While countless variables exist on every single snap in football, there are still a few universal truths that govern the game. Notre Dame found that out the hard way, as five turnovers and an inability to protect the quarterback flushed the Irish’s College Football Playoff chances down the toilet.
In a game that ranked among the biggest of recent memory in Sun Devil Stadium, the sellout home crowd was surprisingly late to arrive. But Todd Graham’s team wasn’t. So while a few thousand Sun Devil fans may have missed Everett Golson and the Irish offense gift-wrap 21 first half points, the head start was enough for Arizona State to get a 55-31 victory that drop the Irish to 7-2 on the season.
“If you really look at it closely, we turned the ball over five times,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game, the picture of a frustrated coach revealing so much more than the simple statement probably intended.
But even after battling back to within three points with just over six minutes to play, Notre Dame couldn’t get out of its own way, as defensive breakdowns and another back-breaking turnover ending the Irish’s bid for an eighth win.
Let’s look at the five things we learned.
Everett Golson’s turnovers doomed the Irish before they had a chance.
Any hope that Everett Golson had put this recent rash of turnovers behind him has been eliminated. On Saturday, Notre Dame’s quarterback put his team in a hole they couldn’t escape. Between ball security scares and ill-advised passes, Golson’s turnovers made winning next to impossible.
The Irish quarterback was far from terrible, throwing for a career-best 446 yards as the Irish were forced to abandon the run and play catchup. But two fumbles early — one lost deep in Irish territory, and four interceptions — two returned for touchdowns — provided the Sun Devils with 28 points.
Golson’s turnover binge has gotten alarming. His 17 giveaways in five games have taken the shine away from the emerging star of the Irish offense. However you decide to assign blame for batted balls and dropped passes, Golson is giving away the football at an unsustainable level for a team that relies on their quarterback to win.
“He’s gotta strive for consistency. If he plays clean in the first half, who knows where we’re at.” Kelly said.
Golson was under pressure all game, with Todd Graham attacking the quarterback with blitzes from every direction. While the offensive line did Golson no favors, he didn’t help the cause either, failing to make the right decision when it was time to cut bait and take zero on a play.
“We can’t expect to win football games against good teams and turn the ball over five times,” Kelly reiterated.
While Golson’s 17-3 record as a starter is still an accurate portrayal of a quarterback that does more right than wrong, every back-breaking mistake takes you back to the 2013 season, where Golson likely would’ve made these mistakes and learned from them. So while practicing in San Diego with quarterback coach George Whitfield helped erase any talent erosion, these are still the mistakes of a quarterback that’s learning as he goes.
Those lumps cost the Irish the game this weekend, providing a painful lesson that Golson hopefully learns from.
Notre Dame’s offensive line was blown away by Arizona State’s blitz scheme
It was far from a banner day for the guys protecting Golson up front. After handling Florida State’s scheme and being able to play in a hostile environment, the Irish front five took a big step backwards, giving up a season-high seven sacks to Arizona State’s relentless pass rush.
After practicing all week for a healthy diet of blitzes from every direction, the offensive line still suffered too many breakdowns.
“It was a lack of execution. We knew they were going to be blitzing,” guard Nick Martin said after the game. “We were expecting blitz on every play. We’ve got to protect No. 5. When we do, he makes plays.”
That lack of protection blew up scoring opportunities in the first half, forcing an Irish field goal attempt after the Irish marched down the field against the Sun Devils on the game’s first drive. The line also didn’t get hands on Arizona State’s lanky defensive ends, with offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and Christian Lombard failing to get their men as defensive ends Demetrius Cherry and Marcus Hardison, who turned deflections into interceptions.
After moving four starters to different spots on the front line after the Purdue victory, the Irish offensive line is still an inconsistent group that struggles dealing with speed and athleticism. That showed itself on Saturday afternoon, and ultimately contributed to the offense’s self-inflicted wounds.
The decimated Irish defense played well enough for Notre Dame to win.
