How. Did. We. Get. Here.
SERIOUSLY--how do you march your way up to the Top 10 and then bottom
out so badly that you lose in your last game by the LARGEST MARGIN
EVER? I thought we were done with defensive statistics like this when
Charlie Weis left and we got back to actually coaching fundamentals.
Although based on the tackling in the last few games, apparently we've
lost sight of fundamentals this season as well.
Since mid-season, our team has become a textbook illustration of Murphy's Law.
And a perfectly good season has rapidly deteriorated into a lemon.
As far as I can tell, Golson's confidence started to deflate after
the Florida State game, and it's been taking the air out of the entire
offense ever since. Until today, when Golson appeared so afraid of
making a mistake that his favorite receiver became the sideline, and
then he threw two interceptions, anyway, and everything...went...flat.
Zaire managed to pump some life back into the team with a two-play TD
drive, and there were a few pretty sweet runs after the catch
(including a doozy of a stiff-arm scramble by C.J. Prosise). But it was
all too little, too late. Apparently there are leaks in our offense
everywhere now. Not all of Zaire's passes were spot-on--but there were
an appalling number of drops on the passes that were. I'm not sure if it
was mental errors, or if the receivers weren't used to catching Zaire's
wicked-fast spirals--whatever the case, the team couldn't finish. Which
is a shame, because I stand by what I said before: when our offense is
on, they can move the ball against anybody in the country. We've seen
flashes of that all season. But with so many turnovers, it's become
impossible to maintain momentum.
Maybe it's not even accurate to say our tires are constantly
deflating. In the middle of drives, we just keep blowing them. And it's
pulled our season to the side of the road, while the rest of the Top 25
But the real struggle of this season has been on the other side of
the ball, where almost every major component of the defense has broken
Here's the injury list for the USC game:
*Ridiculous un-blockable man-beast and defensive captain Sheldon
Day--OUT (but hopefully back for the bowl game. since weirdly there will
be a bowl game).
*Junior defensive lineman and other-half-of-the-Sheldon-Day-man-beast team Jarron Jones--OUT.
*Team leader in tackles and everyone's-favorite-Rudy-story Joe Schmidt--OUT.
*Returner and only-player-in-the-secondary-with-any-real-experience Cody Riggs--OUT.
*Other defensive captain-and-primary-leader-in-the-secondary Austin Collinsworth--OUT, and then in, and then OUT again.
*Freshman safety and one-of-the-top-ten-leading-tacklers Drue Tranquill--OUT.
*Junior safety Nicky Baratti--OUT.
Combined with the suspension of corner KeiVarae Russell, safety Eilar
Hardy, and linebackers Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, running the
defense has become an exercise in improvisation.
It's kind of like trying to fix a car with only the parts you have
lying around in your shop. You can't order new ones; you just have to
work with what you've got. Even if Sheldon Day is a grade-A
non-replaceable part. Tough luck. So you swap in parts you know might
not run as well; try to jam things in where they don't exactly fit; and
basically jerry-rig the shit out of your schemes until it looks like
MacGyver went to town on your playbook.
Only MacGyver's tricks basically only needed to work once--whereas
our defense has sixty minutes of football to play each week. As our
roster grew more and more hodge-podge, our opposing offenses only
increased in difficulty. Our young, untested secondary got burned.
Opposing offenses picked up Van Gorder's schemes--not necessarily
because the schemes were bad, but because we could no longer execute
them at the highest level. Confidence wavered. Fundamentals weakened.
Too much was put on the shoulders of our weakest unit, and--perhaps in
an attempt to overcompensate--parts began to break down at a rapid pace.
As you will most likely know if you have driven a car to a ripe old
age, the most joyous parts to fix on any vehicle are the
sensors--delicate, sensitive instruments that cost three times as much
to replace as the average car part and can completely crap out your
engine even when they control something that seems like it should have
nothing to do with the overall performance of your vehicle. Such as the
I cannot blame Kyle Brindza for the way things have gone this
season--although it certainly would've been great if Brindza's holder
hadn't decided to start fumbling snaps and completely deteriorate his
confidence to a point where the field goal unit couldn't do anything to
help the team win, even from extremely advantageous field goal ranges.
