Te'o's final game at Notre Dame sets tone in Alabama onslaught

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Te'o's final game at Notre Dame sets tone in Alabama onslaught

As Manti Te'o goes, so go the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

Throughout 2012, that wasn't a problem. After all, Te'o won seven major awards and finished with the most Heisman Trophy votes of any solely defensive player in history it makes sense to follow suit. It's a good call. Undefeated good. BCS No. 1 ranking good.

That Manti Te'o wasn't on the field Monday night in South Florida.

Even Manti Te'o wasn't sure what player was on the field.

Te'o's final game of his college career was the most important. It might also have been his worst. The Irish followed Te'o's suit and lost 42-14 to an Alabama team that dominated the Fighting Irish from the opening kickoff.

Notre Dame coaches let it slip in the seemingly never-ending buildup to Monday's game that Te'o had only missed two tackles all season. By the time Alabama was up 14-0, Te'o had missed two critical tackles.

By the end of the first half, the total was four. The unofficial number at the end of the game was seven.

What happened to the once-invincible Te'o? He was a step behind all game, and at times, he looked weak.

Before Monday's game, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco proclaimed that Te'o was practicing harder, despite his extensive travel schedule that jet-settted him around the nation for awards ceremonies.

Was he too distracted? Was he burned out? It doesn't matter. Te'o was manhandled by any and all Alabama blockers, and while it's impossible to say if Te'o's performance was induced by Alabama's manhandling offensive line or if it just appeared easier for Te'o to be manhandled because of his poor play, either way, the result was the same, and it was obvious from the first series of the game.

Before the game, fans in the stands of Sun Life Stadium had chanted "Manti Te'o" for over an hour. As Eddie Lacy ran over Notre Dame's superman for the game's first touchdown, the chants stopped. Reality set in, and the Irish were issued a wake up call.

Postgame, Notre Dame players all said that after Alabama took the first possession of the game 80 yards to the endzone without much resistance, they knew they had to make a stop.

Again, when the Tide rolled into the end zone on their second drive, the Irish had to step up their game.

By the time the score was 28-0, hope had been lost. The Irish were playing for pride, the National Championship had already been decided.

"Life goes on," Te'o said. "I had a lot of opportunities to make some plays and I didn't. But I played as hard as I could, and yeah, there were some plays that I could have done better on."

Te'o will shift his focus to April's NFL Draft. On Sunday afternoon, Te'o was considered a mid-first-round prospect by analysts and yahoos. Monday's game will assure that status will be questioned.

Te'o had composed perspective after the game and insisted that he'll use Monday's underwhelming performance as fuel to improve himself.

"That's all you can use it for," Te'o said. "What are you going to take form this? Are you going to sulk, and sit back? Or are you going to do something about it?"

After firing Brian VanGorder, Brian Kelly puts onus on coaches to fix Irish defense

After firing Brian VanGorder, Brian Kelly puts onus on coaches to fix Irish defense

Brian Kelly, before Sunday, hadn’t fired an assistant coach since coming to Notre Dame nearly seven years ago. But faced with a 1-3 record and an uncertain defensive future, Kelly came to the conclusion that a change at defensive coordinator was necessary to Notre Dame’s chances of turning around a season headed in the wrong direction. 

And with that, Brian VanGorder is out. Greg Hudson, who previously was a defensive analyst and Purdue’s defensive coordinator from 2013-2015, is in. But what does Kelly want to see out of a defense that ranks at or near the bottom of the FBS level in so many defensive statistics and has been the main culprit in losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke?

The first step, Kelly said on his teleconference Sunday, is injecting something enjoyable into an Irish defense that VanGorder defended in August as “likable and learnable.” 

“Guys played hard, but we lacked some of the energy and enthusiasm and fun, quite frankly, that you need to have when you're playing on defense,” Kelly said. 

Maybe better energy will result in better tackling, a fundamental area that’s been a glaring problem for this defense in 2016. Kelly said last week his defensive players were “anxious,” which contributed to the the team’s tackling problem. Better coaching, of course, would help there as well. 

But adding energy is sort of a nebulous, impossible-to-quantify concept. More concrete will be the tweaks to the defensive scheme and moving a few players into different positions to maximize their ability. 

Kelly said the terminology of the defense will remain the same, which makes sense given the installation process for VanGorder’s scheme began back during spring practice. Changing the terminology, Kelly said, would “pull the rug underneath the kids at this point in the season.”

What there will be, Kelly said, is a different focus trained on parts of the defense that have been installed but maybe not utilized frequently. 

“There's a lot,” Kelly said. “There's a very vast library that is easily tapped into from a different perspective, different terminology in terms of what has not been leaned on heavily in terms of fronts and coverages, but it's already installed.

“So there's a vast library. There's a lot there. I'm going to send around some of the things I believe our guys will feel comfortable with, and we'll go from there.”

Kelly dismissed the notion that VanGorder installed too much into his defensive scheme, but said he, Hudson and Irish coaches will “streamline” things to allow players to be fundamentally sound and play with that kind of speed and energy necessary. 

Kelly said, too, that he and his coaching staff will meet Sunday to discuss personnel changes — both from getting certain guys on the field (like defensive end Jay Hayes, who Kelly specifically addressed) and getting others into better positions to make plays. 

“We think that there might be some validity to moving around a couple of players,” Kelly said. “So that will be a conversation that I begin a little bit later this afternoon.”

It’s too early to tell what Notre Dame’s defense will look like on Saturday against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, but what’s clear is that a turnaround is necessary — and it’s needed immediately. At 1-3, with three games left against teams ranked in the top 15 of S&P+ (home games against Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech), Notre Dame doesn’t have much margin for error if it wants to reach a bowl game in 2016. 

The defense has made plenty of errors so far, to the point where Kelly took a step he never had in South Bend. Streamlining things, getting that energy back, tweaking the scheme — whatever it is, Notre Dame needs solutions on defense. 

Those solutions weren’t coming with VanGorder and now have to come with Hudson, as well as Kelly taking a more involved supervisor role in the defense. 

“It starts with the coaches,” Kelly said. “I think it's got to be coach-led and they have got to start the fire. And then those players that have that intrinsic motivation, that fire within, they will come along with us. Those that don't, we're going to leave them along the side. But this is going to start with the coaches.”

Brian Kelly explains going from defending to firing Brian VanGorder

Brian Kelly explains going from defending to firing Brian VanGorder

After Notre Dame gave up 50 points in its season-opening loss at Texas, coach Brian Kelly said criticisms of Brian VanGorder’s defense were “jumping the gun,” adding that “I think y’all should relax a little bit. I think our defense is going to be fine.”

Following that 36-28 loss to Michigan State two weeks later, Kelly said “without question” VanGorder was the right man for the job and that firing him was “not even part of the conversation.” 

And after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Duke, Kelly said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching. Then, on Sunday, he fired VanGorder. 

“That's not the appropriate time to get into talking about your coaches and where you feel they fit on that continuum of how well they are doing,” Kelly said of his media sessions. “I’m going to defend them, I'm going to defend my coaches in those kind of public settings. As I got a chance to further evaluate our football team and our current situation, I felt that it was in our best interests to make the move that I did.”

While Kelly said he never considered firing VanGorder after the 2015 season, he did mention that he felt a pattern emerged after that loss in Austin. Going back to last year, Notre Dame had lost three consecutive games to Stanford, Ohio State and Texas, with defensive issues marring each game. 

Notre Dame’s defense allowed Stanford to connect on a walk-off field goal that effectively eliminated any chance of the Irish reaching the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s offense kept Notre Dame at arm’s length in the Fiesta Bowl, a game which ended 44-28 in favor of the Buckeyes. And the 50 points Texas racked up — 37 of which came in regulation — were too much for DeShone Kizer (who scored six touchdowns) and the offense to overcome. 

“To me, that was three in a row,” Kelly said. “So that's got my attention. You're evaluating everything at that point. So yes, I mean, I'm evaluating those from even what it happened the previous season.”

Kelly spent more time with Notre Dame’s defense last week, which allowed him to take the pulse of the group. And after watching his team self-destruct in an embarrassing loss to Duke, Kelly said he needs to see more energy, fire, passion — whatever you want to pick from the buffet of synonyms — from his team. 

The move to fire VanGorder, in part, is an effort to generate that kind of enthusiasm from this defense going forward. Because if this defense doesn’t get fixed, or at least improves to being somewhat reliable, Notre Dame could very well struggle to reach six wins. 

“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” Kelly said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen and that means we have to tweak some things.

“They had some fourth down stops. They played hard. But playing hard is not enough. There has to be other intangibles as it relates to your defense, and we were missing some important ingredients, and that's why I made the change. And so what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”