Analysis: Notre Dame cannot dwell on penalty debate

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Cheer, cheer for old … Florida State?

If seventh-ranked Notre Dame wants to climb into the College Football Playoff conversation at the end of the regular season, what will cast its 31-27 loss to the No. 2 Seminoles in the most favorable light is if FSU (7-0) not only wins its five regular-season games and the ACC Championship Game, but dominates.

Pragmatism over emotion became perhaps a little tougher for Irish football fans after FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, on Monday at a speaking engagement in Birmingham, Ala., offered, “We run pick plays, (but) we don't teach them like that," as reported by AL.com’s Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

And after some new information on a 2-day-old debate surfaced Monday night, extending the shelf life for at least another day involving the officiating at the end of the game in Tallahassee, Fla.

Fisher was referring to the offensive pass-interference penalty Notre Dame was flagged for on fourth-and-goal from the Seminole 2-yard line in the closing seconds of the game. The call deleted a two-yard touchdown pass to Corey Robinson with 13 seconds left.

The ACC officiating crew then marched off 16 yards for the 15-yard penalty, and placed the ball on the 18. ND quarterback Everett Golson, who converted a fourth-and-18 earlier in the drive, couldn’t replicate the magic and, under pressure, threw up a floater that FSU freshman linebacker Jacob Pugh was credited for collecting in the back of the end zone.

Here’s the new wrinkle: ACC coordinator of football officiating Doug Rhoads told the Notre Dame coaching staff Sunday night that FSU cornerback P.J. Williams should have been flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for removing his helmet on the field in celebration immediately after the ND penalty was called.

Since that would have been a dead-ball foul, the penalties would not have offset. The ND penalty would have been marched off first, then half-the-distance to the goal for the FSU infraction would have given ND first-and-goal from the 9.

While that doesn’t guarantee a different outcome to the game, ND conceivably would have had two plays rather than one and at a much more manageable distance. Both an ND official and an ACC official confirmed Rhoads’ acknowledgement.

Conversations between Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s staff and Rhoads, and other conference officiating heads when applicable, are routine. Coaches send in plays they feel are questionable, not looking for redemption as much as clarity moving forward.

And clarity is the only reason to perpetuate the conversation at this point. In fact, the most important move once clarity is achieved is for Notre Dame (6-1) to move past the call.

If the Irish players and coaches fixate on it too much, it dilutes the kind of focus they’ll need to handle a remaining schedule that is composed of Navy (3-4) at Landover, Md., on Nov. 1, followed by a road test at No. 14 Arizona State (5-1), home versus Northwestern (3-4), home against the nation’s No. 1 defense in Louisville (6-2), and then a road date at No. 20 USC (5-2). The Irish have an open date this Saturday.

It also runs the risk of making ND’s reaction to the call the most memorable aspect of a game in which they built up some serious style points in facing what still may very well be the best player in the nation, on the field, in FSU sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston.

The dangling details standing in the way of clarity?

Another interesting point in the back-and-forth between Rhoads and the ND staff is that ultimately the penalty was called on wide receiver C.J. Prosise.

Prosise was the culprit in the official play-by-play Florida State submitted to the NCAA on Saturday night, although the official on the field announced it was Will Fuller — and that was the narrative for much of Sunday. Some would argue both players acted as blockers rather than receivers, so it didn’t matter.

Another sticking point was that the back judge made the call. Theoretically, his responsibilities are to watch the snap of the ball, check to make sure the clock starts, then watch what’s going on in the field of play.

So would he have been physically able to see the entire sequence unfold on a play where only four seconds rolled off the clock and three other officials close to the play kept their flags in their pockets and signaled touchdown? Those are the questions rolling around Kelly’s mind.

Here are the biggest questions that ultimately will affect Notre Dame more than an officiating debate:

Is 11-1 good enough to get the Irish into the playoff?

Likely, if they take care of business, even though at the moment they would be aced out of both a playoff spot and an Orange Bowl berth if the season ended today.

Because it doesn’t, and because four teams ranked ahead of the Irish play each other, ND taking care of business AND Florida State winning out could leave this scenario: SEC champ and FSU taking two spots in the four-team playoff, with Oregon, Notre Dame and a second SEC team fighting it out for the final two spots.

It’ll be interesting to see where the College Football Playoff selection committee puts ND versus the top teams in the Pac-12, Big 10 and Big 12 when it releases its first set of rankings next Tuesday and how closely they do or don’t mirror the polls.

What does taking care of business mean for the Irish? That the Florida State game can’t look like the outlier, that ND stumbles its way to five victories instead of looking like a young team that grows up in November.

“I think we're starting to gain some consistency on the offensive line,” Kelly said of his takeaways from the FSU game. “We made that big move on our first bye week (having four offensive linemen change positions).

“It's a big move to make when you're coming off a big win against Michigan, but one we needed to make. I think that's starting to show itself.

“We continue to show we're very, very good against the run. I think if you have those two things working for you, you can control the line of scrimmage.”

Two of the folks who project the full bowl slate and the four-team playoff on a weekly basis have divergent views of what ND’s November will look like and thus where the Irish will end up in the postseason.

Phil Steele, of PhilSteele.com, projects the Irish into the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., against presumably an unbeaten Marshall team. CBSSports.com’s Jerry Palm has the Irish facing LSU in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.

Who’s the biggest threat remaining on the Irish schedule?

Sometimes it’s not about poll rankings, it’s about matchups. In Arizona State’s case, it’s about both — and sequencing.

The week after playing triple-option Navy, ND must shift gears and face the most prolific passing offense (11th nationally) it has seen or will see this season and one of the more efficient (21st) whether it’s Taylor Kelly or Mike Bercovici pulling the trigger.

Arizona State had been a mess defensively and still ranks no higher than 77th in any of the four major defensive categories, though the Sun Devils managed to bully Stanford to the tune of 10 points and 288 total yards this past weekend in Tempe, Ariz.

Louisville labors offensively but ranks third in rushing defense, second in pass-efficiency defense, first in total defense and fourth in scoring defense. ND will get to see how those numbers hold up in a Thursday night matchup (Oct. 30) in perhaps Florida State’s toughest remaining game.

USC presents the most balanced team on the remaining schedule, and with a quarterback, Cody Kessler, who has surged into the national top 10 in passing efficiency, four spots ahead of Winston.

“I think they'll see that they're respected nationally for the kind of team they are,” Kelly said of the Irish post-Florida State and the conversations he’ll have with his players as they move into November.

“But yet there's a number of things that we needed to do better in the second half to put this team away. I mean, you got to take the belt from the champion. You can't leave it up to a decision that's made at the end. We'll talk about. If we're in this situation again, you got to close, you got to finish.”

Is there potential help on the roster that hasn’t been realized yet?

Backup safety Eilar Hardy is the only one of the five players suspended in August during the academic fraud investigation that is back on the roster for this season, and there’s chance he may never advance past a practice body, which still would help some.

With each passing week it appears middle linebacker Jarrett Grace’s 2014 season will meet the same fate the second half of his 2013 campaign did — on the sideline. The senior hasn’t played since starting against Arizona State, Oct. 5, 2013 and finishing that game with four fractures in his right leg.

As far as “unredshirting” freshmen, defensive end Jhonny Williams and defensive tackle Jay Hayes remain the two strongest possibilities, but they’re not probabilities. Both made the road trip to Tallahassee, Fla.

“We took those young kids with us to give them the sense and feel to keep them ready,” Kelly said. “We don't want to play them unless we have to.

“If it comes down to getting into the playoffs and winning, we would play them, but it would have to be that kind of scenario.”

Squibs

• Golson and former Notre Dame QBs Gunner Kiel (Cincinnati) and Andrew Hendrix (Miami, Ohio) are among six players tied for seventh nationally in passing TDs (19). Hendrix has thrown seven picks, while Kiel and Golson have been charged with six each.

Video replays show that Golson probably should have only five, and that Pugh did not intercept his fourth-quarter pass inbounds. It’s inconsequential to the game’s outcome, but not to Golson’s stat line.

However, even though Florida State officials concurred the pass should have been ruled an incompletion, ACC and NCAA officials said they were not able to reverse it, since the call was made on the field and never offered for review.

• One of the most excited observers in FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday night when Golson kept ND’s last drive alive with a fourth-down completion was none other than his offseason QB tutor George Whitfield Jr.

• Notre Dame is now 0-4 the last four times it faced a national passing efficiency champion at some point in their careers. FSU’s Winston won the title last season and currently stands 14th.

Efficiency titlists A.J. McCarron of Alabama, N.C. State’s Philip Rivers and Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech all had winning outings against the Irish. The last time ND beat a pass-efficiency champ was in 1992, when the Irish beat Penn State and Kerry Collins, 17-16.

Collins would win the stat title two years later.

Notre Dame's Tarean Folston enjoyed one of the best games of his career Saturday against Florida State. But it's time for Folston and the Irish to move on.AP Photo/STEVE CANNON