Kyle Brindza stared down his spot. Envisioned making the kick. Took a final deep breath before waiting for the snap.
And then he missed it.
Notre Dame’s comeback efforts were left for dead as the Irish’s all-time leader in field goals missed yet another one, pushing a 32-yarder wide right as Louisville escaped South Bend with a 31-28 victory.
[WATCH: Full replay of the game ]
Debate focused on Malik Zaire’s hold. Starting for the second-straight game as the team’s holder, Zaire’s hand was out late as Brindza approached the chip shot. After the game, Kelly backed his record-setting kicker.
“I don’t think it was executed at the level it needed to be,” Kelly said. “I didn’t see it. I’ll have to watch it on film, but in talking to Kyle, it did not appear to be handled cleanly.”
That’s kindly framing a situation for a senior kicker whose late-game failings for the second-straight week threaten to undo a legacy that was built on making clutch kicks, regardless of the slight imperfections from a new holder.
But that’s the type of season we’ve found ourselves in, parceling out smidgeons of blame in a black-or-white, win-or-not situation.
With the Irish limping into their season finale against USC next week, let’s find out what else we learned.
A senior class that did a lot of good for this football program unfortunately doesn’t go out a winner at home.
There are no consolation prizes in football. And while the Irish deserve credit for giving it their all and responding after a mediocre first half, in the end it wasn’t enough.
For the first time since Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame football program, the Irish didn’t send their seniors out winners. And frankly, the seniors had plenty to do with that.
Brindza’s missed field goal at the end was the last critical mistake. But just two plays before that seniors Matt Hegarty and Nick Martin failed on a double-team block that led to a painful loss on a second down quarterback draw.
“We ran a quarter draw and we got our butts kicked up front,” Kelly said, when asked about the playcall.
On defense, seniors were few and far between. But when you did notice fifth-year captain Austin Collinsworth, it was on a missed tackles, with Louisville running backs and wide receivers flying by the wounded but game senior safety.
So Saturday’s loss ends the home career of a group of star-crossed football players that battled through quite a few detours to get here. And while this class splintered apart because of injuries and attrition more than any of the other Kelly recruited, the Irish head coach had a message of pride and thanks to his wounded locker room.
“They came in a program that had not had won a bowl game in 20 years,” Kelly said. “Now they have won two and played for a National Championship and obviously are part of developing and building a winning program. I’m proud of them.”
With injuries taking Jarron Jones and Cody Riggs off the field as well, it’s kids, kids and more kids on Brian VanGorder’s beleaguered defense.
Jarron Jones opened the game up making a big play. Unfortunately he wasn’t healthy for the rest of it. Notre Dame’s starting defensive tackle was the latest key starter to go down, finally tapping out after a hobbling leg injury forced him out of the lineup.
The same happened to Cody Riggs. The senior cornerback was making progress as he battled to return from a stress-reaction in his foot, but he was spotted gingerly walking off the field to the locker room, leaving the secondary for Collinsworth and the kids.
“We played the whole game pretty much without Jarron Jones,” Kelly said afterwards. “They battled as best they could. We’re getting everything out of them. I mean, they played with great effort, just made some mistakes.”
Those mistakes came early, as Louisville’s first two drives turned into touchdowns. And both times, the Irish defense let the Cardinals out of their clutches.
A back-breaking 3rd-and-14 conversion allowed a 10-play, 75 yard drive to end in a touchdown run by freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon. Louisville’s next possession, the Cardinals connected on a 3rd-and-16 for 52 yards, allowing Bonnafon to run for another zone-read touchdown to cap off a second-straight touchdown drive.
It wasn’t all bad. We saw Jay Hayes hold his own on the defensive line in his first collegiate action. We watched Jacob Matuska and Greer Martini earn their first sacks. And while Nyles Morgan’s clear-cut personal foul got him ejected from the game, he made 10 tackles, a step forward after a few difficult weeks.
But after getting some critical stops to help build some momentum, the Irish defense couldn’t slow down Louisville’s run game, even when they committed just about all their resources to doing so.
After nearly playing his way out of the quarterback job, Everett Golson swatted away the vultures and played a much better second half.
