What Just Happened?

Our weekly Sunday Drive Thru attempts to answer that pressing question after another head-shaking Irish defeat.

With 40 seconds remaining on the game clock during a seemingly ill-advised timeout called for by the home team, a colleague to my left took his eyes off the field to chat up a former Irish player. The conversation continued through the next snap - one both sideline patrons rightly assumed would be some type of north-south rushing attempt meant to better senior kicker David Ruffer's angle and/or positioning for a game-winning field goal attempt.

That assumed rushing attempt turned into a roll-out pass and subsequent poorly (under) thrown jump ball into the right corner of the end zone, intercepted by the visitors.

Game over. Tulsa 28 Notre Dame 27.

"What just happened?" the colleague asked me, his confused face searching for an answer as the former player just shook his head in disbelief.

"I guess Kelly thought Ruffer was due," I answered.

If you haven't noticed, I used occasionally use sarcasm as a defense mechanism - not recommended by lifestyle professionals, I'm sure, but a quality that's served me well over the last three, five, 10, 17 years of watching my alma mater play football.

"That's indefensible," another colleague added of the decision to throw as a chorus of boos from sections 21 through 25 rained down upon the first-year Notre Dame head man who's now lost one fewer game through his first nine in South Bend than he did over a three-year span in Cincinnati.

Which again begs the question?

What just happened?

Extended history vs. a head-shaking present

A 19-year run of success as a head coach affords Brian Kelly the benefit of the doubt. That resume, one augmented by a stunning 12-0 regular season in Cincinnati of all places, serves as reason No. 1 why I didn't blink when Kelly made two contrarian, game-altering decisions during a Week Two loss to rival Michigan.

Coaches make questionable decisions all the time, even the great ones. All of them. One week later, I blinked, but accepted that great coaching minds can be victimized on occasion as well, when Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio publicly pantsed the Irish coaching staff with a game-winning, fake field goal touchdown in overtime. Dantonio's gutsy call shocked the living (heck) out of me, so who am I to castigate Kelly & Co. for the same?

Seven days later, I chalked up a physical beating at the hands of Stanford to an unfortunate and troubling truth: Stanford is a better football team.

Last week's bludgeoning at the hands of Navy…well, I actually haven't reconciled that one just yet.

(FYI: Final Score from Saturday, Duke 34 Navy 31. Guess they figured out the veer…)

Maybe the hand Kelly's been dealt (and the subsequent rash of injuries that followed) was simply much worse than I had projected. It's Year One of a new regime – one replete with change on both sides of scrimmage. I can appreciate the virtue of patience, of building a foundation, of ridding the plague of 17 seasons of continual disappointment.

But yesterday's blunder was a voluntarily self-inflicted wound. The decision when examined fully exacerbates the ill-advised strategy apparently made in the heat of the moment:

  • Trailing by one point with just under one minute remaining, but buoyed by the previous seven plays that moved the pigskin from their own 22 to the opponent's 21-yard line, the Irish ran over left guard centering the football on the field while gaining two yards in the process. The result: 2nd and 8 with 40 seconds remaining from the Tulsa 19-yard line.
  • Timeout Notre Dame…cause for pause? Sure, but not terribly surprising with a freshman fill-in quarterback at the helm, of whom the decorated, veteran head coach would likely take the break in action to impart additional methods of protecting the football…at all costs.
  • Meanwhile, senior kicker David Ruffer calmly walked through his steps and final preparations. Ruffer is 13 of 13 on the season, 18 of 18 on his career as Tulsa, left with one timeout of its own, hopes for the law of averages to finally befall Mr. Perfect. (It would be standard practice here to note Ruffer's accuracy from distances of 30-39 yards, but I think you can guess he's somewhere between 100.1 and 99.9 percent).
  • Exiting the timeout, Kelly and 80,000 in attendance know that one more rushing play would force the Golden Hurricane to burn its final timeout, likely leaving 32 to 35 seconds on the game clock. The Irish would then be faced with a 3rd Down inside the 19-yard line, with one crucial timeout remaining (despite the proclamation by the Stadium announcer that Notre Dame had called its final timeout).
  • Notre Dame could choose to be overly conservative and kick the potential game-winner on 3rd down, utilizing the popular strategy that an unfortunate bad snap could then be easily covered by the holder allowing Ruffer another chance, albeit from a greater distance, but a chance nonetheless.

