Bye week brings opportunity to answer legitimate questions

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With Notre Dame’s team plane not arriving back in South Bend until the wee morning hours, Brian Kelly didn’t have his usual Sunday teleconference. If he did, he would’ve likely needed to answer some tough questions about a game plan that was just as erratic as the players executing it.

Twenty-four hours have passed since Notre Dame’s ugly 28-21 loss to Pitt. That means players and coaches have likely turned the page after one of the more distressing losses of the Kelly era. But with a bye week allowing for further introspection, it might be okay to let this lost linger for a bit inside the Gug, as some tough lessons might turn into a good reminder for the future.

For as long as there is football, there will be football players making mistakes. But perhaps most distressing about this loss was that it showed a potential crack in the foundation of Kelly’s core philosophies, something the head coach addressed in his postgame comments.

“I think what I’m most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight in November,” Kelly said. “We’re 10 games into the season. There’s really, for me, no reason why, and I take full responsibility for this as the head coach, that there’s no reason why we don’t execute at the level that we should in November, and that didn’t happen tonight.”

In the past, the coaching staff has used the off-week as an internal audit. With two regular season games to go and recruiting in full swing, resources will likely be allocated differently. But if there are game-plan deficiencies that need to be reassessed, on Saturday night Kelly certainly provided what essentially amounted to the greatest hits for his detractors.

ABANDONING THE RUNNING GAME

You’d have thought Pitt had stuffed the run game when you look at the six carries the Irish had in the second half, for an equally poor 10 total yards. But the ground game started out strong with 128 yards on 18 first half carries, with both George Atkinson and TJ Jones hitting big gainers.

Probably the most frustrating part of the lack of ground success was the fact that the previous week it was the running game that cemented the victory. But the toxic combination of abandoning the run without protecting a beat-up defense, ended up as one of the true head-scratchers of the evening.

PUTTING THE GAME ON TOMMY REES’ SHOULDERS

I’ll continue to make the argument that Tommy Rees gives the Irish their best chance to win. But that doesn’t mean the game needs to be thrown on the senior quarterback’s shoulders. Developing consistency at running back isn’t easy when you are trying to get four backs touches. But it’s especially difficult when you force the quarterback to be the cog of the offense and hope a back can get into a rhythm in five carries or less.

But back to the quarterback play. In Eric Hansen’s terrific analysis in the South Bend Tribune, he notes that Rees is 11-0 as a starter when he commits zero turnovers. That number plummets to 10-7 when he commits one or more. Last year, the Irish adopted a conservative, limit-turnovers-at-all-costs approach that played out nearly perfectly. This year they’ve gone back to traditional spread concepts and in all three of Notre Dame’s losses, Rees has thrown multiple interceptions.

Kelly is still looking for some type of consistency in the red zone, with Rees’ end zone interception the sixth that he’s thrown beyond the goal line in his career. That stat alone leads you to believe that changes need to be made schematically if the Irish are going to get more efficient in the seasons to come.

NOT ALL GAME PLANS ARE CREATED EQUAL

Throwing 40 times in early September isn’t the same thing as throwing 40 times in November. Kelly talked about the challenges of playing at night in Pittsburgh, a notoriously weather-effected stadium that has the rocket-armed Ben Roethlisberger cutting spirals through the river-fueled winds.

But Kelly’s offensive game plan heaped a ton of pressure onto the shoulders of Rees, and it was clear from the start that the quarterback was struggling with accuracy on an evening where temperatures were in the 40s and wind was swirling.

Making things more confusing was the decision to continue throwing the football, especially with the need to protect a beleaguered defense, gutted of its best player when Stephon Tuitt was ejected early in the second quarter.

One loss in November certainly isn’t an indictment of a coach who’s had more success in the season’s final month than just about every coaching titans in the college game. But after letting the dust settle, the blame for Saturday’s loss — just as Kelly acknowledged — falls on players and coaches equally.