FORT WAYNE – So here, in two sentences, is what I think about your Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a pretty good football team trapped in an average football team’s body:
I think I wouldn’t want to be Navy this week, unless the Middies bring John Paul Jones with them.
On the other hand, who knows?
That’s where we are with the Fumblin’ Irish, who are putting up 30 points and 438.9 yards per game, and have a guy (Cierre Wood) headed for 1,000 rushing yards, and have another guy (Michael Floyd) could wind up averaging 100 receiving yards per game. They have a linebacker (Manti T’eo) and a safety (Harrison Smith) who blow up everything in sight. And they have a tight end (Tyler Eifert) the NFL can’t wait to get its mitts on.
Then again, mitts are the problem. Mitts and, regrettably, perhaps heart as well.
This in the wake of a 31-17 loss to USC in whose aftermath some of the Trojans suggested that the Irish might not have, um, played to the whistle. In fact, they came right out and said the Irish quit.
That could not have gone over well with Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose smooth public mask slipped a bit after another game the Irish (going back to the mitts thing) literally fumbled away. Was it his fault his team came out flat in prime time against its biggest rival, despite two weeks to prepare? No, it was not.
“I know what I’m doing on a bye week,” he said. “I’ve had great success. Sometimes there’s accountability from everybody, coaches and players alike, and sometimes it falls on, as a group, all of us. But they just – they didn’t play as well as they needed to play.”
In other words: I coached ’em up good. They just didn’t do what I told ’em to.
And, sure, there’s a kernel of truth there, even if it was classless of Kelly to so baldly point it out. This was the second game this season Notre Dame fumbled at the goal line and watched it go the other way for a score. It was yet another game when turnovers (three of them) and penalties (five) either fueled or sustained opposing scoring drives. Through seven games, the Irish, a veteran team that should know better, have 18 turnovers – and Saturday, it was those same veterans, not the kids from USC, who wilted under the Big Spotlight.
“I think from the players’ standpoint we didn’t stay true to who we are,” Smith said. “We may have bought into the hype somewhat. We can’t do that again.”
Until, of course, they do it again. That’s the rub here: Notre Dame is a better team than this, and not only do the Irish know it, anyone who’s watched them for five minutes knows it. They just don’t play like it, especially when the moment is big.
It’s why they’re 4-3 now with Navy coming in, instead of 7-0 and inside the velvet rope of the BCS’s Club SEC ‘N’ Them. It’s why you want to think they’re gonna hand Navy a lump sandwich this week – but, again, who knows?
“Championship football teams play with competitive grace, which means that when the stakes are high and the stage is great, they raise their game,” Kelly said late Saturday night. “Today some of our players didn’t raise their level of play.
“We are better than that. To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have (just) makes me crazy. I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does. So I told our guys, listen, every time we try to take a step forward, we seem to want to take one step back. I’m not going to tolerate it.”
Fine words. But, we’ll see.