Another close Notre Dame loss leaves Brian Kelly at a loss for words

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s no longer about some convoluted scenario to land in a bowl game with a 5-7 record, nor should it ever have been.

It’s about reinvention. It’s about all the lessons seventh-year Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly was force-fed in a nightmare he can’t wake up from and how he processes those lessons in the coming weeks and months.

It’s also about Kelly finding inspiration in the sobbing seniors who lingered on the field, despite wind chills in the 20s, trying to come up with another glass-half-full chaser for another shot to the heart.

“This one hurts,” said an emotional senior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey of ND’s 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech on Senior Day, a game in which the Irish let a pair of 17-point leads evaporate, punctuated with one final offensive drive that ended in a heap of desperation and disappointment.

Senior Malik Zaire, was entrusted with a miracle fling to save the 2016 Irish from taking another step into infamy, at least where the bottom line (4-7) is concerned.

Poetic justice was calling. Cruel reality hung up on it.

Starting quarterback DeShone Kizer came off the field woozy after converting a fourth-and-5 play with a seven-yard scramble. So in trotted the player to whom Kizer started last season as an understudy.

The Irish, behind Kizer, had moved the ball from their own 10 to the Hokie 47-yard line with no timeouts in 54 seconds, into a stiff wind. There were 13 seconds left when the ball was whistled for play.

Zaire ran around looking for an open receiver. He then dumped the ball to wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown as time expired for an apparent 14-yard gain.

The ACC officiating crew, though, ruled that St. Brown was ineligible to catch the pass, because he had run out of bounds and come back in. Not that it would have mattered had he stayed in.

“We had a play that was called,” Kelly said when asked if the ball was supposed to go to the end zone. “Just wasn't aware of the situation. Obviously, didn't coach it well enough.”

If there’s a sliver of solace in losing the type of game Notre Dame used to win, it’s that Kizer, per Kelly, didn’t suffer concussion symptoms on that play or a third-quarter hit in which the Irish QB took helmet-to-helmet contact on a tackle.

Kelly was adamant targeting should have been called either by the crew on the field or the replay official.

“I mean, we're talking about protecting the quarterback,” he said. “I've been on the wrong end of that play now this year twice, at Syracuse and here against Virginia Tech. That was clearly a quarterback that gave himself up and then was hit.

“So we're either going to protect the quarterback or we're not. So I don't quite understand what the rule is, because it's being officiated clearly differently.”

So Kizer presumably gets to face USC next Saturday in Los Angeles in the regular-season finale after a schizophrenic performance against the Hokies (8-3).

He completed 13 of 18 passes for 199 yards in the first half as the Irish bolted to leads of 17-0 and 24-7, then went 3-of-15 in the second half for 36 yards. The Irish offense, at the half, was on pace for 600 yards, but garnered just 135 after the break.

And 67 of those came on one play, a Josh Adams TD run that gave the Irish a 31-21 lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter.

Kelly said he needed to look at film to figure out what went wrong after halftime. McGlinchey said it’s because the Hokies had better countermoves.

“They were doing a lot of movement right prior to the snap, that was kind of throwing us off a little bit,” he said of the Tech adjustments. “And we had to adjust to that, and they just brought a little bit more pressure and they were on their assignments more than we were. And that’s all it comes down to.”

Metrics that used to be stacked in Kelly’s favor all came unraveled in this game.

He entered the season 19-0 when his Irish teams played turnover-free football. Saturday’s loss made him 0-3 in such games this season.

Notre Dame was 40-5 since 2002 when rushing for more than 200 yards. The Irish ran for an even 200 against the Hokies and lost.

Kelly was 189-13 in his career when leading after three quarters. He’s now 3-3 this season in such games.

And Kelly was 4-0 this season and 43-6 at ND when his teams outrushed their opponent, and the Irish outrushed Virginia Tech.

“These kids are wonderful kids,” Kelly said. “I mean, I'm at loss for words really as to what to tell them, you know. It's just been a difficult year.”

And the next time they’re in Notre Dame Stadium, Sept. 2 against Temple, there will be a JumboTron and premium seating and all the other bells and whistles for the ongoing Campus Crossroads project that are supposed to be completed by then.

But what kind of team will Kelly have reconstructed? How will his vision, his philosophy, his inner circle change?

Whatever it looks like, Kelly is selling his players that the heartache will all be worth it.

“There are a lot of inexperienced players that are going to benefit from this,” he said. “It's going to help those guys that have gone through it. So we'll bank on that.”

“There’s not a doubt in my mind,” McGlinchey said. “It’s never been an energy-effort-enthusiasm type of thing. It’s just a matter of execution for us, and we’ve got to keep going back at it and keep improving. And that’s all we can ask for.

“When life hits you hard and adversity hits you, it’s a time to grow. And that’s what this team is going to do.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly exits the field following the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN