Analysis: What's left for Notre Dame to play for after cratering at Michigan?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — So what’s left out there to relight the fire?

If it can be reignited, that is.

And that’s what Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly will soon find out along with how deep and potent his seven-captain leadership structure really is and how much equity he’s built in a 27-5 run that preceded Saturday night’s 45-14 cratering at Michigan.

If you’re talking postseason trajectory, the now-No. 16 Irish (5-2) would be headed to something called the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28 for a date with Big 12 surprise Baylor, which isn’t all that much more enticing than actual camping.

Not when you’re a program that started the season aspiring to close the gap on Clemson and Alabama and is now seemingly tasked with doing so on Minnesota and SMU.

“What you’re really talking about is: ‘Is that who you are?’ You don’t want a game like that (Michigan loss) to define who you are,” Kelly said Sunday of what comes after the Irish yielded the second-most points in the 44-game series history on defense and amassed the second-fewest total yards (180) of the Kelly Era.

“This is a team that has a lot of pride, has won a lot of football games. We’re coming back home. We have a 15-game win streak at home. So how do you really want to be defined? By the play that people saw on national television?”

The Irish start their November stretch run at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT NBC-TV), with a Virginia Tech team (5-2) that is surging offensively after a quarterback change.

“Short-term goals are really what’s most important right now,” Kelly continued. “It’s getting the physicality back. It’s getting a high level of execution and discipline and effort back with this team. And that will really be the focus this week.

“It won’t be (about the) playoffs and not being in the playoffs and bowl games and things (like that). That’s not really high-motivating factors. What’s a high-motivating factor is playing football the right way.”

What ND’s November looks like in its bottom line and as far as locker room chemistry and buy-in matters as much for 2020 as it does for what’s left of 2019.

Should the Irish have minimal defections (NFL Draft/unexpected transfers) between now and then, next year’s team theoretically is more equipped for a playoff run than this one ever was. That is if Kelly can refurbish the quarterback position.

Ian Book’s 17th career start not only produced the lowest pass-efficiency rating for him as a starter (69.7). It was the second-lowest in a starting performance of the Kelly Era (with a minimum of 20 attempts) and the 10th-lowest by an Irish starter since 1996.

So that would exclude the 18-attempt 62.8 rating Everett Golson flopped with against USC in the 2014 regular-season finale before being demoted and subsequently transferring to Florida State, but not 44.4 from DeShone Kizer in a 10-3 loss at N.C. State in 2016, played in the outer bands of Hurricane Matthew.

Book himself had to navigate through a steady downpour at Michigan Stadium, but his 8-for-25 performance for 73 yards and a TD was more a reflection of what Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown had dialed up for him.

None of the other three QBs who slogged through the sogginess Saturday night — backups Phil Jurkovec (ND) and Dylan McCaffrey (Michigan) and Wolverine starter Shea Patterson — had similarly suppressed stats.

On the flip side, an Irish rushing defense that seemed to be gaining its footing now rates 81st nationally, with top 10 rushing teams nationally Navy and Boston College still ahead.

For comparison’s sake, that’s nine spots lower than any of the three rush defenses of ousted coordinator Brian VanGorder’s units rated at season’s end (No. 72 all three season, 2014-16), which were the worst of the Kelly Era to date.

Michigan rolled to a shocking 303-47 edge in rushing yardage, that after coming into the game as the nation’s No. 80 team in rushing offense, the fifth-best rushing team of the seven ND has played this season.

“I think more than anything else, it’s controlling the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said of what went wrong at Michigan and what needs to go right this week. “We weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage, so it’s a physicality that we have to get back.

“We’ve had it. We did not have it in this game. And for us to improve our lot as it relates to winning football games, we have to be able to bring a physicality to our play and we’ll be working on that this week.

“I think physicality is a mindset, and our players have had it before. They know what it’s like. We’ve got to get them back to that identity.”

Personnel matters

Junior wide receiver Michael Young isn’t in the transfer portal yet, but could be by Monday.

Kelly said during his weekly Sunday teleconference that the coaching staff had a meeting scheduled with the part-time starter later in the day after he stayed home from the trip to Michigan this past weekend.

Sophomore Braden Lenzy made his first career start, Saturday night, in Young’s absence.

“I think that our feelings are we think Notre Dame’s a great place,” Kelly said Sunday, “but if Michael decides that he wants to move on, that’s what the transfer portal is for. He gets that opportunity and that option to pursue other opportunities.”

According to reports, Young’s plan is to redshirt this season, having played in only three games, get his ND degree in spring or summer, then transfer. Under that scenario, the 5-11, 190-pound St. Rose, La., product would have two seasons of eligibility at his new school, and no sitting-out period as a grad transfer.

Young, who missed the start of the season with a broken collarbone, has six catches for 21 yards this season.

• Kelly said Sunday he expected leading rusher Tony Jones Jr. to play Saturday against Virginia Tech, despite missing the second half of the Michigan game with a rib injury.

“His X-ray was clean,” Kelly said. “He’s got sore ribs, so obviously we’ll be careful with him this week.”

Jones had a season-low 14 rushing yards on eight carries against Michigan, one game after running for a career-high 176 on 25 carries in a 30-27 win over USC on Oct. 12.

Senior cornerback Shaun Crawford returned to the Irish lineup in a limited role Saturday in his first game since suffering a dislocated elbow Sept. 28 against Virginia.

The closest thing Crawford had to a stat, though, was a pass-interference penalty in the third quarter.

Senior cornerback Donte Vaughn made his first start of the season Saturday night and his first since starting four games as a freshman in 2016.

He recorded a tackle and a pass breakup.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly struck the right chord with this team after a 45-14 loss at Michigan on Oct. 26.

WHO: No. 16 Notre Dame (5-2) vs. Virginia Tech (5-2)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 17 1/2