A season that started with incredible hope and intertwined fan expectations, from both inside and outside the program, has turned into a tangled mess for the Notre Dame football team.
The Fighting Irish were favored by 21 points against Duke in Saturday’s home game, but instead of getting what should have been a win column-padding win that would have put them back at .500 for the season, the 38-35 loss to the Blue Devils is tied for the largest upset of the Irish (1-3) in the past 20 years.
Notre Dame’s home football games are practically a weekly fall TV series on NBC. The drama and tragedy have played out in epic proportions over the past two weeks in losses to Michigan State and Duke.
Sunday’s Fighting Irish loss to the Blue Devils, combined with Sunday’s announcement by head coach Brian Kelly that he has fired defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, is to Notre Dame football what the infamous “Red Wedding” episode was to the Emmy-winning HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
The defeat and dismissal create a major plot twist which has reshaped reality in this way: Anything that happens for the rest of the season in doubt.
Kelly did what he had to do for VanGorder at his postgame press conference. He gave his longtime friend a vote of confidence despite the fact that the Irish defense had just yielded 498 total yards to an offense that came into the game ranked 94th in the nation in scoring offense.
The Blue Devils had combined for a total of 27 points the previous two weeks in losses to Northwestern and Wake Forest, but they had eclipsed that mark by halftime Saturday when they led the Irish 28-21.
VanGorder was serenaded to a chorus of “Fire VanGorder” in the fourth quarter Saturday. His firing was, if nothing else, the most humane thing Kelly could do for him, his team and fans alike.
“Making the change in my estimation was the best way to get everybody back to the point where we can look forward to putting this defense back in a position to succeed,” Kelly said of the decision to fire his defensive coordinator during his Sunday teleconference.
The Notre Dame defense currently ranks 103rd in the FBS in total defense (454 yards per game), 101st in points allowed (33.5 points per game), 96th in rushing defense (201 ypg), and 87th in pass defense (253 ypg).
“It’s why we’ve made a change,” Kelly answered more than once when asked about his team’s glaring statistical deficiencies.
It’s hard to imagine a team getting substantially better after firing the head of the defense four games and two-plus seasons into his tenure. The man now tasked with the duty of improving it is Greg Hudson, who has been with the Irish as a defensive analyst this season.
Hudson played linebacker at Notre Dame and has been defensive coordinator at Purdue (2013-2015), East Carolina and Minnesota.
The Irish play Syracuse in the Meadowlands next week before consecutive games against North Carolina State, Stanford and Miami.