Late-game letdowns are taking a toll on Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Sometimes football just doesn’t add up.

It’s a harsh reality that Notre Dame has learned to live with this season.

Actually, the Irish didn’t have a choice.

In their seven losses, the Irish have been outscored 48-36 in the fourth quarter. Only twice (Michigan State 14-0 and Duke 10-7) did they score more than their opponent. In the first quarter of those same games, Notre Dame has fallen behind 38-34.

It’s a complex scenario that doesn’t lend itself to many answers, at least for now. Is it a conditioning issue? Is play-calling a problem? Is there a lurking undercurrent of doubt with the game on the line?

Saturday’s season finale at Southern Cal won’t likely provide any answers. Odds are it will take coach Brian Kelly and his staff into the offseason to assess the possibilities and come up with some sort of solution.

Until then, the Irish will take a lack of confidence and a sense of gathering gloom with them to Los Angeles, while trying to punch themselves out of a nightmare.

Sixty points shy

“We're 51-16 (in the fourth quarter) in the last seven games we've played,” Kelly said, referring to games since the loss to Duke. “We've been outscored 51-16. It's not a strength-and-conditioning issue, you've got to look at everything. You've got to look at structure on defense, you've got to look at structure on offense. You've got to look at your special teams. You've got to look at conditioning. You've got to look at everything. You know, fourth quarter — we've scored 46 points in the fourth quarter this year (compared to 74 by the opponents). At this time last year, we've scored 106. So we're down 60 points in the fourth quarter.”

Teams don’t just fall 60 points short and remain competitive. That’s the difference between 10-1 and 4-7.

It isn’t execution. It isn’t the plays being called.

It’s confidence. It’s knowing that, no matter what’s called, it’s going to work. The Irish have convinced themselves that, come the fourth quarter, something bad is bound to happen.

“A lot of times, people lose self-identity,” said senior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell. “For instance, we’re 4-7. People might look at themselves and say, ‘We’re just a losing team. We’re not. We’re Notre Dame. We’re a winning team and we’re facing adversity.

“If the (players) next year can see themselves as a national championship team and work like they’re a national championship team, they will be a national championship team. That’s a major key.”

That’s a big step between 4-7 and being a national championship team. But the belief part is a good place to start.

(Everything) has to be evaluated across the board,” said Kelly. “I don't think there's any stone that you leave unturned when those numbers … when you go to the fourth quarter and not have the success in the fourth quarter. Also, there's (the) experience (factor) — and not being experienced and not handling the mental end of things, and so there are a number of different factors that are involved in there.”

No rut

“It’s tough to say (what the fourth-quarter problems have been),” said Rochell. “You have to look at everything and see what it can be. I don’t have a perfect answer. I don’t have a solution. Who knows?

“I make an effort not to get caught in the rut (of, ‘Oh no, here it goes again’). We don’t see ourselves as, ‘Whatever… It’s the fourth quarter, we’re going to lose that game.’ We’re going to keep fighting ’til the end. Whatever happens happens.

“We’ll be able to hang our helmet up and know we fought.”

Take the three-point loss to Virginia Tech last week, for example. Quarterback DeShone Kizer was gangbusters in the first half, completing 13 of 18 passes. In the second half, he was a miserable 3 of 15.

Trying to fix that problem against Southern Cal could turn out to be a dangerous proposition.

Of course, it’s not like the Notre Dame ground game has been there to make things easier. Against the Hokies, Notre Dame ran just six times in the fourth quarter for 15 net yards.

Does that problem boil down to the plays that were called, or the execution of those plays?

“It’s just maintaining a high level of play at all times,” said left tackle Mike McGlinchey. “That's what we struggle with a lot. Obviously, there’s no sugar-coating it. We’ve come out hot in a lot of games and cooled off very quickly.

“It’s about maintaining that high level of play — which we’re clearly capable of — throughout four quarters. There’s no real solution of getting to that point except chipping away at it; understanding your job a little better; having confidence in your preparation and letting it carry over to the field.”

Ground woes

Notre Dame’s ground assault is averaging fewer than three yards a carry in those one possession games. Whether it’s an ineffective offensive line or a penchant to lean on the pass too heavily, the answers don’t come easily.

“I have to look at all of those things to give you the kind of answer that you're looking for,” Kelly said. “To say that defenses don't begin to pressure you more in the fourth quarter, I think we're all of agreement that that begins to happen. But that doesn't mean you still can't control the clock. I mean, we've run out the clock a couple of times. But again, I think those are all areas that we'll have to do some deep diving on and finding out what those answers are.”

Those concerns lead to the inevitable pivotal point when the game’s on the line and confidence is nowhere to be found.

“We’re not intentionally trying to let down and let the other team back in the game,” McGlinchey said, quite simple in his assessment. “It’s about a mentality, and about a certain level of preparation and execution that you keep your foot on the gas pedal. We haven’t done a good enough job on that this season. Hopefully, we can build on it this week and take it into the offseason as well.”

The offseason is going to be a critical time for the Irish. The challenge will be to circle the wagons and work to discover the confidence it takes to survive the fourth quarter.

Too many failures can take a toll on a team as fragile as Notre Dame was this season. Youth became more of a problem — or an excuse — than it was ever intended to be. Transforming the experience from a boatload of first-time players into a measure of confidence will give next year’s Irish a step ahead of where this team began.

Still, the math has to get better. The fourth quarter has to start making sense.

This team ended up off the charts.

Notre Dame’s Isaac Rochell (90) walks off the field following the 10-3 loss to NC State in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN