After unexplainable loss, can Irish rally again?

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Few memories are shorter collectively than football fans. Every mistake is magnified in the prism of “now,” with the devastation of a difficult to understand loss like last weekend’s to Northwestern consistently taking dead aim at the foundation of a football program, regardless of its stability.

In the span of four, mistake-filled hours, (for some) opinions on the future of Brian Kelly turned drastically. That’s to be expected in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of major sports. And when you’re cashing seven-figure pay checks, people don’t tend to care if you’re playing freshman and sophomores, if your best players are suspended, or if injuries have gutted the heart of your roster.

Losing isn’t good. Especially in the spectacularly painful manner the Irish managed to last weekend, where a toxic blend of mistakes both on the field and on the sidelines merged gasoline with blowtorch, the flames killing any momentum this season could’ve salvaged with a defeat at the hands of one of the Big Ten’s most unimpressive teams.

So you can understand the bellowing for pink slips and the demands for house-cleaning. And that junk-draw dig for that list of usual suspects, if only to feel better by kicking the tires on the Grudens and the Shanahans, or hoping that this won’t ever happen again if Stoops or Meyer leave their pressure cooker for another.

But at this point, it’s worth looking past the disaster. Because now Brian Kelly’s job isn’t to explain why Northwestern managed to beat Notre Dame. It’s to not let the Wildcats beat them twice. So while most Irish fans already have the turkey cooked a week before Thanksgiving, Notre Dame’s still a 3.5-point favorite, so at least the town that’s built on picking a winner hasn’t completely given up on the Domers yet.

On Tuesday, Kelly acknowledged the stench that’s still coming off of this loss. But he rightfully put into context where this loss falls in his five-year run in South Bend, pushing away from the comparisons to the soul-stomping loss to Tulsa in 2010.

“Understand that these are some tough times,” Kelly said. “But relatively speaking I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4 and 5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparisons. You’re now in a winning environment. And you’ve won a lot of football games.

“Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 18‑2 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective.”

Perspective doesn’t get passed around these circles too often, especially not after bungled two-point conversions and goal line fumbles. But after watching mistakes compound last Saturday by the unusual suspects – the school’s record-setting kicker, its team captain running back, and a head coach that’s usually one of the better strategists in the game — Kelly quickly ended any talk about the self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom that too often haunted these parts in years past.

“We’re not going to get into that. I think you get in the game and [the mistakes] definitely affect you,” Kelly acknowledged, when asked about having worries that these mistakes might spread. “Look, it affected me. I went for two when I should have kicked the extra point, right?

“It affects everybody. I can’t fall into that. I’m not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that. But you fall into that, right? And so I can’t let our players fall into that.”

So it’s back to the basics. And even if Kelly himself wasn’t going to bring up the darkest days of his tenure in South Bend, a look at those moments should give you a good feel about how his team has responded to adversity.

For clues as to how the Irish will respond to crisis, let’s go back to those big moments:

 

Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27
October 30, 2010
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview: A week after being humiliated by Navy 35-17, the Irish took the field just three days after the tragic death of Declan Sullivan.

The Irish lost Dayne Crist early in the game with another major, season-ending knee injury. The Irish gave up two points on a blocked extra point. (Sound familiar?) And after taking a 27-18 lead over the Golden Hurricane in the third quarter, the Irish gave up 10 unanswered points before driving inside the Tulsa 20 yard line with under a minute left.

But after taking a timeout on 2nd-and-8 to discuss things, Tommy Rees underthrew Michael Floyd in the end zone and was intercepted, leaving kicker David Ruffer on the sideline without ever getting to attempt a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

The Aftermath: Kelly’s opening postgame comments were his first about the Sullivan tragedy. After answering those difficult questions, they shifted to his decision to throw the football with a true freshman quarterback with a makeable field goal in range. Here was Kelly’s response.

“We knew we had a one-on-one matchup with Mike Floyd. We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there,” Kelly said. “But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one-on-one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again. We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today. But in time we’ll make that play.”

The loss pushed the Irish into a very real scenario where a postseason bowl berth looked doubtful. Notre Dame’s two toughest opponents — a ranked Utah team and USC — still remained. As did another option offense, with an already bowl-eligible Army team awaiting for the Irish in Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame needed to win two of three just to get to .500.

The Response: Entering as nearly touchdown home underdogs, the Irish hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2006, an 11-game run. But facing an offense that had averaged 41 points a game, the Irish won the turnover battle 2-0, got a huge blocked punt by Robert Blanton for a touchdown and Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the second half’s opening kickoff.

