Young Notre Dame lets victory slip out of their hands again
SOUTH BEND – The look he gave was a bit oxymoronic.
When he watched Kyle Brindza trot off the field with 51 seconds to go, Brian Kelly looked at the kicker in a bit of disbelief. The Notre Dame senior had just shanked a 32-yard attempt with little wind that would have tied Louisville and sent what was a competitive game with the 24th-ranked Cardinals to overtime.
Yet history shows that the Irish coach could have seen this coming. Last week it was Brindza who missed a field goal in overtime that led to a loss to struggling Northwestern at home. Kelly watched it happen again almost exactly seven days later.
Two kicks, two defeats. A season of promise quickly goes into the category of the average.
“We’ve lost back-to-back games because we couldn’t put down a ball and kick it 32 yards,” said a calmly frustrated Kelly following Notre Dame’s 31-28 loss to Louisville-their third in a row. “We lost the game by four points at Florida State. So three of our four losses are easily games that we could win.”
Ah the fun of playing with a young team. Kelly’s getting a first-hand experience of the pitfalls of such an unintended scenario which in just a month has taken the Irish from College Football Playoff contenders to a team looking at a collection of random sponsored bowls.
Their final Saturday of the season in South Bend had all the looks of a performance by a team short on experience. The Irish fell behind by 11 points, took the lead, lost it again by double digits then rallied again before another kicking debacle.
"It hurts, especially for the seniors, my classmate," said quarterback Everett Golson who is technically a senior but will likely return to Notre Dame next year with eligibility still remaining. "They don't have another year and that's how they kind of leave. That's their lasting impression of Notre Dame Stadium."
Ultimately it will be that missed kick which seemed easy enough for Brindza to make with not a lot of wind swirling at the moment of the boot. Instead it pushed wide.
"In talking to Kyle, it did not appear to be handled cleanly," said Kelly when asked if the missed kick was not just a failure by the Brindza himself.
But really a lasting impression left by those watching the up-and-down game was the potential talent yet the occasional slip ups of a team shrouded with youth. Four major contributors on offense are sophomores while on defense there are six fulltime starter in their first or second year.
It showed in the early going when Louisville had the upper hand on offense when they scored touchdowns on each of their first possessions. Each of those were runs by freshman Reggie Bonnafon who had the Cardinals up 17-6 at halftime.
But the switch flipped at the beginning of the second half when a pair of defensive stops were followed by offensive scoring drives. Tarean Folston scored the first on a six-yard run and then Golson found Corey Robinson for go-ahead touchdown that made it 17-13 Irish.
Once again Louisville took control as they scored a pair of touchdowns to go up 31-20 in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame got within three when William Fuller made an incredible catch on a tipped Golson pass in the endzone for the score that was followed by a two-point conversion to get the Louisville lead to three.
A chance to tie was created but went unfinished with 51 seconds left-a kick that added another painful moment in a November to forget at Notre Dame.
"Your going to get hit in the face, there is no doubt about it," said senior offensive lineman and Chatard High School grad Nick Martin when asked what he says to the younger players about these difficult losses. "Every team faces adversity and there is no doubt that our teams is facing adversity right now.
"It's just how you respond and how you come together."
A positive spin on what's transpired the late in the season is that these experiences will make this team better when they become upperclassmen in the coming years. Martin is expected to return for a fifth year and so is Golson along with a number of others on offense and defense.
This season isn't over for the Irish who end the regular season with USC and then likely a bowl game. But as painful moments mount, hope for the future springs more that eternal.
"Our players our playing well. There's no one out there getting blasted and their causing us to lose," said defensive lineman Isaac Rochell-who is a sophomore. "I think it's a schematic thing. We're learning a new defense-obviously it's a new defense.
"When you have younger guys that have to be put into a role, it's not their fault, they just haven't been put in that role."
We'll that was the opposite for Kelly with 51 seconds to go-when he couldn't believe what he had seen before happen again.