On a night where the 11th-ranked Fighting Irish (1-1) gave up 41 points, including 27 in the first half, and fell 41-30 to the 17th-ranked Wolverines at Michigan Stadium in front of a record crowd of 115,109 fans, Kelly still continued to talk about his offense.
“We knew that Gardner certainly is a very difficult quarterback to defend," Kelly said. “We also knew that offensively, we were in position that we were going to have to score points. We didn't think that this was going to be like last year (a 13-6 Notre Dame win). It was going to be something of a higher scoring football game.”
In other words, the Irish game plan was to try and outscore a team of play makers on their own field.
It didn't work.
One would think that after Notre Dame rode its stifling defense to the 2012 BCS National Championship Game earlier this year, and returned a significant amount of experience from that group, that there wouldn't be a game this season where Kelly would put it on the shoulders of his offense to win a game.
But that is precisely what he did on Saturday.
And it didn't work.
“I felt that we missed some opportunities offensively,” Kelly explained, “that could have given us the opportunity to win this football game. Take all of the situations that happened, you can analyze or overanalyze, pick through it, I felt like we had two opportunities to score and we've got to make those plays.”
He's correct in that the Irish did miss out on scoring opportunities. Notre Dame was forced to punt on its initial two series, failed to convert on two fourth down situations (one at the Michigan 17-yard line), and had a pair of interceptions thrown. Yes, Kelly's kids had opportunities to win this game. However, if your defense doesn't allow a plethora of “chunk” plays and let the Wolverines (2-0) convert half of their third down conversions – and score 41 points while racking up 460 yards of total offense – then perhaps a team can survive not executing perfectly on offense.
Constructing a physical, hard-hitting, and disciplined defense has been what Kelly focused on since arriving in South Bend four seasons ago, so it was strange to listen to him talk incessantly about mistakes offensively following his team's first regular season loss in nearly two years.
There is a reason why coaches throughout all sports preach a similar mantra of “defense wins championships,” because it does. Rarely does the team that pins its hopes on outscoring an opponent, particularly one with the athleticism and playmaking ability of Michigan, have success in doing so.
“We're close,” Kelly said with a sigh of exasperation. “(Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees) played well. This show of 'It's all on the offense,' but quite frankly, we had a chance to put points on the board and we didn't.”
The Irish also had a chance to win this game by playing some semblance of decent defense and they didn't do that either.