Tommy Rees completed 13 of 20 passes for just 129 yards. But three of those went for touchdowns with Floyd catching one and Duval Kamara catching two as students stormed the field after a cathartic 28-3 victory.

“Today for our football team was a moment that you really can’t explain unless you’re with us all the time, and that moment is shared between players and coaches. We were able to do that in the locker room after the game,” Kelly said after the victory. “Our seniors were playing in their last game. Through the last three weeks we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group. In those times to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

 

Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
September 10, 2011
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview:: Few losses hurt more than this one. Notre Dame’s defense gave up 28 second-half points and the Irish offense’s 513 yards were all but negated by five turnovers as a broken coverage late in the game allowed Denard Robinson and company to walk out of an electric evening in Michigan Stadium with a win for the ages, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

After losing in painful ways the previous two seasons, the Irish looked like they had pulled out a clutch victory when Tommy Rees hit Theo Riddick on a 29-yard touchdown with 30 seconds to go. But Jeremy Gallon was left wide open in the secondary, setting up the game-winning touchdown.

The Aftermath: A week after self-destructing against USF, the Irish did so on an ever larger stage, an unlikely 0-2 football team that left the equivalent of 55 points on the board because of turnovers in just two weeks.

With a visit from Michigan State just days away (who had beat the Irish on their famed Little Giants fake field goal attempt a year prior), Kelly sounded resolute that he and his team could get things turned around.

“I really believe that you haven’t won a game yet, but you haven’t been beaten,” Kelly told his team. “We’ve really had a hand in beating ourselves. If we do not beat ourselves, we’ve got a chance to be the kind of football team that we believe we can be.”

The laundry list of improvements seemed quite daunting. In addition to an offense that was self-destructing, the secondary did the same. The Irish short-yardage units were abysmal. And the Irish had now lost seven of eight games that were within four points.

The Response: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13.

Few remember that the Irish offense only gained 275 yards. Or that the Spartans won the turnover battle 3-2. Notre Dame’s defense came to play, picking off Kirk Cousins in the shadow of their end zone and stopping a Mark Dantonio fake field goal attempt for good measure as well.

On special teams, George Atkinson provided the big play, an 89-yard kickoff return pushing the Irish up 14-3. On defense, freshman Aaron Lynch was relentless as a pass rusher.

The Irish essentially iced victory when Michael Floyd scored on a 22-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter. While Cierre Wood’s 14 carries led the team, Jonas Gray made his early mark on the team, gaining 5.4 yards a carry on his 12 touches.

“We just had to find a way to win. And that was the theme this week. By any means, just find a way to win the football game,” Kelly said afterwards.

 

Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21
November 9, 2013
Gut-Punch Level: Painful

Overview: Things seemed to go wrong from the drop, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt ejected in the first quarter for targeting, gutting an already injury-depleted Irish team. But the Irish pulled ahead late in the third quarter when Rees and TJ Jones connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass.

But the lead wouldn’t hold, as Devin Street matched Jones’ big play with a 63-yard score to tie the game and James Connor pushed Pitt ahead early in the fourth quarter as two late interceptions by Rees allowed the score to hold up.

“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said.

Critics wondered about playcalling, with the Irish running for 5.8 a carry, but giving freshman Tarean Folston just four carries among the team’s 24 attempts. And Jones’ individual effort, 149 yards on six catches, wasn’t enough to overcome three turnovers, including one by the Irish receiver in scoring position.

The Aftermath: The loss killed the Irish’s BCS dreams and was also a rare November nightmare for a team that had played historically well down the stretch. With the defensive front gutted, the Irish were forced to play unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, and it showed as the Pitt offense wore down the Irish defense. But Kelly didn’t use that as an excuse.

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

After living on the edge with a close victory over USC and then two weeks later Navy, the Irish regression was a disappointing development for a team that had hopefully left turnover problems behind in their loss to Oklahoma.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

The Response: On Senior Day, a bludgeoned Irish defense was carried by a surprising offensive attack, with Notre Dame’s ground game leading the way to victory. Played in intermittent snow, Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for a big 61-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first series, but won it on the ground, with the Irish running for 235 yards against a BYU defense that was statistically among the best in the country.

With the wind howling and the weather nasty, the Irish seized the opportunity to win the game with their offensive line, limiting mistakes (and the opportunity to make them) in a 23-13 victory that saw Notre Dame control the time of possession.

“Well, as I told our team, first and foremost, getting a win at home is always extremely satisfying in that we always want to defend our home stadium,” Kelly said, noting the Irish run of winning 12 of 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, before turning the attention to his graduating seniors. “Certainly getting a win for them is important. We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again. But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”