Lesar: After loss to Virginia Tech, Notre Dame's confidence is kaput

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Hung precisely on the walls of the postgame interview room are photo renderings of past Notre Dame football national champions.

After Virginia Tech’s 34-31 victory over the Irish Saturday, one question came to mind: What would those guys on the wall think about this team?

Knute Rockne probably would’ve called them fragile; tentative with a lead; lacking the killer instinct.

If Saturday would’ve been the first time these Irish had blown a double-digit lead, it would have been a shame. But… after Duke, Stanford and Miami (even though they came back to win), this is more of a trend.

And everybody knows how hard it is to buck a trend.

Take it to the bank, Lou Holtz would examine what’s up with DeShone Kizer if his quarterback in 1988 would have been 13 of 18 in the first half, and 3 of 15 in the second. Defenses don’t get that much better at halftime.

“We had some opportunities that we missed in terms of throws,” was the way current Irish coach Brian Kelly spun it. “We had some catches that we didn't make. I don't know that there is one thing. There are a lot of different things. I don't think it's just one thing. Maybe a couple protection issues. Couple routes that weren't run properly.”

Maybe it was the helmet-to-helmet Kizer took that was never penalized. Kelly spent a lot of time tip-toeing the line of calling out the officials and pleading his case. He also let loose on cornerback Cole Luke’s phantom fourth-quarter interference flag near the end zone.

Notre Dame didn’t lose its seventh game – the seventh that came down to a failed final possession – because of penalties that were or were not called. The Irish didn’t blow their 24-7 second-quarter lead because Kizer was ineffective in the second half.

The problems run much, much deeper.

Confidence is kaput. After halftime, this team couldn’t put a buck-50 in a vending machine and be sure a can of pop would come out. It couldn’t wake up in the morning and be sure the sun is going to shine (at least as much as it does in South Bend these days).

But… you get the idea.

Kelly tried to sell his players on the idea that they turned the corner last week; that after all these weeks, they were finally playing with “an edge.” It didn’t matter that the opponent was Army.

That “edge” may have leaked over into the first 24 minutes of the game, grabbing that 17-point lead.

But everyone figured the sky was going to fall sooner or later – because that’s what this team does.

Wonder what Frank Leahy would have been thinking hearing Kelly say, “I'm at loss for words, really, as to what to tell (the players). It's just been a difficult year.

“They work so hard. They play so hard. They have been ahead in so many of these games and been so close in the four quarter. Unfortunately, it's just one of those years where… I haven't had one like this in my 25, 26 years of being a head coach, where it hasn't gone their way.”

This season has gone beyond having answers.

Anger doesn’t have a place in the postmortems anymore. That ended with Michigan State (by the way, did you notice Texas got beat by doormat Kansas Saturday, and the Spartans have won just once since beating the Irish?).

The stunner against Duke triggered an incredulous tone – and the dismissal of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Losing to North Carolina State in the hurricane left Kelly despondent. Post-Stanford was frustration. Losing to Navy didn’t even cause shock, more like resolution.

Saturday, Kelly and his troops were numb. Another loss. So what?

Kelly and the Irish have run the gamut of emotions. There's not much left to feel.

There wasn’t any fire to get back on the practice field and get this thing worked out. Nobody called for anyone’s head. That’s been tried already and it hasn’t really worked out.

It just seemed like a coach and his players anxious to play out the string and put this thing in the rear-view mirror as soon as possible.

Wonder what the guys on the wall would think about that.

That’s not how they got there.

Virginia Tech’s Bucky Hodges (7) makes a touchdown reception next to Notre Dame’s Julian Love (27) during the Notre Dame-Virginia Tech NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN