Commentary: Why I was wrong about the 2016 Notre Dame football team

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

I was wrong.

There, I wrote it. There’s no defending those two little numbers. Go back to the 2016 ND Insider season preview magazine, and the prediction stares back at you, laughing. It is unwavering in its permanence — a sobering callback to a more promising, misleading time.

I wrote, just four months ago, that Notre Dame would finish 9-3 in the regular season.

The Irish are 3-6.

But why are they 3-6? And more to the point, why did expectations veer so wildly from this underwhelming, botch-riddled reality?

Here are the primary hypotheses that have been disproven in the last nine games.

Hypothesis: Notre Dame knows how to win close games.

Let’s begin with the finish. The Irish were 4-2 in one-score games in 2015. Zoom further out, and before this season, head coach Brian Kelly was 75-33-2 in games decided by seven points or less.

Note the words “before this season.” Because in 2016, Notre Dame is 1-6 in one-score games.

1-6. I didn’t see that coming.

Notre Dame’s six losses, in fact, have come by an average of 4.8 points. Make a play in a 37-37 tie with the ball and three minutes remaining at Texas, and maybe none of this happens. Maybe a young team comes all the way back against Michigan State. Maybe it protects early leads against Duke and Stanford. Maybe close games are met with confidence, not palpable dread.

Right now, “maybe” doesn’t matter.

Hypothesis: Notre Dame’s offensive identity will center on its ability to run the football.

In 2015, Notre Dame averaged 207.9 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry, which ranked eighth nationally. Running backs Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams all returned this fall.

Sure, the offensive line was replacing three of its starters. Sure, two of those standouts — Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin — were taken in the first two rounds of last spring’s NFL Draft. And yes, Mike McGlinchey was moving from the right side to the left. But considering offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s sterling reputation, I downplayed those particular details.

I shouldn’t have.

Six losses later, Notre Dame ranks 96th in rushing yards per game (149.4) and 81st in yards per carry (4.2). That mediocrity has shifted added pressure onto junior quarterback DeShone Kizer and a band of talented yet previously inexperienced wide receivers. It has also often left the Irish in less-than-ideal third down situations, which they’ve converted just 39.5 percent of the time.

Perhaps more glaring, the identity Kelly kept harping on last spring remains elusive, even in early November.

“Our identity is still kind of all over the place in terms of how fast we want to be,” Kizer said last week. “Are we a throw the ball 50 times a game team? Are we a 50/50 run-pass (team)? We’re still trying to figure that out.”

Hypothesis: Special teams will be one of Notre Dame’s strengths.

It should be, shouldn’t it? Placekicker Justin Yoon and punter Tyler Newsome are both far more than capable. Sophomore wide receiver C.J. Sanders, too, has three return touchdowns in less than two full seasons.

And yet, Notre Dame’s special teams have been disorganized at best and disastrous at worst.

In the home loss to Stanford, a Sanders fumble deep in Irish territory led to a Cardinal touchdown. A punt that bounced inadvertently off Miles Boykin’s leg against Michigan State led to a Spartan touchdown. A blocked punt against NC State yielded that game’s only touchdown. A 96-yard Duke kickoff return touchdown kicked off the Blue Devil scoring, sparking a baffling upset.

A special teams mistake has led directly to points in six of Notre Dame’s last seven games. And remember, all six Irish losses have come by eight points or less.

Through nine games, Notre Dame has missed field goals and extra points, sailed kickoffs out of bounds, had punts blocked, fumbled returns, allowed return touchdowns and surrendered on-side kicks.

Raise your hand if you have botched-special-teams bingo.

Hypothesis: Notre Dame’s offense will outweigh its mediocre defense.

Imagine a traditional two-sided scale.

On one tray, drop in the Notre Dame defense. It’s young, especially in the secondary. It’s inexperienced. In 2015, it was prone to the big play. There isn’t a pure pass rusher in sight.

On the other tray, add the Irish offense. It’s explosive. It’s run by Kizer, one of the country’s premier quarterbacks. It features — again, silly me — what looks like a dominant running game. Its receivers are young, but there’s talent across the board.

I thought, more often than not, the offense’s productivity would outweigh the defense’s significant growing pains. Notre Dame’s defense would surrender a frustrating pile of points, but Kizer and Co. would swoop in and save the day.

The reality, through nine games, is that Notre Dame’s defense ranks 114th nationally in sacks per game (1.2), 105th in turnover margin (-0.56) and 83rd in tackles for loss (5.6). The Irish allow opponents to score touchdowns in the red zone 65.6 percent of the time (92nd).

Notre Dame’s offense, on the other hand, has not been consistent enough to compensate for its defense (and certainly, its special teams). The Irish sit 68th in third down conversions, 62nd in total offense (408.7 yards per game) and 58th in scoring offense (29.9 points per game). They score touchdowns in the red zone 61.1 percent of the time (71st) and have piled up 21 plays of 30 yards or more (58th).

The offense has been unexpectedly average. The defense and special teams have been below average.

That’s bound to tip the scale.

Still, especially considering outside factors, I put my name next to 9-3. “Sure, this team isn’t as good as it was last season,” I reasoned, “but its schedule is so much easier.”

And despite Notre Dame’s record, it is. The three teams the Irish have beaten — Nevada, Syracuse and Miami — own an overall record of 12-15. Take away the Notre Dame win from their six other opponents, and those teams are a less than lackluster 20-27.

An average Notre Dame team, with this schedule, would already be bowl eligible. These Irish are worse than average.

I expected more, and you deserve better.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) reacts after turning the ball over on downs during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA