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.
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.”