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Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

Oct 30, 2010, 9:10 PM EDT

DeclanSullivan

For those looking to bury Brian Kelly after nine games at Notre Dame, they were given the opportunity late in the fourth quarter. After calling a timeout with 42 seconds left, Kelly decided against putting the game on the leg of his field goal kicker David Ruffer, and instead bet on the arm of freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who dropped back from the Tulsa 19 yard line and targeted wide receiver Michael Floyd, running down the sideline in one-on-one coverage.

Floyd had a step on the undersized defensive back, but Rees’ back foot throw kited into a strong wind, helping 5-foot-9 cornerback John Flanders come down with an unlikely interception, sealing Tulsa’s 28-27 victory on a somber Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We knew we had a one-on-one match up with Mike Floyd, and certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there,” Kelly said after the game. “We took a timeout there to talk about it. But I think we all saw what happened.”

What happened was a heart-wrenching interception that put an ugly ending onto an otherwise great performance by Rees, who became the first Notre Dame freshman to throw four touchdown passes in a game. It also dropped Notre Dame to 4-5 on the season, putting the Irish in the difficult position of needing a win against either Utah or USC to have a chance to play in the postseason.

Let’s take a look at five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

1. The new goal for Notre Dame? Win two out of the next three.

Even before the tragic events of this week, Brian Kelly acknowledged that today’s game was one of the most important of his career. Needing two wins to clinch a bowl birth in the final four games, anybody could point to games against Tulsa and Army as must-have wins for the Irish.

But with the Irish losing today, they’ll now need to beat either Utah or USC, as well as an upstart Army team that’s 5-3 for the first time in over a decade.

“The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins,” Kelly said emphatically. “We’ve got to win two out of three now. That’s the number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.”

The Irish will have a much needed weekend off before playing Utah, undefeated and ranked No. 8 team in the country. The Utes battle an upstart Air Force squad today and No. 4 TCU next Saturday, so they’ll be coming off two physical opponents before facing the Irish.

After that the Irish face another triple-option attack when Army joins Notre Dame for the first ever football game in the new Yankee Stadium, before finishing the season against rival USC, who likely will view the Irish as part one of their two-game postseason, against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA.

It’s an uphill road for the Irish, especially in light of their injury problems, but far from impossible.

2. Bob Diaco’s defense did their job.

After a wobbly first two series, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco slowed down a Tulsa attack that had great speed and a quarterback proficient at running the zone read.

Tulsa averaged just under 7.5 yards per play on their first two offensive possessions, but the Irish defense stood strong after that, holding Tulsa to only 272 total yards on 56 plays, below five yards a touch — impressive work considering Tulsa averaged 491 yards a game and 6.3 yards a play entering the game.

Diaco’s mixed a nice blend of pressure and zone coverage, sacking Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne five times, but ultimately the unit came up empty on Tulsa final offensive drive, when the Irish gave up a crucial 3rd and 26 in deep zone coverage.

Diaco and his defense took a lot of heat this week, but playing without starting nose tackle Ian Williams and insider linebacker Carlo Calabrese, the unit deserves a ton of credit for putting together a gritty performance, giving up only 13 of the 28 points the Golden Hurricanes scored.

3. Special Teams and the big play killed the Irish.

On a day where Notre Dame came up with a big fake punt that extended a drive and led to a Notre Dame touchdown, the Irish special teams killed them, with Tulsa’s two points on a critical returned extra-point attempt the swing in their one-point victory. David Ruffer’s only two misses on the season have come on blocked extra points, and the Irish offensive line gave up the block right off the center, with linebacker Curnelius Arnick scooping it up and returning it to for a touchdown.

Electric return man Damaris Johnson also returned a punt for a touchdown, bringing Tulsa back from a nine-point deficit, thanks to a low punt from Ben Turk, the lack of hang-time all that Johnson needed to weave his way through the Irish gunners.

And finally, the Irish were victimized by the big play, courtesy of linebacker Shawn Jackson, who caught a deflected Tommy Rees screen pass and closed the half with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown, putting Tulsa back in the football game when it looked like the Irish were capable of marching down the field and extending the lead into double-digits. Some terrible luck for the Irish on a high-percentage play call that looked like a big gainer for Notre Dame, only to have the ball pin-ball its way into the arms of a Tulsa defender and pull the Hurricane within two points.

4. Tragedy for Dayne Crist turns into opportunity for Tommy Rees.

After starting the game slowly, Dayne Crist stepped up from Tulsa’s pressure rush and darted for the Notre Dame sideline, picking up the first down and then tight-roping along the sideline for a 29-yard gain. But Crist was hit high and hard, came down awkwardly on his left knee, and possibly ended his season with what’s been reported as a ruptured patellar tendon.

“It seems every medical report I get, it ends with, Done for the season,” Kelly said after the game. “The first report I got was a bruised knee, and then it was some with his patellar tendon. It’s a severe injury, I can tell you that, just seeing Dayne briefly.”

Heartbreaking news for Crist, who worked his way back quickly from a torn ACL suffered one year to the day last season in mop-up time against Washington State.

With Crist gone, Kelly turned to true freshman Tommy Rees, who was the lone bright spot in the Irish loss to Navy last week. And Rees responded right out of the gate, going 15 of his first 18 with three touchdown passes.

When asked to assess Rees’ play, Kelly was emphatic.

“Awesome. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more happy for the kid,” Kelly said. “True freshman goes out there, hasn’t played. He just competes.”

Still, Rees’ recording setting day with be remembered for his final throw, the back-breaking interception that sealed the game for Tulsa. Kelly walked through his thought process, putting the game in the hands of his freshman quarterback with the Irish in field goal range.

“Why not try to get Michael Floyd one-on-one against a 5-9 corner? We called a timeout and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Second down, take a shot here. If we don’t like it, let’s throw the thing away.’ Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. He knows the deal. He’s the quarterback.”

Pressed on his thought process, Kelly defending the decision to try and throw for the win instead of relying on kicker David Ruffer to make a field goal in a tricky wind.

“This is how we play. We’re going to play aggressive,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play smart… I would make the call again and I would hope that the process of learning would have a different outcome.”

Rees finished the afternoon 33 for 54 with four touchdowns and three interceptions, cementing his role as the starting quarterback against Utah after the off-week and putting the 2011 quarterback position into murky water, something nobody thought would happen entering the season.

5. Football isn’t always fair.

There’s no way to put today’s loss in true context after what the Notre Dame community suffered through this week. While the loss of Declan Sullivan puts the football game in perspective, walking off the field after losing a game like this rings about as hollow as it possibly can for an Irish team that had so much on their plates this week.

“As a football coach, there’s been more difficult weeks relative to the game itself,” Kelly said. “But in terms of the tragedy that occurred, there’s never been a more difficult time in my life.”

On the football field, life won’t get any easier for the Irish. Brian Kelly revealed that the Irish will likely be without leading running back Armando Allen for the rest of the season.

“It’s not a good situation. He may have played his last down here at Notre Dame because of the injury,” Kelly said about Allen’s injured hip. “He wanted to dress and run through the tunnel in case it was his last time playing at Notre Dame.”

The loss of Allen just adds to the nightmare scenario for Kelly’s offense, and is a terrible way for the team’s most consistent offensive player to end his career. Allen walked onto campus tantalizing Irish fans with breakaway speed, but an ankle injury suffered during his senior year of high school seemed to limit Allen’s ability to break the explosive plays many thought he’d bring to South Bend.

Instead, Allen turned into a renaissance man, an all-around performer that ran for the tough yards between tackles as well as possessing receiving skills while excelling in the return game. When asked to transition to the spread running attack, Allen responded with an 514 yards rushing, just shy of five-yards a carry, and great all-around play. Though his career was marred with various injury setbacks during his junior and senior seasons, Allen will go down as one of the top total-yardage player in Notre Dame history.

  1. ndfan4ever - Nov 1, 2010 at 11:39 AM

    BK his ego is to big for his sake. His comments after the game were one an aragont coach makes. I can see throwing for a touchdown if we were down 4 + points but we weren’t. Why not go to an eye formation and pound hughes up the middle runt he clock downa and then let your kicker win the game. To throw it was just dumb no doubts about it. Same thing in the Michigan game kick the field goal. When we needed a win and had som much bad happen these kids deserved to win and the coach choked big time. It will take a miricle for us to get to a bowl game now. Reese looked good againt the worst rated passing defenese in FBS. That won’t happen against Utah or USC. Will will be lucky to get by Army with the way our defense plays. 3rd down and what like 31 or something and we give up a first down come on rush 3 drop eight and cover deep make them throw underneath and stop them. We had 3 or 4 times where we should have pick off passes but we dropped them. It was a horrible loss that should have been a wonderful win all things being equal. Why put the game on the line with a freshman backup QB when you have the best kicker in the league looking at the most 37 yard field goal right down the middle. Thanks all I have to say about that.

  2. bigirishfan - Nov 1, 2010 at 12:44 PM

    Now is the time for all true Irish fans to rally around the team, university, and coach.

    After last week’s tragedy, it’s not surprising that we lost to Tulsa.

    Even though our players appear to lack heart and talent, that’s no reason to abandon them. Weiss clearly overrated them, and now Kelly must clean up the mess.

    It’s premature to call for Kelly’s head after 9 games. I am not ready to give him the TW treatment yet.

    He should explain his bonehead coaching decisions though.

    It’s time to face facts, we are a below average team in transition.

    Expectations were simply too high at the beginning of the season.

    It’s going to take some time and patience to turn things around.

    We are going to lose some recruits before we right the ship.

    • ndgoldandblue - Nov 1, 2010 at 1:12 PM

      Yes, but can the ship be righted? As it looks right now, without drastic improvements in football intelligence and many freshmen and sophomores playing out of their minds (which is way too much to ask), this team is only going to get worse in the next two years. The schedule is more difficult next year, and the schedule is insanely difficult in 2012. Will the light at the end of the tunnel appear before 2013? I’m starting to doubt it.

  3. 9irish - Nov 1, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    I don’t know…maybe the poor bastard will learn from the beating he is taking externally, and probably internally. Let me put it this way, if they had missed the field goal, I would not be saying, “You should have tried to lob it into the endzone beforehand!” you have to play the percentages, especially in that situation with a freshman quarterback, who did remarkably well. Just a dumb call, accept it, put it in your kit bag and move on.

    Go Irish

  4. gdomer2419 - Nov 1, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    The comments after the game..sorry to say, reminded me of Weis. That loss falls completely on his shoulders. It was one of the dumbest play calls I have seen. Then he has the gall to say that “we are going to play smart.” How can the players play smart football when the coach can’t make a proper call late in the game. It was absolutely stupefying.

    • ndfan606 - Nov 2, 2010 at 1:14 PM

      I agree, and thought his explanation was worse than the call itself. It also sounded like he was blaming Rees for not throwing it out of bounds rather than admitting that running down the clock and kicking the field goal was a more likely outcome. What’s stupefying is only the week before Kelly had asserted how important getting to a bowl is, so it’s strange that he would take such a risk in that scenario.

      The comments during and after the Navy game were also odd. First he said Navy was doing things it hadn’t done or the coaches hadn’t seen. Second, in the interview after halftime he claimed Notre Dame made adjustments, but then on sunday following the game he admitted that the team wasn’t prepared and didn’t make adjustments. Even Diaco came out and admitted that he didn’t want to make adjustments because the team hadn’t practiced them. This comes after Kelly had said ND was practicing for Navy since September. I sure hope not because the coaches would really look bad then. All this even though Navy kept running up the B gaps while Irish linebackers were playing the A gaps. And kept playing the A gaps and Navy never had to change it’s strategy. The Navy game was more alarming than the Tulsa game. Notre Dame was outcoached again. Notre Dame is 4-5 with a good chance of having a worse record than last year in only the first year of the Kelly regime and the coaches beg us to have blind faith in what’s going on behind closed doors even though the record doesn’t suggest we trust them. South Bend, we have a problem.

  5. ndfan606 - Nov 2, 2010 at 1:04 PM

    Keith, I’m confused about your assertion that going for a touchdown pass is logical whether or not I agree with the call. Are you saying a lesson in self confidence was the priority there so taking a shot at the end zone was necessary, or are you asserting that going for the touchdown pass is more logical than kicking the field goal?

    I don’t dispute your point that Notre Dame needs to develop self confidence, especially in pressure situations. I also agree that going for a touchdown pass in that situation is worth consideration, since it was only 2nd down and there was still some 40 seconds on the clock and ND had a timeout.

    I disagree that self confidence lesson would take a higher priority than putting your team in the best position to win. Winning ugly isn’t great, but I’m not sure I can find many who wouldn’t say it beats losing pretty. Do teams who lose pretty get higher rankings than teams that win ugly? Kicking a field goal in this circumstance had a higher probability of success than trying to pass in the end zone, as I will show later, so it put the team in a better position to win than taking a shot at the end zone.

    While successfully going for the jugular would definitely help this team’s psyche, a loss in this circumstance would be more damaging than the psychological boost of a game winning touchdown pass. Going into the game ND was 4-4, had earlier lost two games it should’ve won (U-M and MSU), had just come off an embarrassing loss to Navy the week before, had suffered numerous injuries to key players and still had to face Utah and USC. And then early in the game it loses its starting quarterback. All those facts suggest the team’s psyche might have been fragile to begin with and underscores the urgency of getting a win. Not to mention, if you lose this game your chances of getting to a bowl and the 15 extra practices that Kelly so values are jeopardized. So, it would be difficult for me to agree if your assertion for why the logic made sense is because of the importance of a self confidence lesson. That argument just sounds like an excuse for a poor play call.

    If you are suggesting that going for a touchdown pass makes more sense than kicking a field goal, then consider these facts. Although Tommy Rees had played a solid game in relief including leading the team to four touchdown drives his collegiate experience was still very limited. Plus, earlier in the game he had demonstrated poor judgement by throwing two interceptions including forcing one into triple coverage. These facts seem to support the argument that Rees might not make a perfect throw or choose to the throw the ball away, which is what throwing a pass in the end zone required to go right. Not taking anything away from Rees, but it’s asking alot of an inexperienced qb to make a perfect throw or a correct read in a pressure situation when he had already demonstrated mistakes.

    And it definitely isn’t sound logic when the coach had a higher probability alternative. No, a field goal wasn’t certain, but I can’t buy your reasoning that going for the touchdown pass with the inexperienced qb is more sound than going with a Groza award finalist kicker who was not only in range but has been perfect so far on the season. Seems the odds of an experienced and flawless kicker within his range of making a field goal were higher than an inexperienced qb either making a perfect throw or the correct decision to throw out of bounds in a pressure situation.

  6. 9irish - Nov 2, 2010 at 1:11 PM

    This is such a circular argument that just pretty much defies logic. Build confidence by throwing a TD pass instead of kicking a field goal? Okay would the plus side of that be more than the negative side of losing the damn game? I don’t think so. Not to mention the fact that if they had scored, they would have actually had to kick the ball back to Tulsa, and, who knows, 40 secs is a long time. Run it up the middle twice, gain a few yards, get it in the middle, go down to 3 secs, kick the ball, go home. Pretty simple

    • ndfan606 - Nov 2, 2010 at 1:26 PM

      I agree. Seems like this is what you get with Kelly. I think Kelly knows better but he’s probably inflexible because he’s had success elsewhere in lesser pressure programs. His astonishing comments after the game about repeating the call definitely show he doesn’t lack self confidence. I just hope he’s able to recognize and adapt sooner rather than later.

  7. guid456 - Nov 2, 2010 at 3:53 PM

    I laugh, the headline “Tulsa Upsets Notre Dame” It should have read Notre Dame hangs with Tulsa. A month ago I lamented for ND to join the big 10. Well, never mind, we only need one Minnesota in our conference.

  8. ndfootballfan - Nov 2, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    Imagine what kicking that field goal at the end of the game would have done for the confidence of Rees and Ruffer. Ruffer gains confidence knowing that he can make a field goal with the game on the line. Rees gains confidence in that he just lead his team down the field for the game winning drive with less than a minute left in the game. But that is not what happened, so instead Rees’ confidence is maybe a little lower after throwing the pick and Ruffer’s confidence has to be hurting knowing that his head coach didn’t call his name with the game on the line despite having made every field goal attempt this year.

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