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Evaluating the Irish: Tulsa Golden Hurricane

By · November 6th, 2010 · 4 Comments
Evaluating the Irish: Tulsa Golden Hurricane

“Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.” –Darrell Royal, University of Texas

Following Notre Dame’s clash with the Pittsburgh Panthers, head coach Brian Kelly’s squad faced a very probable scenario of gaining some momentum with, what most people tabbed as, three “soft” opponents. The rhythm on offense, that was somewhat inconsistent through the first  six games of Notre Dame’s surprisingly tough schedule, could finally start to establish itself as the Irish headed into their bye week with Utah following the next Saturday. In fact, according to our readers, Notre Dame’s three-week stretch of Western Michigan, Navy, and Tulsa were tabbed as the most win-able stretch of three games in Notre Dame’s entire schedule. And, according to the last poll on our website, most readers weren’t concerned IF Notre Dame was going to win those three games, but by how much they were going to win those games. Instead of simply winning games, we were more concerned about “style points.”

As it turned out, the Irish failed to do what was expected of them and only managed a win against Western Michigan. But, no loss was more puzzling than the one to Tulsa. Sure, there were a lot of factors that went into that loss, but the fact remains that Notre Dame shouldn’t have been in a situation to have the opportunity to lose the game.

Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, Theo Riddick, Kyle Rudolph, Ian Williams, Carlo Calabrese: what do these players have in common? They have all been key contributors to the team this year and five out of the six of them didn’t see the playing field at all during Saturday’s game against Tulsa due to injury. Additionally, half of them won’t see the playing field again this season due to injuries and surgeries. However, the one position which most fans were worried about having an injury, quarterback, turned out to be the spark to ignite the Irish offense.

Hopefully, what doesn’t kill you will get bored and go away.

Earlier in the season, when Notre Dame faced Michigan, it was very apparent that Brian Kelly and his staff did very little to prepare their backup quarterbacks for action. When Dayne Crist went down after Notre Dame’s opening scoring drive, Brian Kelly switched between Nate Montana and Tommy Rees, looking for the hot hand to manage the Irish offense until Dayne Crist could return to the game. During that time, Notre Dame failed to score on the remaining 8 drives of the first half while the backup quarterbacks threw for a combined 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. After the game, Kelly admitted that he didn’t spend much time installing a package for the backup quarterbacks.

I think we’re going to settle on a package that suits both of them. I think we have to have something that really allows both of those guys to feel comfortable out there and still run our offense in a productive manner.

Obviously, Kelly was much more prepared with his backup quarterbacks going into this game. When Crist got knocked out early in the game against Tulsa, Tommy Rees came into the game and there was an audible collective sigh in the stadium when number 13 trotted onto the field. Regardless, Rees played much better this time around, tallying 334 yards on 33 completions for four touchdowns and three interceptions. But, the biggest aspect that Rees brought to the Irish offense was the energy  that was apparent as soon as he completed his first pass. Rees’ statistics for the game certainly had been helped a bit by the fact that Tulsa was sporting one of the nation’s worst passing defenses. So, while he certainly played much better than his debut against Michigan, it remains to be seen how well he’ll play against a more formidable passing defense. Luckily, he’ll receive an extra week’s worth of preparation before he squares off against Utah’s defense and Brian Kelly, and his staff, will receive an extra week to work with Rees and his backup, should the Irish need him as well.

Huh? Where did that come from?

I alluded to this earlier in this piece, but the most troubling thing about Notre Dame’s loss to Tulsa was that the Irish should have never been in a position to lose. It’s easy to look around at the adversity the Irish faced last Saturday and try to pin the loss on one or two aspects of the game, but the most glaring aspect—and one that probably deserves the most blame—is the fact that what has been a strength of Notre Dame’s team this season turned out to be a liability and was a major contributor to Notre Dame’s loss.

Nine points. Nine points is the amount that Notre Dame’s special teams gift wrapped to Tulsa. A blocked extra point that was returned for a touchdown accounted for 2 of those points. Okay, that’s not so bad. It’s not even a field goal’s worth of significance. However, the troubles didn’t end there. Notre Dame’s special teams also gave up a kickoff return that cost the Irish another 6 points (7 if you could the extra point). Fortunately, the Irish caught a break when John Goodman’s punt fumble didn’t do too much damage to the Irish.

Going forward, I honestly don’t expect the Notre Dame’s special teams to play much worse than they did on Saturday. Even though Boots Randolph could have had a field day with the highlight reels from those three unfortunate plays, the Irish special teams has been strength of Notre Dame’s in the season thus far and I don’t expect them to have a game similar to Saturday’s for the rest of the season.

Trying to save face…

Following Notre Dame’s loss to Stanford, the common attitude among Irish fans was, “If the Irish can win the games they’re supposed to and beat either USC or Utah, 9-3, or 8-4 at worst, becomes a very real possibility.” Think again. As the Irish were lumbering through the middle of their season, Irish followers had visions of playing in a respectable bowl game and finishing the season strong. Five games later and Irish fans are have begun to pray for a bowl game…any bowl game. Even Brian Kelly addressed the urgency needed throughout the rest of the season:

The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins. We’ve got to win two out of three now. That’s our number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.

Unless the Irish can win two out of the next three games, we can all kiss a post-season goodbye. Sure, some Irish followers might be a little embarrassed for the team to be playing in a lower-tier bowl game, but the major motivator behind the extra urgency is the need for the additional practices, especially since so many of Notre Dame’s usual starters are hampered by injuries. Do the Irish actually have a shot of recording at least a 2-1 record in the final three games of the season? As I said last week, at Notre Dame, nothing is probable and anything is possible.

Just remember, acceptance is the final stage of grief.

I tell you, I never gave it a thought to kick the field goal. Maybe that’s my problem, but I didn’t even think about a field goal. If there was hindsight, 20/20, I would have called a different play…

In Brian Kelly’s postgame press conference on September 11th, he was asked a question about why he chose to opt for the touchdown at the end of the first half, with Dayne Crist on the sidelines, instead of kicking the chip-shot field goal to end the dismal half with a silver lining. Take the points and let the cards fall as they may, right?

After Notre Dame’s loss to Tulsa, the same type of situation presented itself to Brian Kelly in the media room. Why didn’t you just run the ball and kick the field goal and rely on your defense?

Why not try to get Michael Floyd one‑on‑one against a 5’9″ corner and call a timeout? …we’re going to play aggressive. We’re going to play smart…

There were a lot of factors that went into Notre Dame’s loss on Saturday—surrendering a kickoff returned for a touchdown, an interception returned for a touchdown, an extra point blocked and returned, losing the starting quarterback early in the game and for the rest of the season—but the straw that broke the camel’s back was Kelly’s refusal to put his team in a position to win.

But, that wasn’t all. After the game, Kelly seemed anything but apologetic when asked about his decision to throw the ball in such a crucial situation:

We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there. But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one‑on‑one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again.

It’s bad enough that Kelly made a mistake in calling the play, but what’s worse is that his “my play-calling is always correct” attitude is something that most Irish fans thought we eradicated when Charlie Weis was relieved of his position. Yeah, we’ve gotten used to this type of attitude. And if that type of coaching mentality leads to more losses down the road…well, we’re used to that too.



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