The tar and feather crowd has their ammo. They watched Notre Dame’s seventh-year coach stick to his guns as a literal hurricane blew through town.
They watched a coaching staff with so much offensive acumen—the assistant strength coach has 20-plus years of offensive coordinating experience—fail to make any adjustments during an extended halftime lightning delay that featured swaying stadium lights and biblical rains.
But that’s the kind of season it’s been.
Change the defensive coordinator, the offensive breaks down. Insert a “safer” punt strategy, watch it cost you the game.
With the cyber-mob circling the gates, inside the Gug a search for answers continues. So with Stanford just days away, let’s get to the good, the bad and the ugly.
The defensive improvement. Notre Dame’s front seven held its own in the slop. The trio of Jarron Jones, Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage had strong games against the run, with Tillery played the game of his young career with nine tackles.
Again, this feels like a GOOD* considering the weather acting as a 12th man, but you’ve got to credit this group for taking another step forward. Greg Hudson’s rebuilt crew did all they could to limit NC State, giving up zero offensive touchdowns for the first time since last season’s opener.
Everything Else. Let’s just get that out of the way now. Pretty much everything else we watched—the offense, the special teams, the adjustments, the trenches, fit in here. (So does the decision to play in the eye of the storm and not delay the start of the game.)
But, since that’s not going to do, let’s get to some of the others:
Run-Pass Mix. No, the Irish offense shouldn’t have been chucking the ball non-stop.
But Kelly all but hinted at the thought-process behind the decision—his team wasn’t going to win in the trenches—when he said this postgame.
“I think it was pretty evident to me that we were in need of throwing the football,” Kelly said. “When we did throw it, we just weren’t as effective as I thought we could be.”
That’s the part of the quote that should accompany Kelly’s bizarre statement that he didn’t second guess the run-pass ratio. Notre Dame’s head coach knew that his offensive line wasn’t going to win a fight in the slop.
Lack of adjustments. As we mentioned in the Five Things, as we mentioned in the lede, and as we mentioned just above, there were no offensive adjustment.
That’s a bad. That’s tragically bad.
Because we saw NC State get creative. We saw the Wolfpack use their dynamic running back in a variety of ways. We saw them use their backup quarterback as a wildcat runner. And Kelly acknowledged postgame that they probably should’ve tried something different, though a dose of Malik Zaire as a run-first wildcat likely wasn’t the answer.
“The offense could have been tweaked in that regard. But [Zaire]’s not really a wildcat guy… It was never a thought that we’d go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”
So the Irish offense stuck with the plan. And the trio of Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford likely spent the flight home and ensuing evening kicking themselves, underestimating the impact that Hurricane Matthew would have.
“I will say this. It was much more difficult throwing the football than maybe, I can’t remember many games where it was this difficult,” Kelly said. “But it was difficult for both teams. We don’t have any excuses, we were atrocious offensively.”
The decision to kickoff the game as scheduled. The fact that this game stayed in the window it was played in made zero sense. Other than because it needed to stay in that window to stay on ABC in front of a national audience.
Because safety was a legitimate concern. Field conditions were atrocious from the first quarter on. And the elements had a far bigger impact on this game than anything either team did.
Kelly was asked about the decision to play the game when they did, and he made no excuse.
“There was never a conversation about it not being played,” Kelly said. “I was a little concerned obviously about the conditions, but they were the same for both teams.”
This wasn’t a Notre Dame decision. This was a decision made by the ACC and NC State, with the visitors only providing the suggestions we heard from Kelly on Tuesday, Notre Dame willing to delay the start all the way until Sunday at noon.
Each team did their best to counter the weather. Each team also made critical mistakes—NC State blowing a 1st-and-goal from the 3-yard line and the Irish not getting anything from a 1st-and-goal of their own, a slick football and horrible conditions wreaking havoc all game long.
But Kelly was quick to credit the work the officials did to keep dry footballs cycling onto the field.
“I thought the officials did a great job of getting dry balls in. We used 36 balls and it’s generally an 18 ball rotation. They gave us 36. I thought from that standpoint it was managed terrifically.”
A 2-4 Football Team. Nothing turns quite as toxic as a bad Notre Dame football season. And with every loss (that’s four losses by a total of 21 points), things seem to get exponentially uglier.
This loss feels different than others. In a vacuum, a hurricane usually requires at least the thought of a mulligan for a coaching staff—acts of god often finding their way into customary exclusions.
But not this season.
Because Kelly himself acknowledged the difficulty of this defeat, a game that falls square on the shoulders of the team’s braintrust—something the head coach pointed out, though hardly anybody noticed.
“I feel terrible we let them down,” Kelly said. “We let them down in the sense that they were prepared for another noon start, they had great energy, they played with great heart on defense.”
He expanded on those thoughts later, a nine-minute media session that reminds you of the toll that this job puts on coaches.
“They were excited to play today. You want to be there for them. You want to make the right call, you want to put them in the right position,” Kelly said. “You second guess yourself. Maybe we should’ve been in a three-man wall there, instead of rugby. You second guess yourself in games like this, when your team is ready to play and excited to play.”
Those are hardly the explanations that make critics happy, not when Kelly is barking at his center for rifling a shotgun snap past the quarterback with the game on the line.
“He thought he heard something,” Kelly said postgame about that fateful fourth down. “We were trying to scan the play and get a peek at what it was, and he heard something and the ball got snapped.”
But that’s what losing does. It takes over everything.
And after being just two plays away from an undefeated season in 2015, some are calling for Kelly’s head. And that’s before he leads his troops into the meat of his schedule.