Notre Dame

Notre Dame left to nitpick offense after another night of defensive issues

Notre Dame left to nitpick offense after another night of defensive issues

AUSTIN, Texas — Notre Dame scored 47 and 36 points in its last two regular season games. And it has two losses to show for it.

No matter how much DeShone Kizer will focus on the things he did wrong in Sunday’s 50-47 double overtime loss to Texas, it’s clear the Irish offense isn’t what’s keeping this team from contending for a College Football Playoff berth. It wasn’t in that 38-36 loss to Stanford last year that imploded whatever final four hopes Notre Dame had, too.

“There’s quite a few plays throughout this game that we’re going to remember, quite a few checks that I made that didn’t come out as successful as we wanted them to,” Kizer said. “This is a game where a lot of the small things are going to come back and haunt us.”

Kizer — who coach Brian Kelly in the immediate aftermath of things stopped short of saying would be the team’s No. 1 starter going forward — accounted for six touchdowns in front of a record crowd of 102,315 at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in a gripping, intense game. There of course are things he could’ve done better: For one, following Jarron Jones’ blocked PAT and Shaun Crawford’s miraculous return of it for a game-tying two-point score, the Irish offense stalled late in the fourth quarter. Failing to get into the end zone in the second overtime period was critical, too.

But the numbers don’t lie, and they point to another evening of defensive failures from Brian VanGorder’s unit as being the reason why Notre Dame heads back to South Bend with its first season-opening loss in five years.

Texas averaged six yards per play and snapped the ball 86 times in a masterful coaching job by first-year Longhorns offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert. The Longhorns threw jabs with freshman quarterback Shane Buechele running an up-tempo offense, then inserted hulking senior Tyrone Swoopes for a handful of haymakers.

The knockout punch came on a second-and-goal from the six in double overtime, when Swoopes evaded Jerry Tillery and plowed into the end zone for a game-winning touchdown. 

“We saw Swoopes was going to run the ball pretty much every time, so it’s getting guys to understand that,” linebacker James Onwualu said. 

[RELATED: Notre Dame frustrated by non-call after helmet-to-helmet hit on Torii Hunter Jr.]

But long before Swoopes battered Notre Dame into submission, a series of defensive breakdowns spotted Texas a 17-point lead early in the third quarter. Buechele powered four touchdown drives of 75 or more yards, with the last ending when Texas receiver John Burt burned Irish cornerback Nick Coleman for a 72-yard score. Burt had actually blown by Coleman in the first quarter, too, but dropped what would've been a touchdown toss from Buechele.

Texas also set up a touchdown with a 68-yard Buechele-to-Jerrod Heard completion in the first half. Those two explosive plays look even more crippling in the face of a three-point loss.

“We were in cover 3 when we got beat,” Kelly said. “We weren’t even man-to-man. The inability to play cover 3 and not be effective in that requires better coaching on our part. If we can’t line up and play cover 3 better, we’re not coaching very well.”

For Notre Dame to do what Oklahoma did last year — lose to Texas but still make the College Football Playoff — it’ll need its defense to take a major step forward (and, it should be noted, almost certainly roll with Kizer the rest of the way). And it may have to make that leap with two true freshmen starting at safety: Sixth-year graduate student Avery Sebastian (who whiffed on a key tackle that set up a Texas touchdown in the first half) suffered a shoulder stinger in overtime, while junior Drue Tranquill was benched for “personnel” reasons, Kelly said, in favor of Devin Studstill to begin the second half.

“I don’t think we had any mental errors,” Onwualu said. “I think we had to play a little tougher, had to play a little faster. I don’t think we played dumb tonight.

“… I don’t think we were struggling with execution. For the most part, I felt like we were playing the way we needed to play, other than we just needed to make a couple more plays.”

Notre Dame’s defense did have a spate of success that allowed Kizer & Co. to overcome that 17-point deficit and nearly pull off the biggest comeback win in the Kelly era. After Crawford picked off Buechele deep in Texas territory, the Longhorns ran a total of 10 plays for 19 yards and had to punt on three consecutive possessions.

Inserting Studstill for Tranquill helped, as did shifting Crawford to outside corner and throwing freshman Julian Love into the fire at nickel. Those were good, necessary adjustments. But with the game on the line, Texas was able to scythe 68 yards on eight plays for a go-ahead touchdown with 3:29 remaining (it was at this point that Jones blocked the PAT and Crawford dashed it back for an equalizing two-point score).

From a wider point of view, the defensive inconsistencies — despite a roster full of talented players — that’ve marred the first two years of the VanGorder era returned Sunday night. The best four teams in the country will combine special teams, offense and defense to form an identity and get a chance to play for a championship.

Notre Dame showed Sunday it has the offense — again, Kizer accounted for six touchdowns — and special teams to contend, but VanGorder’s defense has to be better. Because not only does Notre Dame need to win its next 11 games, it’ll have to do so in a way that impresses the College Football Playoff selection committee to have a shot at reaching its ultimate goal. Having Kizer and the offense try to bail out wins every week probably isn't the best path to that goal.

“They just know that they gotta continue do their job,” Kelly said. “We gotta coach better. We gotta be better as coaches. I think it starts with me and our staff coaching better, and then our players have got to do their job. I think if we do that, we’ve got some really key ingredients to this football team that as a head coach you really want.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.