Lesar: Depressed or despondent, Brian Kelly wallows in decisions gone awry

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

RALEIGH, N.C. — Wallowing somewhere between depressed and despondent, Brian Kelly tried to frame the circumstances of his Notre Dame football team’s 10-3 loss to North Carolina State Saturday.

This wasn’t the same head coach who was spitting fire after the Irish loss to Michigan State.

Or the guy who was frustrated after the loss to Texas.

Or the guy who vowed to be better after being upset by Duke.

Seven years into his Irish regime, this side of Kelly never really came to the surface. The street fighter in him has been subdued. He didn’t come out punching, even when challenged.

Maybe it was the atrocious conditions that wore him down. Maybe it was four fumbles (two lost), an interception, a gaggle of awful snaps, 1 of 15 in third-down conversions, and 113 yards of total offense.

Maybe he’s feeling the heat.

As chess matches go, this one had so many tentacles.

To be fair to both teams, this game should never have been played. No telling how good a game this would have been had it been played in something other than a constant torrential downpour (seven inches of rain) along with a 40 mph wind howling from north to south.

Barely above a whisper, Kelly talked about the offensive shortcomings, his decision to go with two rather than three protectors for punter Tyler Newsome (when the Wolfpack blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown), his decision to throw 26 passes (completing nine) despite the wind, and, who made the decision to go ahead and play the game despite the miserable conditions.

And, oh, were the conditions miserable.

“There was never a conversation (Saturday before the game) about it not being played,” Kelly said. “I was a little concerned about the conditions, but they were the same for both teams.”

That doesn’t make the decision correct. College football games are precious. To waste one in such a deplorable environment is a travesty.

Of course, when the conditions are such and the game is on the line, there comes a time when a coach must adjust.

Even with the goalposts and the light standards shaking, and a pool of water several inches deep (no truth to the rumors that lifeguards were requested, because someone could have drowned) stretching from the 35- to the 10-yard line on the south end of the field, Kelly stubbornly refused to adjust his offensive game plan. Even though Notre Dame’s longest pass completion was 11 yards, he kept quarterback DeShone Kizer dropping back and letting it fly.

Take a peek over to the Wolfpack sidelines. In the third quarter, North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren threw a little wrinkle in his offense. For one series, which was productive but was terminated by a fumble, he brought in backup quarterback Jalan McClendon (6-foot-5, 212 pounds), who ran a wildcat offense, getting five carries for 48 yards in his first series.

Hey, great idea. The Irish have one of those guys. If there ever was a game perfectly suited for backup quarterback Malik Zaire, this was it. Give him the ball, let him run. Dump off a pass to keep the Wolfpack honest.

Nope. Kelly said it didn’t even cross his mind. Zaire was in for one snap when Kizer got banged up — losing a yard after tripping on his rush — but quickly returned to obscurity.

“I kinda did (use that tactic), Kizer had 15 carries (for 15 net yards),” Kelly said. “The offense could have been tweaked in that regard. It was never a thought that we would go strictly into that kind of offensive structure.”

Why not? It’s not like the Irish offense all of a sudden petered out. This was 60 minutes of frustration.

There comes a time, especially in extreme conditions, when it’s imperative to deviate from the norm and get creative.

Before the season started, Kelly talked about two of his most dynamic players — Kizer and Zaire — playing the same position. This was an opportunity to prove just how much of an impact Zaire could make.

Too bad. He didn’t even have a chance.

That suggests there might be more involved with the decision to keep Zaire plastered to the bench — a “use only in emergency” situation.

A week or so ago, Kelly talked about how “Lucky Lefty” has bought into his backup status and he’s completely engaged with the team.

If that’s the case, why not roll the dice?

The second-guessing won’t go away anytime soon. There were so many things that could have been done differently. Kelly gets paid some big bucks to make those calls, and make them work out.

Maybe that had something to do with his mood.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly questions an official during Notre Dame's 10-3 loss to N.C. State, Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)