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Column: Another Kelly-esque loss for Notre Dame, but no Brian Kelly to blame

Some questions need to be asked

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports

As the clock struck 11:00 p.m. eastern time Saturday night, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was probably still trudging to the Irish locker room to deliver his postgame sermon. In a similar fashion, I began the melancholic trudge to the bedroom with one particular thought bouncing around my head:

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Notre Dame has four new position coaches on offense. They have two new defensive coaches, a new special teams coordinator and a new head coach. And yet, if you had been in a coma for the past 10 months and your first act after waking up was looking at this game’s play-by-play, you’d probably think Brian Kelly was still the Irish head coach.

Notre Dame’s 21-10 loss to Ohio State in the horseshoe Saturday night felt like a greatest hit from the “Now That’s What I Call Brian Kelly Losses” album. It shared the “death by a thousand cuts” feeling of Notre Dame’s 2019 loss to Georgia in Sanford Stadium. Much like that contest three years ago, the Irish defense acquitted themselves admirably Saturday night in a game where national pundits thought they would get blown off the field. The offense, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired — as per usual.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State
Head coach Marcus Freeman walks away from a team huddle in the fourth quarter. The Irish did not complete a pass and recorded just 12 yards of offense in the final period.
Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame ran 48 plays against Ohio State. The entire game. The Buckeyes ran 69. Not nice, especially considering Freeman’s postgame comments that the offensive snoozefest was by design to keep the ball away from the Buckeyes.

At a certain point, Freeman and offensive coordinator Tommy Rees must have realized that playing keep away with a three-point lead against Ohio State’s world beating offense was a losing proposition. They did it anyway, just like their old boss probably would have done if he weren’t down in Baton Rouge with his fam-uh-lay.

The only question is when the current Irish coaches accepted their fate in this game. I’ve narrowed it down to three instances:

  • When the Irish trailed 14-10 in the fourth quarter and found themselves in 1st-and-25 following an offensive pass interference, and then proceeded to run the ball three consecutive times and punt
  • When they punted on 4th-and-21 from their own 14-yard line while trailing 21-10 with less than four minutes remaining in the game
  • When they compared their roster to Ohio State’s before the game even started

As for the second play above, the risk of going for it on fourth-and-long deep in your own territory is obvious. But with just one timeout remaining and a gassed defense, Notre Dame’s only chance of pulling out a win was to score on that possession. Instead, the staff chose a cosmetic loss, no doubt relieving many fans who had money on the Irish to cover the 17-point spread.

This game was exactly what Ohio State needed: a test of mettle to prove they wouldn’t fold against a physical team. This was also what Notre Dame fans needed (but probably didn’t want): a reminder that not every problem can be neatly thrown upon the Brian Kelly garbage heap and burned to cinders.

Yes, Kelly is gone. He’s no longer taking up oxygen in postgame press conferences, opining how Notre Dame needs to get more talent to compete with the big boys. But what Kelly said then was true, even as he would say it and then refuse to do what was necessary in recruiting to resolve the talent disparity.

Freeman has been a breath of fresh air. He’s talking the talk and walking the walk in recruiting, but that’s a future solution to a current problem. Notre Dame didn’t have the playmakers to go against Ohio State. Or, if those playmakers were on the roster, the coaching staff didn’t think they were ready to handle the Buckeyes.

Keon Keeley, the five-star edge rusher who decomitted from Notre Dame’s 2023 recruiting class last month, was in attendance Saturday night clad in an Ohio State t-shirt. It was the cherry on top of a game where the Irish defensive line recorded just one sack and their pressure managed to only mildly perturb the Buckeyes passing game.

Forget recruiting and developing out of talent deficits. That’s certainly an imperative and something Notre Dame is working on. But, at a certain point, the Irish are going to have to coach their way out of a talent deficit in-game.

Freeman says all the right thing when it comes to Notre Dame and recruiting championship caliber classes, but actions speak louder than words. It’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation: Notre Dame needs a roster like Ohio State’s to compete for titles, but will it take a program-changing victory to convince enough top-tier players to commit?

The Irish had a golden opportunity to notch such a victory in a top-5 matchup on the road Saturday night. They took a 10-7 lead into halftime, and then they failed to adjust — as everyone watching knew they would have to do eventually with Ohio State’s offense one play away from taking the lead.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Ohio State
Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner is sacked on third down in the fourth quarter. The Irish would punt on their final offensive drive, their sixth consecutive punt of the game and fourth of the second half.
Kyle Robertson-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Freeman is a first-year head coach. This was just his second game in that capacity. Not to mention he had a first-time starting quarterback going up against the team with the second-best odds to win the national championship. Points conceded. And it would be foolish to suggest that he (and his staff and roster) won’t improve as time goes on.

But it bears asking if Freeman and Rees have more in common with Kelly as playcallers than fans want to admit. Saying they were handicapped by their roster talent downplays the fact that they choked Saturday night away. That makes two consecutive second-half choke jobs dating back to the Fiesta Bowl — except now there’s no Jeff Quinn, Del Alexander, Mike Elston or Brian Kelly to scapegoat.

The Freeman era has only just begun and there is plenty of reason for optimism. But the head coach at Notre Dame invites scrutiny, and there’s plenty to go around after Saturday night.