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Evaluating the Irish: Michigan State Spartans

By · September 20th, 2010 · 6 Comments
Evaluating the Irish: Michigan State Spartans

As I slowly recovered from the initial shock of the final play of Notre Dame’s game against Michigan State, something felt eerily familiar—almost like déjà vu. And as I continued to reflect, I realized that I had experienced it before. Notre Dame’s recent loss seems like a link in a chain of disappointments that have had Irish fans reeling since 1988, the last time the Irish won a National Title.

The loss to Michigan State might not have as profound an impact on Brian Kelly or the team as the other losses since 1988, but it stings nonetheless. This loss was so shocking because it proved the poor performance against Michigan was no fluke. Sure the team struggled, but at least they were playing with passion and enthusiasm, right? However, as Brian Kelly pointed out last week, that simply isn’t enough:

“So you showed me that you’re going to play hard, that you’re going to fight. That’s a great dynamic to have in a football team, but that’s not the end-all…”

Part of me hoped that the Irish could get their act together in time to play the Spartans. Part of me hoped that Michigan was better than the rest of the nation gave them credit for and that, over time, Notre Dame would look good for coming back before losing to them. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

It’s easy when a team is winning on a consistent basis to mention things that they’re doing great or nit-pick on things they could do better. But, as the Irish are currently struggling with a variety of things that take longer than a week of hard practice to correct, it would be useless for me to continue to list them week after week. The fact is that there aren’t many things that the Irish struggled with in this game that they didn’t against Michigan.

It’s tough to beat an opponent when you’re busy beating yourself.

The most frustrating thing about Notre Dame’s performance against Michigan State is that they had every opportunity to win. However, it’s tough to beat any opponent when you’re constantly beating yourself. One of the conclusions that most people were drawing from the Irish victory over Purdue is that it felt as though most of the technical difficulties and mental mistakes that hindered this team in seasons past seemed like they were being corrected under Brian Kelly. Now that two more games have passed, it seems as though that may not necessarily be the case. However, the problem is two-fold.

First,  for their current conditioning levels, the defense is on the field too much during the course of a game. Brian Kelly’s offense is designed to score quickly, often times employing a no-huddle offense which creates a sense of urgency in the offense and the opposing defense. However, the flip side is that it means that the Irish defense spends an inordinate amount of time on the field.

Last season at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly’s offense ranked 119th out of 120 FBS schools in time-of-possession with an average of 25:20 minutes a game. Through three games, the Irish are averaging just 25:27 minutes a game, improving on the numbers that Kelly’s team put up last season by only 7 seconds. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t be a problem. However, Notre Dame’s defensive depth chart—primarily the secondary—is depleted with injuries which means that players like Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta (who is starting for the still hobbled Jamoris Slaughter) are playing nearly every down on defense.

What does this mean for the defense? Simply put, the Irish defense still isn’t conditioned to be on the field that long and there isn’t the depth to rotate in a fresh group when needed. So, as the game winds on and teams decide to run the ball on the winded Irish defense, the players resort to energy-saving tackling techniques instead of wrapping up opponents and driving them to the turf. This is exactly what plagued the Irish against Michigan State as the Spartans ran the ball a total of 43 times and gained 203 yards on the ground.

Second, the offense is making too many mental mistakes, consistently turning the ball over in crucial situations. Against Michigan State, the Irish turned the ball over 3 times (2 fumbles lost, 1 interception). Michael Floyd caught two touchdown passes against Michigan State, bringing his touchdown-to-fumble ratio for the season to 2-2. Through the first three games of the season, the Irish defense ranks 83rd in the nation in passing yards yielded with an average of 246 yards-per-game and 82nd in the nation in rushing yards yielded with an average of 197.7 yards per game, which makes them ranked 99th in the nation for total yards allowed with an average of 443.7 yards per game. Those numbers are undoubtedly exacerbated by the mental errors on offense, causing the defense to be on the field much longer than they should.

Is the defense really this bad, or is the depleted depth chart, the lack of conditioning, and the mental errors by the offense making an already poor situation worse? This is something that will be a true indicator of Coach Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s ability to develop talent and eliminate mental break downs on defense as well as strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo’s ability to continue to develop the player’s endurance.

Brian Kelly might not be that different from Charlie Weis.

Throughout his tenure, Charlie Weis was known for being somewhat reckless with his play calling. There were a number of times that he would go for a fourth down conversion when conventional wisdom would say kick a field goal or pin the opposing offense deep in their own territory with a well-placed punt.

When Brian Kelly was hired as the head football coach at Notre Dame, most people thought, just like in the past, Notre Dame had hired a coach with a starkly different mentality from the previous coach. Three games into the season, and there is already a growing body of evidence that perhaps Brian Kelly is as “reckless” in his play calling on fourth down situations as Charlie Weis was.

Against Michigan State, Brian Kelly elected to try a fourth down conversion on Notre Dame’s own 44-yard line with just over six minutes to play in the 4th quarter with the game tied. And for the second week in a row, Brian Kelly has stood by his decision:

“We had what I felt was a high-percentage opportunity. We just didn’t get it done. If I had to do it all over again…I would have done it again.”

There will be continued debate this week, just as there was last week when Kelly chose to go for a touchdown at the end of the first half against Michigan instead of kicking a high-percentage field goal, regarding whether Kelly should have elected to punt the ball and play defense or try the fourth down conversion. But the toughest thing to overcome is the reality that Kelly’s thought process in those situations isn’t much different than Weis.

There’s a bad moon on the rise.

Over the next three weeks, Notre Dame will face Stanford, Boston College, and Pittsburgh—arguably better foes than the previous three for the Irish. The common thought is that Notre Dame will struggle against the next three opponents. However, if the previous three games taught us anything, it’s that there aren’t many things keeping the Irish from being a good team. They lost their previous two games by no more than seven points each and both near the end of the game. Like I said last week, it’s common for Irish fans to look for the “silver lining” in each loss. Rather than demanding success on a weekly basis, we’ve grown accustomed to sub-par efforts and we’ve trained ourselves to look for some sign of progression. Unfortunately, with the items mentioned above, there’s not going to be a quick fix. These things will take time.

As has been mentioned several times, the first year of a coach’s tenure doesn’t necessarily correlate to the future. The obvious examples are Ty Willingham, who had a remarkable first season followed by unremarkable disappointment, and Lou Holtz, who had a lackluster inaugural campaign but ultimately went on to have a historic career.

So to say that Brian Kelly’s “seat” is starting to heat up is simply not the case. Sure, given his success as a head coach at his previous stops, the beginning of this particular season is a tough pill to swallow. But it goes without saying that building a consistently successful program, the type of program that every Irish fan wants, takes time. And if it’s obvious that the Irish are continuing to improve throughout the season on the areas noted above, time is something that Kelly will have a lot of.

I’d much rather have a season of growth and development now if it means sustained success in the years to come. It’s not settling for mediocrity. Rather, it’s an understanding that perfection takes time.

And in that, I have a feeling I’m not alone.



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