Analysis: Finding the fixable amidst the Notre Dame football despair

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The overwhelming sentiment from the tar-and-feather crowd late Saturday night and into Sunday predictably was the inclination to send Brian Kelly to charm school.

It edged out oblivion.

The Notre Dame head football coach’s deportment admittedly crumbled at the end of his postgame press conference, revisiting the whys and wherefores of a 20-19 Irish loss to then-15th-ranked but underdog Georgia, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

The unwarranted, 40-second more-give-than-take, with a reporter asking what seemed like a legitimate and benign line of questioning, makes for convenient bridges into tired narratives.

Hot seat or not. Miscast or misunderstood. Reinvented or regurgitated.

They all camouflage what really matters now: Can what went wrong on the field Saturday night be fixed?

Strangely, both the culprit stirring the question and the answer start with the ND offensive line, which may have taken more of a hit to its rep on Saturday night than Kelly did.

A Saturday date at Boston College (1-1) — with a revised kickoff time, no less (3:30 p.m. EDT; ESPN) — may not provide definitive answers. The Eagles’ defense is uncharacteristically average through a narrow win over Northern Illinois and a blowout loss to Wake Forest (54th in total defense nationally).

Its offense is characteristically challenged (108th) and recently lost captain and starting center Jon Baker to a season-ending knee injury.

The Georgia defense helped make Notre Dame’s promising offense look downright Boston College-esque Saturday night, with Bulldog defensive penalties (92 yards’ worth) providing roughly a third of what the Irish generated on their own.

Take away the hurricane game last season at N.C. State, a soggy 10-3 Irish loss, and the 265 total yards and the 3.4 yards per play put up against the Bulldogs were both the fewest by an ND offense since a 2013 game against Michigan State (220 and 3.3). The 55 yards, inclusive of the hurricane game, were the fewest since a 2014 game with Michigan.

Strangely, the Irish won both of those games — and had a chance to win Saturday night’s too. The Notre Dame defense on Saturday night surprisingly provided that chance. Over and over.

For context when it comes to the offensive line, Notre Dame (1-1) entered the season with 10 opponents that featured a top 40 ranking in total defense last year, more than any other FBS team would face in 2017. Nine opponents had top 40 run defenses. Six of the 12 were in the top 25 in sacks.

Georgia, 16th in total defense last season, has the experience/speed/athleticism quotient to be the best unit the Irish face all season — maybe on either side of the ball — though the Miami Hurricanes’ defensive front could evolve in a parallel fashion and USC’s offense is rolling up yards and points as if it was playing an FCS schedule.

Notre Dame’s offensive line this season was supposed to be its antidote — to defenses like Georgia’s, to first-year starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s learning curve, to a finesse-first offensive personality Kelly has been trying to shed virtually his entire stay in South Bend.

“What we have to do better is we have to sustain blocks and be more consistent in pass protection,” Kelly said Sunday. “What we learned is we've got to, obviously, go back and be better coaching the fundamentals, and we've got to be better at our techniques.

“I'd like to sit here and tell you that we've arrived, but we haven't. We've just got to keep working. Our kids are committed to it, and we'll get back at it Monday, and we'll get better because of this game.”

The signature moment Saturday night was outside linebacker Davin Bellamy looping past consensus future first-round draft pick, grad senior left tackle Mike McGlinchey, and blindsiding Wimbush into a fumble, smothered by Georgia outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter.

That left Georgia true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm only having to execute the knee-down victory formation over the game’s final 87 seconds.

“It was just a singular, one guy coming off the edge against Mike,” Kelly said, “and Mike set, and he used a quick arm over and just flat out beating him on a pass rush.

“You know, that's your best player. That's a guy that's going to be playing in the NFL. Again, their guy was better on that play. That's why, when we get in that moment, our guys have to believe that their training has put them in a position to obviously make that block and be there for him.”

Of all the connections Kelly’s critics have tried to construct as alarming patterns, the one that seems to be the most baffling and pertinent at the same time are dips by seemingly talented and cohesive Irish offensive lines in big games.

Take Clemson in 2015. Temple in 2015. Take your pick in 2016.

Pro scouts sing the praises of the individual pieces. They laud offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

Wimbush’s process of syncing up with the line, with reads, with protections plays a part in the choppiness of offensive line progress.

But this is college football. Quarterbacks are constantly cycling in and out. And Wimbush may be the most gifted Kelly has ever had anywhere.

You have to wonder at this point if there’s a schematic or philosophical flaw that’s impeding the evolution of the line into the bullying, dominant snapshot it flashed against Temple on Sept. 2.

The same applies with the disappearance of junior running back Dexter Williams from Saturday night’s game plan. Backup QB Ian Book, who has been on the field for exactly one play in his career, actually had more carries against Georgia (1) than did the running back from Florida with the great attitude and the quick first step (0).

Kelly intimated Sunday that Williams’ lack of mastery of pass protections was a contributor. But if that’s the case three years into his college career, who’s fault is that?

One of the under-the-radar hires this offseason was the staff addition of Bill Rees, quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees’ father.

Prior to arriving at Notre Dame, the elder Rees worked in NFL scouting for 16 years. And he worked recently for Northwestern and Wake Forest and spent 15 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for UCLA.

He’s Notre Dame’s director of scouting, which touches a lot of areas.

Bill Rees is another set of eyes on prospects in the evaluation process in recruiting, but he’s also in position to provide feedback in Notre Dame’s self-scouting process.

Perhaps a more consistent rotation of core receivers outside of leading receiver Equanimeous St. Brown would help the offense as well. But the offensive line is where this offense will either ignite or implode, moving forward.

“We're really close to being the kind of football team that can play with anybody,” Kelly said Saturday night. “We're short on a couple things today. We'll shore them up and we'll get back at it next week, and I like my football team.”

Georgia matched its strength, defensive line, against what was purported to be Notre Dame's, it's offense line, during the Bulldogs' road win, 20-19, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)