SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The coach has been defending his sideline theatrics.
The players have been defending the coach, who has kind of been throwing people under the bus while kind of taking responsibility.
The critics say there’s no defense for Notre Dame’s missteps in its ugly start under embattled Brian Kelly.
What the Fighting Irish really needed to do against Stanford on Saturday was play some defense.
Aided by three Stanford turnovers, the defense held up its end of the deal. But a pair of Irish interceptions helped Stanford rally for a 17-10 victory.
The loss puts ND (2-5), which gave up 17 unanswered points, in a deep hole.
‘‘This is a bitter pill to swallow,’’ Kelly said, ‘‘losing our fifth game now by one possession. I love those kids in there. They did everything they knew. . . . they just came up a little short again. We’re in a tough spot right now. But we’ll find a way. We’ll get through this rough spot.’’
That said, the remaining schedule looks perilous. There may be no juggernauts left, but among the remaining opponents, only losing to Army would qualify as a major shocker at this point.
Because it’s Notre Dame, and because the 2-4 start was the worst since an 0-5 start in 2007, three years before Kelly arrived, the angst has been pretty shrill.
Speculation has delved into whether the players have quit on Kelly. They sure didn’t look like they quit against Stanford. And whether ought to be fired — that’s unlikely. Kelly was given a six-year extension in January, and while things haven’t been going well this fall, Notre Dame has proven with its bad hires between Kelly and Lou Holtz that it could do worse.
ND now heads into its bye week intent on regrouping.
‘‘Everybody knows where we’re at. We’re 2-5,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘We’re going to get reminded about it by everyone in the country about a million times. I told the guys, ‘This is the no-apology zone.’ No one needs to apologize. What we need to do is coach better and execute better. That will cure a lot of things.’’
Notre Dame led 10-0 after a first half that easily could have gone the other way. Despite playing without their injured star running back, Heisman hopeful Christian McCaffrey, the Cardinal moved the ball well in the first half.
Stanford (4-2) took its first lead, 17-10, with 10:38 left in the fourth quarter. Running back Bryce Love fumbled at the 1 after a six-yard run, and center Jesse Burkett recovered the ball in the end zone. Love also ran in a two-point conversion.
Those were the first points given up by the Irish defense. Stanford scored its first nine points on an interception for a touchdown and a safety.
Two turnovers, and a 47-yard field goal that bopped the top of the left upright and kicked back, helped ND open its 10-0 halftime lead.
Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer returned the favor, throwing two interceptions in the third quarter. The first was returned 50 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Quenton Meeks for a touchdown. The second, by Stanford safety Dallas Lloyd, was returned 38 yards to the Notre Dame 47, snuffing an Irish threat.
Kelly turned to backup Malik Zaire at that point, but put Kizer back in when the Irish fell behind.
‘‘Malik’s a really good quarterback,’’ Kelly said. ‘‘I thought could add some momentum. [But] I don’t think theres any question: DeShone is the starting quarterback.’’
In a way, this was the second consecutive week the Irish defense has delivered. It gave up only three points in last week’s 10-3 Hurricane Bowl loss at N.C. State.
In their three losses that weren’t played in a hurricane, though, the Irish had given up 124 points. That’s 41.3 points a game, if you’re keeping score at home.
Offense or defense, the Irish are sticking together, James Onwualu said.
‘‘A lot of teams would turn on each other, but you don’t see that with this team,’’ the senior linebacker said. ‘‘Guys are still patting each other on the back, trying to hold each other up. That isn’t found in a lot of locker rooms. You lose a game or two and you turn on each other, especially defense against offense. ‘Oh, why didn’t you score?’ There’s none of that. We’re all just trying to get better.’’
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