For Notre Dame, It’s Start Fast, Or Else

Irish head coach Brian Kelly has four weekly goals he believes will ensure victory: Start fast, an attention to the detail, give great effort, and finish strong. The first has contributed to 14 of the team’s last 21 defeats.

You’re likely well aware of the statistical correlation between an Irish win and turnovers lost.

Notre Dame is 18-0 when it doesn’t commit a turnover under head coach Brian Kelly. They’re likewise 16-2 when losing the pigskin just once – a combined 34-2 in such outings.

Predictably, success lessens thereafter: 8-6 when turning it over twice and 7-13 when committing three or more. The Irish lost the ball four times against Clemson and the miscues contributed greatly to defeat.

They didn’t, however, contribute to Notre Dame’s curious slow start, though it should be noted a shanked punt that staked Clemson at the Irish 40 was similar to a turnover lost.

Regardless, Saturday’s 14-0 deficit provided an all-too-familiar refrain. That is: when Notre Dame loses under Kelly, more often than not, it’s because the Irish started poorly.

Among Kelly’s 21 losses at the helm in South Bend are a whopping 14 in which the Irish trailed by double digits at the end of the first half – 12 of those 14 by double digits in the first quarter.

“It's really just in preparation. I think you need to make sure you're entirely emotionally, spiritually, physically ready to start the game and play the game,” said team captain Joe Schmidt of why a team might start slowly.

“And I think we really were. I think at times we might have been timid at the beginning of that game. And I don't know if that was -- I think that was a word used to describe it, but I don't even know if that was it. And I think that it's something that we're working on in preparation this week is to ensure that there at no point is a lapse, no point is there a let down.

WELL THAT ESCALATED QUICKLY

Schmidt’s lack of clarity on the slow start Saturday night is fitting. Neither his head coach nor anyone else can pinpoint why teams occasionally sputter out of the gate.

“There are a couple of things. And, again, it's all hindsight, and some of it's conjecture,” said Kelly specifically of the Clemson contest. “That was a fast offense, and it took us a while to kind of settle into it. Coming off playing a good team in UMass and an option team, we then saw very, very fast and athletic Clemson team, and it took us a little while to acclimate ourselves, quite frankly.

“By the time we got up off the canvas, it was 14-0. We did acclimate ourselves to play very, very good defense the rest of the way. Now, who knows if we don't have a 15-yard punt, it's 14-0, I can't say.

“We started slow. Is it the hour-and-15-minute bus ride we're not used to taking prior to the game? I don't know, but we did start slow. Believe me, we look at everything when it comes to those things. We can't have slow starts…If we get off to slow starts, we're going to be in trouble in every game that we play.”

That reality is illustrated below:

2010:
-- Trailed Michigan 21-7 half with two turnovers intermixed. An injury to starter Dayne Crist was the chief reason for the Wolverines 21 consecutive points to end the half as the Irish started 7-0
-- Fell behind Stanford 16-6 by intermission (34-6 thereafter)
-- Trailed Navy 14-3 at the end of the first quarter and 21-10 at the break.

2011:
-- Fell behind South Florida USF 16-0 with a fumble recovery touchdown, an interception in the Bulls end zone, and a fumbled punt among the miscues
-- Trailed USC 17-0 at the end of the first quarter
-- Fought hard defensively, but nonetheless was behind Stanford 21-0 at half.

2012:
-- Alabama led 14-0 at the end of the first quarter and 28-0 at intermission. Seemed worse.
 
2013:
-- Trailed Michigan 10-0 in first 10 minutes
-- Fell behind Oklahoma 14-0 in less than three minutes and 21-7 at the half
-- Short-handed at Stanford, the Irish trailed 14-3 early in the second quarter (and 21-6 at intermission).

2014:
-- Fell behind Arizona State 21-0 in the first quarter and 34-3 with one minute remaining in the half
-- Trailed Louisville 14-3 at the end of the first and 17-6 at the break
-- It was 21-0 out of the gate and 35-0 USC over Notre Dame before the Irish dented the first half scoreboard with a Malik Zaire touchdown.

2015:
-- Yielded two touchdowns to Clemson on the Tigers first two possessions en route to a 14-0 first quarter deficit.

OF COMEBACK KIDS AND CLOSERS

Though only *two of the games detailed below included early two-score deficits, Kelly has guided the Irish to 12 second-half comeback victories:


-- At USC 2010
-- At Pittsburgh and at Wake Forest 2011
-- Stanford and Pittsburgh 2012
-- At *Purdue and Navy 2013
-- Stanford, Navy, *North Carolina and LSU 2014
-- At Virginia earlier this season

-- Among those dozen were five true road games, one neutral, and six home outings

-- Notre Dame trailed into the fourth quarter in eight of those 12 comeback wins. In two others (Purdue 2013 and Navy 2014) they captured the lead at the fourth quarter’s outset

-- Of added relevance, two of the 12 comeback wins occurred vs. the Naval Academy in the last two seasons

-- Future foes Pittsburgh (2011, 2012) and Stanford (2012, 2014) both led Notre Dame twice in the fourth quarter during the Kelly era only to lose in the end

Conversely, Kelly’s Irish have dropped just seven contests in which the Irish led (by any margin) in the second half:

-- Michigan State and Tulsa 2010
-- Michigan and FSU 2011
-- Pittsburgh 2013
-- Florida State and Northwestern 2014

-- In only four of the above losses did Notre Dame hold a two-score second half lead: Tulsa (27-18), Michigan (24-7), Florida State (14-0), and Northwestern (40-29).

SLOW START, SAD FINISH

As noted above, just three times over Kelly’s otherwise successful 70-game tenure have the Irish fallen behind by two scores but bounced back to claim victory: Pittsburgh 2012 (20-6 late third quarter) and North Carolina 2014 – a 14-0 first quarter deficit overcome.

The contest against the Tar Heels is one of only two times a Notre Dame team has fallen behind by two scores early and rallied to win. The other occurred when moribund Purdue (1-11) took a 10-0 lead over the Irish in the second quarter in 2013, a game won 31-24 by the visiting Irish.

In other words, if Notre Dame is slow out of the gate, there’s likely no prize waiting at the finish line.


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