RALEIGH, N.C. – Notre Dame’s season went over the brink two weeks ago.
It’s now washed out following Saturday’s 10-3 loss at North Carolina State as Notre Dame fumbled four times, committed three turnovers, allowed five sacks and suffered a blocked punt that proved to be the Wolfpack’s game-winning touchdown.
Where does Brian Kelly’s program go from here? That’s hard to say, but here are three takes from Saturday’s tropical depression at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Sloppy Ball Handling
DeShone Kizer couldn’t throw it. Sam Mustipher couldn’t snap it. Notre Dame’s wide outs couldn’t catch it. While the Irish offense can’t function without some of those events coming on a regular basis, what Brian Kelly demanded Saturday pushed the envelope of reasonable expectations.
Notre Dame finished with 38 rushing plays for 59 yards against 26 passing attempts by Kizer, yet when five sacks are moved from the rushing column to passing, which captures the intent of the play call, the Irish were almost perfectly balanced at 33 rush attempts and 31 intended passes.
Kizer said after the game that “95 percent” of those play calls were passes signaled from the sidelines, not run-pass options the quarterback took at the line of scrimmage.
Kelly defended the approach.
“No. I don’t think I would second-guess (the pass plays),” Kelly said. “I think it was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football when we did throw it. We just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”
Kizer went 3-of-12 for 16 yards in the second half.
His interception came in the first half when he thought Torii Hunter Jr. had come open down by he goal line. Jarius Moorehead picked it off, part of a confounding series of play calls when Notre Dame turned a 1st-and-goal at the six into 3rd-and-19. A false start, sack and incompletion preceded Kizer’s pick.
“When the ball left my hand it was supposed to hit before the safety,” Kizer said. “Lost the ball a little bit and it hit after the safety and the safety made the play. Torii’s open in a very small window, and once again, we were not going to shy away from calling a play that we’re going to have open receivers on. He was an open receiver at that time. I just wasn’t able to get the ball into his hands.”
While Kizer played the worst game of his Irish career, Mustipher bore the brunt of Kelly’s ire for three poor snaps, including going early on Notre Dame’s final fourth down play in the final minutes. Kizer said Mustipher rushed the snap. Kelly was much harder on the center.
“Just extremely disappointed in the offensive execution,” Kelly said. “Obviously the lack of our ability to manage the snapping of the football was atrocious as well.”
Special Teams Collapse
For the third time in Notre Dame’s past three losses special teams helped bury the Irish. Against Michigan State it was the wiped out kickoff return and muffed punt. Against Duke it was the kickoff return touchdown by the Blue Devils’ backup returner. Against North Carolina State it was a blocked punt against Notre Dame’s unconventional two-man protection unit.
Neither Nic Weishar nor Tyler Luatua managed to stop 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end Pharoah McKeever from pushing toward Tyler Newsome, whose punt never stood a chance. Dexter Wright returned the block 16 yards for the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Kelly said the Irish went to a two-man protection scheme last week in conjunction with rugby punts by Newsome. While Newsome didn’t roll on the block, Kelly said he didn’t have to. Regardless, the block turned into the game’s biggest play.
Kelly bemoaned the strategic approach.
“I feel like we let them down,” Kelly said. “I feel like we let them down in the sense that they were prepared for another noon start, they had great energy, they played with great heart on defense. Just North Carolina State made the big play with the punt block.”
Any Hope On Defense?
Notre Dame entered the weekend 39-1 when allowing fewer than 20 points under Kelly.
The fact the Irish couldn’t ride that trend against N.C. State can’t be blamed on the defense, which allowed just 198 yards total offense and held the Wolfpack to just three points total in three red zone trips. Jerry Tillery led the Irish with nine tackles and Te’von Coney added seven.
“In horrible conditions we were able to contain the run for the most part,” Tillery said. “We did pretty well on the d-line. We stopped them in a bunch of key situations. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get the win, that’s something that we’re working toward. We have to finish games.”
Six different players got a piece of a tackle for loss and three players forced fumbles (Devin Studstill, Nyles Morgan and James Onwualu).
N.C. State finished 7-of-14 passing for just 41 yards. It also lost 28 yards on at least five bad snaps/exchanges. While the Irish didn’t sack starting quarterback Ryan Finley, who finished with six carries for -17 yards.
The Wolfpack went 2-of-14 on third down.
“We’re looking for wins and not improvement on one side of the ball or the other,” Kelly said. “Although I was very pleased with our physicality, our toughness, our tackling.”