Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly had hoped to watch his team play to its potential in Saturday’s home finale against Virginia Tech. However, as it has all season, the Fighting Irish played to its actual ability, not its potential, as the Irish lost 34-31 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
The win was the seventh in 11 games for Kelly’s team, each defeat coming by one score or less. The 4-7 mark secures Notre Dame its first losing season in nine years and virtually eliminates – though not definitely – the program’s chances for a postseason.
“These kids are wonderful kids,” Kelly said in a postgame press conference. “I mean, I’m at a loss for words really as to what to tell them. It’s just been a difficult year.”
If Kelly is at “a loss for words,” then I’ll assist, because I can find a lot of ways to describe how this season has unfolded.
Notre Dame has shown the ability to play with every team on its schedule, but lacks the coaching and execution to sustain that level necessary to succeed for 60 minutes (or more if you’re talking about the Texas game).
As it did three weeks ago in a 30-27 win over Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame played to its potential to open the game. Against the Hurricanes, the Irish raced out to a 20-0 lead in the first 20 minutes of action.
Against the Hokies (8-3), the Irish lead reached 17 points on two occasions (17-0 and 24-7).
Against Miami, the Irish allowed the visitors to score 27 unanswered points before rallying for the narrow win.
Against Virginia Tech, Notre Dame got outscored 27-7 over the final 31-plus minutes of play.
“I just don’t think we executed quite as well offensively,” Kelly said. “I thought we weren’t as sharp in the second half as we were in the first half.”
That is stating the obvious.
Notre Dame produced points on four of its initial five offensive series, but the game turned after that, as the Irish got no points on seven of its final eight drives. During that span, Notre Dame could muster just five or fewer plays.
“We had some balls that were catchable that we didn’t catch,” Kelly said.
The Notre Dame offense certainly has to shoulder its share of the blame, but as the Irish losses have mostly been this season, the disappointment is a shared result.
Defensively, Notre Dame allowed Virginia Tech to own it in the second half.
The Hokies scored points on three of their final four drives, each of which last anywhere from eight to 12 plays in length.
Of the final 30 minutes of action, the Virginia Tech offense held possession (thus making the Irish defense tire) for 20:18. That, in large part, explains the 27-7 run by the Hokies.
“We had opportunities that we didn’t convert (offensively),” Kelly said. “It was really a tale of two halves.”
Notre Dame obviously isn’t a team that has the talent level to dominate opponents, with the exception being Army a week ago, so details tend to be significant. And that is where coaching comes into play.
The Irish special teams continued their struggle, often which emanates from poor coaching, and Notre Dame committed 10 penalties Saturday. In a three-point game, those matter.
In special teams play, Virginia tech took advantage of poor kick-off unit execution by the Irish and averaged nearly 27 yards per kick-off, starting three of its kick-offs at least their own 39-yard line.
So Notre Dame failed to execute all the way around, from the head coach to the special teams, and everywhere in between. Such has been the storyline for 2016.
“They work so hard,” Kelly said. “They play so hard. They have been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, it’s just been one of those years.
“I haven’t had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach, where it hasn’t gone their way.”
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.