RALEIGH, N.C. – Brian Kelly exited the locker room last, flanked only by security detail on his way to the team bus. There was no sign of athletics director Jack Swarbrick, no accompaniment from an assistant coach, no player picking Kelly’s brain on his way out of Carter-Finley Stadium.
It was just Notre Dame’s head coach, his brown leather carry-on and a few personal protectors as Kelly boarded the coach headed to Raleigh-Durham Airport. The man had just been soaked for four hours in Hurricane Matthew and concocted a game plan that ignored forces of nature. Despite all that saturation, Kelly still set off a fire afterward by both defending his pass-first approach and calling the work of center Sam Mustipher “atrocious” for three bad snaps.
The final one ended Notre Dame’s shot at winning a game it had no business losing in any forecast. As DeShone Kizer checked with the sidelines for the call on 4th-and-8 from the 16-yard line, Mustipher snapped it early, the ball comically bounding backward.
Fittingly, the final forward pass thrown by Kizer in his 9-of-26, 54-yard, five-sack nightmare was caught by left tackle Mike McGlinchey.
“You can’t prepare for this,” Kizer said. “You can do whatever you want and prepare yourself mentally, but until you’re here with sideways rain there’s nothing you can do to really get yourself prepared for that.”
Earlier in the week Kelly said his game plan wouldn’t be deterred by rain, which fell hard enough that the field began to puddle before kickoff. But Kelly admitted wind would force his play calling hand, which begs the question how many knots are too many knots before committing to the run.
Kelly threw caution and credibility to the wind, refusing to budge despite the facts on the ground. Kizer attempted 26 passes and took five sacks, which accounts for 31 designed pass plays. That left 33 true rushing attempts, but even that includes plays Kizer scrambled for yardage from pass looks.
Basically, Notre Dame sought offensive balance on a day with multiple flash flood warnings, a voluntary evacuation of the stadium and a tree uprooted literally right outside the N.C. State football facility.
“I think it was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football when we did throw it,” Kelly said. “We just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”
This is Brian Kelly. He is nothing if not certain.
Why run when you can pass? Why let an NFL offensive line coach and whip smart offensive coordinator rethink the run game when you can throw slow developing out routes? Why rely on Malik Zaire as a wildcat quarterback when he was one of the program’s five-best skill players in training camp?
“On one play it’s the left tackle. On one play it’s the slot receiver. On one play it’s the quarterback. It just wasn’t consistent enough today,” Kelly said. “We need to make that play that we’re not making.
“We’ve got some inexperienced guys there. I get it. But they have to grow up. That will be the emphasis.”
Like the guy he replaced, Kelly lets the ideal overrule the real. He lets perfect be the enemy of good. He had multiple outs in hurricane conditions to do something other than this. He could have accepted the cards dealt by torrential rains and crafted a winning hand.
Instead, Notre Dame’s season has gone from disappointment to natural disaster.
Hurricane Matthew couldn’t convince Kelly to adapt but it did soak the temperament he usually brings to postgame press conferences. Pointed ire was replaced by aimless sighs. For maybe the first time all year Kelly looked like a head coach without answers as his boss, Swarbrick, watched from the back of the room.
To be fair, Kelly took some generic blame Saturday. He complimented a roster for bringing it despite comically poor field conditions. In a season that’s already been lost, Notre Dame didn’t lose again because the roster didn’t care.
“They were excited to play today and you want to be there for them,” Kelly said. “You want to make the right call, you want to put them in the right position.
“You second guess yourself in games like this where your team is ready to play and excited to play.”
Kelly admitted he might redo that two-man punt protection that couldn’t block one rusher and led to N.C. State’s game-winning touchdown. As for all those pass attempts, he stuck to his guns, even if they were of the squirt variety. Asking a converted center to snap in shotgun all afternoon when the ball was literally sitting in puddles, that didn’t get a second thought either.
Get used to it.
That’s what Kelly said during his first Notre Dame crisis, when he let freshman Tommy Rees lob a pass into the end zone against Tulsa that got picked instead of settling for a game-winning field goal. Not much has changed since. Notre Dame has gotten used to it. The question is how much longer the program will be willing to take it.