Seven games into the season: What does Notre Dame do well?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Late in fall camp, long before the Notre Dame football team’s ill-conceived quarterback timeshare was resolved, the team’s offensive identity was questioned.

No big deal, everybody said at the time. Whether it was head coach Brian Kelly, or any of his assistants or players, nobody seemed to know. But, then again, nobody seemed to care much, either. Identities in college football just sorta happen, was the prevailing sentiment.

In 2012, the Irish defense dictated the team’s identity. The offense did just enough to win 12 games. Last year, despite a slew of injuries, a run game that averaged 208 yards was an area on which Notre Dame could depend through 10 victories.

Seven games into this season, the Irish don’t do anything particularly well on offense or defense. They average 150 rushing yards, 264 passing (about the same as last year), give up 400 yards of total offense and only have six sacks all season — one by a defensive lineman.

It’s way beyond sense of urgency time.

That’s why trying to figure out how Saturday’s game with Miami will shake out is so difficult.

Always effective

An identity boils down to something that, no matter what else happens, will always be effective. At crunch time, this particular area will be successful — no matter what.

That’s why Notre Dame is 2-5 right now. Through seven games, there’s nothing the Irish do well enough to confidently turn to with the game on the line.

That’s why they have had a chance to win or tie each of their five losses on a final drive and have come up empty each time.

“Our identity is that we have athletes all the way across the board,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “We have three great running backs. We have receiver depth. We have a great offensive line who is really figuring it out the last couple of weeks.

“With that, it's time to spread the ball around and keep pushing forward. I believe that our offense is one of the best in the country, no matter what statistics say. All it takes is for us to buy into that, have the confidence to do what we do, and make sure that we're out there executing the game plan.

“The only thing that's stopping us these last seven games is ourselves. We're putting ourselves in the position to win the game in the fourth quarter each game, and lack of execution is the only thing that's stopped us from winning those.

“If we can buy in, be focused, be disciplined, continue to do what we do and do it well, we're going to be fine; we're going to win some games at the end of this season.”

Kizer's conflict

It’s one thing for Kizer to talk about confidence. It’s something totally different for him to actually have it.

For starters, forget the loss to North Carolina State. The weather conditions were so deplorable no evaluation from that game would be legitimate.

Conversely, the Stanford game was played in perfect weather. A second-half meltdown fueled by two interceptions (one a pick-six) led to Kizer being yanked. Malik Zaire was inserted for three very uneventful series before Kizer was put back in for the last drive to save the game.

It failed miserably.

For the first time all season, Kizer failed to answer the post-game bell. Neither he nor Zaire were made available to the media after the Stanford game, pretty rare these days.

“The only feeling you have right there is anger,” Kizer said the other day. “It was a rough game for me. Obviously, very interesting getting benched at one point in the game. A lot of highs and lows.”

Think back to who Kizer was earlier in the season. Larger than life, and that’s pretty big for a guy 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Just about every guy who calls himself an NFL Draft analyst had Kizer ticketed as a first-rounder, some even the No. 1 pick overall.

Don’t hear that sort of buzz around him now. Maybe it’s just the fickleness that comes with a couple losses, or maybe some flaws have been manifested.

“The development of a quarterback like DeShone, it's happening every day,” said Kelly. “It happens with quarterbacks in the NFL still. He's in that learning curve. When I say 'learning curve' I don't mean: ‘What's that coverage?’ I mean fundamentals, mechanics. All those things are happening every day.

“I'm not worried that he's putting too much pressure on himself. I just want him to not get frustrated and continue to work and improve on the things that he can control.”

The only way to effectively improve is to take every snap with a swagger and a certainty that, whatever play is called, it’s going to work. The only way that happens is when a player goes into a game brimming with confidence.

Looking ahead

How does Kizer pull any semblance of confidence out of anything that happened in the last two games?

“You look for (confidence),” Kizer said. “You don't sit there. There are so many (reasons) for us to go out and prove ourselves and do whatever we're supposed to do to win games. To be looking in the rearview mirror would be bad on my part.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs. We're off to a rough start. We're getting to the back half of the season. We have nothing but opportunities in front of us. Why not focus on opportunities? Figure out what I can do to better myself as a teammate, as a player, and do whatever I can to focus in on what's in front of me.

“There's been a lot going on the last two months. It's a learning experience that I'll be able to build from. But for now, it's all about what can we do to beat Miami; what can I do to be a better player today; what can I do to be a better teammate today; to help Notre Dame go out and try to win.”

That’s a noble challenge, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the question: How can he make the hangover of lingering doubts go away in time to deal with an aggressive defense that Miami will bring to town?

How does one bad play keep from snowballing into an avalanche?

This is a Hurricane, at least on defense, almost as potent as the one the Irish experienced in Raleigh. Miami leads the country in tackles for loss and is one of the best in sacks. The secondary is somewhere between very good and elite. Couple that with a Notre Dame offensive line that is still finding its way into legitimacy and the recipe is there for Kizer to have a painful afternoon.

“You've got to match their intensity,” Kizer said of ND’s plan to deal with the defensive bluster. “They're a bunch of athletes out there who are all fast. Every last person out there is a big-play type of player.

“This game obviously has a little bit of history to it with the Catholics vs. Convicts, and we understand that they're in a position where they're… We're looking to get a win ourselves.

“If we can match their intensity, execute the game plan that's set out for us to do, then you can become very successful against a team that's out there with a bunch of athletes like Miami has.

“We all completely understand in order to go out and be successful against a defense like that, we have to come out with that same aggressiveness; that same confidence in ourselves to be the better player and to beat the guy in front of you. Intensity is going to be everything.”

Again, it’s almost impossible to be confident without being able to do something that will always work. On the flip side, it’s difficult to do something that will always work without being confident.

That’s why Notre Dame is 2-5.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) reacts after a 10-17 Notre Dame loss to Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, October 15, 2016 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