Today was perhaps the darkest day in the storied history of Notre Dame football, as the Irish lost at home to Duke, 38-35. There have definitely been worse losses (Gerry Faust’s last game against Miami comes to mind), but this loss feels different than others because it feels like the end of an era, one that began with so much promise.
Expectations were high this season, though Notre Dame lost significant talent to the NFL, including All-American and Butkus Award-winning linebacker Jaylon Smith, but those close to the program touted this year’s team as one of the deepest in recent memory, with a wealth of returning talent led by quarterback DeShone Kizer. This year’s team has shown that depth does not compensate for a lack of player development.
After losses at Texas and at home to Michigan State, Notre Dame fans took solace that the next three games against Duke, Syracuse, and NC State offered the team a chance to regroup before a challenging midseason slate which includes Stanford, Miami, and Virginia Tech. Duke didn’t play along though.
The most disconcerting thing about today’s game is the utter lack of emotion and fight shown by the Notre Dame team. By every measurable on paper, Notre Dame is better than Duke, but the Blue Devils wanted it more. For the second straight week in a row, Notre Dame started fast, jumping out to a 14-0 lead after five minutes, but just like in the Michigan State game, a special teams blunder swung the momentum of the game, as Duke cut the lead to 14-7 on a kickoff return touchdown that featured at least three missed tackles.
Going back to my initial point, the reason I feel this loss points to the end of an era is because all indications are that this program has plateaued under Brian Kelly and this current coaching staff. Kelly should be commended for righting the ship after the disastrous Willingham and Weis tenures, but there are three main reasons that I believe that this year should (and will) be Kelly’s last at Notre Dame.
First, this staff has shown no interest in player development. I’m struggling to think of a single player under Brian Kelly who has gotten significantly better while at Notre Dame. The fact that Kelly has had so much success on the field and sending players to the NFL speaks to his prowess as a recruiter, but the returning star power on this year’s team, especially on defense, has stagnated in their development (and it doesn’t help that their confidence is shattered). Cole Luke, Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, and Andrew Trumbetti are the same players they were two years ago, and across the board, players continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Second, there is a lack of leadership on this team, and my biggest worry moving forward is that Brian Kelly has lost the locker room. The lack of leadership reflects directly on the head coach. The most successful teams under Kelly have been ones with strong leaders, such as the 2012 team with Manti Te’o and last year’s team with Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt. The lack of leadership has reared its ugly head this season as this team plays with no emotion and is unable to overcome adversity, evidenced by the fact that they were unable to overcome big special teams plays in the last two losses.
Finally, this staff has no interest in making adjustments, and it almost seems like Kelly is burned out by the weight of expectations. I don’t know of any other way to defend Kelly’s comments in his postgame press conference today in which he insisted that he had no concerns with the defense, despite yet another game Notre Dame lost while scoring over 28 points. In fact, in the last now five Notre Dame losses, the offense has scored 36, 28, 47, 28, and 35 points. For most big-time programs, that would be five wins. This coaching staff continues to put the same players in the same positions and inevitably gets the same outcomes.
If I’m Jack Swarbrick, the Notre Dame Athletic Director, I’m having a serious discussion with Brian Kelly on Monday morning so that changes are made, starting with firing defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder before the season spirals out of control and recruits start defecting from the program. If Swarbrick gets the sense that Kelly won’t make the necessary changes (which I think is the likely outcome, since Kelly has never done well with his decision making being questioned), then it’s time to start reaching out through back channels to certain gentlemen in Houston, Texas, Clemson, South Carolina, and Norman, Oklahoma, to see if any of them may have interest in migrating north to South Bend. This program needs a ray of sunshine, and at this point, I don’t think that can come from within.
I’m finding solace tonight in the words from The Dark Knight–“the night is darkest just before the dawn.”
Photo: USA Today