Mother Nature won.
Technically, the box score will read North Carolina State out-lasted Notre Dame 10-3. But with Hurricane Matthew twirling its way through the Southeast, the Irish and the Wolfpack were the latest and greatest example that sometimes—national television viewing window be damned—an act of god is no place for a football game.
But that didn’t stop the action on Saturday afternoon. And in the end, NC State made one less storm-infested mistake than the Irish, coming up with the game’s biggest play when Pharaoh McKever pushed his way through Tyler Luatua and Nic Weishar, blocking Tyler Newsome’s fourth-quarter punt as Dexter Wright scooped it up from the slop and took it in for the game’s deciding score.
Let’s find out what we learned.
Throwing a football in a hurricane is not advisable.
DeShone Kizer has, and will continue to have, many wonderful weekends throwing the football. This was not one of them.
Kizer completed just nine of his 26 throws, a red zone interception to freshman safety Jarius Morehead one of the few that didn’t end up splashing to the ground. The elements were just too much for Kizer—and at times, his receivers—to overcome, dropped passes and wobbly misses less the exception than the rule.
All of that makes you wonder why Notre Dame’s coaching staff—a group with roughly 50 years of play-calling or coordinating experience—would continue to throw the football. Postgame, head coach Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to second guess the decision to air the ball out, though he did acknowledged the game plan.
“I feel like we let them down,” Kelly said of the staff’s plan for his water-logged team.
Getting behind the sticks didn’t help. First-down success was few and far between, a few runs short-circuited by Sam Mustipher snaps, missed blocks and blitzing defenders. But after building just a little bit of success on the offense’s final drive with the game on the line, Notre Dame’s offense went down with a dropped pass, dropped pass, Kizer scramble and tackle, and the final, fateful, 4th-and-8 blown shotgun snap.
That’s a game plan for the recycling bin.
The special teams nightmares continue.
For the fourth-straight game, Notre Dame’s special teams have been responsible for an opponent scoring a touchdown. And this Saturday, that proved fatal.
“We give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown,” Kelly said. “That’s the difference in this one.”
Perhaps the most startling thing about the punt block was that it seemed almost accidental. An individual effort, not a designed block, was the difference in the game, with McKever powering through Luatua and Weishar before throwing his arm up and getting a hand on Newsome’s punt.
But that’s been life for Scott Booker’s unit. Even if NC State’s special teams battery had far more problems in the elements than Notre Dame’s, the Irish managed to lose on a punt that started with a perfect snap and didn’t feature an opposing team that came after the kick.
The Irish offensive line lost the battle in the trenches.
Brian Kelly did his best to ignore the offensive line’s struggles last week, talking about the 40-point average and the 500-yards a game. Well, on a Saturday where the battle was in the trenches, Notre Dame’s front five got whipped.
DeShone Kizer was under duress all afternoon. The Wolfpack sacked Kizer five times, Bradley Chubb getting three of them, and totaled eight TFLs on the afternoon. They held the Irish to just 59 yards rushing on 38 official attempts. And stat after stat points to the dismal offensive performance—just 113 total yards, 1 of 15 on third downs, 0 for 2 in the red zone—all start up front.
Sam Mustipher had a horrific day snapping the football, whiffing on a wet ball that led to a turnover, air-mailing Kizer a few times with high snaps and eventually ending the game with a premature roller that sunk the Irish’s final offensive play.
A group that features high-end talent, but features four of five starters in different jobs than the ones they had in 2015, clearly lost the battle on Saturday.
The offense wasted a great defensive performance.
If we’re looking for building blocks, it’s the performance of the defense. While the Wolfpack had some success running the football, for the most part the Irish defense stiffened when they needed to, Notre Dame losing a football game without surrendering an offensive touchdown.
Of course, give an assist to the weather. And give another to the field conditions. But also tip your hat to the effort the young Irish defense gave, especially a front seven that held its own.
Jerry Tillery had nine tackles, including a TFL. Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal paired for a dozen more stops. Devin Studstill was active and a secondary that started freshmen Donte Vaughn, Julian Love and Studstill didn’t give up any big plays down the field.
With Stanford coming to town and looking to challenge the Irish defense in the trenches, there’s at least confidence and a performance to build from. And if that’s the silver lining, expect it to be used to turn this team around for another big challenge in a hurry.
With a fourth loss before mid-October, the goal needs to be finding a way to a bowl game.
Brian Kelly’s young team needs a pat on the back, not a kick in the tail. Because this weekend is on the coaching, not the players. And Kelly acknowledged that after the game.
“Kids were in great spirits, great energy. I feel terrible that we let them down,” Kelly said.
Kelly talked about the decision to be in rugby punt, not a standard three-man wall, as one of the major differences. But outside of that one decisive play, it was Dave Doeren that made the adjustments first, not Kelly and his staff.
It was the Wolfpack who went to the wildcat and had success in the running game. It was NC State that had the Irish on the ropes for most of the afternoon. And it was Eli Drinkwitz who found some creative ways to engineer yards when the Irish continued to try and call failed zone-read runs and hitch routes like it was an everyday Saturday out there, not a category two hurricane.
Say what you want about the decision to be play through the eye of the storm as stadium lights swayed, rain torrentially fell, and field conditions became more and more unplayable, but it was the same for both teams. And with multiple scoring opportunities going up in smoke as fumbles and turnovers piled up, a young football team needed a coaching staff to devise a game plan that could find a way to mitigate Mother Nature, if only just a little.
But they didn’t. And now the Irish return home as a 2-4 football team. They stare down Stanford and Christian McCaffrey next. And after a much-needed week off they take on Navy, Army, Virginia Tech and USC, all football games that the Irish could just as easily lose as win.
Notre Dame needs four wins over the final six games to get this program back on track. They need the postseason momentum and the late-season practice that could help jump start spring drills.
Kelly pulled that rabbit from the hat in his first season when he rallied the troops from a 1-3 start. Staring at 2-4, he has an even bigger hole to dig out from.
The odds of doing it look long from this vantage point. But find a way to get to six wins and you very well could find something to celebrate this season.