A first half dictated by wind direction and happenstance. A second stanza by mutual sideline ineptitude. A final score, attained through all-too-familiar circumstance.
These are the 2016 Fighting Irish. Unwitting creators of jovial celebrations – “fun” if you will – for any program competent enough to capitalize on the blue and gold’s weekly, myriad mistakes.
Today that post-game dose of fun included a team-wide frolic in the muck for the host North Carolina State Wolfpack. It took place right around the south end zone’s 15-yard line, approximately where Pharoah McKever (did you have him on your pre-game scouting report?) blocked a Tyler Newsome punt to provide the day’s only touchdown.
For the fourth time in as many losses, Notre Dame’s special teams committed a crucial error. For the first time in the lost fall of ’16, it provided the difference.
It won’t be the last.
“We gave up a flippin’ blocked punt for a touchdown,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly in the wake of a defeat that ranks – well, I’m not sure? – on the modern Notre Dame fan’s frustration scale. “That’s the difference in this one.”
That, and so many other things.
“On one play it’s the left tackle. On one play it’s the slot receiver,” Kelly began. “On one play it’s the quarterback…”
And on some plays, and regarding this game plan, it’s the head coach.
The quarterback of whom Kelly speaks, DeShone Kizer, failed to execute the eye-opening number of pass plays Kelly called – a whopping 31 if you include sacks suffered.
Kizer had a terrible day. He struggled to throw with or against the wind. He struggled to cut left or right while toting the rock on his team-high 15 carries. He struggled, because – and this is the important part – quarterbacks tend to struggle in hurricanes.
MIGHT AS WELL DIE WITH YOUR BOOTS ON, EH?
Sometimes the absence of a pass is all that’s necessary. The will to run and punt is paramount in ridiculous weather. But discretion as the better part of valor remains a subtlety that’s been lost on Kelly for the better part of his tenure in South Bend.
Consider instead the case of Wolfpack passer Ryan Finley: 12 attempts, 5 completions, just 27 yards. Finley opened the afternoon with a 9-0 touchdown-interception ratio. He ended it that way, too, because Finley had no chance of beating the Irish with his right arm. Not with that wind and not on that field.
Because of that obvious reality, North Carolina head coach *Dave Doeren inserted running quarterback Jalan McClendon into the proceedings during the decisive second half.
The Wolfpack immediately drove 74 yards – into the wind no less – with McClendon’s straight-ahead running style ultimately setting up the ‘Pack offense at the Irish 1-yard line. The hosts had two more downs to score from three feet out in a 3-3 contest.
Doeren – he of the *0-18 record against Power Five Conference foes that finish with a winning record (don’t worry, it’s still intact) pulled “a Doeren” as it’s apparently known around these parts, reinserting Finley into the game just one-yard shy of pay dirt, calling for – of all things – a toss sweep in the wind and rain. It was of course fumbled and subsequently recovered by the Irish.
Why is this important in the large scheme of things Irish fans? Because even in his finest hour, Doeren tried to hand Notre Dame the game. He likewise unwittingly provided a blueprint for moving the football in a hurricane, and what did Kelly and the Irish offensive brain trust do with that revelation thereafter?
“We kind of did,” said Kelly when asked if he considered using Malik Zaire as a runner or Wildcat quarterback in the second half. “Kizer had 15 carries. The offense could’ve been tweaked in that regard.
“He’s not really a Wildcat guy,” Kelly continued of Zaire. “McClendon’s a big fella, now. He’s a big, physical kid. But no, it was never a thought that we would go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”
Asked if he felt he would second-guess his decision to throw caution, err, footballs, to the wind, Kelly offered, “No. I don’t think I would second-guess that. We still had 38 carries. 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.”
DIGGING A HOLE – AN EMMINENTLY AVOIDABLE HOLE
Such refusal to adapt is puzzling for a coach that rode his running game and defense to a 12-1 mark four year ago. One who likewise road his running game and offensive line to a 10-3 mark last fall.
Such refusal to adapt has unfortunately brought Kelly one step closer to the final nail in his tenure’s coffin. More-than-capable foes Stanford, Miami, Navy (Houston, we have a problem!), Virginia Tech, and USC remain on the ’16 slate. Only a win over Army seems imminent.
And to think, Notre Dame could be 6-0 or at least 5-1 if its offense – the team’s strength – could finish the drill. Kelly will coach Notre Dame in 2017, but 2016 puts next season on early notice.
“We just need that,” Kelly began with an audible sigh, the sigh of a leader at a loss. “We need to make that play that we’re not making. If you go back and look at the games: the last drive against Duke, against Michigan State, against Texas. I want our offense to be that group that says ‘Give us the ball. Give us the ball in that last drive.’
“We’ve had chances in each one of our losses to be that offense that has the ball last and makes something happen. We haven’t been able to deliver.”
At some point this season they will – but it’s already dangerously close to too late.