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The Journal Gazette

September 18, 2016 4:18 AM

Brian Kelly's staff under scrutiny, according to Kelly

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND — After Notre Dame's 36-28 loss to Michigan State, Irish coach Brian Kelly opened his news conference with a number of blatant statements that could be interpreted as harsh criticism of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, other assistants or both.

"Obviously from our perspective we've got to do a better job coaching," Kelly said. "That's on me, starts with me, and obviously offense, defense, and special teams (have) got to be better to win games against good competition."

The No. 12 Spartans (2-0) qualify as good competition, but playing at Notre Dame Stadium the No. 18 Irish (1-2) were favored by 7.5 points. And, in reality, the final score did not reflect the nature of a game Michigan State led by 29 late in the third quarter.

Kelly and VanGorder, together for three seasons here, have tried to remake the Irish defense into an aggressive, blitzing unit that forces turnovers. But those efforts have mostly come up empty, as the Irish defense ranked 73rd in the FBS in 2014, 45th last year and entered Saturday at 91st.

No critique was more damning than Kelly's take on the blown coverage that allowed Michigan State to seal the game, a third-and-7 pass with 2:39 remaining that found Donnie Corley wide open deep on the right side for a 28-yard gain.

"We got them into a good third-down situation, and we don't do a very good job on two vertical (routes) and give them an easy completion," Kelly said. "They got two verticals, pretty standard deal, corner's trying to midpoint two vertical, we buzz it with the underneath coverage guy, and we're not in good position. That's poor coaching. We're not coaching it well enough."

Kelly oversees the whole program, so everything's ultimately his responsibility, but the reality is he's an offensive mind who works most closely with the offense and hired VanGorder to implement a complex system on defense.

"Obviously if our players can't execute a simple two vertical, corner sitting over the top and the safety coming underneath, that's on me," Kelly said. "That falls on my shoulders, and we're not getting that done. So we're either not capable of running that coverage or we're not coaching it well enough, one or the other, so I have got to do a better job."

The run defense allowed Michigan State halfbacks Gerald Holmes and LJ Scott to combine for 35 carries for 198 yards and three TDs. It was a stark contrast to Irish halfbacks Josh Adams and Tarean Folston, who together had 16 carries for 43 yards.

Defensive end Isaac Rochell either could not or would not diagnose the woeful performance against Michigan State's ground game. He said he would have to study the film Sunday before he realized what went wrong.

Critics say VanGorder's scheme is too complicated, though players insisted in training camp that everyone had it down pat.

It was unusual to hear Kelly emphasize coaching so frequently and so emphatically in his postgame press conference, but he had also mentioned a need for better coaching after the season-opening loss at Texas, so any potential tension remains worth watching as the Irish move on to hosting Duke next weekend. And while Michigan State's game plan was complimented by multiple observers, Notre Dame's game plans will be under all the more scrutinty from here on out.

Says who? Says none other than Kelly himself.