The case for Notre Dame as a College Football Playoff contender in 2016 rested on the notion that its prowess on one side of the ball would outweigh its deficiencies on the other. The Irish would need their offense to carry them through a demanding-if-manageable schedule. If they were to lose, it'd be because the opponent kept the game in the 20s or below.
On Saturday in South Bend, the hazards of such an imbalanced profile—good offense, really bad defense—were laid bare in one of the few games that seemed like a sure W on the schedule entering the season. Duke stunned Notre Dame, 38–35, to drop it to 1–3. If it wasn’t already obvious that the Irish’s defense is a problem, the Blue Devils drove the point home so thoroughly as to prompt questions about why Notre Dame was rated so favorably to begin with (including by this outlet).
The offense-defense imbalance the Irish carried into the season seemed treacherous for a squad purported to be in the conversation for a spot in the national semifinals. They returned only five starters and waved farewell to defensive standouts like linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, defensive back KeiVarae Russell and lineman Sheldon Day. Moreover, even though they came close to earning a CFP berth in 2015 with those players around, their late-season track record warranted greater scrutiny.
Dating to last November, Notre Dame has yielded at least 36 points in six of nine games. The two exceptions in 2015—a 28–7 win over Wake Forest and a 19–16 victory over Boston College—came against teams that finished 107th and 124th, respectively, in Football Outsiders’ Offensive S&P + Ratings. In 2016 alone, the Irish have allowed an average of 37 points in regulation to Power 5 opponents. The quality of opponent Saturday threw Notre Dame’s defensive issues into stark relief: Duke ranked 95th nationally in yards per play and was coming off a loss to lowly Northwestern.
The preseason dismissal of projected safety starter Max Redfield thinned a defensive backfield that probably would have had a really hard time stopping people at full strength. The 50–47 loss to Texas raised alarms, but a scintillating performance from quarterback Deshone Kizer—and the fact that a playoff bid theoretically remained within the realm of possibility—dulled the pain. Then came the season-ending injury to cornerback Shaun Crawford, another major blow to a a shaky secondary, and a controversy surrounding a Tweet liked by Kelly’s Twitter account that called for the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The Duke game offered an opportunity for Notre Dame to stem the tide of unease surrounding its defense. Instead, it will lead to more doubt and speculation—about VanGorder, about recruiting more players who can tackle and win in the trenches and blanket wide receivers, about how many more losses are on the schedule, about whether double-digit wins is a realistic expectation for the Irish in the Kelly era. The coach’s postgame remarks, even if made mere moments after a deflating loss and intended to foster competition, only underscored the tension.
Unfortunately for the Irish, there’s no get-well game on the horizon. They host a Syracuse squad led by Art Briles acolyte Dino Babers next week. Two weeks later, they’ll need to try to rein in Stanford all-purpose dynamo Christian McCaffrey, followed by a meeting with Miami’s potent combination of an NFL-caliber quarterback (Brad Kaaya) and the nation’s second-ranked rushing attack.
Notre Dame is talented enough offensively to weather the storm while VanGorder makes adjustments. Kizer, who completed 22 of his 37 pass attempts for a career-high 381 yards on Saturday, is really good, and there’s enough playmaking talent around to stretch opposing defenses. Yet that may not be enough to overcome what the Irish are doing (or not doing) when Kizer is not on the field. Few expected the Irish would need this much work to compete against elite competition, let alone a middling ACC squad that couldn’t even hang 15 points on Wake Forest or the Wildcats.
As Notre Dame tries to capture the form that made so many observers believe it was a national title contender in August, it will have to solve what ails its defense while leaning on its offense to prevent a total unraveling.