The good, the bad, the ugly: Tulsa

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What a calendar year for the Irish. From Halloween to Halloween, you’d be hard pressed to find a football program that’s had a tougher 12 months than the Fighting Irish.

On the field, the Irish were 4-9, with seven of those losses decided by one score or less. Major injuries were suffered by starters like Jimmy Clausen, Armando Allen, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Dan Wenger, Dayne Crist (twice), Ian Williams, Carlo Calabrese, Theo Riddick, and Jamoris Slaughter.  On the sidelines, the school fired its fourth head coach in less than a decade, a pattern of rebuilding and restructuring that’s done more damage to the development of the football team than anyone can imagine. And off the field, the Irish suffered the tragic losses of incoming freshman Matt James and junior videographer Declan Sullivan, two members of the Irish football family that had their lives cut short well before their time.

The Irish have no football to play this weekend, taking a much needed mental and physical break before preparing to face No. 5 Utah in Notre Dame Stadium. Before that, let’s take a look at the good, bad, and ugly from Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

THE GOOD

A lot of credit needs to go to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Charley Molnar for getting freshman Tommy Rees prepared for action. The quarterback that jogged onto the field when Dayne Crist went down in the first quarterback looked nothing like the one that jogged onto the field against Michigan.

Rees looked poised and confident directing the Irish offense, working quickly and efficiently within the confines of the system. He drove the Irish to four touchdowns, becoming the first Irish freshman quarterback to ever throw four touchdown passes in a single game. When Rees processed information correctly, the ball came out of his hands quickly and confidently, and Kelly’s spread offense had a rhythm that we rarely saw under Dayne Crist.

Unfortunately, when Rees didn’t see things correctly, he made poor decisions, forcing a few balls into places they should never go. Tommy spoke candidly about his final throw of the game.

“We had one-on-one coverage with Mike. When we have that, we want to take a chance,” Rees said. “I under-threw the ball a little bit… But with Mike, he can even make bad plays look good. That one is completely on me. I take accountability for that throw. Looking back, I would try to take it back. Nothing I can do.”

THE BAD

Kelly’s decision to put his freshman quarterback in a position to throw that interception has many apoplectic. With the Irish looking at a 37-yard field goal, the decision to throw the ball in the first place has people thinking Kelly cares more about winning “his way” than winning at all.

That said, as good as David Ruffer’s been, putting that kind of pressure on your kicker isn’t the soundest strategy, and the kick team has hardly been bullet-proof, with two extra points being blocked already this season.

Kelly has certainly surprised people with his penchant for gambling, and more of those decisions have backfired than paid off this season. That said, whether you agree with throwing the ball or not, Kelly’s logic was solid. He took a timeout to discuss the choice with his quarterback. He put him in a one-receiver, one-coverage read. Rees got the match-up they wanted, but just underthrew the football.

Kelly’s confidence in his team to make crunch time plays, and to go for the throat instead of playing conservatively is a mindset that the Irish are struggling to develop, and have struggled with since Brady Quinn graduated. With seven last minute losses in the last two seasons, it’s not hard to understand why the team unconsciously struggles to put the nail in the coffin.

THE UGLY

There is never a honeymoon period for a Notre Dame head coach, and Kelly and his staff are likely understanding that right now. This coaching staff knew it needed to win games early, and the struggles to do that — whether it be coaching deficiencies, critical injuries, or just plain bad luck — don’t matter to a fanbase restless for answers and results.

For those already claiming the Kelly era a failure, they’ll likely point to the loss of blue-chip defensive end recruit Aaron Lynch, who decommitted and eliminated Notre Dame from consideration this weekend. Lynch’s defection follows the “negative recruiting” playbook to a tee, with reports saying that the high school senior was worried he’d struggle to keep up academically. Not surprisingly, Lynch is still considering Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators, as well as Florida State, Miami, and South Florida.

One player is never going to make or break a recruiting class, and the losses of blue-chip defenders to Florida like Omar Hunter and Justin Trattou have been lessened by the fact that neither of them have done much wearing a Gators uniform. Still Lynch’s defection is likely the result of opposing coaches working hard to denigrate a program and its own fanbase providing plenty of gasoline for the fire.

The Irish have the chance to turn around their season if they can win two of the last three football games. While 6-6 just wasn’t good enough for Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, all things considered it’d be a great salvage for Year One of the Brian Kelly era.