Analysis: Getting beyond the chain reaction as Notre Dame plunges ahead

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It was 18 seconds of raw, unfiltered defiance, the kind that ends up on T-shirts and coffee mugs, in movie scripts and manuscripts.

As a forever calling card when people look back and tell tales about what a college football program re-turning the corner looked like.

F-bombs and all.

“They can have the (turnover) chain,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko railed in conclusion Saturday, with his Irish players and an eavesdropping TV camera hanging on every syllable. “We’re getting the (bleeping) ring.”

Miami’s 41-8 subsequent thrashing of then-No. 3 Notre Dame, on the very same playing surface where Elko delivered his diatribe and on the biggest stage the Irish had stepped onto in five seasons, reduced the sharp words to little more than pregame viral bluster.

And reduced the man who brought Elko to Notre Dame 11 months ago, eighth-year head coach Brian Kelly, to having to pick up the pieces on Sunday.

That after Miami’s “turnover chain” got more air time on the national ABC broadcast than Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s girlfriend did that last time Notre Dame played in and got vanquished from Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla.

“If I saw the turnover chain passed around the bench like Gatorade, that was probably going to be my biggest concern,” Kelly said Sunday during his weekly tele-wrap-up. “Unfortunately that came to fruition.”

A team that ranked fifth nationally in turnovers lost before Saturday night, the Irish coughed up four to cause the sideline chain reaction. Miami (9-0), up to No. 2 Sunday from No. 7 in the AP poll, converted those turnovers into 24 points, against an Irish team that held a 108-10 edge on its opponents in points off turnovers coming into the game.

In fact, in almost every statistical and aesthetical way, the Hurricanes turned the Irish inside out. Outrushing, outhustling, out-quicking ND’s physicality, out-scheming when it came to X’s and O’s.

“We just have had one mission, and that is to play to a standard. And we didn't live up to that standard (Saturday) night,” Kelly understated, “a standard of excellence that we've had since day one.”

Game No. 101 of the Kelly Era unfolds Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, as Navy (6-3) and its triple-option/cut-blocking conundrum provide the Irish their first shot at some kind of redemption.

Kelly actually used arch-rival USC and its post-ND obliteration (wins over Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado) as a source of inspiration for his reeling players late Saturday night.

“It's really how you respond in college athletics,” he said. “We've got good kids. They really want to win, and I expect them to really come back with a higher standard of play.”

Shattered playoff aspirations aside, here are the key elements for Kelly and Notre Dame moving forward:

• Postseason picture: If the College Football Playoff selection committee’s Tuesday night rankings mimic the AP and coaches poll, the No. 9 standing by the Irish is more than enough to advance ND to a New Year’s Six Bowl appearance, assuming wins over Navy on Saturday and at No. 20 Stanford (7-3) on Nov. 25.

That most likely means a spot in the Cotton Bowl, Dec. 29 at Arlington Texas, likely against an elite Big 10 or Big 12 team. A little less likely would be a berth in the Orange Bowl, Dec. 30 and back at Hard Rock Stadium, against the Miami-Clemson loser in the ACC title game.

The committee does try to avoid regular-season rematches.

A 9-3 Irish team can set the GPS for Orlando, either for the Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1 vs. an SEC team) or the Camping World Bowl (Dec. 28 vs. a Big 12 team). An 8-4 ND team still isn’t likely to slide in the bowl hierarchy below the Camping World Bowl echelon.

• The quarterback picture: Kelly said junior Brandon Wimbush’s name did not show up on his medical report Sunday morning, meaning the left-hand contusion that prompted him to play with a glorified oven mitt on his non-throwing hand Saturday night didn’t worsen.

But what about his psyche after being pulled for backup Ian Book, then reinstated after Book went 3-of-6 for 33 yards and a pick-6?

“First big-game atmosphere, being able to get into his optimal zone,” Kelly said Sunday of Wimbush, 10-of-21 for 119 yards and a TD with three turnovers. “He obviously didn't perform at the level that he wants to perform at, and that he — quite frankly — needs to perform at.

“You take this as an opportunity to learn, and more importantly, how your preparation prepares you for these big games. You never like to learn lessons in losses, but I think he gained a lot of understanding of what he needs to do to lead this football team.”

But the coaching staff also needs to learn, too — specifically how to evolve Wimbush as a passer.

Even with being a first-year starter and having a new offensive system, new offensive play-caller, new QBs coach thrown at him this offseason, Wimbush is too talented, too intelligent, too invested to stand as the nation’s No. 87 QB in passing efficiency (118.8 rating) this late in the season.

Granted Wimbush has faced an inordinate volume of top 35 pass defenses in his nine collegiate starts (six of them, compared to one such team by Miami’s Malik Rosier, for example). But a 2-of-10 performance for 30 yards in the first half with two picks shouldn’t be in the realm of possibilities.

“You're going to be forced to throw the football against really good teams,” Kelly said. “When you're forced, you have to be accurate and you have to have a higher completion percentage. That's something that he's going to have to continue to work at.”

• Offensive identity picture: Miami head coach Mark Richt very casually mentioned in Saturday night’s postgame that he can flip the switch on his headset and eavesdrop on Hurricane defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, which he did at one point on Saturday night.

And the conversation was about how Diaz and his staff supposedly knew what was coming on some specific plays from the Irish offense, including a pass that cornerback Trajan Bandy picked off.

In its eight wins this season, Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t necessarily been built on a surprise element, but in its two losses it seemed to be lacking in both in-game adaptability and the variety to slow down super-fast front sevens when it needed to add those dimensions.

Wimbush seemed to be totally underutilized as a runner early on, Dexter Williams added too late in the game as an option at running back, and misdirection a sorely underutilized concept throughout.

All of which made ND’s normal modus operandi — bashing and bullying with its offensive line — fairly muted.

In the previous three “modern era” ND-Miami games (since 2010), the Irish won the rushing battle 196-87 (2010) 376-84 (2012) and148-18 (2016). Saturday night, the Hurricanes flipped the script (237-109) on a team that came in far stronger in both rushing offense and rushing defense this season.

“I think the physicality is always going to be what we are going to strive from an offensive perspective,” Kelly said, “but there's got to be balance.

“And let's be honest, regardless of what offense you run — whether you're spreading it with five wides or running the Wing-T, turnovers still matter. You've got to protect the football, and we did not do a very good job of protecting the football.

“That can't get lost in this whole narrative of what kind of offense you're going to run. First and foremost, you've got to protect the football, and we didn't do a very good job of that.”

But better play-calling can put an offense in a position in which turnovers are less likely to manifest.

• The future picture: The next regular-season meeting between Notre Dame and Miami won’t be until 2024 in South Bend, with the next return trip to south Florida to renew the rivalry not until 2025.

By then Elko will probably be a head coach somewhere, with a new pet peeve and a new mantra.

And the Kelly Era, which runs contractually through the 2021 season at least, will be up for debate in terms of what its legacy is.

Perhaps lost in the sheer regression of Saturday night’s loss is how some pretty impressive assets are aligning for the 2018 season. But to take full advantage of those, Kelly needs to learn how to handle the biggest stages better.

“We'll have to take a good, close look at that and making sure we prepare our guys,” Kelly conceded. “I've got to do a better job of making sure that they're in the moment.”

And when that moment comes, back up the big words and big dreams with bigger actions.

Miami’s Jaquan Johnson (4) pushes Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) as he stares at Malek Young (12), who hit Wimbush just past the goal line during a two-point conversion in Miami's 41-8 romp, Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)