Confusion Reigns

Far more questions than answers plague Notre Dame fans after a head-shaking defeat at the hands of Northwestern.

As an Irish fan, the question you're asking, at least once the beverage has been cleaned off your television screen and your carpet vacuumed clean following an afternoon of frustration-fueled spikes of your snack plate is:

"Why?"

Why not turn an 11-point margin -- the equivalent of a touchdown, two-point conversion, and field goal -- to a 12-point lead, rather than search for a meaningless thirteenth point instead.

There's also the more pressing question of "how?"

How does a football team but a month removed from a potential No. 3, perhaps No. 2 national ranking, fail in all four facets of the sport just three games later? Offense, defense, coaching, special teams.

And of course, the requisite "what it?" lingers.

Not, "what if that mean official hand't thrown his flag?" as was the case in Tallahassee in a heartbreaking loss to undefeated Florida State, but what if simple math -- never mind logic -- had prevailed Saturday on the sidelines in South Bend?

What if, with 1:28 remaining and in possession of the football and a three-point (not four-point, as it should have been, mind you, but three-point lead), Notre Dame had knelt twice on second and third down, bleeding the game clock under (at least) 25 seconds in the process, and punted into the end zone on fourth down from the visitors 35-yard line?

What if they had chosen to subtract precious seconds away from the 17-point underdog Northwestern Wildcats' cause -- check that, the 17-point underdog and timeout-free Wildcats' cause -- instead of handing off to senior captain Cam McDaniel who subsequently, and shockingly, fumbled the football?

Questions No. 1 and No. 3 were answered post-game by Irish head coach Brian Kelly. Whether his responses were to your liking is up for internal debate. Regardless of your stance, football logic and simple math were nowhere to be found.

Regarding the decision to go for two points when it was clear an extra point provided the only schematic -- and again, mathematical edge -- Kelly answered honestly.

"At that point it was a coin toss of 1 or 2. So we decided to go for two."

It wasn't a coin toss because there was only one logical decision. But it's clear he regretted the ill-advised (or unadvised, perhaps) decision.

Pressed further for conventional wisdom in such a situation, Kelly offered, "Our chart tells us in that situation to go for 1, but…we felt like given the circumstances, our kicking game situation, that we were going to try to extend it with a 2-point play."

Extending it, to 13 rather than 12, was pointless. Both margins provide the necessary cushion with 10:36 remaining: a two-touchdown-to-beat-you advantage. Make the opponent score two touchdowns, because that's far more difficult than a touchdown, two-point conversion, and field goal.

Kelly's aforementioned kicking situation was that a PAT had been blocked and returned for two points by Northwestern earlier in the contest. But on the afternoon, the operation of snap (Scott Daly) hold (holder Malik Zaire), kick (Kyle Brindza), hadn't been much of an issue.

Brindza was 4 for 5 including the block (it's important to note it was blocked in part because Zaire bobble the snap). He was 106 for 107 on PAT attempts in his career entering the contest.

Asked later about the advantage of a 13-point lead rather than a 12-point edge, Kelly noted, "In retrospect -- there's no advantage in retrospect. We felt that at the time, with the struggles in the kicking game, that we would have a good opportunity in the 2-point play that we picked, and we felt very confident that we would be successful."

Perhaps successful, but still irrelevant in terms of game situation. Kelly's ill-timed mental error regarding basic game strategy doesn't fall on his shoulders alone, because remarkably, Notre Dame called timeout prior to the two-point conversion attempt. Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock and an entire offensive staff -- not to mention a team full of Notre Dame students that can add -- should have stressed the foolishness of debating a two-point play. (Strategically, it was the equivalent of being up three points and trying to go ahead by five instead of four.)

For the best coach, the best staff, and the best sports programs, panic can set in during the heat of battle. The decision to go for an unnecessary second point when an oh-so-essential extra point was needed wasn't panicked -- it was officially wrong.

Of Hubris and Failure to Prepare

Less obvious, but as crucial of a strategic error, was Kelly's decision to forgo a pair of kneel downs plus a punt Saturday near the conclusion of regulation. The Irish instead chose to handoff in attempt to gain unimportant yards or a game-ending first down 10 yards away, thus risking a fumble -- a fumble that remarkably presented, and one out of the arms of senior captain Cam McDaniel, no less.

Kelly said that he never considered kneeling and punting, thereby guaranteeing Northwestern a remote chance to tie the game after starting from deep in its own end (at best, the 20-yard line) with somewhere south of 20 seconds remaining and no timeouts.

He added that he did the math, or more accurately, that "somebody upstairs" is giving him that math.

Somebody upstairs failed fifth-grade math long ago.

Kelly though, did not waver on his second fan-base and media lamented coaching decision of the day.

"I don't know that I've ever in my college career, taken a knee and then punted the football. We'd have run the ball once, at least, and then considered our options from there," he said. "It never entered my mind to think in those terms."

Fair enough (it entered my mind after the fact, to be honest). It's true players shouldn't fumble in those situations, and it's likewise true that shotgun quarterback Everett Golson has already fumbled once this season attempting to spike the football from under center, though that was a more hurried situation than is the standard snap-plus-QB kneel.

But end-game situations like these are said to be worked out in August camp by the head coach and his staff, thus removing panicked strategy from high pressure situations. They're reviewed weekly in meetings and, in the case of the two-point decision, are not up for debate.

Failures to that end likely end cost Notre Dame a victory Saturday.

Remarkable program-wide regression since that magical Oct. 18 evening in Tallahassee has cost them much more.

Those Irish -- the barnstormers that broke through the gates in Tallahassee against a team that hasn't lost in two calendar years, are gone, and you won't see them again this fall.

The question remains:

Why?


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