Memo to Brian Kelly, Notre Dame Is Not Playing Championship Defense.
It has been a little over a week since myself and others faithful to the Notre Dame football team sat in the stands at the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.
Blue and gold clad sheep which we were, we had to watch helplessly as the Fighting Irish squandered a 14 point second half lead during a demoralizing 18-14 loss to Florida State.
After the game a deathly faced Irish head coach Brian Kelly said that it was nice to be able to talk about a Notre Dame team that plays championship defense.
A championship defense does not give up an 11 point fourth quarter lead, no matter what the state of the offense. A championship defense does not give up 272 yards of total offense in the second half with their season hanging in the balance.
The sad part is that the Irish, led by a brilliant performance by star linebacker Manto Te'o, actually were playing championship defense in the first half. Notre Dame gave up a mere 18 total yards before the break and I agree that that's as good as it gets.
Much maligned Seminole quarterback E.J. Manuel was largely ineffective in the first 37 minutes of the game. He was constantly harassed while being sacked four times in the first half alone, thanks to a blitzing, stunting Notre Dame defense which played aggressively and fearlessly.
Then midway through the third quarter Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco inexplicably changed tactics.
Instead of staying on the attack, the Irish called off the blitzes in favor of three or four down linemen sets and soft zones. Manual, who must have felt as if he'd just stepped off a tilt-a-whirl, had an opportunity to gather himself and regain his composure.
The result was that he now had time to stand in the pocket and pick apart an Irish secondary which has been the butt of every joke north of the Michigan/Indiana border for the last four months.
Down 14-3, Manual and the Seminoles embarked on a ten play, 84 yard drive right through Notre Dame's championship defense.
True, the Irish offense was not any better and the quarterback tandem of Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix is not working.
As much as I hate to admit it: Rees is regressing, and the insertion of Hendrix on the next drive after Florida State had narrowed the margin to 14-9 was as ill timed a quarterback switch as I've seen in any game all season.
Kelly really rolled the dice by putting an inexperienced quarterback into a pressure packed, crucial game situation. And when you flirt with disaster, sometimes calamity kisses you on the lips.
This happened on the third play of that drive when Hendrix's ill-advised pass was intercepted by the Seminoles Nigel Bradham who returned the ball 17 yards to the Notre Dame 16.
The Notre Dame coaches often talk about the "Quick Change". A term used to describe shocking turnovers deep in their own territory. This is something the ND defense prides itself on: stopping the opposition in these quick change situations.
Did the Irish play championship defense against FSU?
This would have been the perfect time for Notre Dame's championship defense to reassert itself and hold the Seminoles to a field goal attempt.
But it didn't happen as Champ Sports Bowl MVP Rashad Greene hauled in a 15 yard scoring toss and in just over a minute and twenty seconds Notre Dame's 11 point lead was gone.
In fairness to the Irish defense, I place more of the blame on Diaco and Kelly himself than I do on them.
All season I have thought that Te'o was an overrated player, but after seeing him play in person I have to admit that he was all over the field.
Aaron Lynch is another real good player, although I think comparisons to Irish legend Ross Browner are premature.
Still Lynch was repeatedly held by FSU's beaten and inexperienced offensive line, although the only holding penalty which was called in the game was on the last deep Notre Dame offensive into Seminole territory.
A questionable flag which put the Irish in first and long and possibly influenced Rees' thinking on the final game clinching interception.
This left me and my Notre Dame brethren to witness yet another heart breaking collapse. Forcing us to contemplate the cloudy future of an Irish football team who is still a long way from championship caliber in any phase of the game.
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