A little over 24 hours after the Irish lost to Michigan 28-24, Brian Kelly was given more than a few opportunities to try and find a silver lining in the heartbreaking defeat. He never took the bait.
“I’m not a real big believer in that you learn a lot after a loss,” Kelly said. “I’d rather learn after winning.”
So would Irish fans, after watching Notre Dame lose a second consecutive rivalry game against Michigan on a last minute touchdown drive.
Before we turn the page, here’s the good, the bad, the ugly from Saturday’s defeat.
Armando Allen is turning into a elite running back. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I’d describe Allen’s running style as punishing, but watching the tape of the game, it’s pretty clear that Allen was a man on fire on Saturday afternoon, gaining 89 yards on 15 carries, and breaking countless tackles as well. Even more impressive is Allen’s role on the offense. As a four-year player, this is very much his offense, and the senior is stepping up.
“I really like his leadership. You could tell it hurt him when we lost the football game,” Kelly said. “He’s made a huge investment and you can see it in the way he plays the game.”
The Irish had five different players break runs of 10-plus yards, with Allen’s 29-yard gain in the third quarter the longest run of the day for Notre Dame. With Cierre Wood stuck in neutral and only gaining 10 yards on six carries, Allen’s blue-collar approach helped keep the offense two-dimensional even when playing from behind.
The quarterback situation behind Crist. Tommy Rees and Nate Montana combined to go 8 for 19 for 104 yards with two interceptions. Even those numbers are misleading, because 37 of the yards came on the near Hail Mary heave from Montana to Theo Riddick, who was left wide open on the penultimate play of the second quarter.
Rees’ first college throw was a terrible decision — a play designed to give the quarterback only one option, and Rees unfortunately took the other one. Montana also seemed lost, complacent to just roll from the pocket, giving himself only half-field reads as he scrambled to his right. While I agreed with the decision to go for the touchdown at the moment, never did I suspect (or Kelly and the coaching staff for that matter) that in a no-risk situation that the quarterback would sail one into the stands instead of trying to squeeze a ball into a tight spot.
With it clear that neither of the two back-up quarterbacks were ready to lead the team to a victory, Kelly shouldered the blame.
“”We’re not going to play Massa and we’re not going to play Hendrix. So I gotta get ready those two kids,” Kelly said. “Flat out, that’s
my job. We’re going to have to do some things a little differently to
make sure they’ve got a package they can handle. That was too much for
them. It doesn’t mean we can’t be successful, but we gotta get a
different package for them and I gotta get that done this week.”
Notre Dame fans have to be kicking themselves playing the “what if” game. After the opening Irish drive, it looked like Notre Dame could’ve put up a really large number on the scoreboard. Even after stalling out with Rees and Montana at the helm for most of the first half, the Irish gained 535 yards on offense, throwing for 381 yards and averaging 18.1 yards per reception.
But one series into the game, the Irish faced an offensive predicament that was as close to a worse-case scenario as you could imagine.
“It was not what was prescribed,” Kelly admitted. “You’re just trying to find out about
your starting quarterback and now when you lose him against Michigan you
put yourself in a position to go to somebody who has never played a BCS
college football game.”
I was guilty of playing the moral victory card after the game and finding positives in the effort shown by the Irish, but to Brian Kelly’s credit he will be putting those kind of kudos to rest.
“I’m going to tell our team tomorrow that’s the last time I want to hear
us talk about Notre Dame playing hard for four quarters,” Kelly said. “That is now a
given. Notre Dame needs to execute and win football games.”
It’s been said before that every Saturday in college football is a season in itself. That’s a little bit how it feels after this defeat. If Notre Dame walks out of the stadium with a victory and a 2-0 record, the trajectory of this year feels mightily different than the path they find themselves walking now — heading into a hostile environment on Saturday night against a Michigan State team that’s coasted behind a powerful rushing attack against two inferior teams.
You can say it now: There’s no bigger game than this Saturday for Kelly’s Irish. The psychological difference of being 2-1 and 1-2 is staggering, especially with another daunting task coming the next weekend with an impressive Stanford squad coming to South Bend.