Close losses bedeviling Hurricanes

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The postgame refrain sounded all too familiar inside the bowels of Notre Dame Stadium.

A team fought back after an early deficit to make the game close, but it couldn’t come out with a victory. This time, however, it wasn’t Notre Dame on the losing end. The failure belonged to Miami.

“We didn't get it done, obviously,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said after the 30-27 loss to the Irish. “I mean, it's a team thing -- offense, defense, special teams. Bottom line is we didn't get it done. Came close. Three out of four came close, but close doesn't count. We've got to get better.”

The Hurricanes (4-4) lost their fourth consecutive game on Saturday. Three of the losses have come by seven points or less. It’s a story that Notre Dame (3-5) knows all too well with every loss coming by no more than one possession.

The game appeared to be on a different track when the Irish jumped out to a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter. But that’s when Miami put the game on the shoulders of Brad Kaaya. The junior quarterback completed more passes to the Notre Dame defense — an interception by cornerback Cole Luke — than his own receivers in the first quarter. By halftime, Kaaya had thrown for 102 yards on 9-of-16 passing with a two-yard touchdown to tight end David Njoku.

The limited success for Kaaya came despite being sacked three times in the first half. With a rushing game that only produced three yards on 18 carries before halftime, Notre Dame’s defense was able to dial up a consistent pass rush.

The beating didn’t stop Kaaya. He continued to pick apart the Irish defense and finished with 26 completions on 42 attempts (62 percent) for 288 yards.

“Brad’s extremely tough,” Njoku said. “I’m very proud of him. Every day I just see him progress. I’m very proud how he can get tougher each and every week. He wants to win, so he risks his body to reach that goal.”

After Notre Dame took a 30-27 lead with 30 seconds remaining, Kaaya did his best to give Miami a chance for a game-tying field goal, but he was once again sacked – the fifth of the game — on the final play.

The time ran out with Kaaya in a pile and all his receivers stuck downfield without a ball to catch.

“That just takes a lot of time to develop and you have to sit on it and wait for them to get downfield,” Kaaya said. “They just made a play. I don’t know how many guys they brought, but it’s a play that they just got us on. I was sitting on it waiting for it to develop. A tough one.”

Asked what changed for Miami in the second half, Kaaya struggled to even remember what went wrong in the first 30 minutes.

“First half, I’m trying to think back to it. I don’t know,” Kaaya said. “In the second half, everyone just let it cut loose in all positions. The O-line played a little bit better in the second half. We were able to run the ball a little bit better, and that opened things up for me. We just made good plays and guys finally woke up.”

But the rally to take a 27-20 lead means little when it ends in a loss. The frustration will continue to build without victories.

“It sucks losing,” Njoku said. “It’s not fun. Yes, there’s anger and upset in (the locker room).”

Even compared to a one-point loss to Florida State on a blocked extra point, the late collapse against Notre Dame will cause pain.

“It’s a tough one. I thought we had them,” Kaaya said. “Even on the last drive, we were getting close to field goal range. We had them on the ropes.”

A losing coach is left to look for positives. A comeback effort is a sign of fight for Richt. Though after four consecutive losses, the narrative can be as tiresome as the outcomes. Only so many clichés can cover up the sting.

“We haven't lost our fight,” Richt said. “People that aren't in the game itself — it's hard to turn it around when it starts like that, really hard to do, especially after you've lost three. You're looking around and saying, ‘Hey, I've had enough,’ and that's not what they did.

“That's hard above everything. That's the thing that made me most proud of what happened tonight, but we all know it's about wins and losses. And we lost.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Miami’s Brady Kaaya looks to hand off during the Miami at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday Oct. 29, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA