Game story: Notre Dame overcomes miscues to edge Miami
SOUTH BEND — It was more of a survival than a statement, more wobble than swagger.
But when it mattered most on Saturday afternoon, the resolve and connection coach Brian Kelly insisted he was seeing on a daily basis behind the scenes, amid all the turmoil and speculation, spilled out onto the field for all to see at Notre Dame Stadium and hinted at something enduring.
“There wasn't a belief, when I looked in the eyes of every one of those players, that they weren't going to figure out and find a way to win,” he said.
The beauty in ND’s 30-27 upset of Miami (Fla.) — in a victory admittedly teeming with flaws — was that the two areas in which the Irish had underachieved the most in a heretofore lost season — offensive line play and pass rush — were transcendent.
And they had to be.
Miami (4-4), the nation’s No. 1 team in tackles for loss at 10.1 per game, recorded a modest four against the Irish offensive front. And the best sacking team (17th nationally) the Irish (3-5) will face the balance of the season garnered one.
The ND running game, behind the improved line play, came alive late to average 5.1 yards a carry, with Josh Adams’ 41-yard TD burst tying the game at 27-27 with 5:53 left in regulation.
Meanwhile, ND’s defense continued to distance itself from the version that led to coordinator Brian VanGorder’s firing four games ago.
The Irish collected five sacks, giving them eight in the past two games after amassing three over the first six. Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan got his second of the afternoon and ND’s fifth of the game on what turned out to be the last play of the game.
Miami had 13 seconds left to move 13 more yards to the edge of kicker Michael Badgley’s range and try to match his career long of 57 yards for overtime. Instead quarterback Brad Kaaya crumbled helplessly in a heap without a timeout left to get one more fling at a quasi-miracle.
“We were talking in the huddle, ‘This is why we’re here. We’re going to finish this out,’” said Morgan, whose brilliant afternoon included a team-high eight solo tackles among his nine with three tackles for loss.
“Now we know we can do it. Now we can put it all together. This is great for our confidence.”
But save a couple of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties (both charged to Miami) it was hardly reminiscent of the vintage ND-Miami clashes of the 1980s.
What officially went into the books as the 254th consecutive sellout at Notre Dame Stadium, featured plenty of scattered pockets of empty seats on an idyllic, Indian summer afternoon. Hours before kickoff, tickets with a face value of $150 were going for as low as $10.
Among those who did show were large swaths of orange-clad Miami fans, who seemed to take over the stadium when the Hurricanes scored 27 unanswered points after the Irish bolted to a 20-0 lead.
Special teams was the big leak in the boat this time, though hardly a new development. Four plays in particular Saturday almost allowed the Hurricanes to give first-year Miami coach Mark Richt his milestone 150th victory.
The Irish had a punt blocked, had a Miami punt bounce off Irish freshman Troy Pride’s arm for a fumble, didn’t even try to recover a Hurricane onside kick, and saw returner C.J. Sanders fumble away a punt in the end zone that resulted in the ’Canes’ go-ahead score.
“Our whole football team had been battling at times being indecisive in certain areas,” Kelly said when asked about the latest unspecial special teams plays, “whether we were indecisive at the quarterback position, whether we were indecisive as a play caller, whether we were indecisive at the cornerback position. Indecisiveness kind of put us where we are today.
“So the word that we were using was let's be decisive in everything that we do. Well, there's still some indecisiveness that is lingering. It's slowly leaving, and the opposite of that is being decisive and confident in what we're doing.
“And we have to be more confident. We've got really good players that care a lot, that have a lot of pride in what they do every single day, and I just have to reinforce with those guys to be more decisive.”
The defense was decisive enough in most of those crises to give the Irish a chance to win the game at the end.
The nation’s 81st-ranked rushing defense held Miami to a season-low 18 yards on 35 carries. That’s the fewest rushing yards ND has allowed since the 2012 team squeezed Oklahoma for 15 during their national title game run.
The Hurricanes collected 306 total yards, the second-fewest they’ve amassed in a game this season. The longest play from scrimmage from Miami was a 24-yard pass. Its longest run was 16 yards. The Irish broke up eight passes from Kaaya, who came into the game 27th nationally in pass efficiency and is still regarded in some circles as a first-round draft choice next spring if the junior comes out.
Nose guard Jarron Jones, with six of his seven tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and Morgan led the way.
“I think he's been as consistent of a player that we've had on defense, from game 1 to game 8,” Kelly said of Morgan. “His toughness, his demeanor and the way he comes to practice every day.
“In that locker room right now, if you're saying, ‘Who do you want in your foxhole? They want Nyles Morgan in their foxhole. He's a guy that you want watching your back, because he's there every day. Every practice, he plays with toughness.”
And Kelly got some toughness from his quarterback, DeShone Kizer.
The junior bounced back from two subpar performances, and a temporary demotion in his last game — at 17-10 loss to Stanford on Oct. 15 —to throw for 268 yards and rush for 31 more, all without committing a turnover.
But his most impressive play was worming his way to the bottom of a scrum and coming up with the football after tight end Durham Smythe fumbled near the goal line on ND’s final offensive possession and the game still tied.
The recovery allowed the Irish to win the game on Justin Yoon’s 23-yard field goal with 30 seconds left in regulation.
“I think the thing that stands out for me was the mental toughness that (Kizer) showed coming back from missing a couple of receivers on the drive prior to and really showing some mental toughness on that last drive,” said Kelly, now 7-0 in his last seven games coming out of a bye week and 19-2 in his career.
“I was looking for that in this game, and he showed that to me. And I was really proud of him.”