Usually when the opponent puts up 55 points, it’s a bad day for the defense. But Notre Dame’s injury-depleted defense played well enough to win according to their head coach. While the Sun Devils managed 188 yards on the ground, the Irish defense stiffened in the second half after getting ambushed by their offensive brethren.
“I think we played well enough defensively,” Kelly said. “We played well enough defensively for us to win, but we shot ourselves in the foot offensively. We battled back to get it to 34-31 with a chance to win the game, but we couldn’t come up with a big stop.”
The first start of Nyles Morgan at middle linebacker wasn’t the only key injury replacement that needed to step in and contribute. Cornerback Cody Riggs sat out after suffering a stress reaction in his foot, pushing Devin Butler into the starting lineup as well, a nightmare scenario against All-American candidate Jaelen Strong.
Strong made a highlight reel catch for the Sun Devils’ first touchdown. But he was held in check the rest of the way, ending the game with a fairly pedestrian five catches for 58 yards. While D.J. Foster’s 120 yards on the ground and Taylor Kelly’s excellence in the zone read game kept the chains moving, the young and injured Irish defense did their jobs.
“This game was not set up for us to rely on our defense to come up with a big stop. This game was set up for our offense to win the game,” Kelly said. “We put our defense in such a bad situation today and battled back.”
All the turnovers overshadowed an explosive day by Notre Dame’s wide receivers.
Arizona State cleaned up their defense over the past month, eliminating the big plays that plagued them against UCLA and USC. But Notre Dame’s receivers were able to beat the Sun Devils secondary for big plays all afternoon, a fact that’ll be forgotten thanks to the five critical mistakes the offense made.
Will Fuller responded to Kelly’s challenge, out-playing Strong and leading the Irish with six catches for 95 yards, scoring his tenth touchdown of the season. The Irish had seven receivers make a big-chunk play of 23 yards or longer, with Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Chris Brown all averaging over 30 yards a catch.
Golson’s second-half passing numbers were prolific, completing 19 of 34 throws for 352 yards, rallying Notre Dame back after facing a 34-3 deficit until the final seconds of the half. But it wasn’t enough.
“Great resolve, great character. The kids are as good a group of kids that I’ve coached,” Kelly said. “But if you’re sloppy, this isn’t rec ball. There aren’t pats on the back for being great competitors. We’re doing this to win. We didn’t win the game, and it’s because of the obvious circumstances in the game, five turnovers.”
Even Brian Kelly can’t coach youthful mistakes out of a football team.
For perhaps the first time in his tenure in South Bend, Brian Kelly got openly agitated in his postgame comments. When asked why his team started the game flat — a valid observation considering the 34-3 hole they found themselves in — Kelly pushed back, challenging the assertion.
“Did you watch the first drive? How is that flat? We turned the ball over three times. How is that flat?” Kelly asked. “That’s sloppy football. We had a 13-play drive that we would’ve liked to score on. We balanced it, we ran it, we threw it, we moved it all the way down the field. Chopped time off the clock. That’s not flat.
“You need to understand the difference between being flat as a time and not executing. We didn’t execute. We turned the ball over the next three out of four times, that’s the problem.”
While the term flat likely gnaws at a coach who acutely observes his young team, critical mistakes doomed the Irish. Call them flat, call them sloppy, call them whatever. They’re fatal flaws that often derail a young team that’s still learning as it goes, a difficult way to win in November.
That Saturday’s undoing was Everett Golson likely eats into Kelly even more, a quarterback far too good to make the type of mistakes that have sullied an otherwise spectacular season. Golson’s five turnovers are the reason the Irish won’t be in the playoff conversation any longer. And those mistakes will be a dartboard for opposing defensive coordinators taking dead aim at the Irish in the coming weeks.
In the Valley of the Sun, Notre Dame’s playoff hopes disintegrated. That it happened like it did — a callback to struggles under Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees — likely has Kelly more frustrated than anything else.