Meekly into that goodnight

Notre Dame's BCS dreams ended Saturday night at Heinz Field. Most frustrating were the myriad opportunities missed, one in particular.

First Notre Dame lost one of its best players. Then they lost their focus. Execution was absent throughout and in the end, Notre Dame lost a game they should have won and any chance at a BCS Bowl bid with it.

They don't deserve the latter, anyway.

Head coach Brian Kelly's Irish lost to a team Saturday night that had previously won vs. New Mexico, Duke, Old Dominion, and Virginia. That's it.

Aside from the upstart Blue Devils (7-2), the remaining trio has combined for six wins vs. BCS foes.

This particularly vexing defeat has two weeks to marinate with the program's fan base as the Irish enter a much-needed, soul-searching bye week.

"We didn't do a very good job, we, everybody," said Kelly. "Players and coaches. We did not do a very good job today."

On the field and on the sidelines.

The offense used two crucial fourth quarter timeouts to stop the play clock from running down. Both were necessary as Pittsburgh easily ran out the clock with one first down.

The same unit committed a turnover in the Pittsburgh end zone and another set up their hosts with gift-wrapped 1st and Goal situation at the Irish 5-yard line.

They sputtered (a combined 6 of 16 on third and fourth down conversions), they struggled (21 incomplete passes in 39 attempts), they played as badly, considering the feeble foe, as they has at any point over the uneven 2013 season.

"The execution on offense was, awful," Kelly stated bluntly.

It's November 9.

"What I'm most concerned about is the inability to put together consistent effort tonight, in November, ten games into the season," he said. "For me, there's no reason why and I take full responsibility for it as the head coach. There's no reason why we don't execute at the level we should in November, and that didn't happen tonight."

The defense aided Pittsburgh's cause with a fourth down pass interference penalty that led to a Panthers touchdown. Further, struggling safety Matthias Farley missed a dead-to-rights tackle that turned a 25-yard crossing route into a 63-yard score.

And when faced with three goal-to-go situations from inside their own two yard line, Notre Dame allowed three scores. Easily. Feebly. Their back-to-the-wall efforts Saturday night and for most of the season suffer in stark contrast to their proud predecessors that now seem so foreign: the 2012, No. 1 in November Irish.

"We've got different players. Just different personnel," said Kelly when asked about his team's repeated inability to bow up at the goal line. "We had some different players on the field (last year) especially inside-out, looking at the defense. We had some different players. Not to take anything away from the guys that are out there battling. It's a different team and different players."

Inexplicable, Egregious Error

Kelly's blunt assessment that the defense's players are different is spot on, and he wasn't insinuating a simple changes in faces and names.

There's a different mindset, a different developed talent level, and most important, a definitive lack of the indomitable will that fueled a run to the BCS Championship game last fall.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit didn't fail physically Saturday night as much as mentally, especially on a play that no coach, player, or fan should forgive.

With 10:30 remaining in the contest and the Panthers facing third down near midfield, Notre Dame senior linebacker Prince Shembo crashed over right tackle to sack Panthers quarterback Tom Savage, hitting the 5th-year senior as he cocked to throw.

The ball popped loose, bounced and rolled near the sidelines, and both teams watched it roam free. No whistle blew, yet no Notre Dame player attempted to claim possession. Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day tried to catch it off a bounced, failed, and batted it away in disgust.

Had he or any other defender picked it up as have hundreds of thousands of their football predecessors, Notre Dame could have had possession in Pittsburgh territory. It conceivably could have had a touchdown. It instead watched Pittsburgh punt away on fourth down.

The Panthers scored four snaps later after their defense intercepted Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, and the offense waltzed into the end zone unfettered thereafter.

Some teams play to the echo of the whistle. Notre Dame played a few ticks shy of it with the game in the balance.

"It was a lapse of a bunch of inexperienced guys out there not seeing that they should have been on the ball," said Kelly of the unconscionable lack of effort and attention to detail. (Wait, is that a detail? Fall on a fumble?)

Shembo, the creator of the would-be game-changing turnover, was disgusted by the collective error.

"A lot of stupid stuff. I don't have an explanation," said Shembo. "The ball on the ground, what can you say to that? Its happened plenty of times, Jaylon (Smith) picked up the ball at Air Force (running to the end zone, unsure if he'd heard a whistle). We've seen it enough, man, how many more times do we have to see it."

With the game in the balance, no Irish player had the presence of mind to make the simplest play of the 2013 season.

"You saw what happened," said Kelly post-game. "Two interceptions, the fumble, a big-play pass (for a score), a missed tackle (for a score). Fundamentals of the game of football. No big picture things. This isn't big, heady stuff. Fundamentals of the game of football that were not attended to in a manner that they needed to be.

"Our mantra is you can't start winning until you stop losing, and we did things tonight that caused losing."

And they'll rightfully be penalized for it. Notre Dame will play in a late December bowl, likely against an unranked foe.

"Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute," Kelly said. "That's why we're hired. That's what we do. And we didn't get that from our players tonight. I'm responsible for that. That didn't happen tonight."

They're all responsible for it. Choosing a game MVP includes picking a wide receiver, T.J. Jones, who fumbled away an early scoring opportunity at the five. It includes selecting a defensive end in Day that thought it better to bat a fumbled ball and watch it roll than grab it.

Notre Dame didn't deserve to win Saturday night. They're better than Pittsburgh, but they deserved to lose. Believing otherwise is ignoring repeated signs to the contrary.

A smarter, more disciplined team would have prevailed. A focused, well-coached, tough-minded group would have beaten 5-4 Pittsburgh. That's exactly what rallied to beat Pittsburgh last November when things went awry early. That's what a team that belongs among the nation's elite would do.

Notre Dame is three rungs below that level. There's Alabama and Florida State. There's 2-3 others. There's 10-15 more. And there's Notre Dame and about 20 of their fellow, frustrated also-rans.

"No one's happy," said Jones. "You're thinking about mistakes that cost us the game. We should be 8-2 right now."

No, they shouldn't be. They are what they are: 7-3 and on the outside looking in. Top Stories