Notre Dame football analysis: Amid the white noise, sustained success is the real issue

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- It was not the lunatic fringe this time with the loudest, most-demoralized, most-agitated voices. The mainstream wanted — no, demanded — answers from the man who took Notre Dame football to the closest it has been to a national title in two decades just 10 months ago as to why game No. 49 of the coach Brian Kelly Era could reek so much of the three failed regimes that followed Lou Holtz’s largely hallowed 11-year run. In the light of day on Sunday, then 24th-ranked Notre Dame’s whimper into exile from this year’s national posteason big stage the night before, a 28-21 unceremonious loss to an underdog Pitt team (5-4) that had little on the line other than exacting spite, somehow stung more than when it was actually unfolding. “There are no big-picture things,” Kelly framed in a subdued, almost morose tone late Saturday night. “These are just fundamentals of the game of football that were not attended to in the manner that they needed to be.” The questions that chased him indirectly via social media and through a reporter’s inbox teeming with venom and venting seemed to reflect that. Why didn’t freshman running back Tarean Folston, last week’s seemingly emerging star, get more than four carries? What happened to Corey Robinson? Was it really smart to redshirt Malik Zaire? Why does ND go empty backfield every play inside the 20? Gone unaddressed was why did Notre Dame (7-3) run the ball only six plays (for 10 yards) after halftime after amassing 128 rushing yards on 18 carries (7.1 per carry) in the first half when it built a 14-7 lead? It even made sense from a defensive standpoint, given that arguably the best defensive player on the field Saturday night, Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, had been ejected for targeting seven seconds into the second quarter. On top of that, Kelly didn’t know how much he could push fellow starting D-linemen Louis Nix and Sheldon Day — one coming back from an extended injury, the other playing through a chronic one. So instead of keeping a depleted defense off the field by hogging the ball and owning the clock, the Irish coaching staff allowed Pitt a 18:45-to-11:15 time-of-possession advantage in the second half to do just the opposite. And the Irish were playing with the lead, or at least tied, until the second Tommy Rees interception of the fourth quarter and 34th of his career set up a five-yard Pitt scoring drive that produced the go-ahead TD at the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter. Kelly’s regularly scheduled Sunday postmortem with the media had already been scratched earlier, the reason given that the team’s late arrival from Pittsburgh would create a logistical challenge in making the 2 p.m. commitment stick. Late Saturday night, reading between the lines, Kelly’s biggest fear seemed to be something that you could argue none of the previous 22 college teams he has presided over as a head coach had ever done — do a deep November fade. “I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort, tonight, in November,” he said. The deeper angst among those who make an emotional investment in his program is bigger than that, bigger than Folston’s carries, bigger than the No. 105 ranking in red-zone offense and No. 117 rank in kickoff return coverage. It’s that Kelly has always been about program-building more than one shining moment, and that 2012 shouldn’t be an isolated flashback to nostalgic time but the first real footprint toward sustained success. Elite success. Then people look at this 2013 squad, flush with preseason All-Americans and currently garnering just two points worth of support in each of the AP and coaches polls, and wonder where all of this is really headed. Notre Dame football doesn’t do anything subtly — surges back to prominence or backward steps toward what Vanderbilt football used to be until recently. There is always some kind of magic or ethereal signpost to mark the occasion. Saturday night, for example, had the Irish found a way to salvage another style-points-free win, they would have surged past Michigan and back into first place in all-time winning percentage for FBS schools for the first time since the Willingham Era. And until Texas rallied and beat West Virginia in overtime while the Irish led in Pittsburgh, it appeared the Irish would pull even with the Longhorns for the No. 2 spot in all-time wins. Instead both opportunities are flushed for another day, or perhaps another year. The problem with looking ahead to 2014, though, is it brings with it far more uncertainty than the current incarnation, which could just as easily roll into a surprise season as it could one that looks progressively less like the 2012 run. The three biggest issues/questions that will ultimately sharpen that view are as follows. 