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Northwestern Review: That Old Feeling is Back

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This will not be a traditional game recap.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it's time to have one of those big picture talks. It's never a good thing to have one of these talks.

Both Sides of the Ball, Not Clicking

I thought this would be a 8-4 season primarily because the defense was going to struggle under a new DC having to replace a bunch of veterans. Obviously, a lot more attrition has occurred and that hasn't helped matters but my sole lament in the pre-season was that Kelly wasn't going to be able to get both sides of the ball humming at the same time. Well, look where we are right now. The offense is averaging over 35 points per game. All the naysayers predicted the offense needed to hit that average, they have, and yet we're still looking at a mediocre record.

In a vacuum the attrition on defense is a legitimate excuse for Kelly and VanGorder. Perhaps once the season is over we'll be able to look at the defense with clearer and more understanding eyes but right now it's tough to swallow.

It Shouldn't Be This Bad

The defense is going to return a ton of bodies next year. That is exciting. Like I said, there is enough room to argue that the defense is just too young and injured to be good right now. However, they shouldn't be this bad. Giving up 547 yards to a very, very mediocre Northwestern offense is horrid. Allowing 263 rushing yards is embarrassing. I don't like saying "it's unacceptable" because it's one of the most over-used phrases that has lost nearly all meaning in college football but that really is an unacceptable performance.

HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN? Y'all want to focus on offensive play-calling when Northwestern almost dropped six bills of offense with this is going on at defense?

Look, this unit will be better next year. There's no doubt about that. An entire 11-man team of starters will be back with 2 young and large recruiting classes providing depth. But right now you have to question just how good the defense is going to be under Brian VanGorder because his ability to go from something to nothing and back to something is going to determine just how good this team will be in 2015.

Short-Term, Defense is a Disaster

The defense already broke the record for most points given up over a 4-game span. Well, that 5-game record was just obliterated. This team shutout Michigan, didn't give up more than 17 points in any game through week 6, and will be flirting with 2007 in terms of total points surrendered. If Louisville and USC can combine for 75 points this 2014 defense will have given up more points than 2007.

I just don't know what this defense does well anymore. I think the lack of a pass rush is simply a season-long problem that is getting worse as teams are figuring out VanGorder's scheme. It's a harbinger of death against any team with a decent line and a good quarterback. Heck, against Northwestern Siemian was a handful of drops from going something like 35 for 48 with almost 400 yards. Could USC drop 600 passing yards on the Irish?

Even the run defense has crumbled in recent weeks. This may be the most concerning problem because it was something the Notre Dame defense has been able to lean on for most of the Kelly era. Somehow they slowed down Florida State on the ground but against the last 3 non-triple options teams the Irish have given up 641 yards at 4.7 yards per rush.

On the Offense

The offense should be doing better but their issues aren't nearly as bad as the defense. The offense doesn't have nearly as many excuses but they are doing enough to win games. They converted nearly half of their third down conversions, totaled 498 yards, averaged 6.2 yards per play, and once again put up over 30 points on the scoreboard.

Now, if you want to argue they should have scored 50 I think that's fair. I'm just not sure that's a major criticism, and really it's more of a back-handed criticism of the defense in any event.

What is frustrating are the turnovers and the inability to overwhelm a mediocre opponent to the point where the defense simply can't lose the game for you. But those shortcomings shouldn't equal a loss to Northwestern on their own. This team shouldn't have to rely on the offense to score 45 points to win against bad teams.

Don't Give Up on Golson

By the end of the game enough of the ire had been directed away from Golson but there's still going to be a lot of criticism for the Irish quarterback. He shouldn't be exempt from that criticism but I don't think he's near the top of the list of problems. To put it another way, I don't think you can simultaneously gag when talking about the defense and criticize the offense for not putting up huge numbers when Golson is big reason why a lot of good things are still happening on offense.

You can't just sweep two more turnovers under the rug--although he got hit again throwing his lone interception which bounced off a helmet and into a defenders hands--and I don't want to do that. I'm just looking at what we've got and Golson is still playing really well. I stand behind that completely. You can only get so upset at 365 yards and 4 touchdowns. Let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Poor Gameplan?

I'd like to differentiate between coming in with a bad gameplan and making a some bad coaching decisions. There were a lot of nits to pick with some of the play-calls but that's really no different than any other game. Just like the tendency to say something is "unacceptable" so too do people turn too quickly on play-calling based on just one or two plays.

Going for the two point conversion while up 11 points didn't make sense to me. But that is just one of a hundred decisions made by Brian Kelly most of which were plenty successful.

There has been a major over-reaction to Kelly's play-calling and gameplan based on the result of the game. Blaming play-calling is the refuge of the dumb. It's a favorite past-time of the most disgruntled fans. The ones who expect perfection and point to two or three plays out of 80 snaps as evidence of terrible play-calling. I'm not saying if you're unhappy with the play-calling that you're necessarily dumb but it's an easy trap to fall into after a loss.

