RALEIGH, N.C. — Amid flash flood warnings, swaying light posts and deepening puddles, Notre Dame and North Carolina State went ahead and played a game in Hurricane Matthew’s wrath that barely could be described as football.
But since this was indeed an official football game, Notre Dame’s 10-3 loss at Carter-Finley Stadium counts all the same. The Irish didn’t coach and deal with the conditions as well as N.C. State did, and because of it, they head back to South Bend 2-4 and in grave danger of failing to become eligible for a bowl for the first time since 2007.
Make no mistake, this outcome was decided far less because of how the 22 players on the field at a given time played. The team that coached better and didn’t make the most catastrophic mistake was in the best position to win. On Saturday, that was N.C. State.
“We’re looking for wins, not improvement on one side of the ball or the other,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Although, I was very pleased with our physical, toughness and tackling. I’m just extremely disappointed in the offensive execution and lack of ability to manage the snapping of the football, which was atrocious as well.”
Center Sam Mustipher drew Kelly’s ire after the game after two bad snaps led to half of Notre Dame’s fumble total. The first one gave N.C. State the ball on the Irish 22-yard line; Daelin Hayes forced a fumble that gave the ball back to the Irish on the next play. The second one came as Notre Dame was driving for the tie late in the fourth quarter, with Mustipher erroneously thinking quarterback DeShone Kizer was calling for the snap when the Irish quarterback was looking toward the sideline.
That fumble effectively ended the game, but even if the ball had got to Kizer, Notre Dame still would’ve had to convert a fourth-and-eight try, then get in the end zone and hit the PAT to tie N.C. State.
Where this game was lost was Notre Dame insisting on throwing the ball — 26 times, to be exact — and Pharoah McKever’s block of Tyler Newsome’s punt early in the fourth quarter, which was returned 16 yards by Dexter Wright for the game’s only touchdown.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
“Obviously the weather didn’t help Sam out today,” left tackle Mike McGlinchey said. “Sam’s a great kid and he’s a great football player and he’s going to be fine. Obviously it’s a tough job and it’s something that we’re going to learn from and he’s going to grow from this and he’s going to be fine.”
Kelly said there were no last-minute discussions about postponing the game — Notre Dame during the week gave N.C. State and the ACC a window to play between noon E.T. Saturday and noon E.T. Sunday — even as Hurricane Matthew made landfall about 200 miles to the south of Raleigh. So Notre Dame was left to deal with the elements, which resulted in a horror show of bad in the final box score.
Notre Dame averaged 1.8 yards per play, was 1/15 on third downs and failed to score both of the times it reached the red zone. Kizer completed nine of 26 passes for 54 yards with an interception, numbers more fitting for a triple option quarterback futilly trying to mount a comeback than a guy who could be the NFL’s No. 1 pick in 2017. And the two teams combined to fumble 10 times, losing two apiece.
Notre Dame’s defense didn’t allow a touchdown for only the second time since the 2012 season (2014 vs. Michigan, 2015 vs. Texas), while the Irish offense didn’t get in the end zone for the first time since getting blown out by a Pete Carroll USC team in 2008. But this wasn’t some defensive epiphany of offensive malaise that’ll tell us anything about the rest of the season.
Even with that in mind, though, Notre Dame won’t get to write this game off as a complete aberration at the end of the season. Whereas losses to Texas, Michigan State and Duke all had their combination of coaching, offense, defense and special teams shortcomings, Notre Dame’s lost to N.C. State largely due to coaching that could’ve been more conservative given the elements (Dave Doeren & Co., it should be noted, made some curious play calls too, but largely stuck to the run in the second half and did well to deploy backup Jalan McClendon in a Wolfpack version of Texas’ 18-wheeler package with Tyrone Swoopes).
And with the loss, Notre Dame is 2-4. It has to beat four of Stanford, Miami, Navy (which upset No. 6 Houston Saturday), Army, Virginia Tech and USC to get to six wins. The way things are going, it’s hard to see Notre Dame getting to that magic number.
“I feel terrible that we let them (our players) down,” Kelly said. “I feel like 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. Just North Carolina State made the big play with the punt block.”