next week against Duke, and they're going to have to make some tackles the following week against the next opposition.
“So we can cry all we want about what we didn't do, but we gotta start doing it.”
Notre Dame’s defense is inexperienced, especially in the secondary, but that’s not an excuse. Michigan State managed to figure out how to replace a bunch of key players from last year’s playoff team — like quarterback Connor Cook and offensive linemen Jack Allen and Jack Conklin — and, at least Saturday night, still look the part as one of the nation’s elite teams. Nobody will look at Notre Dame’s 2016 record and give them a pass for not having Sheldon Day or Romeo Okwara or Jaylon Smith or Joe Schmidt or KeiVarae Russell or Max Redfield.
Instead, the focus will be on the two losses, at least, Notre Dame will have. And at this point, it’s entirely fair to figure these won’t be Notre Dame’s only two losses of the season.
“We've got to do a better job coaching,” Kelly said. “That's on me, (it) starts with me.”
On Saturday night, one play in particular stood out as a crippling coaching failure.
With Michigan State backed up inside its own 20-yard line and 2:39 remaining, Notre Dame called a timeout before a third-and-seven. This came on the heels of Kelly placing the game back in the hands of Brian VanGorder’s defense — which had forced punts on back-to-back-to-back possessions after being sliced for 36 points — when he decided to punt on fourth-and-seven with two timeouts left.
So a timeout was called to stop the clock and figure out a way to defend whatever Michigan State was going to do. What happened was a complete defensive breakdown, with Tyler O’Connor finding a wide-open Donnie Corley for a 28-yard gain. First down, Michigan State — and, effectively, game over.
“That's poor coaching,” Kelly said. “We're not coaching it well enough. Obviously if our players can't execute a simple two vertical corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that's on me. That falls on my shoulders, and we're not getting that done.
“So we're either not capable of running that coverage or we're not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I gotta do a better job."
Kelly’s postgame comments were as pointed and terse a criticism of him and his coaching staff in some time, maybe ever since he took over at Notre Dame for the 2010 season. While Kelly bristled at the notion DeShone Kizer — who threw for a career-high 344 yards and accounted for all four Irish touchdowns — would have to carry Notre Dame, he’s probably this team’s best shot at reaching double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the Kelly era.
What’s worrisome is that this is Kelly’s seventh year at Notre Dame. He’s, on one hand, the best coach Notre Dame has had since Lou Holtz. On the other, these kind of self-assessed coaching shortcomings shouldn’t be happening this deep into his tenure.
The College Football Playoff is off the table for Notre Dame, and salvaging this season starts with, more than anything, getting VanGorder’s defense to play well enough to let the Kizer-led offense rattle off some wins. Or in other words, it’s no longer a quest for glory, but a quest to make sure 2016 doesn’t go down as an unmitigated disappointment.
That may be a bleak reality, but it’s the one facing Notre Dame only three weeks into a long season.
“This is everywhere, and this is on me,” Kelly said. “We gotta clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”