Analysis: How Brian Kelly handles Notre Dame's perceptual issues matters

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND —In the swirl of angst and acrimony that now stalks Brian Kelly, a tweet from a player Notre Dame once coveted for its 2017 recruiting class joined the cyber-snipers Saturday night deriding ND’s waterlogged 10-3 loss at N.C. State earlier in the day.

“Brian KeLLLLy,” University of Michigan defensive end commit Corey Malone-Hatcher delivered to the Twitter-verse, the excess L’s an obvious reference to once top 10-ranked Notre Dame’s four losses in its first six games.

And the white noise — fair or unfair, grounded or outrageous — does matter for Kelly in his seventh year with the Irish and with a contract that takes him through 2021.

How he manages the drive-by character assassinations from some national media, how he shapes the perception of his 2-4 team, how he separates the real adversity from the contrived kind can make the difference between a regenerative season and a lost one, in 2016.

It’s OK to admit a mistake. On Sunday, Kelly did so, reframing the postgame critique of center Sam Mustipher. But Kelly can never feed the outside buzz to the point that it takes on a life of its own.

“Everybody has struggles,” Kelly said during his weekly Sunday tele-review. “Everybody goes through some tough times.

“You're going to have some adversity. If you cave to adversity, then how strong are you really? I'm looking for guys that are strong, guys that bounce back higher when there is some adversity. I'm not looking for guys that will crumble at the first sign of a little bit of adversity.

“Yeah, 2-4 is unacceptable. Not where we want to be. But I'm looking for guys that want to be a solution and not worry about what other people think or say.”

The Irish have misery in their company when Stanford visits Saturday night. The Cardinal (3-2) has lost back-to-back games to the Washington schools the past two weekends by a combined 86-22.

And it may have lost star running back Christian McCaffrey to an injury in the 42-16 waxing from unranked Washington State at home on Saturday night. The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up had 55 yards on eight carries and one catch for five yards before coming out of the game for good in the third quarter.

Coach David Shaw’s pre-emptive non-conclusion regarding McCaffrey’s status for Saturday night’s matchup at Notre Dame?

“Don’t ask the question. I don’t have any answers for you.” That according to Ray Hacke of the San Jose Mercury News.

Even with McCaffrey in all but one half of its first five games, the Cardinal ranks a staggering 100th in rushing offense, down from 19th last season. And Stanford is 122nd in total offense, with only UMass, Georgia State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Rutgers more inept on offense.

And its numbers aren’t skewed from having to play a game in the tentacles of a hurricane, as the Irish did Saturday.

Blame the ACC for keeping the game in its Saturday noon time slot instead of sliding it into Friday or delaying it until Sunday. That’s not to say Notre Dame wouldn’t have suffered its fourth loss anyway in more ideal weather conditions.

It is to say the players and fans deserved better.

Kelly’s critics will say Notre Dame deserved a better offensive game plan Saturday in Raleigh, and that’s not off-base.

Within a 25-mile span in soggy and wind-swept North Carolina, four of the nation’s top 11 rated players in passing efficiency were on display Saturday in two games — No. 6 Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina vs. No. 4 Jerod Evans of Virginia Tech at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, and No. 9 DeShone Kizer of Notre Dame vs. No. 11 Ryan Finley of N.C. State in Raleigh.

Only Trubisky of the four was facing a pass-efficiency defense ranked higher than 66th nationally.

In deplorable weather conditions, the four heretofore elite passers combined to go 34-of-88 for 215 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. That translates to a cumulative 59.8 pass-efficiency rating.

For comparison’s sake, the worst individual pass-efficiency rating among the 118 FBS quarterbacks with enough games and attempts to qualify is 87.7.

The common thread in the two games, besides lots of fumbles and suppressed offensive numbers, is that the teams that prevailed in the two games — N.C. State, 10-3, and Virginia Tech, 34-3 — were the teams that ran the ball more.

N.C. State rushed 51 times for a net 157, and the Irish 38 for 59. In Chapel Hill in a game that kicked off 3 ½ hours later, Virginia Tech ran 66 times for 189. North Carolina playing without injured star running back Elijah Hood, managed 73 yards on 29 carries.

As prolific and efficient as ND’s passing attack can be, there are times — dictated by weather, opponent strength or game circumstance — in which the Irish need to be able to exert their will in the running game.

On Sunday, Kelly was asked if a more run-oriented attack might have made more sense, in retrospect.

“I think it's easy to look back on things and wish I did this, wish I did that, could have done that,” he said. “You know, I've been doing this a long time. Probably got asked that question after every loss.

“Yeah, I want to run the ball more effectively in those situations, but I'm not going to second-guess what we do either. If we start doing that, then we're going down the wrong track.

“We're going to win/lose together, and I think the most important thing is when we get our opportunities, we can't have self-inflicted wounds. We had a number of those on Saturday.”

In the big picture, the most important thing Kelly can engender is Notre Dame improving as a team each week. It’s that simple, but given the percolating unrest outside of his bubble, it’s also that complicated.

Technically the Irish did improve where they needed to most on Saturday, defensively — with a leap from No. 106 to 75 in total defense, from 100 to 77 in scoring defense and 58 to 39 in third-down defense. And Kelly is convinced the improvement would have been evident even on a fast track.

“I mean, I could list probably 20, 25 different factors,” Kelly said. “Regardless of what the field looks like, are your guys doing the things they're asked to do within the structure of the defense? A lot of those things were happening on Saturday. We just need to continue to build on that.”

That building process, at some juncture, needs to include sacks. They do matter.

National title contenders Washington, Michigan and Alabama all rank in the top 5 in that category nationally. Miami’s defensive turnaround is punctuated by the Hurricanes ranking eighth. Two more title contenders, Clemson and Texas A&M are 11th and 15th, respectively.

The Irish, with three in six games, are 125th. Notre Dame is the only opponent not to record a sack against Michigan State, Texas or N.C. State this season and they tied for recording the fewest sacks against both Nevada and Duke. Only against Syracuse do the Irish not hold that distinction.

So part of ND’s requisite week-to-week improvement is getting players with the pass-rush skill set up to speed and on the field. Freshman Daelin Hayes, who forced a fumble Saturday, is a good place to start.

For those wondering about the five potential pass rushers with remaining college eligibility who have transferred from ND and/or wiggled out of their National Letters-of-Intent, Grant Blankenship, who was dismissed from the team this summer, is sitting out the 2016 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules after landing at Oklahoma.

And Bo Wallace left Arizona State’s program before the start of this season after redshirting last season as a freshman.

Of the remaining three — Eddie Vanderdoes (UCLA), Kolin Hill (Texas Tech) and Jhonny Williams (Toledo) — they have combined for 0.5 sacks. Vanderdoes, coming back from a torn ACL and meniscus in his knee, has the most tackles among the three with 15 in six games.

For Kelly, all that kind of stuff is outside the insulation he surrounds himself with as is, he claims, the scrutiny and criticism of college football’s active leader in wins.

“Doesn't affect me,” he said. “I have to make sure it doesn't affect the assistant coaches, doesn't affect the players.”

And his formula is to pull the focus toward football.

“Similar to what we did on the defensive side of the ball,” he said. “We're playing fast, playing with excitement, forcing turnovers. We're playing the game the way I want it to be played. I want tough guys on the field and gentlemen off the field.

“I think from an offensive standpoint maybe we have a little bit too much going on as well. We've got to clean some things up and get them playing faster and freer and not thinking too much.

“Going back to basics and being better at what you do than your opponent. If you do that, you got a good chance at winning.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said the outside noise doesn't bother him, but he has to make sure he doesn't bother his staff or players. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)