ONE LAST CHANCE
Last year, DeShone Kizer and the offense were great on last-ditch drives to victory or near-victory. Wins over Virginia, USC and Temple, and losses to Clemson and Stanford all featured fourth-quarter touchdown drives that led to a 10-victory season.
The Irish are now 0-4 in such scenarios this year, and thus, 2-4 on the season as an 18-play, 60-yard drive in the final minutes of a 10-3 loss at N.C. State ended on a miscommunicated snap.
The great Will Fuller, the explosive C.J. Prosise, the chain-moving Chris Brown, first-round draft choice Ronnie Stanley and third-rounder Nick Martin are a few of the reasons the Irish were able to successfully navigate the length of the football field last year with the game on the line.
“Against Texas, we had the ball when the game was tied with three minutes to go,” Brian Kelly said Sunday. “We didn’t make a play.
“Against Michigan State, four minutes to go in the game, we went three-and-out. Against Duke, we had the ball with a minute-and-a-half in the game and went four-plays-and-out.
“Again, we were 1st-and-10 on the 18-yard line with 2:43 (vs. N.C. State); we couldn’t execute.”
Kelly weighed in on what Notre Dame’s problem has been.
“It’s really just about having that demeanor and toughness and that will that regardless of the circumstances, we’re going to get it done. There is a fine line between winning and losing, and we’re not executing as a unit. As a group we’re not executing effectively in the closing minutes to win football games.”
Kelly also said it was not scheme or coaching that cost the Irish the game.
But it’s just not that clear. When an offense fails to produce with the game on the line four out of four times, scheme and coaching have to be considered, just as they were a positive reason for the successes last season.
If there was a time this year when the Irish “deserved” to score on a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive, this was it. The Irish notched five first downs on the drive – four rushing and one passing. Two came on fourth down. Notre Dame’s longest run of the day – a tackle-breaking 12-yarder by Josh Adams – came in this series, as did a seven- and two six-yard runs by Kizer.
But when Kizer found Equanimeous St. Brown for a 12-yard gain to the 18, the run game was shut down. St. Brown dropped a pass on first down, Kevin Stepherson dropped a pass on second down, Kizer scrambled off a designed pass on third down, and Sam Mustipher’s low fourth-down snap sailed past Kizer.
Of Notre Dame’s 102 net yards gained, which doesn’t include sacks/negative yardage plays, 41 came in that final drive.
This represented progress as it pertained to game-winning drive attempts. The Irish didn’t get past their own 29 on the last regulation-time drive vs. Texas. They didn’t move beyond their own 32 against Michigan State. They were at the Notre Dame 44 when Kizer’s final pass against Duke fell incomplete.
After scoring touchdowns on 16 of its first 20 red-zone penetrations, the Irish have now converted 1-of-5 the last two weeks combined.
THROWING CAUTION (IN)TO THE WIND
“I know DeShone Kizer is your best player. He’s electric throwing the football. But it can’t be done in these elements. You have two NFL offensive linemen on the left side in McGlinchey and Nelson. I cannot understand why they’re not trying to run the football.”
-- ABC’s Greg McElroy
The players said it didn’t matter which direction you threw it. Throwing the football was difficult from the outset. The spawn of Hurricane Matthew knocked down Kizer’s deep ball on the second play from scrimmage. Reality, as well as the wind, slapped Notre Dame in the face seconds into the game.
Notre Dame had the wind at its backs in the second and third quarter. In those quarters, Kizer was 6-of-19 for 36 yards and an interception. In the two quarters (first and fourth) in which the Irish were moving into the wind, Kizer completed 6-of-11 for 25 yards.
With or against the wind, throwing the football in these conditions was low percentage football. Officially, the Irish attempted 38 rushes and 26 passes. But with five sacks of Kizer and two errant snaps counted as a “team rush,” there were, in essence, 31 rushes and 33 pass calls. Factor in just four designed runs out of 15 Kizer rushing attempts and it was 37 pass plays called and 27 rushes.
As much as it was the distribution, it was also the type of passes the Irish attempted. Long out passes that forced the receiver to make multiple adjustments waiting for the football to arrive. Lobbed screen passes for the wind to play havoc.
Wouldn’t a few slants have been in order? Those can skip off hands and be picked off. Risky. Shovel passes forward, as opposed to laterally? Stacked receivers with quick-outs, allowing for a lead blocker?
N.C. State – with the better running game and the best running back on the field – attempted 51 rushes and 14 passes. There were no sacks of Ryan Finley, but there were five team rushes that lost 28 yards. Even if you take those five pass-play calls and separate them from the runs, it’s still 46 attempted rushes and just 19 passes.
Malik Zaire was an absolute must-play in this game. He should have been incorporated into the weekly preparation when it was obvious rain would be a significant part of the game.
Even with N.C. State giving the blueprint to Notre Dame with the insertion of quarterback Jalan McClendon in the third quarter, Brian Kelly steered clear of Zaire. Why? One reason certainly was the wind at Notre Dame’s back in the third quarter, the same quarter Kizer threw incomplete on all five attempts.
In theory, the best time to play Zaire was in the first and fourth quarters when the wind was in the Notre Dame offense’s face. But Kelly wanted his best quarterback on the field at the start and at the end of the game, and he wanted his best quarterback on the field when the wind was at their backs, which pointed him to Kizer for all four quarters.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
Notre Dame’s best chance to do some damage came in the second quarter when a) the wind was at its back and b) the field position was ideal.
• Notre Dame took possession of the football, trailing 3-0, at the N.C. State 46 at the 12:14 mark of the second quarter. Kizer found St. Brown and Hunter for back-to-back completions totaling 28 yards. When Dexter Williams converted a 2nd-and-2, the Irish had a first down at the 25. Mustipher’s “snap that wasn’t” – the one that slid out of his hand and remained at his feet – was recovered by the Wolfpack’s B.J. Hill.
• The Irish got it right back. Asmar Bilal and Daelin Hayes forced the first recovered fumble of the season for the Irish at the N.C. State 22. From there, it became the drive from hell.
-- Bad: Delay of game out of a change of possessions.
-- Bad: Three straight incompletions.
-- Bad: False start by McGlinchey on 4th-and-15 from the 27.
-- Good: A questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Bradley Chubb gives Notre Dame a first down at the N.C. State 27.
-- Good: 11-yard pass to Hunter for a 1st-and-goal at the six.
-- Bad: False start by Nelson.
-- Bad: Chubb sacks Kizer for eight-yard loss.
-- Bad: Interception on 3rd-and-goal from the 19 with a shot at a field goal from 36 yards.
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY NO. 2
Not only did the Irish have the wind at their backs in the third quarter, but the great field position they were afforded in the second quarter continued into the start of the second half.
When N.C. State punter A.J. Cole went down to a knee to field a snap, the Irish took over at the Wolfpack 25. This time, the Irish did go to the ground game on first and second down, but netted just four yards. Kizer was sacked on third down and Justin Yoon tied the game with a 40-yard field goal.
Opportunity kept knocking, and this was where the Irish absolutely had to take advantage and get in front on the scoreboard. Daniel Cage forced a Matthew Dayes fumble and James Onwualu recovered at the N.C. State 22.
With failed running attempts on the previous drive on the brain, four straight pass plays were called. They resulted in a sack and three straight incompletions as Kelly eschewed a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Dating back to the second quarter, the Irish had four drives starting in N.C. State territory – the 46, 22, 25 and 22 – which resulted in punt, interception, field goal and loss on downs. A mere three points.
And that’s when the Wolfpack slammed shut the window of opportunity. Dave Doeren went to backup quarterback Jalan McClendon – a true halftime adjustment to compensate for the weather conditions – and the tone of the game changed. The Wolfpack couldn’t score with their offense either, but the insertion of McClendon ended Notre Dame’s incredible run of field position.
Once McClendon came in and marched the Wolfpack on a 16-play, 51-yard drive, Notre Dame’s field position opportunities were done. Their four remaining possessions began at their own 25, 29, 39 and 20.
It’s easy to second-guess the switch to a rugby-style punt game against N.C. State because the confusion – being caught between two approaches – ultimately cost the Irish the game.
It was interesting to see Notre Dame’s punting approach in the bad weather. With a punter, two blockers directly in front of him, a long-snapper and three “gunners” (two to one side, one to the other), that left four others to block. Thus, the splits of the blockers were wide. It was a “porous” alignment, which theoretically would be compensated for by Tyler Newsome’s move to his right to buy space/time.
On the second punt of the game, N.C. State actually had four players slip through against Notre Dame’s two blockers, Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua. The Wolfpack were late getting there, so Newsome was under no threat.
With the wind at their backs in the third quarter, the Irish went back to a three-man protection crew. That made sense. Rather than rugby-style kick it, let Newsome get some additional yardage with a traditional punting style.
The blocked punt – going into the wind – looked like the other two-man blocking corps attempts. It was three N.C. State rushers against two blockers. Brian Kelly said Newsome didn’t have to rugby-style kick it. But if he had, he would have cleared the traffic that Pharoah McKever created.
Weishar engaged McKever, but Luatua made a half-hearted attempt to get a body on McKever because Weishar had him blocked. What they hadn’t accomplished, however, was the disabling of McKever’s ability to get an arm up. An additional block from Luatua, who was right there, would have helped.
Newsome was not quick getting off the punt and his attempt – from a conventional punting approach – went into the right hand of McKever, and Dexter Wright scored from 16 yards out.
Caught between two styles, the Irish lost the game on that play.
A “repentant” Brian Kelly addressed junior center Sam Mustipher’s struggles Sunday, 24 hours after verbally accosting Mustipher during the N.C. State game and calling his snapping issues “atrocious” in the post-game banter. Sunday, Kelly acknowledged the terrible conditions with which Mustipher had to work.
It was a tough day for a tough kid, who has played very well in his first season as a starter. Three snaps in particular turned what should have been an anonymous day into a rare focus on the center.
The first bad snap was a bit too hard for the distance Kizer was aligned behind the snap, and too high as well.
The “snap that wasn’t a snap” is just a bad break. It slipped out of his hand as he attempted the transfer from ground to snap.
Mustipher had another hot shotgun snap that Kizer had difficulty handling, which led to a punt.
On the final snap, Mustipher indicated that he heard what he thought was a snap count. But it was low and would have been difficult to handle anyway.
Prediction: Mustipher is a tough kid. He’ll bounce back.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Eight defensive players of note vs. N.C. State: Jerry Tillery, James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, Te’von Coney, Devin Studstill, Nicco Fertitta.
• How is it punt-catch interference on Troy Pride, Jr. when Bra’Lon Cherry caught the football and then began returning it before Pride wrapped him up?
• Thoroughly impressed with N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley in the first four games, but he mentally checked out in this game, never believing that he was going to be able to handle the football, let alone throw it. You would have seen a much different Finley in dry conditions.
• There was one skill-position player on the field who did not seem to be bothered by the weather conditions. Not surprising, that player – Matthew Dayes – rushed for 126 yards on 23 carries.
• If a kickoff hits the hand of a kick return man and it goes into the end zone, shouldn’t they place the ball at the 20 instead of the 25?
• Football is a game of “opposites attract” when a coach fails. The announcers said that Greg Hudson has brought “a more collegial atmosphere.” That’s great. That’s apparently what Notre Dame needed. But for some reason, Notre Dame doesn’t publicly give credit where credit is due with its assistant coaches, and the man who deserves most of the credit for the improved defensive play is Mike Elston.
• A rare defensive holding call on Daniel Cage. Even a defensive player can’t hold the offensive lineman from behind when he’s beaten you upfield.
• What an amazing recovery on a high snap to Kizer late in the first quarter that looked like Bradley Chubb would pounce on it. If the Wolfpack recover that, it’s likely 10-0 early in the second quarter.
• The fumble caused by Daelin Hayes (with Asmar Bilal contributing) and the subsequent recovery by James Onwualu at the 9:56 mark of the third quarter was the first recovered fumble by the Irish in 21 quarters and 5:04, or 320 minutes, four seconds. After causing the first fumble of the season against Syracuse, the Irish forced six against N.C. State. They recovered just two.
• The weather prevented it, but you’d enjoy watching Eli Drinkwitz’s offense on a dry field.
• You can’t call a late hit on Jay Hayes for diving on top of Finley on a fumbled snap. The rules of engagement have to change in wet conditions. Hayes can’t assume that Finley came up with the ball. Analyst Greg McElroy – heretofore known as Mr. Obvious for most of what he rambled on about all day – said he absolutely would have ruled a late hit. You have to take into account weather conditions. If Hayes doesn’t dive in there, the ball squirts loose and N.C. State recovers, Hayes would be criticized for not hustling.
• Great job by Justin Yoon on 40-yard field goal. Had to be quick and drive it like a two-iron.
• Strong games from N.C. State linebackers Aairius Moore and Jerod Fernandez.
• Great block by Durham Smythe to spring Adams for 12-yard gain in final drive; lazy, late blocking effort by Torii Hunter, Jr.
• Mike McGlinchey -- former tight end. One helluva grab on Kizer’s final desperation throw, although offensive linemen are ineligible receivers. Perhaps a “pass” to McGlinchey behind the line of scrimmage – which is legal – is in order. Pittsburgh scored that way vs. Georgia Tech.
• One fine block by Adams on Kentavius Street on Notre Dame’s last snap of the game. It went for naught, but Adams made a tremendous sprawling block on Street that allowed Kizer to pick up the football and attempt a throw.
• Jay Hayes still isn’t playing enough.