Case in point, this was legitimately one of the worst defensive performances in Notre Dame history and the bulk of the post-game criticisms are surrounding offensive play-calling. That doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Simply put, the offense was far too productive for this to have been anywhere close to a bad play-calling game from Brian Kelly. To me, you can point to bad play-calling when the offense consistently fails and that wasn't the case on Saturday.

The same people who want to salt the game away with 80% runs with a 40-29 lead in the fourth quarter are the same who will cry about poor play-calling when that strategy fails and we go three and out. They're the same who cry when there's too much passing and the same who reflexively blame the play-calling when your senior running back fumbles when you are in fact salting the game away with run calls.

When a play doesn't work out it doesn't necessarily mean it was a bad play-call.

The Loss is Still on Kelly

Now, don't get it twisted Kelly deserves so much blame for this loss. It's just pointing to a fumble on a jet sweep to Chris Brown as a major part of that blame is misplaced.

Somehow, someway you have to take care of business in a game like this. Call it lack of preparation, a lack of focus, or losing a young team. Brian Kelly has done a lot of good things while at Notre Dame but this season has gone off the rails in a hurry and he alone is responsible.

Yes, it was a poorly coached game but it was more so in the big picture sense. He's ultimately responsible for the defense but I don't know how much blame he gets for that side of the ball in this game. The offense had some major mental errors mixed in with good production and Kelly has to do whatever he can to limit those mistakes.

I don't know what else there is to say. For the majority of this season the Irish have been playing sloppy football with plenty of shining moments but far too many mental mistakes.

Has Kelly Already Peaked at Notre Dame?

There's no way to get around it, this was a terrible loss. It's a loss that shatters so much effort built up over the past five years. Just losing as such a heavy favorite is bad enough but this makes a 5-loss season enormously more likely, it can pump the brakes on recruiting, and it damages the progress of the program on the national scene.

Perhaps worst of all, it just makes the margin for error next year that much smaller.

The talk about firing Brian Kelly after this season is crazy and doing so would be insanely stupid. However, there is going to be a lot on the line in 2015 and if that season falls short of lofty expectations then it'll be the right time to think about going in a different direction.

Even then, if you move on after 2015 following something like a 9-3 regular season you damn well better have a very attractive and proven new coach ready to come in to the lead the program. That's always a really difficult situation to be in and I've said it before Notre Dame has never really been in that spot before in modern times. It's entirely uncharted waters for the administration.

Listen, it's nothing earth shattering or groundbreaking to say that Kelly can't or won't win a National Championship at Notre Dame and using this thesis to build your case that he needs to go. That's a non-starter for me and no that doesn't mean I don't have the proper expectations for Notre Dame. I don't think Kelly is going to win a title, never have, but I'd feel that way about almost every coach that took the helm in South Bend.

However, we're past the point where Kelly gets credit for improving over the Davie/Willingham/Weis years. We just are and it's a crutch that really isn't applicable anymore. Wondering if there is a better coach out there than Kelly is also fine but not if entering into those discussions is meant to shut down the hiring of any potential new head coach. I'm really not interested in taking a hard stance that Kelly needs go sooner rather than later or that Swarbrick couldn't get a better coach at some point.

When you lose games like this you open yourself to this type of criticism. It does the Notre Dame Football Program an injustice not to think of changing at some point. This is not the basketball program where the talent restrictions and pre-Brey history give the current head coach near immunity to a search for a new leader. That's understandable for basketball but I loathe the day when loads of people reflexively want to keep Kelly on the sole reason that Notre Dame couldn't do better.

However, I cannot stress that change for change sake is usually a bad idea. More importantly, you have to make sure you're getting a good new coach and I know I'm not the only one who has been scanning the country and sees a serious talent deficiency of candidates. Like I said, this won't always give Kelly a pass but right now I think it does. Whether that's true in 13 months from now I do not know.

I've always envisioned a future where Kelly is putting together a bunch of good seasons but the amount of bickering about his future just gets worse and worse over time. We're beginning to see this frustration here and now.

In a way, it's really depressing because setting aside the rest of this season even 10-2 in 2015 isn't going to be good enough for a lot of people. Is that fair? I don't know if it will be or not.

I just want to see Brian Kelly get to coach one team with an explosive offense (I think we'll be okay there next year) with a legitimately good defense (that is definitely to be determined). If he can't get those two pieces together next year that's ultimately on him and if he does get them together and the team still loses a perplexing game or two and truly underachieves that's on him too.

So, I can understand how "Top 5 finish or bust" makes sense next year but it's still an insanely high bar to set. The pressure is going to be ridiculous in 2015.

Now What?