Which is a shame, because prior to this season, Brindza had scored
more field goals for Notre Dame than any other kicker in Irish history.
His accuracy has dropped from an average of 75% over the last two
seasons to 59% this year. The sensor's on the fritz. Which is
terrifying--because when it's not working properly, it can cause huge
But if you don't have the exact right sensor to replace it, there's
pretty much nothing you can do except take the risk of removing it
entirely (usually not a good option) or just cross your fingers and hope
it decides to start working again.
With everything grinding to a halt in dubious fashion (no-win
November, at your service) it's impossible not to look at the mechanic
and go, "WHAT GIVES?"
Should Kelly have put Zaire in four games ago? Maybe. Maybe not. How
do you a bench a quarterback who keeps winning despite his mistakes?
Who makes last-minute touchdown passes against Florida State that get
called back on penalties? Who nearly engineers a ridiculous comeback
against ASU after five turnovers in a game where literally nothing went
our way? (Though to be fair, whenever ASU decided to step on the gas, we
were totally at their mercy. And at least 2 of those turnovers were
directly engineered by the ASU defense.)
But how do you bench Everett Golson against Northwestern? That was supposed to be a bounce-back game, right?
And benching Everett Golson on Senior Day....
I don't know. See, this is why I'm not a coach.
The thing is, we knew turnovers were going to be a problem coming in.
We were just assuming our offense was going to score enough points that
we'd be able to survive it. And that performance would improve over the
course of the season, as everything settled in.
Instead, Golson went nearly as much on the fritz as our kicker, and we sputtered to a halt.
So this is maybe the most confused I've felt about a 7-5 team in my entire life.
The Florida State game almost felt like a flashback to USC 2005.
Almost everything after that felt like a flashback to 2007. Or
no--maybe 2008. Because, see, it's impossible for me to concede that
we've played as poorly this season as we played in 2007. Because in
2007, the team was never a team. And this season--for a good solid 7
games--we were a team. On all sides of the ball.
And now we're not.
I honestly don't know how much to blame Kelly for (except maybe lack
of commitment to the run game). We have new coordinators this year,
which always changes the team dynamic slightly. We've had coaches out
with illness. We've had the players suspended and then forced out for
the season. Plus a combination of all the maladies mentioned above.
But it seems like there should be come consistency in our
approach--some cohesion on some deeper level--that prevents us from
falling so spectacularly apart.
Maybe Brian Kelly relies too heavily on his players to create that
cohesion. I think it was pretty clear in 2012 that Manti Te'o was the
heart and soul of the team. As long as he was on fire, we continued to
win games we may or may not have had any business winning. A perfect
storm of a season. At least up until the post-season. And the scam which
(whatever your opinions are about it), I am convinced, took some of the
heart out of the heart and soul of the team. I mean--Alabama is still
Alabama, and maybe they would've won anyway. But I think Irish fans can
agree that the defense we saw in the first half of that championship
game had none of the fire or aggression or passion it played with for
the majority of the season.
And this season... We lost all of our leaders on defense to
suspension or injury. There's only so much you can do from the sideline;
and I think players on the field tried to step up--but there's only so
much you can do if you're not 100% sure you know what you're doing. As
mentioned, I think we lost Golson at some point after the FSU game. And
it's possible Cam McDaniel's fumble took a bit of the air out of him,
too. (Though I certainly don't want to cast aspersions on Cam the Man's
leadership. And would like to point out that there's only so much you
can do when you're not in charge of calling audibles and you only get
the ball once like every thirty plays.) There's no been no time to gain
confidence with Zaire in the driver's seat (um...I guess that's where
the quarterback belongs in this metaphor).
So here we are: bowl eligible, but stalled. Maybe we can make
something out of the post-season. Maybe we can find the right spark to
get things running again. Another three weeks of practice with Zaire at
the helm couldn't hurt. (Although really, you guys, I do still love
Everett Golson. If he could just figure out how to simmer down and play
his game he would be TOTALLY FINE.)
But mostly I'm just hoping we can coast through to next year with all
of our parts still intact. I think we've had more than enough injuries
for one season.
I suppose this is a melancholy way to end things. But really, four losses is a damn melancholy way to end the year.
So I can only say, steadfastly and as always: GO IRISH.