1. Did Kelly do the right thing in going all-in with Tommy Rees as quarterback this season? From the middle of the 2010 season on, Rees has practiced and played well enough to never fall below No. 2 on the depth chart — a testament to his pluck, his cerebral side, his resilience and his ability to insulate himself from and transcend criticism from the outside world. But it has also clogged the depth chart when players who might have higher ceilings fermented rather than progressed, because there weren’t enough reps to spread around and test whether their seemingly big potential was real. In another offensive system, Rees’ skill set may translate to prettier statistics and more wins. In Kelly’s spread offense, however modified for Rees, he’s never been a comfortable fit. A complementary running game should have been a realistic goal in 2013, but the Irish — with continually blurred roles in the backfield — languish at No. 85. And thus, the best template to beat ND in attacking its offense remains pushing Rees from game manager to playmaker and trying to force mistakes. Not every team has the personnel to pull that off, but the bottom line is Rees is 11-0 as a starter in games where he commits zero turnovers and 10-7 in those where he has one or more. In all games, including relief appearances, Rees has 34 career interceptions. You could argue only a handful of those were benign. Six of those picks, including one Saturday night, were thrown in the opposing end zone as ND was going in for a score. Nineteen of them provided a window for the opposition to score, either via a pick-6 or a score on the ensuing offensive possession. Three times it provided the opportunity for the opposition to run out the clock for the victory. Beyond mistakes, there’s efficiency. The Irish were 49th in red-zone offense in 2010, with Dayne Crist starting the first nine games and Rees the final four. Their best showing since then has been 70th last season with first-year starter Everett Golson at the controls. They haven’t been higher than 88th in the two seasons (2011 and 2013) Rees has been the primary starter. But could part of the problem be play-calling or formation or overestimating what Rees’ skill set is capable of in tighter throwing windows with no real threat to actually run it himself (Rees has netted one yard in one planned run this season)? And by playing Rees almost exclusively in 2013, has that set Kelly up for failure in 2014 should something happen to Golson after he returns in January? There’s no guarantee Andrew Hendrix will return in 2014, and even if he does, will he be better than he’s shown in limited cameos?And if Kelly doesn’t think Hendrix is a viable plan B in 2014, shouldn’t Zaire have been No. 2 for some time now? 2. Will the defense continue backtracking next season to the point the offense will have to carry the load? If it does, Kelly better hope it’s a one-year trend, because even though the national media often gets goo-goo eyed over flashy offenses and constantly proclaims each passing year that this is the one when offense will matter more than defense, it’s never happened in the BCS Era (1998-2013). Freshman drop linebacker Jaylon Smith, who had a team-high 11 tackles Saturday night against Pitt, is the cornerstone of the future, but unless there’s a microwave function in ND’s player development machine, he may be part of a front-seven that’s short on difference-makers with the departure of both starting inside linebackers, Cat linebacker Prince Shembo, quite possible Tuitt and very likely every nose guard on the roster, including Nix. Which makes you wonder why there wasn’t a bigger push to sign nose guards in last year’s recruiting class with the momentum of a 12-0 regular season as a nice selling point. There’s still time for Kelly to finish with a flourish in this recruiting cycle to bolster the linebacker and defensive line corps, but more likely he’ll have to find internal solutions that make dramatic leaps in their level of play. 3. Will Kelly keep evolving as a coach? Some feel like any head coach Notre Dame hires should be immune from growing pains and blind spots, but coaching icons Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz will be the first to tell you there are adjustments you just can’t anticipate that color everything you do. To Kelly’s credit, he has rarely stubbornly dug his heals in for the long term over issues that really matter. To his discredit, not all the changes he has made are necessarily helping him win games and perceptual battles. The most perplexing X-and-O issues are the chronic coverage shenanigans on special teams and the fact that a guy who had been an offensive visionary has yet to produce a quarterback who has finished in the top 40 in passing efficiency or an offense that has finished in the top 40 in scoring while at ND. “Coaches are responsible for getting players to execute,” Kelly said late Saturday. “That’s what we’re hired to do.” And the great ones never wait until something’s broken to fix it. The ones who stay ahead of the curve, as Kelly did when he first brought the spread offense to Division II Grand Valley State two decades ago, believe that if it ain’t broke, break it and make it better than it ever has been. 574-235-6112 Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly reacts after talking to an official about a pass interference call during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER