To look back at Notre Dame's 50-47 loss to Texas and look ahead to this weekend's home opener against Nevada, I chatted with NBC's resident Notre Dame writer Keith Arnold (synergy!) about the state of the Irish defense, where DeShone Kizer & Co. go as an offense and what to expect Saturday in South Bend:
Keith: I’ll be the first to admit it, I was surprised that Notre Dame lost last weekend. I looked at everything and just couldn’t figure out how this was a 2-pt line. Did you see this coming?
JJ: I mean, I predicted a Notre Dame 30-23 win, so I guess I didn’t.
But I’ll say this: That was mostly predicated on me not thinking Texas’ offense was going to be good enough. But as soon as Buechele led that first scoring drive and the 18-wheeler package started humming, I wished I could’ve gone back and re-done my prediction.
I still probably would’ve picked ND to win, but I would’ve gone with Texas scoring more points. There was just so much uncertainty going into that game.
Did Texas’ offense surprise you, Keith, or did Notre Dame’s defense disappoint you? Or somewhere in between?
Keith: It’s got to be somewhere in between — but I was super surprised at the defensive line play — namely, that I thought the guys up front got whipped, and they got whipped by a group that was banged up entering the game. Texas’s push at the point of attack really surprised me.
I’m less surprised by Buechele actually — while everybody started writing the legend, I secretly hoped we didn’t just give birth to another Tate Forcier. What do you do with the DL?
JJ: I mean, the stats don’t lie — ND was better with four down linemen than three. So I go with four.
Keith: I can’t claim to be a tape-breakdown expert, but it certainly wasn’t Andrew Trumbetti’s finest performance.
JJ: Whether that would’ve solved everything, we don’t know, but Brian Kelly admitted Tuesday he would’ve had more big bodies in against the Swoopes package. But even with four DLs there, they needed to generate a more consistent push.
Keith: That weakside DE position took exactly 5 minutes to be exposed as a problem.
JJ: I’d expect to see a lot of Jay Hayes there when he’s fully healthy. He took most of the first-team reps at that spot during the spring and preseason practices open to the media and looked solid enough there.
That being said, I don’t expect to see him this weekend, do you?
Keith: At this point, I’d have the guy with his foot elevated between now and next Tuesday, hoping he’s ready for a slugfest in the trenches against Michigan State.
JJ: If he’s healthy, he’ll play – no reason to hold out a guy who’s 100%. But it’s a short week and Nevada isn’t exactly a star opponent, so I could see him getting limited snaps. But you gotta get him some work so his first real test since 2014 won’t be against that bruising Michigan State side.
Keith: Remember, he was “healthy” heading into Texas, too.
JJ: I guess to put a wrap on the defense: Are you confident it can pull together and be good enough for Notre Dame to still have a successful year?
Keith: Successful yes. But I’m not sure what that means anymore. I had 10 to 11 wins as possible for this team.
JJ: I realize that was a loaded question, ha.
Keith: And I really did think the defensive would play much, much better.
Now I probably have taken a step away from the ledge when it comes to Brian VanGorder, and I actually think BK is right to be preaching patience here — he’s breaking in SO many new players and doing it without a safety who was probably one of the three most important people on this defense, but this team will only be as good as its defense. And right now, that’s not very good.
JJ: Look, you can win a lot of games with your offense bailing out an underperforming defense. But you can’t contend for a playoff spot with that.
Keith: I think that’s true. Maybe Oklahoma would disagree — at least last year — but underperforming is one thing. What those guys did on Sunday night wasn’t underperforming.
JJ: The Big 12 is a different animal with that, though. Underperforming was last year’s defense.
Keith: I’ll leave my defensive comments at this: I’m worried about not just the scheme, but the personnel. That’s what was more surprising to me. That ND’s guys were getting blown off the ball and their DBs were getting torched vertical.
JJ: There are a few individual players who looked good Sunday — Nyles Morgan and Shaun Crawford come to mind — but the whole defense has to be better.
But you raise the question: Can it?If the personnel isn’t there, and the scheme isn’t there, then what is? I guess we have 11 games to find out.
Keith: That’s essentially the big rub on the Brian VanGorder defense. What do you hang your hat on? This is starting to feel pretty “Tenuta-ish.”
Keith: So DeShone Kizer announced that DeShone Kizer would be the team’s starting quarterback. What do you make of the decision? And what do you think of BK having Kizer handle it?
