In a big spot, with a chance to escape perennial mediocrity, the Irish wilted, the only difference was they did so in front of a more-engaged gathering of 80,000.
As someone that saw how things were run during the previous era, I'll briefly offer the opinion that growth remains apparent, as does an influx of new blood the program sorely needed, though some grizzled veteran aid might not have hurt the cause on the left side of the new look Notre Dame defensive line.
But the bottom line remains: for all the supposed improvements, be it chain of command, communication of staff to player, talent upgrades up front, or simply program infrastructure, Notre Dame is again a 4-3 football team with the Naval Academy on tap.
Just as they were a calendar year ago – the first edition of the Brian Kelly era.
Stunted Growth"I told our guys, ‘Listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back," Kelly said post-game. "I'm not going to tolerate it. It's not going to be pretty this week in practice. If we have to go back and tackle every day, we'll tackle every day; because they know how I feel about the way we played."
We feel the same way with an addendum:
Why? Why does this keep happening to Notre Dame's football program?
USC played to the moment; the Irish shrunk from it. The Trojans played clean, physical, error-free football and appeared for all-the-world to be a well-coached, disciplined unit.
Notre Dame couldn't get out of its way, including maddening – but requisite, if you've been paying attention – post-play personal foul penalties that negated its sporadic moments of competence.
"We had some guys that didn't play with poise that need to play with poise," Kelly offered. "Championship football teams play with competitive grace, which means that when the stakes are high, and the stage is great, they raise their game. Today in that same situation, some of our players didn't raise their level of play. That to me is poise, and we are still building that."
Kelly was blunt in his post-game preamble and answering questions: the players need to play better football.
He added that he and the staff remain culpable for the end product, but the ridiculous nature of Notre Dame's comedy of errors this season has undoubtedly pushed Kelly to his breaking point.
"This is the first time that I've leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room," he said. "I was not happy. Because we are better than that. We are better than that.
"And to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, I just – just makes me crazy," Kelly added, speaking for a nation of Irish fans who should not have been surprised Dayne Crist's re-acclimation to the playing field ended with a touchdown in the opposite direction. "I just don't understand how something so easy can come out the way it does."
As a fan-turned-alumnus who has no problem writing about the shortcomings of his alma mater's sports teams, I've always been confused why college football players only receive bouquets of praise when appropriate, but a coach has to take the full boat of blame regardless of how magnificently his players inexplicably fail.
(If your answer is: "Because that's what he gets paid for!" what do you think the football scholarship is for? To provide a better background in the social sciences?)
Brian Kelly did not coach a good game Saturday. He's a good football coach that panicked down 14-0, abandoning the run early and completely, and later, near the outset of the 3rd Quarter with a chance to tie a game his team had no business locking up, put a goal line situation in the hands of a quarterback fresh off the bench.
"He was going to fake it to the ‘back and throw a pop (pass) back to the tight end," Kelly said of Crist's fumbled snap and clumsy, bumbled recovery attempt that resulted in seven the hard way.
(It's called a quarterback sneak, coach, and two straight of them should get you at least the necessary yard every time single time.)
But errors aside, this isn't all on Kelly. This isn't Tulsa 2010; hubris was not the root cause of another Irish defeat. There was little aid offered by previously rising defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, whose cautious scheme Saturday night could be best described as "bend consistently before breaking."
Is USC's Lane Kiffin a better college football coach with a better coaching staff because his troops don't lose their minds and common sense following the referee's whistle? A junior linebacker committed an indefensible post-whistle penalty that gave the Trojans a new set of downs (and eventually three points). A freshman did the same, and he's done so in half of Notre Dame's games this season.
Kelly correctly noted his players lacked poise, and though I think he and his staff are more culpable in that shortcoming than he cares to admit, the players also lack to innate grit and determination that separates champions from mere competitors.
"I think from the players' standpoint, we didn't stay true to who we were," said team captain Harrison Smith. "We may have bought into the hype somewhat. We can't do that again," (Note: unfortunately not an issue going forward).
All of them want to win. None of them know how.
One goal remainsThe team and University resume classes Monday, and it appears a defense that turned soft overnight will rediscover their tackling roots. The LaBar Practice Complex will not be for the faint of heart as the Irish prepare for a struggling Navy team fully capable of piling up yards vs. Diaco's option-averse front seven.
"If you have any type of fire in you at all, you're just going to keep playing as hard as you can," said Smith, who finished with a game-high 14 tackles. "If you're a quitter, you shouldn't be on the team anyway."
Smith is not a quitter. Nor, do I believe, are his cohorts on either side of scrimmage. A BCS berth is lost; the next defeat will knock the Irish out of a somewhat meaningful second tier bowl. They're still in "the playoffs" as Kelly noted, unfortunately the forthcoming journey might be best compared to the NIT.
To date, the Kelly regime's strength is building for the future – one that still appears bright. Yet his five-minute plan never took effect; a three to-five-year plan will have to suffice.
At 12-8 after 20 games and with four wins after seven contests for the second straight season, the only thing tangible and proven is that this roster/staff/program is not yet capable of sustaining success.
The brighter the lights, the more glaring, and memorable, the failure and fall.