The tried and true recipe for a 2016 Notre Dame football loss
SOUTH BEND — It tastes bitter and disturbingly familiar.
This is what Notre Dame has force-fed its fans over the last three months. It’s a simmering, stinking stew — a witch’s brew of déjà vu and devastation. The opponents change, the weather forecasts change, but the same ingredients get dumped into the pot.
The recipe for a 2016 Notre Dame football loss begins, of course, with a cruelly promising start. The Irish usually score a touchdown on their opening drive, just as they did in the 34-31 loss to Virginia Tech on Saturday. Notre Dame, in fact, has scored a touchdown on its opening drive seven times in 11 games this season, including each of the last four. They have scored first in 10 of 11 games.
Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer finds a rhythm, piling up early completions and physical runs. The sideline sways with enthusiasm.
If you’re a Notre Dame football fan, you hope. You can’t help it.
You get punished for your renewed optimism, week after week after week.
“I think I did a good job of avoiding all your questions through all the other losses,” Kizer said candidly, engulfed in a media scrum. “At this point … what else am I supposed to say?
“It’s just unfortunate that this is how the season has gone.”
Next, add some penalties to the pot. Throw in a heaping helping of false starts, like the five Notre Dame self-inflicted on Saturday. Drizzle a pass interference when the defense needs it the least, like the one senior cornerback Cole Luke was undeservedly saddled with on the Hokies’ game-tying fourth quarter touchdown drive.
“Virginia Tech won the game. It's not one play,” Kelly said of the pass interference penalty, in which Luke shielded Hokie wide receiver Isaiah Ford from the football, got bowled over and was punished nonetheless.
“We teach that. I told him that he did exactly what we asked him to do. That's to force the defender up the sideline. So he executed the technique that I've been told over and over again when we have officials come to our practices that that technique is acceptable. It was not an acceptable technique tonight.”
OK, feel free to stir in a few special teams catastrophes while you’re at it, though Notre Dame limited those somewhat on Saturday. Virginia Tech wide receiver Henri Murphy racked up 98 yards in only three kickoff returns, swiveling around the stumbling Irish coverage unit. The Hokies enjoyed an average starting field position at their 36-yard line, 11 yards better than the 4-7 Irish.
At this point, the stew should be bubbling — an asphalt black, unappetizing sludge. It smells familiarly, stomach-turningly rancid. Turn up the heat and toss in a squandered lead. With six minutes remaining in the second quarter on Saturday, the Irish held a 24-7 advantage. They led 17-14 at halftime against Navy, 10-0 at halftime against Stanford, 14-0 early against Duke and 7-0 against Michigan State.
Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss.
“They have been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the fourth quarter,” Kelly said sympathetically of his players. “Unfortunately, it's just one of those years where … I haven't had one (year) like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach, where it hasn't gone their way.
“It's not just one thing. It's a jump off sides here. It's, ‘I didn't pick up the quarterback in zone read.’ You know, it's just a little bit of everything, unfortunately.”
Next, pour in some sudden bouts of offensive incompetence. Though Notre Dame scored 28 points and piled up 299 total yards in the first half on Saturday, the Irish managed just seven measly points and 150 total yards, while going 3-and-out five times, in the final 30 minutes. Kizer completed his first five passes and 13 of 18 overall for 199 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and connected on just 3 of 15 passes the rest of the way.
“They made a couple adjustments in the second half,” Kizer said. “There was a couple situations in which the balls we expected to be wide open were contested. As a quarterback, I have to make sure those balls are in position for our guys to catch it.”
Now, top it all off with a failed final drive. In this particular loss, that meant a 57-yard march that ended abruptly when Kizer was knocked out of the game and senior quarterback Malik Zaire completed a single pass before time expired. The Irish destructed in different-but-equally-irreversible ways against Stanford, Duke, Michigan State and Texas.
“Any time the ball’s in my hand, I think we’re going to score,” Kizer said, despite the recent evidence to the contrary. “With the guys that we have at skill positions and one of the best offensive lines in the country, you have to have all the confidence in the world that things are going to end up the way they’re supposed to.
“Obviously we go out and try to execute what the coaches call. When you don’t execute, you don’t win.”
If that’s the case, Notre Dame has failed to execute seven times this season, dropping all seven games by eight points or less.
That’s seven helpings of the same stinking stew, brewed and distributed inside Notre Dame Stadium. The recipe was written in ink, with little room for variation.
At some point along the way, you probably lost your appetite. Luckily, after so many unsatisfying Saturdays, there’s only one meal to go.