Another football game, another crisis surrounding Notre Dame’s quarterback. After starting the game sharp, Golson threw a critical interception deep in Irish territory, staring down Will Fuller as cornerback Charles Gaines squatted on a comeback route. The Irish defense actually picked up their quarterback, making Golson’s errant throw just a three-point mistake by holding Louisville to a field goal. But it was more gift-wrapped points, three that just so happened to be the final difference in the game.
But Golson very nearly lost his job after another maddening fumble. The senior quarterback peeled back, trying to tuck the football away late before the ball skidded out, back towards the Irish end zone. Senior Nick Martin threw some gas on the fire, with the ball popping out from beneath him as he tried to recover the fumble.
Golson finally showed some urgency, getting to the ball as it slid out of bounds 32-yards behind where it started.
From 2nd-and-6 to 3rd-and-38. From grumbles asking for Malik Zaire to see the field to full-throated screams. NBC’s Mike Mayock thought it was time to make a change. Doug Flutie looked at Golson’s body language and didn’t like what he saw.
But Brian Kelly went to the half and came back out with Golson behind center. And the senior quarterback responded, helping the Irish score touchdowns on their first two possessions to pull ahead.
Golson’s heroics didn’t come without some magic, and a little luck. A jump-ball to Corey Robinson ended up in Will Fuller’s arms for his 14th touchdown. And while Golson’s two-point scramble pulled the Irish within three, he couldn’t get a touchdown to finish the game when the Irish needed it.
“I think he did some good things. There are some things that we want to do better, but he made some great plays with his feet,” Kelly said.
Golson’s 16 of 24 for 236 and two touchdowns against one of the best defense’s in the country wasn’t bad. And after rallying in the second half after a blundering first half, the senior quarterback deserves some credit for bringing the team back and avoiding a full-fledged quarterback controversy.
While most will talk about another missed field goal, the Irish special teams provided a few big plays, too.
Kelly probably said it best after the game, summarizing the frustrations of a two-game home losing streak that not many people saw coming in October.
“We’ve lost back-to-back games because we couldn’t put down a ball and kick it 32 yards,” Kelly said.
A special teams unit that’s once again taking the blame for the loss very nearly was a key factor in winning the football game. Greg Bryant sparked Notre Dame with an explosive punt return that he nearly took into the end zone. Amir Carlisle set up the Irish multiple times with good field position on kickoff returns.
And with the cover teams doing an excellent job slowing down Louisville’s return men, the Irish had set themselves up quite well in a game that required winning the field position battle, too.
But all of that doesn’t matter if you can’t make the plays when they count.
Sometimes the night is darkest just before the dawn.
Football has a funny way of revealing your most crippling weaknesses. The past month has done that.
Notre Dame’s depth on defense has been decimated, turning a group that seemed ahead of schedule in October into one searching badly for answers in November. An Irish offense blessed with better weapons than they’ve had in years only now understands that those weapons don’t mean much if you aren’t properly equipped to handle them.
So while there’s much doom and gloom as we watch Notre Dame stumble in ways they haven’t seen since the Weis era, when fans wipe the tears out of their eyes, they’ll see some of the groundwork being laid for a quicker rebound.
The kids that stood their ground and held up more than respectably against Louisville’s offense? They’ll develop some scar tissue that’ll pay dividends in the future. And while outsiders and followers will wonder if Notre Dame’s head coach and leader has lost his team, it’s not hard to see the energy and emotion on the sidelines as proof positive that this team understands how to fight, even if it’s taking one too many shots to the jaw right now.
“I mean, I can say some cliché things, but I think everybody just has to keep their head up. We’ve got a lot of young guys that have a lot of potential,” Golson said after the game. “It’s kind of one of those things where it’s kind of heartbreaking for us to lose, but you can’t stay down because we do have so much talent. We’ve got to still play with confidence. We’ve got to still play aggressive. I think if we do that, like I said, the talent is there, so I think that will kind of show itself.”
Right now, that talent might not be enough to stop a fade that could extend into a less-than-desirable bowl game. But the pieces are there for a recovery, even if we had to watch them crumble to the ground first.