Hansen: Of the many fixes that confront Notre Dame, solving the QB question tops the list

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Maybe Phil Jurkovec’s fourth-quarter insertion into the most unexpectedly ugly chapter of the Brian Kelly decade of Notre Dame football turns out to be nothing more than a curiosity.

Maybe it shouldn’t be.

Those are the kind of questions the Irish head coach needs to be asking himself after 19th-ranked Michigan made No. 8 Notre Dame look like it was still unwinding during a bye week, Saturday night at Michigan Stadium — except for the monsoon-like conditions.

“How about the elements? I think our guys had fun with it,” Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh offered after just his second win over a top 10 team in 12 tries at his alma mater, a 45-14 perpetual bullying of the Irish.

It wasn’t just that the margin swelled to 38 points at one juncture — which would have tied the most lopsided of the 25 ND losses in the series — before a late Jurkovec-to-Javon McKinley TD pass. It was how Michigan (6-2) went about deleting the Irish (5-2) from the College Football Playoff discussion and probably the New Year’s Six, too.

Primal football. Bo Schembechler football.

What that looked like statistically was a 303-to-47-yard mismatch in the rushing column. On that field what it looked like was Kelly’s first offensive line coach at ND, Ed Warinner, watching his troops push around what was purported to be ND’s elite position group, the defensive line.

It was the opposite of how Kelly had constructed this team and how he saw it evolving. Run the ball and stop the run, with physicality at every corner — was the translated version of his preseason mantra.

“That’s not the team I’ve seen play for the last few years,” said Kelly after a rare post-bye week loss (now 11-2 in games following a bye while at ND and 22-3 in his career). “We’ve got to figure out why. I can’t answer all of those kind of hypotheticals tonight as to why.

“We’ve got a 2 ½-hour bus ride. I told them, ‘You’ve got to start thinking about it.’ And then we’ll have some individual meetings. We’ll have some unit meetings. We’ll figure out what went wrong here and we’ll fix it.”

Maybe the most perplexing of those potential fixes is Book. Jurkovec took a couple of steps and tripped for a 12-yard loss the first time he touched the ball, just inside the 12-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

Even at that juncture, the sophomore was having arguably a better night than senior and second-year starter Book. After recording the second-lowest pass-efficiency rating of his career (106.25) in ND’s most recent game, a pre-bye week 30-27 survival of USC on Oct. 12, Book hit a new career low Saturday night (69.7).

In concocting an 8-of-25 night for 73 yards and a TD to tight end Cole Kmet, Book missed eight straight passes at one juncture.

Kelly purported that Jurkovec’s fourth-quarter duty was a reflection of the score and not what Book wasn’t doing.

For his part. Jurkovec was 3-of-4 for 60 yards and the TD to McKinley with 3:45 left, while rushing for a net of two yards on five carries.

To put that into perspective, he wasn’t that far removed from being ND’s leading rusher — that being sophomore Jahmir Smith, with 15 yards on five carries. Michigan’s leading rusher was Hassan Haskins, with 149 on 20.

On a night when all kind of online demands and suggestions deluged what Notre Dame’s next big-picture step should look like — including calls to purge a coach who’s 27-6 in his last 2 ½ seasons, Twitter actually had its way on getting a peek at ND’s highest-pedigreed QB prospect on the roster.

Whether it actually leads to something more over the balance of this season or even in a 2020 run that holds at least the promise of being more 2018-ish than what happened Saturday night, the narrative that Kelly quarterbacks regress in their second season as a starter is something the coach must get to the bottom of.

“We’re all accountable,” Kelly said of Book’s performance. “I’ve got watch the film really and figure out, ‘Did he get flushed on the play? Can he spend more time in the pocket?’ There’s a myriad of different scenarios that we’re going to have to vet out and find out where can we get better?

“Because we have to get better (at the QB position) — clearly — after tonight. So can Ian get better? No doubt he can get better.”

Just as pointed and relevant, can Brian Kelly get better? His post-2016 reinvention still looks like a sustainable model long term, as long as Saturday night in Ann Arbor becomes an outlier. But he should be immune to such outliers at this point.

At least this apocalyptic looking.

“Fixing is such a general word that kind of takes on a connotation that there’s a lot of things broken,” Kelly said after using the word earlier unprompted.

“We feel like this was a game that our team was not who they were. I think what we have to find out is why haven’t they played at the level that they’ve played for the last 2 1/2 years, but that might be more on me.

“It might be more on my preparation. A lot might be in our game plan. So fixing sometimes sounds like we’ve got to change the way we run our offense or defense or personnel.

“And I would really be cautious in making those kinds of assumptions. It might be as simple as our preparation wasn’t what it needed to be over these last two weeks.”

And if it’s not that simple, Kelly needs to own it and make sure this is the last time his Irish fall so convincingly and helpless off the big stage.

Ever.

Notre Dame’s Phil Jurkovec (15) gets sacked by Michigan’s Cameron McGrone (44) during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.