Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Irish still trying to find the finish line
By Brian Bennett
When Notre Dame last played Stanford, the ending of the game pretty much summed up the state of affairs for the Irish.
Charlie Weis, in his last game at head coach, ordered the defense to let the Cardinal score a touchdown in the final minute so his offense could get the ball back with a chance to tie. You couldn't really blame Weis, since his defense couldn't do much all day against Stanford. Mostly, though, maybe he thought trying something new at the end of the game would shake things up.
Brian Kelly isn't worried that his team does not know how to win.
The Irish's last eight losses have all come by a touchdown or less. The average margin of defeat in those games is a little more than four points. That also includes, of course, the first two losses of the Brian Kelly era: a 28-24 setback to Michigan and last week's 34-31 overtime heartbreaker at Michigan State.
There really haven't been a lot of common threads in how Notre Dame has failed to avoid defeat in the final minute, other than a consistently shaky defense. Let's examine the ways of woe:
Michigan (38-34):Tate Forcier led a game-winning drive that ended with a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left.
USC (34-27): The Irish has three shots into the end zone to tie it but couldn't connect.
Navy (23-21): The Midshipmen ran all over the Irish defense, but Notre Dame left too many points on the board in the red zone.
Pittsburgh (27-22): Notre Dame fell behind but made a big rally that ended when Jimmy Clausen was hit and fumbled.
Connecticut (33-30, 2OT): The Irish took a 14-0 lead but then didn't score another touchdown until overtime, and they gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Stanford (45-38): The defense had no answer for Toby Gerhart, and the offense couldn't produce a miracle drive.
Michigan (28-24): The Dayne Crist injury hurt, but Notre Dame dominated the second half before Denard Robinson led a game-winning drive in the final minutes.
Michigan State (34-31): The Spartans pulled off a gutsy fake field-goal in overtime to win it.
Offense, defense and special teams have all contributed to the narrow losses. If a team is consistently one play short, the obvious question is why? Does Notre Dame still have to learn how to win a game in the end?
Kelly doesn't think that's the case.
"I've had teams that didn't know how to win," Kelly said. "You could just tell. That's not this group. No, this team does not have that sense, from me, that they don't know how to win."
Kelly said the way Notre Dame's defense stiffened at the end of the Michigan State game, and the way it rallied against Michigan after a disastrous first half, tells him these players know how and want to win a game. They just need to make fewer mistakes.
"When you play evenly-matched football teams and they play well, then it comes down to a couple of plays," he said. "That's what we have to get to. It's not not knowing how to win; it's playing the game at a level that you don't give up a 56-yard run or you don't fumble the ball or turn it over in the red zone like we did twice [against Michigan State]."
Crist says he sees a fight in this team that tells him it's prepared to get over the hump. After the Michigan State loss, he said, players were disappointed and hurt but also ready to get back out on the practice field and correct mistakes.
"I think this team knows how to win and it knows how to compete," Crist said. "That's the thing I'm most proud of right now. There's no cease in any of the guys. This isn't a team that's down. We're not in the locker room hanging our heads. We're focusing on what we need to do to beat Stanford."
With the 1-2 start under Kelly, and the same types of last-minute losses, questions are already cropping up about when things are ever going to change. Kelly is an impatient type who likes to talk about "5-minute plans" in his rebuilding projects. But he says it's no time to change the plan.
"We're in the first quarter of our season, first chapter of the book," he said. "I think it's a little frustrating to read right now, but I'd stick with the book. I think it's going to be a good read."
And like with all good storytellers, Notre Dame needs to learn how to write a good ending.