Examining the elements of Notre Dame's underwhelming season

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hard to squeeze any juice out of playing Army in San Antonio Saturday.

Circumstances aren’t necessarily ideal for a college football blockbuster when Notre Dame takes on the Black Knights in the Alamodome.

Not a whole lot to be gained by the Irish. If they win: Hey, it’s Army; even a 5-4 Army. If they lose: Hey, it’s Army! The degree of the free fall descends to a whole new level.

Not much difference between a period and an exclamation point.

With Virginia Tech and Southern Cal — which have turned out to be the best teams on Notre Dame’s schedule — still on the horizon, a bowl opportunity seems remote.

Concocting reasons for excitement and enthusiasm won’t be easy. Army plays hard. When Temple, Duke and Wake Forest are the big names on the schedule to date, getting up for Notre Dame — a very vulnerable Notre Dame — doesn’t take much work for the Black Knights.

Add into it Army’s triple-option offense, which is as much of a pain as Navy’s to prepare for and defend, and danger exists.

It could be a very difficult situation for the Irish.

One play

How’d the Irish get to this point?

Would it be too naïve — way too naïve — to suggest that one play impacted the entire season?

Maybe. But, then again, in the land of hypothetical, nobody’s wrong or right.

That pivotal play happened three quarters into the season opener at Texas. Trailing the Longhorns, 31-28, third-and-12 from the Texas 19, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer saw Torii Hunter, Jr., open in the end zone. The pass was there, but an obvious helmet-to-helmet collision between Hunter and Texas’ DeShon Elliott ended with the ball and Hunter motionless on the ground.

No flag. No targeting penalty. Surely, with the time spent getting Hunter back to consciousness, the replay official would be able to consider what happened and overrule the zebras on the field, per a new rule this season.

Nope. Nothing.

Instead, Justin Yoon lined up for a 36-yard field goal and had it blocked. The game ended up in overtime and the Longhorns prevailed.

In that hypothetical world, the penalty is called. Notre Dame has a first down inside the Texas 10-yard line. The Irish score a touchdown, or at the very least a field goal, and win in regulation.

They wallop Nevada, then go into Michigan State 2-0, rather than bleeding confidence at 1-1. Notre Dame beats the Spartans, who haven’t won since that game. A 3-0 Notre Dame team never loses to Duke.

Suddenly, everything is different. The sun is shining in South Bend. Birds are chirping. And it becomes apparent that this 3-6 nightmare is nothing but a dream.

Or something like that.

Payback?

In reality, this season eerily feels like payback for last season when it seemed Notre Dame had no business being 10-3 and contending ‘til the end for a playoff spot.

Injuries at many key positions, including quarterback and running back, piled up. Whenever one went down, another stepped up. Malik Zaire went down. Kizer became a star. Tarean Folston went down. Josh Adams became a star.

The two constants were a solid, productive, efficient offensive line, and a defense that had holes but enough stars to keep it from leaking too much.

Guys like Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and Joe Schmidt kept the season from unraveling – until the end. Stanford and Ohio State started the slide that has degenerated into this season’s free fall.

Those guys are gone and so are the medics who know how to stop the bleeding. Six losses have been by a combined 29 points. All six have come down to one possession on which the Irish have fallen short.

With three games to go, these Irish have already run the emotional gamut. They’ve responded to coach Brian Kelly’s plea for intensity and emotion. They’ve danced and gyrated on the sidelines. They’ve appeared crushed after losses. They’ve come out of the post-game locker room breathing fire after a loss.

After last week’s one-point disaster against Navy, there was nothing left. When Kelly and the designated players met the media, it was subdued.

Kelly was matter-of-fact when he feebly defended his decision to kick a fourth-quarter field goal and hope for a defensive stop that never happened. It was nowhere near the desperate and despondent attitude he had after Hurricane Matthew and North Carolina State foiled the Irish.

That was back when losses meant something; when there was still a season to be saved.

Now, it seems a matter of playing out the string.

Bulletproof

Earlier this season, former Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein reflected on his senior season, 1986, when the Irish had a similar problem of being unable to finish games. They lost a lot of close ones then, too, while finishing 5-6.

He pointed to a season-ending victory over Southern Cal, in which Notre Dame rallied from a double-digit deficit starting the fourth quarter. Beuerlein said coach Lou Holtz credited the success enjoyed throughout his regime with the impact that sub-.500 team had with establishing a foundation by winning that game.

That happened in Holtz’s first season. From 1988 through 1993, the Irish were all but bulletproof. They didn’t lose games they weren’t supposed to lose. And they won most of them that could have gone either way.

Seven years into the Kelly era, Notre Dame hasn’t been able to reach that point.

Even taking this awful season out of the equation, there have been some bad losses throughout. Navy and Tulsa in 2010, South Florida in ’11, Pittsburgh in ’13, and Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville in ’14. Last season's loss to Stanford was against a quality team with a weak defense. What made it a bad loss was the last-minute defensive collapse that started a string of seven of eight setbacks decided on the final possession.

The common thread joining impressive seasons 2012 and ’15 was a stout defense that often came to the rescue. The Irish currently don’t seem close to rekindling that magic, especially after the adversity suffered this season.

Picking up the pieces won’t be easy.

No changes

Earlier this week, Irish fans tried to make a big deal out of Kelly saying there won’t be any major changes to be made heading into the Army game.

Major changes? What can change? We’ve all seen the state of the quarterback position. The Irish don’t want to go down that road again, except in an emergency. Running back? It’s all hands on deck now. Offensive line? Why burn a freshman’s redshirt year? Receiver? Not many other options. Defense? They’re using everybody and their brother anyway.

The biggest change to be considered is at the top. There’s a raging current of Notre Dame fans who would like nothing better than to have Kelly, who just signed a six-year extension on his contract last January, be sent packing.

Before a coach is fired, it’s important for the brass to ask: Then who?

It’s silly to think recently-fired LSU coach Les Miles, who turned 63 Thursday, would be a reasonable fit at Notre Dame. The demands of the job have aged Kelly beyond his 55 years.

Demands from inside and out take a toll on a guy. Gerry Faust and Bob Davie proved college football head coaching is a must. Holtz proved there’s no substitute for tireless energy and the confidence of having been there before – along with embracing everything for which Notre Dame stands.

Don’t look for Kelly to step aside on his own volition anytime soon. Earlier this week, when asked about defensive recruiting without a coordinator in place, he said it didn’t matter because “I’m not going anywhere.”

Charlie Weis survived two mediocre seasons after 3-9. So … Why can’t Kelly?

Ironically, the Irish are returning to the site of Charlie’s last victory, a Shamrock Series decision over Washington State in 2009.

Maybe that’s something to get excited about.

Notre Dame’s Torii Hunter Jr. (16) is assisted by team trainers after an injury during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, at Darrell K. Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin, Texas. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN