Young Notre Dame offense's challenge: learn to finish games

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

Finishing doesn’t just happen.

It’s more of an acquired skill.

Whether it’s mental, physical, emotional — or a combination of them all — a football team’s offense has to be the kind of unit that’s able to seal the deal.

Notre Dame is still trying to find the formula for success. Four times this season the Irish have had an opportunity to forge a tie or pull out a victory with a late fourth-quarter score.

All they have to show for it are four losses.

The last time the Notre Dame offense came through with a decisive, game-on-the-line fourth-quarter drive was last year in the regular-season finale against Stanford.

That one, though, was spoiled by an epic defensive collapse that yielded Stanford’s game-winning field goal as time expired.

Heading into Saturday night’s rematch with the Cardinal, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has challenged his team to grow up and make the magic happen at crunch time.

Earlier this week, Kelly met the media armed with statistics trying to frame the most recent crisis.

“Over my time here at Notre Dame, we've won 21 games by seven points or (fewer),” Kelly said. “It's the nature of the games that we play here at Notre Dame. They're going to be close games. We've won those games historically, and for this year, we have not won those games.

“(The coaches have) had an opportunity to discuss the things that we have to do to win those close games, and we're working hard on that and we expect to win some of the close games that we're going to be playing in over the next six weeks.”

Kelly immediately took luck out of the equation as an answer to the dilemma. Preparation made the most sense. Inexperience also was a factor Kelly brought up, though six games into the season, the Irish should be beyond that.

“I probably should have done a better job of preparing (the players) for the eventuality of close games,” Kelly said.

Eerily similar

It’s not like this is the first time a Notre Dame team has gone through something like this.

The Irish have lost four games by a combined 21 points. The greatest margin was an eight-point setback to Michigan State.

That’s nothing compared to Lou Holtz’s first year in 1986, when the 5-6 Irish lost five games by 14 points. Talk about frustration. Led by senior quarterback Steve Beuerlein, that team had to do a whole lot of growing up to establish a foundation for success to come.

“We didn’t quite know how to finish off those games, for whatever reason,” said Beuerlein, now an NFL commentator for CBS. “Penn State won the national championship that year. We had a wide-open touchdown pass in the back of the end zone to beat them that we dropped (the Irish lost, 24-19). That’s the type of season it was.

“As a whole, we wanted to win so badly. We didn’t, deep down in our hearts, believe we were entitled to that; that we were going to have some good things happen.

“More than an expectation of something bad, it was wanting something good so badly, but not really believing that it was coming.”

OK, so the veteran of 17 seasons in the NFL is convinced the mental part has a lot to do with getting the job done. But, he didn’t underestimate Kelly’s suggestion that experience plays a part.

“It’s experience, more than anything else,” Beuerlein said. “(As an NFL commentator) I talk to a lot of coaches whose teams are struggling, trying to get over the hump, they all say the same thing: ‘We just have to learn how to close. We’ve gotta get in situations where we can get the job done. We’re right there. We’re so close.’

“That truly is the difference between being a championship kind of team, to being an average or not very good team.

“You get in those situations and everyone has to come together. Whether it’s rallying around a superstar quarterback like a Tom Brady or a Joe Montana, or everybody just willing it to happen. You have to experience it once or twice to get that belief: ‘Hey, we do know how to do this. Next time, we’ll do it again,’ instead of sitting there and saying, ‘I hope we get it done next time.’

“There are a lot of things that go into it. But, I believe it’s a mentality and an expectation that determines whether you get it done in those situations.”

A solution

Beuerlein can’t speak on specifics of the current Irish woes. He’s not in the locker room on a daily basis. He’s not privy to the inner sanctum. He can only draw on what happened to him and figure the situation hasn’t changed that much.

“We had an incredibly resilient senior class,” Beuerlein said. “We graduated without a lot to show for it. Lou Holtz, when he talks about the glory years he had, and the championship in ’88, he always talks about our class. That was the class that got it going.

“Their work ethic and their blind faith — doing whatever he asked of them — their effort, their leadership. We had a bunch of guys who just wanted it so bad.”

The Irish were 24-22 during Beuerlein’s career (1983-86).

“We’d been through so much under Gerry Faust, we didn’t believe that we could be good,” he said. “There was a lot of frustration. We were so tired of being average. We thought we had great talent on those teams and had nothing to show for it.

“We’d say to ourselves, ‘What’s wrong with us? We’ve got great players, but are we just not that good?’ Lou got into our heads. He got us believing that if we just trusted him, trusted the process, everything would take care of itself.

“There were frustrating losses, but we knew we were getting better. We knew at some point we’d get over the hump.”

One of the common themes for any struggling Notre Dame team is that once it is out of the national championship hunt, without a conference, the season is lost. Beuerlein and his classmates wouldn’t let that happen in ’86.

“There were a lot of things in our senior class that you can’t measure; you can’t coach,” he said. “It was a desire to be respected; to leave some kind of a legacy.

“We could not let each other quit. We never considered throwing in the towel and going through the motions to play out the season.

“Even our junior year, when we got killed by Miami (58-7) in Gerry Faust’s last game, we were devastated, but we never quit. We didn’t realize how the cards were stacked against us during those years. Some things were out of our control.

“The seniors (in ’86) set the tempo. We would not let anybody jump off the ship. Everybody in.”

That “no quit” mentality paid off. Even with a 4-6 record heading into the season finale at Southern Cal, and trailing by 17 points after three quarters, the desire was still there. The Irish rallied from the huge deficit and pulled out a 38-37 victory.

Beuerlein said, to this day, Holtz still credits that victory with turning around the program.

Further review

Beuerlein still follows the Notre Dame program closely. He watched last week’s mud wrestling exhibition in Raleigh and was reminded of his own soggy experience.

“The USC (a 19-7 Irish win) game my sophomore year (’84),” he said of the correlation. “It wasn’t really a hurricane, but the field conditions were every bit as bad as they were (at North Carolina State).

“It was unbelievable. USC couldn’t hang onto the football. That’s why we won the game. We were able to make enough plays and protect the football enough to win the game.”

Unsolicited, Beuerlein couldn’t help but express his opinion about the 10-3 Irish loss. He qualified his opinion by saying he doesn’t like to second-guess, but he felt the plan was obvious.

“When I look at the game last week, and I look at how the offense struggled …,” he said. “No. 1, I’ve always been a huge Brian Kelly supporter. I have constantly carried that flag. I believe he deserves another year (as head coach) to get this thing figured out.

“But, I look at that game … the conditions were not conducive to throwing the football.

“You’ve got (quarterback) Malik Zaire, who is a running (quarterback), on the sidelines. DeShone (Kizer) is a running threat, too. But, if you want to jump-start an offense, you look back at it, maybe you should have started the second half with Malik (he had one carry for minus-1 yard when Kizer was dinged).

“It’s a totally different run game with a new quarterback. You get some rhythm going on offense… You’re not relying on guys to throw and catch in conditions that were almost unplayable.

“The conditions aren’t getting any better. It’s only going to be more difficult to throw the football. ‘Let’s try something else.’”

His opinion is worth a listen. With experience comes credibility.

Notre Dame’s Kevin Stepherson (29) has a pass broken up by NC State’s Dravious Wright (8) and Jack Tocho (29) during the Notre Dame-NC State NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN