The worst decision of the night wasn’t any single one of offensive coordinator Gerad Parker’s third down play calls. It wasn’t any of quarterback Sam Hartman’s interceptions. The worst decision of the night was me waiting until Hartman’s second pick to stop watching that embarrassment on national television.
At halftime of the game, I figured Notre Dame would pull out another disappointing win in a slog. Then I planned to entitle this postgame column, “Keep It Simple Stupid.” That catchy little acronym “KISS” seemed appropriate for the apparent overthinking of Marcus Freeman and Parker.
Freeman maintained this week that Audric Estime should have gone down at the one-yard line against Duke so that a trailing Irish team could risk a game-winning field goal. That’s overthinking. Riley Leonard and Duke’s offense were not Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.
Parker called an end around on third down Saturday instead of handing off to Estime. That seemed like overthinking. The staff has hyped up this running back repeatedly, so they should back it up.
But now, I can’t write that column. Overthinking is certainly a problem with this team, but the more glaring issue is the sheer incompetence.
The incompetence to teach a defense how to tackle properly.
The incompetence to get anything out of the kick return and punt return units.
The incompetence to turn an offensive line room full of four-star recruits into a decent pass-blocking group.
The incompetence to turn an offensive line room full of four-star recruits into a decent run-blocking group against Power 5 competition.
The incompetence to utilize probably the best quarterback Notre Dame has had in a decade-and-a-half.
Right now, the only difference between Notre Dame’s offense and Iowa’s offense is that Iowa’s is incompetent by choice. Kirk Ferentz keeps his son on the payroll as offensive coordinator out of nepotism. But now that I think about it, that’s also what’s happened at Notre Dame, isn’t it? A second-year head coach hired or retained a bunch of his friends and this is where it got him.
To be fair, Freeman doesn’t have a preexisting relationship with all the coaches, and he does need to hire people he can trust (to a point). Also, some of those assistants do good work. Cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens and running backs coach Deland McCullough have stocked their positions with quality players. And defensive coordinator Al Golden generally calls good if not stellar games.
But the best thing Chris O’Leary has done with safeties is turn a converted wide receiver into a pretty good player. Marty Biagi’s special teams are all over the place. Al Washington’s defensive line has one playmaker in Howard Cross III, and he’s on the interior. Joe Rudolph can’t decide on who to play on the interior of his side of the trenches. And Chansi Stuckey gets somewhat of a pass for the horrible depth chart he inherited, but where’s Virginia Tech wide receiver transfer Kaleb Smith when you need him?
And then there’s Parker, the man Freeman promoted after a “national” search for a new offensive coordinator. If Notre Dame’s offense is Edmund Hillary and Parker is Tenzing Norgay, then instead of leading the Irish up Mount Everest he’s somehow found a way to plunge them down into the Mariana Trench.
It all boils down to this: Notre Dame’s coaches and players are not smart. They make dumb decisions constantly. The players are not smart because the coaches are not smart and can’t teach them how to play football worth a damn. The coaches are not smart because... well, you’re guess is as good as mine.
If I had to speculate as to the root cause of this incompetence, I would say that it is the varying degrees of inexperience on this coaching staff. But, if I’m reading between the lines, I would also bet that these coaches assumed that inheriting a program Brian Kelly built meant that they could skip over a few steps. They probably thought that the football players at Notre Dame — a top-20 academic institution in the United States — who had built separate win streaks over unranked and (regular season) ACC opponents didn’t need to be taught certain football fundamentals.
Well, this team needs to get back to fundamentals, if they were ever there to begin with. For years the constant problem with Notre Dame football has been execution on the field. Under Brian Kelly and Tommy Rees, things usually looked good in concept even if those two failed to properly prepare the players to make the vision a reality.
Now, everything just looks dumb. There’s a quote from the late actor Rip Torn in the movie “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story” that pretty much sums up the situation. I would include the clip below, but it is wildly offensive and inappropriate, so here is the censored version:
“It’s like watching a bunch of [REDACTED] trying to [REDACTED] a doorknob out there.”
Let your imagination fill in the blanks. And then imagine what it would be like to have a program that could actually win a national championship, just like Irish fans have had to imagine for the last 35 years and counting.