JJ: That it was obvious? The way it was handled made sense.
On one hand, Kelly and Kizer talked, and it was clear Kizer was going to be the starter. Kizer was the only QB who talked to the media on Wednesday, so if he didn’t say anything about being the starter and delayed the announcement to Thursday, it would’ve raised far more questions than ND would’ve wanted.
But on the other hand, if Kelly came out Wednesday and briefly told us that Kizer was his starter, it’d be making a bigger deal out of it than I think anyone wants. It was clear Kizer outplayed Zaire and was going to be the starter, so don’t make a big deal out of it and let Kizer say it and move on.
Long story short: Having Kizer announce it was the path of least resistance and most common sense. I was fine with it.
KA: I couldn’t agree more. Nothing diffuses this like having Kizer talk about it. It also keeps all of us from picking around at BK, asking him how Malik took it, blah blah blah…
What do you think happens with Malik? I tend to think he’ll still get a series against Nevada in the first half. If only to get the bad taste out of his mouth.
JJ: It’s hard to not feel sorry for the kid, right? It’s a tough situation.
Keith: This feels pulled straight from Friday Night Lights or something.
JJ: He *should* be starting. He would’ve in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013, and probably should’ve in 2014, in retrospect. But then he wins the starting job, gets hurt, and a guy who’s turning into a first-round pick right before our eyes comes along and takes his spot.
Keith: But the flip of that is: Damn — DeShone Kizer is good.
JJ: He’s so good!
Keith: This is a guy who Brian Kelly praised on Signing Day for being: Tall. Big. And Tall — in that order.
JJ: Bruce Feldman had a good look back at his recruiting process over on Fox Sports this week. Kizer was about as unimpressive in the Elite 11 as possible because he wasn’t solely focused on being a QB then.
But Kizer talked about it Wednesday and said something interesting — that being a three-sport athlete in high school was the best thing that ever happened to him. Not only did he gain other mental/physical skills from playing basketball and baseball, but it delayed the information dump about being a QB until he was mature enough to handle it.
So instead of having all this stuff thrown at him at age 16, he’s getting it at age 19, 20, and understands it better and is mature enough to handle it now. And we’re seeing him develop into a guy who could be a legit Heisman contender and first-round pick.
Keith: Pete Carroll once told me that he preferred recruiting multi-sport athletes. He thought they could be molded much better at college.
JJ: I’ve had a number of people in MLB front offices and clubhouses tell me they like multi-sport athletes more, too. So what was your favorite play Kizer made Sunday night? The somersault TD throw to ESB, the 29-yard TD run, the scramble-and-throw TD to Torii Hunter or the teardrop to Adams?
Keith: The throw to Adams, for sure. And honestly, I don’t think he played his best game. And I think the receivers were a big part of the problem.
I thought the offense came unglued once Torii Hunter got hurt. And it was because they had three or four kids lined up out there that didn’t seem to have a clue as to what they were doing.
JJ: Agreed. I think it was on the possession after that ridiculous two-point blocked PAT score where Kizer threw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson on third down. Having Hunter there would’ve been huge for that drive.
Keith: What do you want to see this weekend?
JJ: First and foremost, Notre Dame’s defense has to get some positive momentum behind it. Nevada nearly lost to Cal Poly, which went 4-7 at FCS last year, so even though they’ve made back-to-back bowl games Brian Polian doesn’t quite bring the strongest side to South Bend.
This is a good opportunity for Notre Dame’s defense to get the bad taste out of its mouth from Texas and hold an opponent to, ideally, under 20 points. No explosive plays, make some third down stops, and hold them to a reasonable YPP average. Second, just for Kizer to continue to develop a rapport with the young WRs, especially assuming Hunter is out. Make sense? What about you?
Keith: Mostly good defense and a non-competitive game. I think this team can still achieve all of their goals. But they have to win. And they need to get themselves prepared for a tough run in the schedule. But defense first and foremost. And no broken plays.
JJ: Yep yep yep. Selfishly, I would like to not have six or seven re-writes of my game story, as was the case on Sunday.
Got a prediction? I’ll go first: Notre Dame 52, Nevada 24
Keith: I like that number. I think getting to the 50-point mark should be the goal — and to do it in regulation time.
Can I steal your score? That’s pretty solid.