As Notre Dame’s season sinks further toward the ninth circle of bowl ineligibility, coach Brian Kelly is working to avoid allowing any doubt to creep into his 2-4 program.
So as he did Saturday immediately after Notre Dame’s loss to North Carolina State in Hurricane Matthew, Kelly stuck to his playcalling guns despite having his team attempt 26 passes in some of the worst conditions for football imaginable.
“Yeah, I want to run the ball more effectively in those situations, but I'm not going to second-guess what we do either,” Kelly said. “If we start doing that then we're going down the wrong track. We're going to win/lose together, and I think the most important thing is when we get our opportunities we can't have self-inflicted wounds. We had a number of those on Saturday.”
But why can’t one of those self-inflicted wounds be having DeShone Kizer pass the ball so much in winds gusting to about 50 miles per hour, which were strong enough for the light posts at Carter-Finley Stadium to be seen swaying at points, Saturday afternoon?
Kelly admitted Sunday the conditions for snapping the ball were “atrocious” a day after saying center Sam Mustipher’s snapping was “atrocious.” Going under center, it should be noted, could’ve created more issues than it solved given Notre Dame’s offense exclusively operates out of the shotgun and pistol.
Both centers struggled to get the ball to their quarterbacks as they had to snap from literal puddles on a natural grass field that was unplayable before the game even began. Kelly, though, still singled out Mustipher on Saturday for some of Notre Dame’s self-inflicted wounds, even if both teams had issues snapping the football.
“We're a shotgun team,” Kelly said. “Most of that is built into what we're doing. Even though we were trying to go direct snap, in pre-game we were having a hard time with that kind of situation.
“So if we were going to have any struggles, we were going to do what we do. In terms of altering the game plan, you have some specific runs and certain passes that you're going to lean on within your game plan when come to the stadium and see the conditions as they are.”
Kelly’s message on Sunday was that his offense hasn’t done enough when given an opportunity to cover for Notre Dame’s defensive warts. The narrow view of losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke — three teams that have turned out to be sub-par this year — was that Kizer & Co. couldn’t come through in critical fourth quarter drives.
That’s not an inaccurate viewpoint, but equating it to Saturday’s loss to N.C. State is a bit spurious. On Notre Dame’s final drive — which ended when Mustipher snapped the ball to Kizer, who was looking toward the sidelines — the Irish ran the ball 11 times (Kizer scrambled a few times) and threw it six times, with Kizer being sacked once. Most of those throws came with time expiring and Notre Dame nearing the N.C. State goal line.
Notre Dame got into the red zone on the strength of three passes and 10 rushes. And that’s probably more what the offensive balance should’ve looked like all day Saturday.
Notre Dame drove 60 yards on 18 plays on that eventually-futile drive, and with time running out, Kizer was forced to throw incomplete to Kevin Stepherson, complete to Equanimeous St. Brown, incomplete to St. Brown and incomplete to Stepherson.
But for the fourth quarter as a whole, Notre Dame average 3 yards per play after passing seven times against 16 runs. Notre Dame gained 1.1 yards per play in the first three quarters of the game, in which it passed 19 times and rushed 22 times.
So maybe Notre Dame’s problem wasn’t that it failed to execute a drive that would’ve needed at least 20 plays to reach the end zone in crunch time, and moreso that it didn’t run its offense that way in the first three quarters. The stubbornness Notre Dame needed was in running into N.C. State’s defense, not in believing it could effectively throw the ball.
“Take what the defense gives us,” Kizer said yesterday. “Tonight it was throwing the ball. We just weren’t able to do that well.”
This isn’t to say Notre Dame definitely, absolutely would’ve beat N.C. State had Kelly called for runs on about 75 percent of its plays. Running the ball could’ve resulted in more fumbles instead of dropped and/or mis-fired passes.
But the Wolfpack dared Kelly to throw it, and the Irish did. And this may be a self-inflicted wound from which Notre Dame can’t recover in 2016.