Notre Dame football: These Irish a work in progress


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- The surreality of Notre Dame’s 41-30 identity-challenging loss to Michigan dragged into the game’s aftermath, where an Ann Arbor cop directing pedestrians on the corner of Stadium Drive and South Main was seemingly honing her stand-up comedy skills.

At least this time she didn’t goad the lingering Wolverine fans to boo the Irish equipment truck as it rolled by, as she did in 2011.

Earlier, the weirdness was carried by Michigan coach Brady Hoke, who met a question about wide receiver Jeremy Gallon’s Heisman-esque night (8 receptions, 184 yards, 3 TDs) by gushing about what a fine blocker the 5-foot-8, 184-pound senior supposedly is.

Actually, ND head football coach Brian Kelly, whose team tumbled seven spots in the latest AP poll to 21 on Sunday and likely a bit more perceptually, probably would have preferred Gallon to block a little more and puncture his defense a lot less.

That Kelly was even in a position to have to pander wishful thinking at all in framing Notre Dame’s defense two games into a still question-pocked season was the clincher when it came to the surreal at Michigan Stadium. Like Marshall Mathers/Brent Musburger freaky.

The hiccups against Temple in the Aug. 31 opener were forgiven as products of an intentionally vanilla game plan, but Saturday night the Irish defense brought all the bells and whistles and still took a step backward before the largest crowd (115,109) in college football history.

Kelly pushed the notion Saturday night and again Sunday that it was his offense’s turn to rescue a close game from ending up in the loss column, and championship teams do occasionally walk down that path a game or two a year. But teams that consistently get to the BCS plateau and win at that level persistently bring defense in large doses to the equation.

That’s what made Notre Dame’s charge to the BCS National Championship Game last season so convincing, even with an unfinished offense.

Only one of the 15 national champions in the soon-to-be-euthanized BCS Era didn’t carry a national ranking in total defense of at least 25th. That was the 2010 Cam Newton-led Auburn team, which was at least stout against the run (ninth in rushing defense).

It’s tough to tell what this Notre Dame defense is good at yet.

What it is decidedly not good at is dealing with dual-threat quarterbacks.

Yes, the secondary regressed, was torched by Gallon on non-blocking downs and was flagged for three pass-interference penalties — all on third down and all inside the Irish 25-yard line.

They also surrendered the longest pass play (61 yards to Gallon) since a 64-yarder to none other than Gallon two years ago during ND’s fourth-quarter defensive meltdown in none other than Ann Arbor, Mich.

But Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner (four passing TDs to go with his scoring run) was able to largely out-leverage the X’s and O’s Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco was trying to throw at the Wolverine offense, and that was the start of the secondary’s — and everyone else’s — problems. What’s more, there were stretches of that on a smaller scale from Temple QB Connor Reilly in his first collegiate start in week one.

“We've got to clean some things up fundamentally,” Kelly said. “I like our players, and we've just got to continue to develop who we are. I think I would feel a lot differently, moving forward, if I didn't feel like we had the players necessary to have a good defense and the level of the defense that we're going to need with the schedule that we're going to play.”

Here’s why that can’t be a protracted process.

Through two games opposing quarterbacks Reilly and Gardner have combined to rush for 147 yards on 25 carries for a 5.9-yard average with one touchdown and a long run of 35. In 13 games last season combined, the Irish defense allowed starting quarterbacks and key backups less than half that total — 66 yards on 101 carries (0.7 average) with a long of 20 yards and a singular touchdown by Oklahoma goal-line specialist Blake “Belldozer” Bell.

That total includes Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Navy’s Trey Miller, though the Irish didn’t face a preponderance of run/pass threats beyond them.

They do this season.

Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight has already rushed for 145 yards and a 7.2 average. BYU’s Taysom Hill in two games has already surpassed exiled-ND quarterback Everett Golson’s 2012 season rushing total, with 301 yards on 28 carries with four touchdowns in games against Virginia and Texas.

His performance Saturday in an upset flogging of previously ranked Texas helped lead to Longhorn defensive coordinator Manny Diaz being purged from the staff on Sunday.

