SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Not since his first season as a Division-I head football coach in 2004 has Brian Kelly lost three consecutive games. Thanks to Notre Dame's glaring impotence Saturday against Stanford, Kelly's reliving his darkest days.
It took two seasons for Kelly to push Central Michigan over .500 and a third to reach a bowl game. Fighting Irish fans won't want to hear this, but it's time they come to grips with the same reality.
The Cardinal, ranked No. 16 coming into South Bend, dangled an upset in front of Notre Dame for the entire first half but finally pulled away for a 37-14 victory. The positives unearthed from their previous two defeats were vaporized for the Irish in the process.
"There's going to be a lot of 1-3 football teams across the country," Kelly said. "Some are going to finish 1-11, some are going to be 9-3. It's what you decide to do from here on out."
Kelly must decide which of Notre Dame's shortcomings to tackle first come Monday.
From spread to sputter
At no point this season has Notre Dame's running game overwhelmed opposing defenses, but Saturday's performance was stunningly futile. The Irish gained just 44 yards on 23 carries on a day when quarterback Dayne Crist needed help the most.
Crist's mostly hollow 304 yards on 25-of-44 passing netted just one touchdown -- a three-yard pass to Theo Riddick with just over six minutes remaining in an out-of-hand game. The junior made plenty of mistakes with his reads, but he was also poorly protected by an offensive line that yielded three sacks and five hurries.
"They were dropping a lot of guys; they were dropping eight guys in coverage," Crist said. "You don't want to make excuses, but tip your hat to Stanford. They had some good calls out there."
The junior said he didn't expect Stanford's defensive scheme, which deviated from looks the nation's top passing defense gave their first three opponents.
"No, they hadn't shown it really at all on the film we had. You have to go into the game ready for anything and we gotta do a better job adjusting throughout the game and just adapting to what they're throwing at us."
Kelly took the time to remind everyone that Crist, who threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, is a first-year starter bound to make mistakes.
"You know, every day he's growing," he said. "There's new things he's confronted with. He's learning. But it is a process. This is the maturation of a quarterback right before your eyes. We're going to have some growing pains along the way."
The good news is Irish inside linebacker Manti Te'o found his groove versus the Cardinal, racking up 21 total tackles, his most by far this season. The bad news is the stops rarely came on third down. Stanford converted 11 of 16 attempts, holding the ball for 36:25.
"We just as a whole have to get better," Te'o said. "They're just a great offense. We did what we could and it ended the way it did."
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, intercepted twice, was 19-for-32 passing for 238 yards and one touchdown.
Special teams especially problematic
Walk-on placekicker David Ruffer connected on field goals of 22 and 40 yards, keeping his career streak alive. He's now 12-for-12 on 3-pointers dating back to last season. However, Ben Turk struggled to a 31.2-yard average on five punts.
"The rest of those groups -- lousy," Kelly said. "We're going to have to take a good, hard look at what's going on there."
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Before the season, Kelly addressed potential issues concerning NBC's liberal use of commercial breaks and how it might slow his team's no-huddle offense. He mostly sidestepped the issue then. He couldn't help but vaguely agree Saturday that television timeouts kept the Irish from finding their rhythm.
"No, I'm with you," Kelly said with a wide grin, scanning the audience until his eyes found ND athletics director Jack Swarbrick leaning against the wall. "I think I said the right thing."