    More likely though, Notre Dame would run one more play into the center of the line (or to whatever hash Ruffer happens to prefer…its hard to tell since he's never missed) and bleed the clock to a point that the field goal attempt, approximately a 36-yard hit or first-ever miss, would end the contest.

Kelly chose none of the above, instead digging deep into the "How to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory rolodex," throwing a dangerous pass into the end. He put the decision in the hands of a freshman quarterback seeing his first extended action.

Further troubling is an examination of the four potential outcomes of Kelly's play-call:

  1. Touchdown Notre Dame. The Irish would lead 33-28 and need a two-point conversion attempt to extend the lead to 7 with approximately 36 seconds remaining for the visitors to try to tie the score. Ensuing Situation: A very likely victory but the door would certainly be open for a dangerous return man, strong-armed QB, and host of talented athletes.
  2. Incomplete pass: The result would be 3rd Down and 8 from the Tulsa 19-yard line and Tulsa would not be forced to use a timeout. Verdict: Poor clock management at best.
  3. Sack or grounding call if the left side (Rees' right) protection breaks down on his designed role: Ensuing Situation: A longer than necessary down and distance on third down or longer subsequent field goal attempt.
  4. Interception: Would end the ball game, robbing a kicker that's never missed of a chance to win the game from a perfectly acceptable distance of 36 yards.

The shortest distance between two points…

Kelly defended his decision when asked post-game about the unorthodox strategy.

"Why not try to get Michael Floyd one on one against a 5-foot-9 corner and call a timeout, here is what we're going to do. Second down, take a shot here. If we don't like it, let's throw that thing away. Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. You saw him competing out there. He knows the deal. He's a quarterback.

"Again, to me this is how we play. We're going to play aggressive. We're going to play smart. If it's not there, we're going to throw it away. We're going to line up on third down and have another shot to get that thing even closer. But I would make the call again and I would hope that the process of learning would have a different outcome."

"Aggressive"? Yes. Reckless (to be polite)? Yes. "Smart"? Are you kidding?

I can respect Kelly for his convictions and preferring not to reveal a perceived weakness by publicly second-guessing himself during a press conference, but is there then no scenario in which Kelly would bleed the clock for a game-winning field goal attempt? Must an "aggressive" coach always shoot for the stars and a six-point score when a field goal would more than suffice?

Kelly offered prior to the season opener that his 20 years as a head coach resulted in a still-growing list of 47 in-game/end game scenarios for which he, his staff, and his players are prepared.

Down-and-distance; clock situations; when to take a safety; when to onside kick; etc. Each of those decisions, according to Kelly, is made on Thursday during the team's "48-hour meeting" one that's stated purpose is to remove emotion from the decision-making process.

Is it remotely possible that "When to work the clock and attempt a standard game-winning field goal" isn't included in his half-hundred list of scenarios?

I never pegged Kelly to suffer from the dreaded "Smartest guy in the room" syndrome – the affliction that befalls coaches at every level, especially those in a new position or those looking to be noticed. Kelly is no longer the latter. He's made it to the sport's biggest stage.

He seems so detail-oriented, so bottom-line focused that playing the painfully obvious percentages should at some point enter the equation. Those that insist on swimming against tide do indeed sometimes drown.

During the aforementioned Irish timeout it never crossed my mind Notre Dame would attempt another pass; certainly not one with significant air under it down field.

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and David Ruffer is arguably the best field goal kicker in the nation and in the history of the Notre Dame program. (I'll argue that point with you, because, as I'm sure you've gathered through this column, he's never missed.)

Yesterday, with the game, and possibly a Bowl invitation (and thus a program-coveted 15 extra practices) on the line, Kelly eschewed that direct path to a fifth win and instead chose to venture down the road less traveled.

It's often less traveled for a reason.

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