After their first two games of the 2016 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish went into Saturday’s game against Michigan State as a team with an identity crisis. A road loss to Texas to open the season followed by a nondescript home win over Nevada showed no true defining characteristics for a team that entered the season with lofty expectations.
The Texas game was defined more by the quarterback shuffle between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire than anything else. There were improvements against Nevada, but it’s Nevada – hardly a team or a final score (39-10) worthy of defining Notre Dame, which had a top-10 ranking to open the season.
Two games and no sign of a true identity.
Could the Irish do something against Michigan State that would stand out and make a statement, or would we still be scratching our heads to try to figure out just what this team is?
That statement came against the Spartans, but it was hardly the one Brian Kelly’s Irish wanted to make.
“We’re too sloppy overall as a football team,” Kelly said after his team’s 36-28 loss.
Sloppy in terms of committing three turnovers and giving up 15 points off those turnovers.
Sloppy in terms of tackling — more missed tackles reared their ugly heads nearly two weeks after the ragged opener against Texas. Continued whiffs on defense led to 260 rushing yards by the Spartans.
Sloppy in terms of overall quarterback play — DeShone Kizer ended up with statistics that looked pretty: 344 yards, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown. However, his interception as well as the bulk of his 17 incompletions were way off the mark. Many errant throws skidded off the Notre Dame Stadium turf, nowhere close to open Irish receivers.
Notre Dame was sloppy with its run blocking. The Irish tallied just 57 rushing yards, a paltry number for a team that wants to dominate the line of scrimmage and be offensively balanced.
The Irish were also sloppy on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Gaping holes were blown open in the middle of the Irish defensive line. Coordinator Brian VanGorder watched a 73-yard touchdown run by Gerald Holmes that put Michigan State up 36-7 in the third quarter.
“We’ve got to clean up the whole deal,” said Kelly. “This is everywhere and this is on me. We’ve got to clean up everything. We are a sloppy football team.”
Things got even sloppier the day after the loss to MSU when Kelly’s Twitter account “liked” a tweet that included the hashtag “#fireVangorder”.
“I have a number of people that manage my Twitter account,” Kelly said during his Sunday teleconference. “Obviously going through it, somebody made a mistake as they were scrolling through (and) inadvertently hit it. (It was) just a mistake, an unfortunate mistake that was made by one of my staff members.”
There is a lot of football left to be played by the Irish this season, but they have allowed 86 combined points to the two good teams on their schedule so far… and there’s a lot of work ahead to prove they are something other than a sloppy football team.
The Fighting Irish defense also allowed Michigan State to convert 9 of 18 third downs (50 percent) in the game. Notre Dame had won its previous three meetings between the two schools in head-to-head matchups between Kelly and Mark Dantonio. The Irish had limited the Spartans to just a 34-percent success rate (18 of 52) in combined third down conversions in those games.
The offense has room to improve, but the defense shows the most glaring deficiencies. In the losses to the Longhorns and Spartans the Irish have yielded a combined 1,018 yards, 86 points, 48 first downs, and 497 rushing yards.
The next three games on the schedule — against Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina State — give the Fighting Irish a chance to improve before another physical team – Stanford – visits on Oct. 15.
The Irish can’t be sloppy then.