Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly declares all spots up for grabs following Duke loss

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As DeShone Kizer’s otherwise historic statistical day trailed off in a stunning whimper, the indignant chant that’s been a mantra on message boards, Twitter responses and Facebook rants the past several weeks took root in the Notre Dame student section on Saturday.

“Fire VanGorder.” Clap. Clap. Clap, clap, clap. “Fire VanGorder.” Clap, Clap. Clap, clap, clap — as the final 40 futile seconds ticked away after a fourth-and-three Kizer pass fluttered beyond Equanimeous St. Brown’s considerable reach.

Curiously, chronically critiqued ND defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder — whose defense bent, broke and regressed again — was about one of the few spared in Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s passionate postmortem of 20-point underdog Duke’s 38-35 unfrocking of the once-top 10-ranked Irish.

Kelly declared all 22 starting positions open, with the incumbents having to win them back in the days before the Irish (1-3) clash with offensively resurgent Syracuse (2-2) next Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

“We're not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said. “We'll have to re-evaluate what we're doing, who we're doing it with, and how we're doing it, all of those things.

“There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. And that's the quarterback, all the way down to, maybe, the long snapper's OK. We're not going to touch him. But everybody else is vulnerable.”

Kizer, though, is probably the player whose four-game performance to date most separates this team’s stunning free fall from the trajectory of deposed coach Charlie Weis’ 2007 thud year that ended 3-9.

The junior completed 22 of 37 passes against the Blue Devils (2-2) for a career-high 381 yards with two TDs and an interception. His 441 yards in total offense, which included ND’s longest rush of the day (23 yards), is the eighth-best total ever for an ND quarterback.

But after Duke rallied on a 64-yard pass from redshirt freshman Daniel Jones to Anthony Nash with 6:47 to tie the score at 35 and AJ Reed’s first made field goal in four tries this season pulled Duke ahead at the 1:24 mark, Kizer didn’t run out of time.

He ran out of magic.

Kizer was a combined 2-of-6 for 18 yards and an interception the last two Irish drives. The interception set up Reed’s 19-yard field goal, as Duke went to work on offense in Irish territory following the pick.

The St. Brown overthrow came at the Irish 44, with ND out of timeouts but seemingly plenty of time still to get into Justin Yoon’s field goal range.

“Poor execution. Poor, poor execution,” Kelly said. “I like what we called. I liked the looks that we had, and we did a poor job executing. And listen, this is not all on our players. We still have to coach better as well.”

Particularly on defense, where the Irish tend to get bullied and exposed when they’re not self-destructing. And they’re continually putting Kizer and the offense in a position to have to play almost the perfect game.

Which Saturday they didn’t.

Three turnovers, the aforementioned Kizer interception and two lost fumbles, helped fuel a Duke team that lost one of its best players in the first quarter — safety/kick returner DeVon Edwards — to what Duke coach David Cutcliffe believes will be revealed to be a season-ending knee injury.

But a defense that came in ranked no higher than 89th in the country out of 128 in any significant defensive category allowed a 200-plus rushing effort for the 13th time in VanGorder’s 30 games at ND and picked up 5.0 yards per carry.

And only a two-yard loss in kneeling down in victory formation on the game’s final play prevented the seventh game of 500 yards or more in total offense in VanGorder’s tenure — and third this season. This from a Duke offense that scored 27 points combined the past two weeks and couldn’t reach 400 yards in total offense against either one of its opponents.

As it was Jones, who came in with a modest pass-efficiency rating of 124.1 — accumulated against North Carolina Central, Wake Forest and Northwestern — recorded a 175.8 against the Irish. That translates to 29-of-42 for 290 yards and three touchdowns with one interception freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn snagged in the end zone.

And at one point in the second half, the Irish had to call a timeout to keep from getting a penalty for having too many defenders on the field.

All along the way missed tackles were sprinkled in with enough regularity to press Kelly about his coaching leadership on defense.

“Actually, that's probably the one area that I feel better about today,” he said. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today. I was pleased from that perspective.

“Obviously, we put our defense in a bad situation today, and they gave our offense a chance to win, quite frankly. There are things that I want to get better at defensively, there's no question. But that's the least of my concerns after today.”

His biggest concern? Passion. Or lack thereof.

“It looks like it's hard to play,” Kelly lamented. “Like we're pulling teeth. You're playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it's work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There's no fun, there's no enjoyment, there's no energy.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward, you better — I don't care what your résumé says. I don't care if you were a five-star (recruit), if you had a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”

The Irish did start out with the requisite sense of urgency that Kelly had talked about so much during the week leading up to the game. Kizer’s 15th career rushing TD, an eight-yard run, and a 44-yard scoring pass from Kizer to freshman Kevin Stepherson gave the Irish a 14-0 lead before the first quarter was half over.

But Duke answered the second score with a 96-yard kickoff return from Shaun Wilson, and the scorefest was on.

“I just think there’s certain points in the game and football throws you some curves, and we didn’t respond the right way to it,” Irish senior captain and left offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “And I think we have to stay up at all times, no matter what the circumstances are in the game. And we didn’t do an effective enough job of that.

“It’s been kind of our story. We let some things slip away from us throughout the football game, then have hot streaks. And we can’t be a streaky team.”

“Every guy has to look into the mirror,” ND junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said, “and say, ‘What can I bring to the table and how can I get better?’ ”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Sam Mustipher (53), left, and Torii Hunter Jr. (16) walk off the field after the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA