Notre Dame football: Aaron Taylor believes Irish trying too hard to be perfect


South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Margin for error is minimal. Mistakes can’t be tolerated.

Back-to-back escapes from Purdue and Michigan State, which followed the fiasco in Ann Arbor, taught the Notre Dame football team the fine line between victory and defeat can be crossed with a turnover.

Two interceptions by the Wolverines made an impact. A couple pass interference penalties on Notre Dame on the last crucial Michigan offensive push led to the loss. Plenty of blown coverages by the Irish secondary didn’t help matters any.

They all added up to a complex situation that follows the Irish into Saturday’s battle with Oklahoma.

Is Notre Dame playing tight? Are the Irish so worried about making a mistake that it impacts performance?

Former Notre Dame All-American offensive tackle Aaron Taylor, now an analyst with CBS College Sports, believes that could be an issue.

“I think that high expectations, based on the sooner (no pun intended) than anticipated appearance in the (BCS) National Championship (Game) last year, has put undue pressure on the Irish, as well as unrealistic expectations from those that cheer for them,” Taylor said. “The team looks tight to me, especially on defense; trying too hard to be perfect, if that makes sense.

“They gotta just relax, play, and have fun. The entire team seems to be pressing, maybe in an effort to live up to last year.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly is quick to nix that notion. Yet, consider some of the parameters he set in last week’s win over Michigan State.

The Spartan defense was much more dangerous than their offense. Kelly said he gave quarterback Tommy Rees the mandate that taking care of the football was imperative. It could have contributed to Rees’ 14-of-34 (142 yards) passing.

Rees is normally an accurate thrower. He can be a daredevil at times, embracing the challenge of threading the needle. His repeated high-and-outside incompletions didn’t fit his MO.

Likewise, Kelly talked about the fourth-quarter play-calling. He said he had to resist throwing passes, being content with a run game that yielded 82 net yards, while counting on two position-changing 51-yard punts by Kyle Brindza.

In other words, Kelly would rather have had his defense on the field, than face the dangerous Michigan State defense.

“I think it’s important for (the players) to know, more than anything else, that the way we play right now, we can’t afford to not let it go,” Kelly said, denying that his team played tight. “If we go and we play tentative, that’s not going to be enough for us to win football games.

“I guess you guys have been around me long enough, it’s not one of my personality traits to play tight. We’re always talking about being more aggressive and playing loose. It’s probably..., it comes down for me and the staff and making sure that we let our guys play and not to be too controlling, in a sense.

“I mean, nobody wants to put too much control over their team that doesn’t allow them to play. I’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve never seen it work well when they play tight, as well.”

The most pressing issue facing Notre Dame this week is finding a ground game that will cause the Sooners to give it respect. Once that happens, opportunities for the passing game will open up.

Without a quarterback that would force Oklahoma to defend the entire field, Notre Dame, still desperate to find a “go-to” back, averages just 114 yards rushing. Against three lightweights this season, Oklahoma gives up 101 a game.

Too early to draw many conclusions from those numbers. The body of work needs to expand.

“They certainly don’t seem to be as physical as I thought they’d be,” Taylor said of the Irish offense. “But we already knew that. (Offensive coordinator) Chuck (Martin) and Brian (Kelly) are two of the brightest minds in the business, so my guess is it’s not as simple as X’s and O’s. It’s probably figuring out how best to utilize the personnel that they have, given what it is they have to work.”

Can’t chalk it up to “eight in the box” anymore. That’s just the way teams will attack the Irish. It’s time to make do against whatever scheme the defense plays. Oklahoma’s 3-3-5 scheme, suited for spread teams, will have to adjust.

“At the end of the day, offensive coaches put the ball in the hands of their best playmakers,” Taylor said. “It seems to me that that’s out on the perimeter (from) Tommy Rees.

“To run the ball effectively though, you have to do it consistently. Makes it hard for an offensive line to get into rhythm when you don’t.

“Running the football is also relative. I called Oregon State’s game (recently against San Diego State), and most of (OSU’s) big plays came off of play-action, especially early on in the game .. and they finished the game with 12 rushing yards.

“Kelly’s offense hums best when it has a QB with mobility, and Rees just does not have that. I do think he’s progressed and improved, though.”

“The last three weeks have been a real challenge for us in the running game,” Kelly said. “We certainly have to run the ball better. We know that. I think everybody here in this room and America knows that. The circumstances are such that we’re going to continue to work at it in practice, and we know we have to be better at it. It’s not going to be easy against Oklahoma, either. We just know we have to be better at it.”

Especially on third down. The Irish had third-and-three or fewer yards 12 times against Michigan State and converted five, one of which was on a penalty.

“We’re working on third-and-short,” Kelly said. “We’re working on being more efficient, executing better. The things that we have to be better at are some of the things that were talked about.”

The challenge this week will be unique.

“Michigan State’s defense is better than Oklahoma’s, so fans need to keep that in perspective,” Taylor said. “This (Notre Dame) team is hamstrung (without quarterback Everett Golson), yet finding ways to win, save for Michigan. No one gave them a shot last year against Oklahoma on the road. I’m still not sold on (Sooner quarterback) Blake Bell as a passer.”

Taylor tried to unearth the intangibles that have caused the Notre Dame defense to stumble while trying to live up to the performance it proved was possible a year ago.

“First-round-itis on defense?” Taylor suggested. “Hard to say. Someone has to step up and fill the vacuum of leadership. It’s the seniors’ team ... their last year. Just relax and go play, fellas.

“Late in my life I have chosen to make ‘having fun’ be the goal. Enjoy the process. To be clear, the process is a helluva lot more enjoyable when I’m doing well, but I’ve learned that the self-imposed pressure actually decreases my ability to succeed.

“I think (the Irish) need to play loose, have fun, stop being afraid to make mistakes.”

Play the game without a conscience.

Just let it happen.

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees (11) reacts after his helmet was ripped off during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER