Sept. 25, 2016

By John Heisler

Notre Dame Saturday played the last contest in a three-game home stand against Duke in the first of three straight games against Atlantic Coast Conference opposition (Syracuse this week and North Carolina the next).

Here are some Irish takeaways from their 38-35 loss to the Blue Devils:

1. The Irish are still seeking 60 minutes of consistent play. Notre Dame had its moments against Duke. The offense marched unimpeded by the Blue Devils on 75- and 64-yard scoring drives to start the game. Only 6:16 into the contest the Irish led 14-0 and it looked as if a perfect weather afternoon might transform into play on the field. Even after trailing at the half, Notre Dame mustered a drive-ending sack, an end-zone interception and a fourth-down stop. That translated into 83- and 81-yard TD drives for Brian Kelly’s crew and gave the home team a 35-28 lead. Yet all that still wasn’t enough for a victory.

2. Notre Dame can throw the football-but there’s more to it than that. Irish signal-caller DeShone Kizer had a career day in many respects against Duke, throwing for 381 yards. Blue Devil coach David Cutcliffe made it clear he would be happy to watch future Kizer performances on television as opposed to being forced to defend him. Yet Kizer, who also tied for the team lead in rushing with 60 net yards and a score, isn’t the answer by himself. As Cutcliffe also noted after the game, Kizer remains relatively young in his overall career. Kizer’s still learning day to day and week to week-and, even if he’s capable of throwing the football accurately all over the lot, the Irish goal remains a more complete all-around offense, defense and special teams combination.

3. The Irish have to close. In all three Notre Dame defeats the Irish were there at the end. But Saturday it all went south after Kizer’s TD pass to Equanimeous St. Brown put the home team on top 35-28 with 7:46 remaining and seemingly sent a dagger toward the Duke sideline. But not much went right in those last seven-plus minutes. The Blue Devils needed less than a minute to tie the game on a 64-yard pass play, and Notre Dame’s offensive execution on its final two drives produced an interception and an incompletion on fourth and three to end the game.

4. Helped wanted: passion, grit and tenacity. If Brian Kelly felt his team’s outing against Duke would provide something of a referendum on where the Irish stand with one-third of the regular season in the books, he wasn’t thrilled with what he saw. And he didn’t mind addressing what he thought was missing-most of it in the passion department. “It looks like it’s hard. Like we’re pulling teeth. There’s no fun, no enjoyment, no energy,” he said. The coming weeks will be telling in terms of how everybody in the Irish camp goes about attempting to improve that condition.

5. The Irish can’t give up. As crazy as it may sound, given the potential end-game scenarios in the three Notre Dame losses, it wouldn’t have been that hard to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in those three contests. So, as readily as Kelly understands he can’t change the 1-3 brand on him, his staff and his players, they must soldier on and find some answers. The blueprint after a month has been eerily similar-which is why Kelly felt Saturday could have been a defining game. In a perfect world, the late Irish lead would have held up and at least Notre Dame would have been headed back in a positive direction-despite whatever issues remained to be addressed. No one in the locker room likes or is used to 1-3-Kizer admitted he’d never been part of a team with that record. So Kelly and his staff look for fresh answers this week, in hopes whatever they determine translates on weekends to come. It begins Saturday against Syracuse.

Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been watching Irish football since he joined the athletics communication staff in 1978.