Lesar: Brian Kelly stays the course with Notre Dame defense

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

There’s a distinct line between a sense of urgency and panic.

Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly was cognizant of the separation Monday afternoon. He kept his head about him despite the 50-47 double-overtime Irish loss to Texas Sunday night.

Only in America can a defensive coordinator have his unit yield half a hundred points and half a thousand yards and still have a seat reserved on the plane home, as long as he has the public support of his boss.

What a great country.

“This narrative about, it's all the defense's fault is, just Monday morning quarterbacking,” Kelly said … Monday afternoon. “If we get a better punt, if we flip field position, if we make a catch or a throw we're talking about some different things.”

Kelly went on to remind anyone listening on the teleconference – even the guy who kicked it off by asking, “How are you doing?” To which Kelly replied, “Super.” – about a bunch of young starters on his defense and the 17-point comeback, which included holding the Longhorns scoreless for 20 minutes.

Still … Bottom line, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has to be getting a little heat, right? Would Kelly consider taking more of an active role in the defense?

“Everything that we do is collaborative,” Kelly said of he and VanGorder. “At the end of the day the defensive structure and what we're doing is run through me.

“Anything that we do from a defensive standpoint has my signature on it. I'm in the meetings. Brian and I are in communication, so anything more would be me taking on a role in more of a play calling and I'm not in that role, and I have somebody that can do that quite well.”

OK, he’s obviously resisting the temptation to panic – at least in public.

In terms of that sense of urgency, a problem that was obvious (the defense) long before fall camp began, has reached crisis level; college football’s version of DEFCON 5.

Fix it now or brace for a free-fall.

Remember, in six years under Kelly, Notre Dame is 3-3 in the second game of the season – and two of those wins were last-minute escapes from lower-caliber foes like Virginia (2015) and Purdue (2012).

Even though Nevada barely escaped from Cal Poly, an FCS team, in overtime last Friday, the Wolf Pack has a potent running game.

The sieve that is the Irish defense, heading into a short week, didn’t have much to hang its helmet on from the Texas game.

A front that was thought to be suspect against the run didn’t disappoint (the Irish allowed 237 yards rushing). An undermanned secondary, prone to problems with the deep ball, was ripe for the picking (280 yards).

“We were prepared,” said sophomore cornerback Shaun Crawford, who had an interception that set up a TD. “We knew they were going to take shots with their receivers. I guess we just underestimated their speed.

“The second half, we made adjustments. We played off instead of pressing.”

Speed, probably, shouldn’t be that tough to gauge, should it? Get beat once and adjust. Don’t wait for seven pass completions of double-digit yards, an interference call, and another deep ball that was dropped in the open field to finally make that adjustment.

Leave it to captain Isaac Rochell, a defensive end, to make some post-game lemonade out of the lemon the Irish served up.

“We were resilient,” said Rochell. “It says a lot about our team moving forward. We made a decision we weren’t going to let it keep happening.

“Our team put down an identity even though we took a loss. We were down and did a great job coming back.”

Texas’ hurry-up offense had a staggering 86 plays, including the two periods of bonus football. Notre Dame had 76 offensive snaps.

“The biggest thing with tempo is that you’ve gotta get them to third down and then slow them down,” Rochell said. “It was tough.”

Even when they did get to third down, the Longhorns weren’t bad (8 of 18).

The numbers are bad enough to cause a panic.

Kelly’s staying level-headed – for now.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly refuses to put Sunday's loss at Texas squarely on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

• No. 10 NOTRE DAME (0-1) vs. Nevada (1-0).

WHEN: Saturday at 3:43 p.m.

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795).


RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 27.