Sept. 25, 2016
By John Heisler
Brian Kelly thought Saturday would be the day.
The Irish head football coach and his staff had made some adjustments after a frustrating 1-2 start.
They'd had three games to assess where they were and deal with that reality--and Kelly also wasn't afraid to challenge his own team, to an extent, in an effort to help those players forge a better identify after the first month of play.
For a while in Notre Dame Stadium, he liked the response.
Kelly asked for a greater sense of urgency, and he absolutely got that with the Irish up quick 14-0 against Duke.
Even after trailing by a touchdown at the break, his defense raised its level of play and allowed quarterback DeShone Kizer and the offense to make enough plays to claim a seven-point lead midway through the final period.
But it wasn't enough.
Somehow the visitors from Duke, trying to make amends for their own two-game losing streak, put their fingers on the right buttons at both ends of the field in the end and walked away with a 38-35 triumph.
"We have standards that we have set within the program," noted Kelly to his squad moments before kickoff. "Those involve adjustments from where we were the first quarter of the season. Those adjustments are very seamless, but they are easily felt. It's discipline and attention to detail. Those are clearly defined.
"We weren't happy with the first quarter--nobody is happy with it--we got off to a slow start. We set some musts relative to what we have to do today.
"Defensively, we must tackle, no explosive plays. Offensively, we must be consistent and have a sense of urgency from the first play. And special teams, no penalties and take care of the football. Those are musts.
"The standards we've set after the adjustments we've made are so we can finish the next three quarters (of the season). That's the new standard.
"So, after today, we now define who we are. When we come back in this locker room, we are who we are. Today is a defining moment, the way we play, for 2016. All those things, call it whatever you want, but when you walk back in there, we know where we are, it's no longer exploration.
"We've made the adjustments and we know what we need to do."
Kelly was even more emphatic in his comments earlier Saturday at the team's final session in its downtown hotel before it headed on buses to Notre Dame Stadium.
"Today is about a sense of urgency--go as hard as you can as long as you can. We've got enough players. We can't have 75 or 80 percent effort. Every play counts. Today it's every player, every play.
"You can't get today back. You've got one shot at it today. Sense of urgency in everything we do starting with the first play until there are zeroes on the clock. If we do that today don't worry about the scoreboard because it's going to be good."
That sense of urgency proved ever so visible early on. Notre Dame's first two offensive possessions consumed 139 yards and two scores--with Duke managing a three-play, one-yard drive in between. At 14-0, the living was easy, as Sarah Vaughn crooned in her 1957 masterpiece "Summertime."
But the Blue Devils found fire of their own, returning a kickoff 96 yards, creating 78- and 70-yard scoring drives and adding a fourth touchdown on one 25-yard play following a lost Notre Dame fumble. Amazingly, Kizer threw for 233 yards in the first half alone--yet he and his teammates trailed by a TD at intermission.
Kelly remained steadfast in his thoughts:
"I'm standing by what I told you at the start of the game. You've got half a game now to define what this football team is about," he told the Irish at the break.
"Are we a team that is going to give it 80 percent of what we've got? Are we going to give just some effort? Or are we going to compete and give everything we have? Because we haven't done that yet, we haven't laid it on the line and given every ounce of we have.
"You gotta make a decision as to how you want to be defined as this football team. You're down 28-21 at home. How do you want this to finish? It's your call now. It's all about you. You got a chance to define who you are and what we are as a football team. Call it gut check, call it character. Who are you? Let's see if we're fighters."
If Kelly particularly hoped his defense would bow up, he was rewarded.
Linebacker Nyles Morgan emphatically ended one Duke foray with Notre Dame's first sack of the season on a third-and-six play.
Then, freshman Donte Vaughan came up with an end-zone interception while running stride for stride with a Blue Devil receiver.
From there Kizer threw 27 yards to C.J. Sanders, rushed twice himself for a combined 24 yards and ended with a nifty 12-yard scoring toss to St. Brown in the far left corner of the end zone.
That made it 35-28--and if only the game could have ended right there. The comeback story might have read nearly perfectly. But it didn't.
With their backs against the wall, the Blue Devils' third play became the tying score on a pass senior Anthony Nash took 64 yards all the way down the Duke sideline.
Thrown back on their own five-yard line, the Irish on third and 20 saw Kizer's throw fall into the hands of senior Duke safety Deondre Singleton right in front of the Notre Dame bench. The visitors ran it down to the Irish one and used every second on the clock they could before kicking a field goal to lead with 1:24 remaining.
With no timeouts in his pocket, Kizer found Torii Hunter Jr. for 11 yards on the first play--then three incompletions over the next four plays ended it with 40 ticks remaining.
"You guys know where we are--we're 1-3. Everybody in this room is part of a 1-3 football team. You can't change the facts. And we got here for a reason," Kelly said after the game to his squad.
"I have no issues with this football team and our want to compete. You want to win.
"This game of football is played with a great deal of grit and intensity. If you don't have that you can't win football games. Right now we lack that toughness, that grit and that intensity.
"We don't have guys in here that are quitters or who don't want to compete. But we need an absolute will and desire to put it all out there every single snap."
Kelly singled out--including to the media--running back Dexter Williams (who ran for one TD and also made two special teams tackles) as one guy who was flying around and had the energy and excitement and urgency to make things happen.
Kelly and his staff will be looking for that sort of fire from their lineup--whatever it may look like--when the Irish take the field again next Saturday against a Syracuse team that stands 2-2 after a road win this week at Connecticut.
"The answers are within our football team," said senior Irish captain and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. "We have to figure out what we can do better and change our attitudes and get ourselves to win football games. I don't think we have to look for magical answers. It comes from within. We just have to do it."
MetLife Stadium is the next destination for Notre Dame's football journey.
If Kelly thought the second half against Duke would provide a gut check of sorts, his Irish upped the ante for noon on Saturday in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler surveys the Irish football scene on a regular basis for Fighting Irish Media.