September Remains

2011 Irish resemble wrong version of 2010 squad in sloppy, season-opening defeat.

Notre Dame fans hoped the Irish would pick up where they left off last November.

Instead, it was the September edition of Brian Kelly's 2010 squad that reared its ugly head in Saturday's season-opening loss to Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls.

The Bulls won ugly, out-gained in total yardage exactly 2-to-1 with the Irish piling up 508 fruitless yards, the final 100 of which proved cosmetic as Tommy Rees and the Irish battled through a 16-point halftime deficit, two rain delays, and the quickest quarterback hook inside the House that Rockne Built since former head coach Charlie Weis's enlightened 2007 decision to debut a future second-string Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker as his Irish signal-caller.

Notre Dame starter Dayne Crist, Kelly's initial quarterback of choice and the player two weeks ago proclaimed as the one he "wanted to coach" held that designation for all of 30 game minutes before ceding his spot under center to Rees.

The sophomore Rees – still 4-0 as a starter but now 0-2 in extended relief efforts – predictably offered a spark, battling to the bitter end despite his requisite pair of interceptions and his head coach's second half abandonment of what had been a successful Irish rushing attack.

Rees will likely start next week in Ann Arbor vs. the 1-0 Michigan Wolverines, if not; he'll enter shortly after Crist's first mistake and/or forlorn sideline gaze.

Speaking of which: if you can bench a quarterback for a sloppy first half showing, how many dropped passes and muffed punts does it take to sideline your supposed breakout slot receiver?

"You can't stop winning until you stop losing, and the things that we did today obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games," Kelly reiterated, 11 months earlier explaining the same. "You lose football games because you turn the ball over. You lose football games because you miss field goals. You lose the football game because you have four personal foul penalties. The list is long."

Indeed.

Football games are also lost when a coach trailing by 16 points with 30 minutes remaining forgets that hand-offs to his second-best player are allowed. They're lost when one of the worst punt return units in program history somehow regresses over the off-season. They're also lost when the season's first two-point conversion play inexplicably requires a valuable timeout to discuss.

And football games are consistently lost when one costly turnover elicits a crippling snowball effect throughout the offense, rather than merely briefly deterring the unit from its goal.

Notre Dame's roster is better than it showed Saturday. So too is its coaching staff. You lose football games when neither meets expectations.

The Defense Could Never Rest

A promising defensive effort – one that kept Kelly's Irish afloat for more than 50 minutes – eventually ceded ground under the weight of a determined, methodical Bulls rushing attack, as junior running back Demetris Murray hammered late and repeatedly at a worn-down defensive front to set up the Bulls only offensive touchdown – one made possible by a pair of personal foul penalties against one of the team's best players, 5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray.

Faced with fending off five turnovers, Notre Dame's defense needed a heroic showing to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The unit was instead merely very good, limiting South Florida to 254 total yards on 72 plays, including just over 100 yards in a second stanza that saw over 37 USF snaps.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's group yielded just two first downs on 14 third-down conversion attempts, and only one touchdown in three red zone trips – one of which started inside the Irish 20-yard line. That effort was negated when three of Notre Dame's five best offensive drives ended in turnovers; each of the trio of miscues occurred inside the Bulls' 5-yard line.

Too much for a defense that was very good, but needed to be great.

Just when I thought I was out, they suck me back in…

The purportedly rejuvenated and thus 16th-ranked Irish didn't outplay the Bulls; they merely out-gained the mentally tough, if not wholly-impressive visitors. It seemed as if Notre Dame could win; the other team did.

Such has been the case for the majority of Irish teams over the last 18 seasons. And therein lies the rub...

Nearly two decades of Notre Dame football have offered nothing but consistency, painful as it may be.

By now, you know the drill: a return to relative glory is proclaimed, briefly attained but hopes to that end soon shattered.

That repetitive annual cycle explains how three Irisheyes.com pre-season predictions proved true in one (long) Saturday in South Bend:

  • Notre Dame would lose one of its first four games for the 20th time in the last 22 years
  • Notre Dame would lose a home game for the 21st season over that same span
  • The Irish would suffer a Vegas upset for the 21st season over those same 22 years dating back to the national runner-up squad of 1989

The painful truth regarding the 2011 Irish – a team with enough promise to elicit a fourth prediction by this gullible alumnus that suggested the school's 17-year streak with at least three losses would end – is that there may be no end in sight.

Kelly's team played similarly in a disjointed September last season and repeated those errors in late October. So too did Charlie Weis' spiraling squads in November 2009, November 2008, and as the nation's No. 2 ranked team in September 2006. (I skipped 2007 because it was a lost cause.)

It happened to Tyrone Willingham in his encore season of 2003 and following both of Bob Davie's quality seasons in 1998 and 2000…and in Lou Holtz final three seasons as well.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 10 times…

Panacea?

A rivalry game, one vs. a purported peer and winners of two straight heart-breakers in the series could provide the appropriate tonic for the reeling Irish.

The scene is set for a trip to the Big House, Irish wagons circled, eyes steeled on the task – next week's road game at Michigan could be just what the doctor ordered for Kelly's crew, losers of half of their home games under the new regime.

But Saturday's events under center suggest one scenario that can't unfold this week: Dayne Crist, no matter how much thought is given or how many practice passes charted, cannot start for the Irish in Week Two.

The dye was cast when Kelly chose Crist over Rees and replaced him – and only him, despite myriad failings around him – halfway through the season's first week. It's not a controversy at this point: it's Rees' job, again. Crist could come back this season and play winning football for Kelly, a quarterback puppeteer of the highest order, but one week on the sidelines is necessary for his potential growth…proximity to the man whose trust he lost notwithstanding.

Only three Notre Dame teams in the last 30 years began a season with two losses. None of the trio finished with a winning record.

Next week's showdown in Ann Arbor offers a familiar scenario for the Fighting Irish – a must-win contest.

September rears its ugly head yet again.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories