SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The number of the day wasn’t 21 (the amount of points Notre Dame was favored to beat Duke by) or three (the amount of points Notre Dame lost by). It was 22, as coach Brian Kelly put every one of Notre Dame’s starting players on notice to be benched after his team lost, 38-35, at home to Duke to fall to 1-3 in 2016.
“Every position, every position, all 22 of them, will be evaluated,” Kelly said. “Each and every position. There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. And that's the quarterback, all the way down to — maybe, the long snapper's okay. We're not going to touch him. But everybody else is vulnerable.”
So Scott Daly’s job is safe, but nobody else’s is, according to Kelly. The seventh-year Irish coach has gone from pumping the brakes after losing to Texas in double overtime to tersely criticizing his coaches after last week’s loss to Michigan State to threatening to blow the whole thing up after the program’s most embarrassing defeat since losing to a 5-7 Northwestern side in 2014.
“If you want to play for me moving forward, you better — I don't care what your resume says, I don't care if you were a five star (recruit), if you had a hundred tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you,” Kelly said. “We lack it. We lack it. Severely.”
Kelly offered praise for only one player: Sophomore running back Dexter Williams, who Kelly said was “the only one” who played with any energy in Saturday’s game.
When asked if he still had confidence in Brian VanGorder — whose defense allowed Duke to average nearly two yards per play more than it did in losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, games in which the Blue Devils combined to score 27 points — Kelly continued to back his embattled coordinator. So while the standings of 22 aren’t safe, VanGorder is for now, even with the student section at Notre Dame Stadium belting out a “Fire Van-Gord-er” chant at times Saturday.
“That's probably the one area that I feel better about today,” Kelly said. “We did what I wanted today in terms of coaching. And coaching had nothing to do with the outcome today.”
Kelly did backtrack a bit during his press conference Saturday in saying that “this is not all on our players, we still have to coach better as well,” noting that everyone in a Notre Dame jersey, polo or pullover is “in the same boat.”
It’s a serious problem, though, if Notre Dame doesn’t have that energy and passion — maybe Hawk Harrelson would describe it at TWTW — with questionable coaching and personnel in place. In saying that nobody’s job is safe, Kelly is actively trying to light a fire under a group that’s all of a sudden in a precarious position to even be bowl eligible this year.
“That’s fine with me,” linebacker and captain James Onwualu said. “We’ll get back to work. That’s how it is every week. He just doesn’t say it in the media. If you don’t play a good game you’re benched anyway. It’s the same thing, everybody’s on high alert now.”
“I think it’s pretty straightforward,” defensive end and captain Isaac Rochell said of Kelly’s message. “No one’s really safe. For me, it’s just trust the staff. They’re going to make good decisions and we’re going to have to stand behind them in everything we do and trust that the 22 guys on the field are going to fight for us to win.”
And left tackle and fellow captain Mike McGlinchey described Kelly’s on-alert talking point as a “call to wake up.”
“If we go into feeling sorry for ourselves or anything like that it’s going to be a long, long season,” McGlinchey said. “It’s about changing that attitude that coach Kelly’s been talking about and letting it fly out there and taking that approach each and every day.”
Where could those changes come from if all 22 starters are on notice? While Kelly said DeShone Kizer’s play was “not acceptable,” he also criticized Malik Zaire — who started the game at wide receiver and saw two plays on which he totaled negative-eight yards — though he did say pulling the redshirt off sophomore Brandon Wimbush was a possibility. Expect Williams to get more carries going forward. Maybe the offensive line gets shuffled or we see much more of freshmen corners Donte Vaughn (who had an interception on Saturday) and Julian Love.
Notre Dame doesn’t have much time to fix this season, not with Syracuse’s up-tempo offense on tap next weekend. Orange quarterback Eric Dungey threw for 407 yards in a win Saturday over UConn — the team coached by former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco — and after that trip to New York, there’s a road game looming at N.C. State and a home date with Christian McCaffrey and Stanford. If things don’t get fixed, there’s a distinct possibility Notre Dame goes into its bye week with six losses.
So every player is now on notice. Whether that results in anything different than what we saw in September, both from a personnel and results standpoint, remains to be seen.
“There's no passion,” Kelly said. “There's no passion for it. It looks like it's hard to play, like we're pulling teeth. You're playing football for Notre Dame. It looks like it's work. Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game.
“There's no fun, there's no enjoyment, there's no energy. We got to look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that's where we got to go.”
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — DeShone Kizer completed 22 of 37 passes for 381 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and rushed 11 times for 60 yards with one touchdown and a fumble. Are those perfect numbers? No, especially not with the two turnovers.
But the Kizer-led offense found the end zone five times Saturday against a Duke team that scored 13 and 14 points in its last two games. Even so, coach Brian Kelly said Kizer had a “below standard” game in Notre Dame’s 38-35 loss to Duke.
“It’s not acceptable, his play,” Kelly said.
While Kelly has said he won’t pin Notre Dame’s chances of winning on the redshirt sophomore quarterback, it’s clear Kizer is going to have to do almost all of the work to pull Notre Dame out of its September tailspin. For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame made mistakes on special teams and defense, and Kizer fell just short of neutralizing and overcoming those shortcomings.
So by the standard of needing Kizer to be close to perfect for Notre Dame to win games, yeah, he was below it.
“We're always held to a higher standard,” Kizer said. “What he (Kelly) comes in and tells the media is one thing, but we understand that in order for to us win football games we're going to have to come out with a fire and a sense of urgency, the thing that's he's been preaching all week.”
Kizer’s inexplicable fumble — he lost the ball when he turned after taking a snap deep in Notre Dame territory — led to Duke taking its first lead of the game midway through the second quarter. His interception came on a third-and-long arm-punt from the Irish end zone, which allowed Duke to drive 44 yards for the game-winning field goal (the Blue Devils probably would’ve had similar field position had Notre Dame punted, though).
And down three with 84 seconds remaining, Kizer threw incomplete on fourth-and-three from the Irish 44 to effectively end the game. Duke took a knee and erupted in a rapturous celebration that was in stark contrast to the stunned, dour mood on the Irish sideline and in the stands at Notre Dame Stadium.
In addition to Kizer’s two turnovers, sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown lost a fumble in Duke territory in the third quarter.
“There's not a lot of things to really point out other than the obvious, three turnovers,” Kelly said. “All of them impacted the game.”
Notre Dame’s defense allowed 38 points to a Duke team that scored a combined 27 in losses to Wake Forest and Northwestern, and the Blue Devils averaged 6.7 yards per play after entering Saturday averaging 4.8 yards per play against FBS teams, which ranked 98th. And just as was the case against Texas and Michigan State, there was a spurt in which the Irish defense did enough to put the offense in a position to take control of the game before coughing up a few points (in this case, 10, courtesy of Devin Studstill’s missed tackle on a 64-yard touchdown and Duke’s game-winning field goal).
Couple those persistent defensive issues with another special teams gaffe — this time, it was allowing a 96-yard kick return up 14-0 that swung momentum in Duke’s favor — and Kizer and Notre Dame’s offense were once again asked to be nearly perfect. They weren’t. And now Notre Dame is 1-3, Kelly is threatening to take the redshirt off Brandon Wimbush (which would be a mind-numbingly extreme measure) and Kizer is again left searching for answers after delivering plenty of them on Saturday.
“I think my mentality and my poise is something that this team isn't benefiting from,” Kizer said. “I’m going to have to be more verbal, I'm going to have to make sure that I take my job and put a little more effort into it, in the sense of the energy side of things. Guys are going to go out there and feed off of me and I need to make sure that I have the energy that it takes for all 11 guys to go out and play well, not just myself.”