Well, all the fun got sucked out of the football program didn't it? I'm sure many of us would like to just skip right to National Signing Day and spring ball. It seems there's nothing left for us to see in 2014.

It's tough to imagine Notre Dame beating either Louisville or USC. However, things can change in the blink of an eye in college football. Think about how just a couple weeks ago so many thought this team was the bees knees and it was this great injustice how we weren't ranked highly enough. Now, we're wondering about Kelly's future.

College football can be so cruel like that.

However, it wouldn't be unheard of for the Irish to at least split the last two games, or even win both. Far crazier things have happened in college football. If there's one thing Kelly has done well it's dig deep when the team and program are up against a wall.

More Thoughts from this Loss

  • It didn't seem like a wise coaching decision to bench Max Redfield for Drue Tranquill in this game. Following the game Kelly mentioned it was a decision based upon Redfield's play in the ASU game. Fair enough, but I still would have gone with the more experienced player in this game.
  • Upon review my biggest problem with the play-calling came in overtime on three straight passes. Then again, I'm always wanting to get the ball into Folston's hands more on screens and that's exactly what happened on first down. Still, with a shaky kicking game the yards were at a premium and at least seeing what a run could get you seemed wise to me. Then again, trying to put myself in Kelly's shoes you might have been looking for a big play precisely because you didn't have faith in Brindza. It's really easy being a Monday Morning Quarterback but it can be very difficult to call plays in the heat of the moment.
  • Speaking of that shaky kicking game it appears as though Kyle Brindza has lost all of his confidence. At one point he seemed like someone who could maybe get picked in the last couple rounds of the NFL Draft but that's probably not happening now. He shanked a couple of punts and has now missed 6 out of his last 10 field goal attempts. What's more, as a senior I put some blame on him for continually trying to kick the bad snaps. If he's a little more savvy Northwestern doesn't take back the PAT for 2 points.
  • The Zaire experiment as the holder backfired. Yeesh, with hindsight that was a very poor decision.
  • There's not a whole lot of of good things to talk about on defense but I thought the trio of Luke-Riggs-Farley played pretty all things considered.
  • File this away in the overreaction department but I've seen a lot of criticism on the offensive line for their run blocking. Did I miss something where Notre Dame didn't run for over 200 yards? I don't think you can say Folston was killing Northwestern without giving some props to the linemen up front. I've seen a lot of inconsistencies with the complaining about this topic.
  • The funny thing is the offensive line looked much worse in pass blocking, though. But even looking back things weren't terrible. They're just not consistently playing at a high level and allowing too much pressure than we're used to seeing under Heistand. Someone like Ronnie Stanley shouldn't get abused like he did on Golson's interception.
  • Will Fuller had a drop early in the game but otherwise was on fire finishing with 9 catches, 159 yards, and 3 touchdowns. Don't look now but he's currently tied for the national lead with 13 touchdown receptions. He's not catching Golden Tate's yardage from 2009 but 3 more touchdowns by Fuller will give him more touchdowns and the season school record. Will he finally be talked about as No. 1 receiver then?
  • Nothing symbolized the feeling that Northwestern was winning this game more than their struggling kicker hitting 3 field goal from over 40 yards.
  • This pains me to type but Northwestern only punted once the entire game.
  • Tempo against this young, injured, and confused Irish defense is absolutely killer. It was so important to Northwestern that they ran 96 plays which was 12 more than their previous season high.
  • I've seen a lot of talk about how Kelly should have taken several knees on the McDaniel fumble drive. That this guaranteed a win. Yeah, like Brindza wouldn't have punted the ball 18 yards or even worse it may have been blocked or the snap fired over Brindza's head. That all seemed as likely as McDaniel fumbling the ball. Sure, maybe Folston should have carried the ball but it was just one carry by McDaniel. The previous carry was by Folston and if McDaniel doesn't fumble it might have been Folston carrying again on third down. It's just one carry. I cannot get that mad at coach for giving the ball once to his senior captain in that position.
  • Lost in all the madness was the fact that this was just the second home loss since the middle of the 2011 season. The Irish were on a 16-1 run with the lone loss to Oklahoma last season as the only blemish until this past Saturday.
  • After the game Collinsworth mentioned that his shoulder hurts so bad that it bothers him just sitting in class. I'm not sure he should be playing football right now. I hate to say it but I don't see how he can just turn on the switch this late in the season after not having played, deal with all that pain, and help this defense get better.
  • We may be doomed if Day and Cage are lost for the season. That will mean against Louisville we'd be without those two plus Grace, Schmidt, Baratti, Russell, and Ishaq plus Collinsworth's one healthy arm and Eilar Hardy not in game shape and rendered useless.
  • Looking ahead to next year that season opener against Texas is looking tougher and tougher. They've won 4 out of their last 5 games and are coming off back-to-back victories over West Virginia and Oklahoma State.