Saturday, September 28, 2013
Another slow start dooms Irish
By Matt Fortuna
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After Oklahoma called a timeout with 1:21 to play and the ball at the Notre Dame 17-yard line on Saturday, "Boomer! Sooner!" chants began to rain down from the crimson-clad contingent seated near Notre Dame Stadium's northeast corner, threatening to turn this place into Owen Field North. The Irish's student section responded with furious chants of "Let's Go, Irish!"
Two kneels and one final horn later, everyone was left to figure out where these Irish go from here.
Notre Dame had been flirting with a result like this in its previous three games. And, just like they did against Michigan three weeks ago, the Irish once again ran into a team more than happy to take advantage of another rough opening.
The Irish surrendered 212 rushing yards against the Sooners.
Starting painfully slow is just no way to live. And after a 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, Notre Dame's second defeat this month, neither is essentially having to win seven remaining games to return to a BCS bowl for the second year in a row.
"You never expect those things, but they happen," coach Brian Kelly said of the Irish's early mistakes. "That's why we have ulcers in this business."
In front of a green-out crowd against the Sooners, those gaffes were interceptions on back-to-back Tommy Rees throws on the Irish's first two drives, leading to an early 14-0 deficit. Much like Michigan showed in Notre Dame's other loss -- and much like Purdue and Michigan State couldn't, try as they might -- Oklahoma proved once again that shootouts are not conducive to the Irish's style.
Rees threw three picks against the Sooners, which accounted for one more than the two he had thrown in four starts entering the contest. Oklahoma converted those turnovers into 21 points, including a 24-yard Corey Nelson pick-six on the game's first possession.
Andrew Hendrix provided a nice wrinkle in some zone-read packages, and the Irish finally got the ground game going behind George Atkinson III, who tallied a career-best 148 yards.
But after falling behind by two scores, they began just two drives while trailing by just one score -- the second of which ended with Rees getting picked off by Julian Wilson on third-and-10 with the Irish in field goal range. Oklahoma then went 88 yards in 10 plays to take a 21-7 lead 42 seconds before halftime.
"I don't know about a dream-like start," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said, "but a good start."
Stoops went on to say that toughness was not a problem with his Sooners, and that they did not lose to the Irish at home last year because of physical football.
Call it what whatever you want, but it was something that Notre Dame mastered last year, especially in its near-perfect outing in Norman.
Then, the Irish won the turnover battle 1-0. They limited Oklahoma to just 15 rushing yards. They won 30-13.
On Saturday, they lost the turnover battle 3-0. They surrendered 212 rushing yards. And they were down 14-0 less than three minutes into the game.
"I'm not sure, to be honest. I don't know how we fix our slow start," co-captain TJ Jones said. "I think it's just kind of a collective thing to come out with -- I really don't know what it is. Whether it's feeding off the energy and executing plays or not letting the mis-execution of plays slow us down."
Added Kelly: "Look, if I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I'd be doing something else. This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts and have your quarterback get the ball stripped. You never expect not to run the right route when you're supposed to."
No, Notre Dame does not know how it got here, and it does not exactly know how to leave here, either. The student section booed heavily when the Irish began to head up the tunnel instead of staying for the alma mater. Fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese urged his teammates to come back out and sing, per postgame ritual. They obliged, though it turns out a new team policy, instituted two years ago, calls for the players to regroup first in the locker room following a loss before reappearing and crooning.
Notre Dame had not lost in the 10 home games since the creation of that policy, a streak that came to an end against the Sooners. The Irish's national title dreams -- the Jan. 6 date at the BCS National Championship that is listed inside the football complex for all to see — are long gone. Their BCS bowl hopes are on life support.
"This season's a new season, we're a different team," co-captain Bennett Jackson said. "We have different characteristics as a team, and we take each game each week. We can't do anything about the past. As a team, we're going to come together and try to win the rest of our games. That's our main objective."