Two things are guaranteed when it comes to the annual showdown between long-time rivals Notre Dame and Michigan State: the contest is always one of the most significant early-season match-ups in college football, and the game is never short on entertainment value. Last night’s game between the Irish and the Spartans fit the bill once again, as a 36-7 MSU blowout quickly turned into a near-historic comeback in the fourth quarter. With Notre Dame’s playoff hopes for this 2016 season finally put to rest, yesterday’s loss confirmed several beliefs Irish fans have developed in this chapter of the Brian Kelly era. Here are the biggest takeaways from last night:
The Defense is Broken
I feel embarrassed writing this, because any casual observer of the Texas or Michigan St. games knows this is obvious. The weaknesses in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system were obvious last year as well, as a significantly more talented defensive squad surrendered 24 points per game. Expectations for this year’s defense were tempered after losing seven starters from the 2015 lineup, including playmakers Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day. That aside, no one expected the defense to be this bad, surrendering 50 points to an unranked Texas team and 501 total yards to an above-average Michigan St. offense. VanGorder’s third year in the program has gotten off to a horrid start, which does not bode well for the D-coordinator’s chances to remain at Notre Dame long-term. The Irish have shown a consistent inability to make adjustments to different offensive schemes throughout his tenure, as confirmed last night when the defense could not stop MSU’s dive-heavy running game. Were it not for the fourth quarter comeback to mollify the fanbase, you would be hearing much louder calls for B.V.G.’s firing.
The Irish Were Outcoached (Again)
Give credit to Mark Dantonio and the Michigan State Spartans. The ninth-year coach always prepares his team well for big games and features a creativity – and a passion for – trick plays that puts his team in a great position to play winning football. Coach Dantonio has instilled a mentality of consistency throughout his program, and the results have followed; Michigan State is the only team in the nation to have finished in the top six in the final AP poll in each of the last three seasons. (Alabama finished the 2014 season ranked seventh.)
On the other side of the field, consistency has been the number-one issue for Notre Dame teams in the Brian Kelly era. After jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead on the game’s opening possession, the Irish crashed and burned on all sides of the ball in the second and third quarters. Much like the defense, the offensive playcalling failed to make adjustments or capitalize on the momentum of a Michigan State turnover in the red zone. An unacceptable “fumble” off the foot of Miles Boykin on a punt return and turnovers by receiver C.J. Sanders and quarterback DeShone Kizer in Notre Dame’s half of the field resulted in two Spartan touchdowns. Kelly can blame his players and his coordinators all he wants for their lack of execution, but the mentality of consistent focus starts at the top.
Kelly’s preparation needs to be questioned after Michigan State’s successful execution of a two-point conversion after the Spartans’ first touchdown midway through the first quarter. Dantonio is notorious for running trick plays with his special teams, as the Irish have learned the hard way. Notre Dame’s special teams unit looked frazzled as MSU quickly shifted into a swinging-gate formation during its extra point attempt. After Notre Dame’s coaching staff failed to call a timeout, an easy pass to tight end Josiah Price on the near side of the field secured the two-point conversion. Michigan State runs at least one trick play on special teams against the Irish every season. Brian Kelly’s inability to account for the trend and prepare his team to execute on it is just another marker in an extended timeline of Kelly failures in big-time games.
Where’s The Fire?
I am not a college football coach, nor do I profess to know what it fully takes to lead a team of eighty-five student athletes. However, I have been around sports for a decently long time and can tell you that the best coaches, the ones who get the most out of their players, are the individuals who inspire their athletes and instill a sense of support. In essence, they succeed by helping their players understand that their coach has their backs in public and in private. Brian Kelly doesn’t necessarily carry the reputation of being a “player-friendly” coach nor does he seem to be particularly effective in motivating his players before big games. Here is a breakdown of Notre Dame’s performance against ranked teams since the blowout loss to Alabama in the 2013 National Championship game:
@ #17 Michigan: 41-30 L
vs. #24 Michigan State: 17-13 W
vs. #12 Oklahoma: 35-21 L
vs. #24 Arizona State: 37-34 W
@ #8 Stanford: 27-20 L
vs. #14 Stanford: 17-14 W
@ #2 Florida State: 31-27 L
@ #11 Arizona State: 55-31 L
vs. #24 Louisville: 31-28 L
vs. #22 LSU: 31-28 W
Other significant losses: vs. Northwestern, 43-40; @ USC, 49-14
vs. #14 Georgia Tech: 30-22 W
@ #12 Clemson: 24-22 L
vs. #21 Temple: 24-20 W
@ #13 Stanford: 38-36 L
vs. #7 Ohio State: 44-28 L
vs. #12 Michigan State: 36-28 L
Other significant losses: @ Texas, 50-47
Record Against Ranked Opponents Since 2013: 6-10, with zero wins against a team ranked higher than 14th
The results speak for themselves. While boasting some of the most talented players in the country on their rosters, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, Brian Kelly-led teams have failed to live up to the extraordinarily high expectations the Notre Dame faithful have come to hold each season. Whether those expectations are realistic or not, the heartbreak for Irish fans has certainly been all too real in this latest chapter of the Notre Dame legacy.
Check out this Wednesday’s edition of the podcast for more discussion of Notre Dame football and the future of the program!