There’s Navy’s Keenan Reynolds ahead too and Air Force’s gaggle of option runners., though they’re perhaps not as much dual threats as capable runners. Arizona State’s Taylor Kelly and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan are mobile enough to expose the Irish too two-dimensionally.

The good news is the next two QBs on the Irish dance card — Purdue’s Rob Henry Saturday night in West Lafayette, Ind., and presumably Andrew Maxwell of offensively challenged Michigan State on Sept. 21 — have combined for 13 yards on 15 carries with a long run of seven.

The bad news is what Houston did to Temple’s Reilly a week after he looked like an emerging star — at least on the American Athletic Conference level. A team that ranked 115th out of 120 FBS teams last season in total defense, the Cougars held Reilly to minus-seven yards on 11 carries in a 22-13 Houston road win.

Providing much of the Houston punch offensively, by the way, was former Irish recruit Deontay Greenberry, a sophomore wide receiver who caught 14 passed for 165 yards against the Owls.

Back to defense, the Cougars yielded an even 300 total yards and 100 rushing yards, compared to the 362 and 134, respectively, the Owls amassed against the Irish defense.

“We've got new players,” Kelly said. “We've lost some talented players for sure, but I think we've got some guys that are learning some new roles.”

But Notre Dame also has two preseason All-Americans in nose guard Louis Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt, a much more experienced and deep secondary, one of the most talented freshmen in the nation in outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and more speed overall than most, if not all, post-Lou Holtz Era defenses at ND.

So what gives?

The pieces don’t fit together as perfectly yet as they did last year. But chemistry and cohesion shouldn’t have walked out the door when All-America middle linebacker Manti Te’o did. If anything he worked to create a culture that should have carried over to this season.

So why hasn’t it?

Perhaps ND’s preseason message of distancing itself from last season was taken a little too literally. Maybe the past should have been embraced, at least on the defensive side.

Now in the present, there needs to be a strong voice. A new voice.

That’s not to say that schematic tweaks, and perhaps some personnel shuffling, aren’t in order. But the beauty of last year’s defense was that the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts. That’s what leadership looks like.

“Well, I think it's got to come, you know, from the players,” Kelly assessed correctly Sunday. “Our coaches are going to continue to lead, but our players have to continue to mature and grow.

“We're only two weeks into this thing. So our expectation is that these guys that are now the starters that had not started before and those guys that have been playing a lot, have got to take hold and ownership in this defense. I think that's going to happen.

“It's a gradual process, but if we're better in November than we are right now, I'll be happy.”

Flash back to the constant stream of university-produced videos back in August depicting “team-building” activities at Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind. But chemistry can’t be forced or choreographed, and adversity either disperses it or stirs it into something special.

The real team building, away from the cameras and out of the public eye, if ever, begins now.


•Steve Elmer saw his first collegiate action Saturday night, courtesy of Chris Watt’s helmet. When Watt’s helmet came off, Elmer slid into his left guard spot for a couple of plays. He becomes the 11th member of ND’s 23-man freshman class to see game action this season.

A total of 14 freshmen made the travel squad to Michigan.

•ND’s leading receiver, senior TJ Jones, played through a mild shoulder sprain Saturday night. Kelly, though, said Jones looked good Sunday and is expected to practice Tuesday when the Irish being preparations for Purdue.

“On the road, you've got to have those guys step up and play for you,” Kelly said of Jones, who had a career high nine catches for 94 yards and a TD. “We've got a lot of guys that play for Notre Dame that have had to go in, in similar circumstances and tough it out like that. But it was certainly what you expect from a TJ Jones.”

•Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees’ 314-yard passing night vaulted him past Jarious Jackson and into sixth place on ND’s all-time passing yardage list with 5,073.

Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt recorded the first interception of his career Saturday night, but also went without recording a tackle for the first time since illness truncated a start against Maryland in November of his freshman year.

•Why is the Notre Dame-Purdue game in prime time on ABC Saturday night? Two reasons — because CBS has the rights to Texas A&M-Alabama (3:30 p.m. EDT) and ESPN's Notre Dame-Michigan telecast averaged a 5.6 overnight rating, making it the highest-rated college football game of the weekend.

Notre Dame's Bennett Jackson, right, tries to bring down Michigan's Jeremy Gallon during the Notre Dame vs. Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN