How we got here: Injuries


There’s a tricky line to draw when you write about injuries. They are a certainty in football (not unlike death and taxes off the field), but there is also a line where you’ve got to take injuries into account when adjusting your expectations for a team’s ability to perform.

There’s a school of thought that argues (probably successfully, I’d add) that regardless of injuries, Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to Navy or Tulsa. A simple look at the star-ratings and offer list of Notre Dame’s second string would support that claim, though it doesn’t take into account the development that happens after you’ve arrived on campus.

If there was a No. 1 knock on Charlie Weis as a collegiate head coach, it was probably his ability to develop his roster. Elite offensive talent seemed to thrive under Weis’ tutelage, but the middle of the roster — the long-term development of players in years three, four, and five of the program are the players that determine whether or not you’ve got a BCS team or a team filled with NFL prospects. (We’ll get to this later, I promise.)

As we saw plainly in 2007, Charlie Weis did little to develop the second level of his roster in the early years of his tenure, and his career never recovered when his teams in 2008 and 2009 failed to get better than mediocre results, struggling to replace veteran offensive and defensive linemen, safeties, or linebackers.

Brian Kelly entered Notre Dame with a reputation for developing talent, and he quickly set about implementing a practice system and approach that tried to strengthen and ready the depth on the roster. That approach has been put to the test this season, as Kelly not only had to implement new offensive and defensive systems, but also had to instill in his team a “Next Man In” attitude that was often preached by Weis, but never truly implemented.

Kelly started his first spring practice with only two players in “protected” status: Quarterback Dayne Crist, who was recovering from a torn ACL and running back turned wide receiver Theo Riddick, who was recovering from shoulder injury. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was also battling to stay healthy, being monitored by his position coach as a “restricted” player in Kelly’s training system. The Irish excited the Blue-Gold game without a major injury, getting Dayne Crist through every snap of spring practice even while he was less than five months removed from knee surgery.

From there, it was practically all down hill.

Nine games into the season, the Irish have lost a litany of players to injury. Major injuries have ended the seasons of starting quarterback Dayne Crist, senior tailback Armando Allen, and tight end Kyle Rudolph on offense alone. The loss of Rudolph robs the Irish offense of an All-American, the loss of Allen robs it of one of its most productive, and the loss of Crist removes the most indispensable players on the Irish roster. Three catastrophic losses any way you slice it.

Offensively, the Irish also lost presumed starter Dan Wenger for the season before it ever started, inserting first-timer Braxston Cave into the lineup at center. After finding his form at the slot receiver, Theo Riddick finds himself in the midst of a major ankle injury, robbing the Irish of it’s second most explosive offensive threat, and a player absolutely instrumental to Kelly’s spread attack. Starting right tackle Taylor Dever missed significant time, forcing redshirt freshman Zack Martin to flip over to the right tackle position, and pushing senior Matt Romine into the left tackle position, a spot he’s taken limited snaps in during his four years on campus. Running back Jonas Gray also has missed a significant portion of the year with an injury, turning a four-headed position that was the deepest position on the roster into a 1-2 punch of Cierre Wood, playing his first football since his senior year of high school, and Robert Hughes, a jumbo-sized back that’s a square peg in the round-hole mold of spread running backs needed for Kelly’s system. Finally, wide receiver Michael Floyd, the Irish’s best offensive player, battled hamstring issues of his own before sitting out the Navy game, watching from the sideline the Irish’s ugliest loss of the season.

On the flip side of the ball, no injury took a greater toll on the defense than the strained MCL of senior nose tackle Ian Williams, who could’ve player his last game in a Notre Dame uniform after being injured against Navy. The Irish battled depth and injury issues at middle linebacker from the beginning of the year, losing senior Steve Paskorz to a knee injury and Anthony McDonald to a variety of ailments, paving way for Carlo Calabrese, who suffered a major hamstring injury of his own. A position that was already incredibly thin forced the Irish to counter with true freshman Danny Spond and Prince Shembo in the middle, but Spond’s been out with injuries for the past few weeks and Shembo suffered a concussion Saturday afternoon. The Irish plugged senior Brian Smith in at inside linebacker, a move Kelly would barely concede to during spring ball unless it was an extraordinary emergency situation.

In the secondary, the Irish safeties have been decimated by injury. Both Jamoris Slaughter and Danny McCarthy have struggled to stay healthy all season, with Slaughter injuring an ankle that’s been incredibly slow to heal and McCarthy having a nagging leg injury that robbed him of the speed necessary to cover the back-end of the defense. With two of the four scholarship safeties on the roster sitting out, the Irish were forced to play the odd couple of Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta in the defensive backfield, two maximum effort players that leave some coverage skills on the table.

Irish fans have likely been spoiled during the transition years of the past two regimes, where a veteran roster stormed out of the gates quickly. Kelly wasn’t dealt the same hand, playing with a deck of cards short some very important faces. For all the struggles the Irish have faced along the offensive line since Charlie Weis took over the program, the line play has been decent considering three new starters at the positions most vulnerable and two veteran guards who have hardly taken the leap to elite that many had hoped. Defensively, outside of the game against the Naval Academy, the Irish have played a much better brand of football than they did last season, limiting explosive plays by the opponent and surviving with a more structurally sound, bend, don’t break, defense.

On the road to a 4-5 record through nine games, the Irish can easily look back at losses to Michigan and Tulsa and wonder if a healthy Dayne Crist couldn’t have gotten them through two opponents that had sizable flaws. And since losing Riddick and Rudolph, the Irish have lost every game not played against Western Michigan. It’s the ultimate game of “what could’ve been,” but the Irish are likely playing it after seeing their training room filled with some of the most important players on the roster.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.