CLEMSON, S.C. – The game was nearing an hour after its completion. Joe Schmidt had showered and time had passed to dial it back, shut it down, put it in perspective, and begin the process of moving on.
But the Irish captain was having difficulty compartmentalizing the 24-22 loss to Clemson that dropped Notre Dame from the ranks of the unbeaten into a bevy of wannabes who now must remain perfect and get some help from others in order to remain in the running for a highly-competitive playoff spot.
The silver lining had been washed away during the unceasing rainstorm that had descended upon South Carolina and continued to pelt upon the vanquished like a cruel form of water torture.
“There’s not going to be anybody working harder than us next week,” said Schmidt, biting off his words and fighting back the emotion. “I just guarantee we’re going to be better.”
A reporter interpreted Schmidt’s demeanor to be more than disappointed. Schmidt was downright pissed off.
“Yeah, I’m very upset,” Schmidt said. “We avoid this in the future by working. There are so many areas we need to be better, so many areas I need to be better. There’s nobody that will work harder than I will.”
Asked how determined he was to make sure this would be the last loss of the year for the Irish, Schmidt’s breathing increased and his eyes narrowed before saying quietly, “There is no other option.”
For the outgoing Schmidt, a week without smiles – as he also promised -- will be a challenge. But his dour mood represented what everyone in Notre Dame’s camp will agonize over until a victory can represent the latest outcome.
The Irish had a golden opportunity to knock off the Tigers in one of the most difficult environments that a Notre Dame football team has ever played. Rather than seize the moment, the sleepy-eyed walkabout through the first 6:17 forced the Irish to spend the next 53:43 trying to recover from the hole that was dug.
The effort was as determined as Schmidt’s post-game mood, but the mistakes – four turnovers on the field, another baffling two-point conversion decision just on the other side of the white line – left a sour taste, particularly when the price tag for such coaching acumen runs into the millions of dollars on an annual basis and now has occurred twice within an eight-game span.
“If you told me we’d turn the ball over four times, I would have told you we would lose,” said a waterlogged Brian Kelly. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out.”
Nor would inclusion in the Mensa society be a necessary requirement for a head coach to make sound decisions when it comes to managing the one- and two-point decisions at critical stages of football games, and yet just as he did against Northwestern last November, Kelly made a choice with 14:13 left in the fourth quarter that will haunt Irish fans if not its head coach, who didn’t for one second think an error in judgment had come at a very high cost.
By going for two points – and failing -- with Clemson leading 21-9, the Irish fell down by 15 points, not 14, just 3:17 later on a Clemson field goal. Thus, when the Irish scored two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter, they needed a two-point conversion with seven seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime instead of near-automatic extra point after both scores.
DeShone Kizer’s rushing attempt failed and Notre Dame suddenly was thrust into the throng of one-loss hopefuls.
“To get to within 10,” said Kelly of his decision to chase points with nearly a quarter remaining. “We knew we’d have the wind, so it seemed to be the right play at the time.”
Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time.
While Kelly’s logic, on the surface, seems to make sense, and while the off-season was spent putting minds together to stop the triple-option attack, no one apparently addressed the problem of going for two points against Northwestern with an 11-point lead.
This scenario was different – the Irish were chasing, not padding – but a similar concept applied.
“So many things happened in that game that it’s hard to put them all in perspective as I’m standing here right now,” Kelly said. “We had the game pretty much in our hands and we turned the ball over.”
That actually was Kelly’s comment last year after the 43-40 overtime loss to Northwestern. He pulled the same script out Saturday night.
Maybe the players should get an opportunity to stand in front of the media and second-guess their boss, who has no hesitation pinning losses on the players, but often needs the plane trip home and some additional time to think about it before realizing – which he eventually did following the Northwestern debacle – that his conversion calculations are unwise.
The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.
And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”
If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.
At the very least, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney deserved to go into overtime against the Irish, if not actually lose the game. While the notion of pinning Clemson’s hopes on the Tiger defense is sound logic – they led the nation in total defense last year and look to be just as stingy this season – allowing Deshaun Watson to do some things to add to Clemson’s scoring column would have made Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter noise ambient in nature.
Swinney did, after all, have the Irish football mathematics department crunching the numbers, and for the second time in eight games, they didn’t add up.
“I was disappointed for them,” said Kelly of his players. “Let’s be clear in the context here. I don’t want this to be taken the wrong way. I was disappointed for them that they did not seize the opportunity they had, and that was to come down here and play a very difficult team in a difficult atmosphere and conditions. (We) very easily – if they take care of the football and start fast – (could have won) the football game in my estimation.”
When Notre Dame critics turn to a schedule that was considered ambitious a couple of weeks ago but now looks like a dessert tray, they’ll decry the Irish as September impostors with plenty of ammunition to defend the notion. Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech are a combined 4-10 with victories over Rice, William & Mary, Alcorn State and Tulane.
And let’s be reasonable here. Much of what Kelly said about his players and their start against Clemson is valid. A flat-as-a-pancake start that dug the hole so difficult to navigate in such a raucous, rainy environment instigated an evening of frustration.
Fortunately, one of the most inexperienced players on the field – red-shirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer – performed like a seasoned veteran. He wasn’t perfect. He missed wide-open receivers. He threw a fourth-quarter interception.
But the next time the Irish go on the road in a difficult environment, the least of their worries will be the intelligent, football-savvy young quarterback who was the most mature player on a team that had nine seniors in the starting lineup – more than twice as many Clemson – and several others that went into Florida State last year and went toe-to-toe with the Seminoles.
If the team dynamic were a democracy, the players would be able to conduct their own press conference with the candor of their head coach, and they too would have the opportunity to take pot shots at a decision-making process with the game on the line that is flawed with illogical concepts and nary a soldier to inform the captain of his misguided intel.
There remain plenty of opportunities to get this right coming up. By coming back and making a game of it, the Irish still can be in the playoff hunt. No shame in a two-point loss at Clemson. How – and why it happened – is the frustrating part.