Noie: On night when No. 8 Notre Dame had to have it against Michigan, it didn’t

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At 11:36 p.m., on a wet and windy Saturday night, tucked inside conference room “BO40” at Michigan Stadium, two Notre Dame captains ascended four steps of a dais and the post-game news conference.

Funny that only safety Alohi Gilman and right tackle Robert Hainsey were present for the briefest (three minutes) of interview windows. It was hard to notice if anybody in a Notre Dame uniform had bothered to show up the previous three-plus hours of a 45-14 loss to No. 19 Michigan.

This one wasn’t even that close for what was the nation’s No. 8 team.

“We didn’t play to our standard,” Hainsey said. “We didn’t play to our identity.”

What is that standard? What is that identity? For this team. For this coaching staff. For this program. That bridge of standards and identities and reasoning away losses such as these was supposed to finally have been crossed after last year’s College Football Playoff loss to Clemson. Or again last month against Georgia.

But there we were again Saturday. Why? Brian Kelly couldn't say for sure. Too soon. Gotta digest this one to really understands the hows and whys.

But...

“We,” Kelly said, “own what we showed.”

Own all of it. There’s no other choice after Notre Dame (5-2) fooled everyone again. Fooled the fans. Fooled the media. Fooled college football. Maybe even fooled itself about how it was so ready for this one. Ready for all of it. The physicality. The crowd noise. The expectation. The bigger the game, the better the Irish planned to be. On the road? Bring it.

Fall break last week allowed Notre Dame plenty of time — extra time — to fine-tune its game and its identity and almost anything else it needed to face everything it had to face Saturday. The Irish then left it all somewhere else. Maybe back on the buses that idled outside the stadium tunnel afterward. Maybe back in South Bend. Maybe it’s all packed away at a place that can only be visited every couple of years — not often enough for Irish fans — in today’s college football world.

Yeah, Notre Dame sailed through an undefeated regular season and made it to college football’s Promised Land in 2018. That was good. But this is Notre Dame, once the game's gold standard. It’s not OK to just do it once. Go again and again. Take every team’s best shot, but hand out more. Do it better. Win more.

That’s what made Saturday so stunning. It wasn’t just the loss. It was the drastic step back, a giant one for a program that’s taken so many positive ones since 4-8 of 2016. This wasn’t like that loss to Miami (Fla.) of 2017. This may be worse because of who we were led to believe the Irish had become. These guys had grit and guile. They were mature. They weren't going to fall into that trap.

Then the trap door opened on them again.

"We just didn't do what we're supposed to do," Gilman said. "We're going to learn from this."

The time for lessons to be learned was supposed to end last month. Losing last month at Georgia was supposed to fine-tune this team’s focus. Watch out, defensive end Khalid Kareem warned after midnight that night, anyone who played Notre Dame the rest of the way would be in trouble. Down went Virginia and Bowling Green and USC. Boom, boom, boom. Watch out, Michigan. Notre Dame was coming.

Now with five regular-season games to go, Notre Dame’s just another college football team. Sigh. Again.

Instead, Notre Dame was the one in some serious stuff Saturday, and almost from the start. Not long after backup linebacker Bo Bauer blocked a punt and fellow backup linebacker Jonathan Jones decided to try and fall on a wet and slick and sliding football. He couldn’t. The Wolverines could.

It was almost right there that Kelly feared this night, with all the rain and the wind, would get wacky. It did. Once his team’s expected fast start became more fizzle than sizzle, Kelly sensed that the Irish were in trouble.

“We’re a team that makes plays,” Kelly said. “We weren’t making any plays. It felt like it was going to be a struggle. It just felt we weren’t up to the task tonight.”

His guys just weren’t there. His coaching just wasn’t there. The rain and the Wolverines and the crowd and the buzz? All there. The Irish? MIA.

The answers as to why now and what happens next didn’t come easily. Maybe Kelly and his captains would find some as the buses cut through the Michigan midnight. Maybe they’d surface Sunday or Monday back on campus.

This one doesn’t fall just on Kelly’s shoulders. It falls on quarterback Ian Book’s. It falls on the offensive line and the lack of a run game. It falls on the defense. It falls on his coordinators. It’s on everybody’s. Even athletic director Jack Swarbrick, in the corner of the post-game interview area, looked as if the weight of this loss had forced slumped shoulders.

“Why weren’t they playing at the level of the last two and a half years?” Kelly wondered. “That might be more on me. This is an all-in situation with players and coaches anytime you have a game like this. That’s not the team that I’ve seen play the last few years.”

The most troubling aspect of Saturday’s lack of effort, lack of execution, lack of everything, is that it happened yet again. On a big stage. In a big game, a game that the Irish certainly felt they could and should win, and then offered up THAT effort.

Yet again, not again.

Kelly tried to coax the media away from the big leap ledge afterward, saying it wasn’t about “fixing” some of the stuff — really a lot of the stuff — he saw on Saturday. To say it’s about fixing, Kelly said, would lead some to believe that “there’s a lot of things broken.”

“I would be very cautious in making those kinds of assumptions,” Kelly said. “It might be as simple as, our preparation wasn’t what it needed to be over these last two weeks.”

Ouch.

A season of certainties before this one now becomes one of a whole lot of unknowns after this one went wacky in a hurry for Notre Dame. What cuts deepest with this one? It's not that the Irish ran out of answers Saturday; it's that they never had them.

Notre Dame’s Ian Book (12) walks off the field during the Notre Dame-Michigan NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan.