Lesar: Notre Dame finds a fix in week of chaos

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Chaos is a kind way to describe what the past week was like for the Notre Dame football team.

A firing. A defensive overhaul. A 1-3 record. A crisis of confidence and execution.

Through it all, the Irish persevered.

Saturday’s 50-33 win over Syracuse happened the way the Irish were supposed to negotiate the bulk of this season.

• Score a bunch of points.

• Play enough defense to be respectable.

• Hope for the best.

Three of the first four games didn’t go that way. With defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder dismissed, has the ship now been righted?

Hardly. This was just a baby step. The Irish still gave up 33 points and 11 shy of half a thousand offensive yards.

But they won. They played better (especially on defense) in the second half. They smiled. And, they healed.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly had to have spent some sleepless nights early in the week. Not only having to fire a friend of nearly three decades, but he also had to hold his breath to see if his players were going to respond in a positive manner.

It took some time. But Kelly knew exactly what he was waiting to see.

When did he know his team, especially the defense, was heading in the right direction?

“Wednesday, after the second practice,” Kelly said. “Wednesday I felt that we were going to be going in the right direction.

“I wasn’t crazy about playing this (tempo Syracuse) offense, going against something a little bit different.

“I felt the morale was really good on Wednesday. That’s what I was looking to get back.”

As the top executive in the Notre Dame athletic department, athletic director Jack Swarbrick had a vested stake in the upheaval. Kelly said he came to Swarbrick with his decision to fire VanGorder, and Swarbrick gave the move his blessing.

“My message, publicly and privately, is the (football) program is in great shape,” Swarbrick said after the victory. “When there are big program problems, that’s harder to deal with. When you just have to start playing as well as you can, it’s a narrower search.

“‘How do we fix that?’

“My basic message (after the firing) was: 90 percent of what we’ve got here is not broken. I’m confident, you should be confident. Let’s focus on the few things that are (broken). They did this week.”

Swarbrick saw the action as a positive move that could give the final seven games of the season an opportunity to be salvaged. It was a drastic decision, but one that had to be done.

“Everybody wants to know… We’re 1-3, everybody wants to know you’re doing something,” Swarbrick said. “You just can’t say, ‘We’re not going to change anything.’ Regardless of friendships; regardless of how much someone may like somebody; the message you send when you make some changes (is) that you’re willing to do what you need to do to win.

“From a staff and player perspective, notwithstanding the personal sorrow about it because of their relationships, they’re glad to see you’re doing it. ‘OK, we’ll follow you’re direction. Let’s go.’”

Next week’s sell, as the Irish prepare for another ACC road test against North Carolina State, is going to be easier. There’s a blueprint now. Confidence issues may be somewhat resolved. Having double-digit new faces in the defensive rotation – guys who never saw the field with VanGorder in charge – will make it simple for many players, even the young ones, to stay engaged during practice.

Given the number of studs who finished their Notre Dame eligibility after last season, everyone knew there would be holes on the defense. That hasn’t changed.

How the Irish plan to fill those holes has been adjusted.

After a few days of wondering.

Notre Dame’s Cole Luke (36) tugs on shirt of Syracuse’s Ervin Philips (3) as Notre Dame’s Te'von Coney (4) makes the tackle during the Notre Dame-Syracuse NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN