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Joseph: After all the hype, the Irish weren’t even close (Oct. 25)

Allan Joseph | Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Despite months of hype, weeks of preparation, days of anticipation and hours of tailgating, in the end Saturday came down to 60 minutes on the field.

And it wasn’t even close.

Notre Dame had all of the advantages in this game. It was playing in a Notre Dame Stadium that was the loudest it’s been in decades, if Lane Kiffin’s memories of 2005 are to be believed. It had a team that had reeled off four straight wins, including a 59-33 thumping of Air Force. It had two weeks to rest and prepare. It was facing an inconsistent Trojan squad hamstrung by sanctions. It had, for once, what seemed like dominant line play. But then the game started.

And it wasn’t even close.

It’s perplexing, really. This was an Irish squad that seemed like it had come so far. Its first two games were, in fact, close. After shooting itself in the foot twice to open the season, Notre Dame came out and blew away a very good Michigan State squad — a Spartan team that looks better and better every single week. At the halfway point of the season, the offensive and defensive lines had been the surprises of the season. The Irish were running the ball effectively and harassing opposing quarterbacks. BCS bowls were real possibilities. A 10-win season wasn’t out of the question at all. It seemed like Notre Dame was on the verge of something great.

And it wasn’t even close.

To be honest, the Irish were lucky to lose by only 14 points. The postgame stat sheet is positively gruesome. When a team amasses only 41 rushing yards, 25 of which came on one play, it’s really impossible to expect to win. The Irish only had the ball for 20 minutes total. It’s extremely difficult to fight back from a 14-point first quarter deficit when you only have 15 minutes of possession the rest of the game to do it with.

Turning the ball over three times while not taking it away even once … well, the Irish have been down that road. Only painful memories of the season opener and the Big House remain there. Still, after being outplayed and yes, outcoached in the first half, the Irish somehow, some way, kept it close.

But when a team is in a game it shouldn’t be, it has to take advantage of opportunities. Notre Dame was on the wrong side of that experience twice this season already. The Irish outplayed South Florida and outplayed Michigan. Those teams, however, made timely plays and pulled out victories.

The Irish instead turned the ball over on the goal line, committed silly penalties, left the USC’s dynamic Robert Woods all alone and turned the ball over some more. Even worse, the normally solid defensive line got manhandled on nearly every play. Save for George Atkinson’s return, every single facet of the game was miserably bad all game long — and worst when the Irish could have most used high-quality play.

Maybe this was an anomaly. After all, Notre Dame had an entire half-season with two running backs rushing the ball extremely well. It had six games where the receiving corps made plays once it caught the ball. For a month and a half, the young players on the defensive line found a way to disrupt opposing offenses. Sure, this team struggled at times, but it looked like it was coming together in time for the biggest game of the Brian Kelly era.

That’s what’s most troubling about Saturday’s result. After what looked like an encouraging winning streak, with every possible advantage on the Irish sideline and with everything to gain on the season’s biggest stage, how come it wasn’t even close?

Contact Allan Joseph at ajoseph2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.