SOUTH BEND – LaVell Edwards spent 29 years as head coach at BYU, compiling a 257-101-3 record during a Hall of Fame career.
But Edwards, who retired after the 2000 season with 10 10-win seasons, still doesn’t know a formula for teams to close out games with efficiency and consistency.
“It’s always a tough issue,” Edwards said. “We just tried to instill upon them in practice that this is when you have to have that mental toughness that is so important to be able to close out a game.
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Somebody may think they have the magic solution to it, but I don’t know of any foolproof solution.”
Edwards said it was particularly hard on his teams, because they relied so much on the pass. Sound familiar? Notre Dame, which has strived for offensive balance under Charlie Weis, has turned into more of a pass-oriented team in Weis’ fourth season.
Four times this season, Notre Dame has carried a two-possession lead into the second half. The Irish closed the games out against Washington and Michigan, teams with less talent than they have. Against Stanford, Notre Dame allowed the Cardinal back into the game before holding on for a 28-21 win.
Against Pittsburgh last week and against North Carolina, Notre Dame had big halftime leads but allowed the opponent to come back and win.
“They are good teams exactly like us that aren’t going to quit in the end, and that’s football,” senior defensive end Pat Kuntz said. “You have to be able to close people out, but a team’s will, you can’t take that away from them.”
Irish players, including junior right tackle Sam Young, said the Irish have been complacent in past games.
Eliminating complacency has been a major focus in practice.
In trying to figure out why Notre Dame can’t win close games, Weis said the solution is to simply win them.
“Once you start winning close games, every time you go out there, you’re expecting something good to happen at the end of the game instead of something bad to happen at the end of the game,” Weis said. “I do not believe our guys are expecting something bad to happen, because these guys are fighting till the end of the game now.”
Second-half turnovers and penalties have hurt Notre Dame in close games.
Against North Carolina, Notre Dame turned the ball over five times in the second half, once on downs.
With a 17-3 halftime lead over Pittsburgh, the Irish allowed Pitt to score on the first possession of the second half and then went three-and-out on all three third-quarter drives. In overtime, Notre Dame failed to score a touchdown in four possessions.
Putting teams away, though, is likely as much mental as anything.
“They (teams) have to have confidence in what they are doing,” said Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer, who has seven 10-win seasons with the Hokies since 1987. “You have discipline and you don’t have penalties late and take care of the football and have a good kicking game.”
So does Notre Dame know what it is doing? The most telling answer may have come from fifth-year senior cornerback Terrail Lambert.
“No comment,” he said. “I’m not sure what to say, so I’m just going to shut up.”