Sluggish start dooms Notre Dame
Molly Sammon | Tuesday, October 25, 2011
After two weeks of hype, the Irish took the field for the opening kickoff Saturday night with the lights shining and the Dropkick Murphys blaring. But from the moment the ball was kicked, USC took the upper hand.
With the Trojans’ outgaining the Irish 128 yards to 14 yards in the first 15 minutes of play, Notre Dame fell behind USC and never recovered during Saturday’s 31-17 loss at Notre Dame Stadium.
“We started poorly,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I just told our team that, you know, very disappointed in the way we played the first half. Sloppy football. Didn’t tackle well. Timing was off. Just unacceptable for the amount of time we had off to play that way in the first half.”
In the subsequent quarters, the Irish were able to string together a few scoring plays and worked their way up to almost evening the score before a turnover at the one-yard-line sent the Trojans ahead. Though the remaining quarters fared better for Notre Dame, USC’s 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter made any chance of an Irish win unlikely, and their lack of momentum showed.
“I thought, again, you can precisely know the times when we got in good rhythm. We were running the ball in the third quarter and were very effective in mixing things up,” Kelly said. “Early on, we didn’t get in that kind of rhythm because we got down 14-0.”
In the previous six opening quarters of the 2011 season, the Irish (4-3) averaged 6.9 yards per play, while the opposing teams averaged 4.8 yards. Against the Trojans, Notre Dame maintained an uncharacteristic 1.8 yards per play in the first quarter, while USC averaged 6.7 for two touchdowns by the end of the first period.
“This is the first time that I’ve leaned on my guys pretty hard in the locker room,” Kelly said. “I was not happy because we are better than that. We are better than that. And, to turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, it just, just, makes me crazy. I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.”
The loss ended Notre Dame’s four-game win streak and revealed a team largely reminiscent of the first two games of the season, which were the team’s only previous losses.
“We went away from what we did the previous four games, paying attention to detail and playing with poise,” senior running back Jonas Gray said. “Along the way we made a lot of mistakes on both sides of the ball, and we just didn’t make enough plays to win.”
Fresh off of its bye week, Notre Dame’s on-field rust during the first quarter came at an inopportune time for Kelly, who said that the flaws could not have been from the two-week break.
“I’m certainly not going to go back and second guess the way I’ve prepared over 21 years in a bye week,” Kelly said. “Sometimes there’s some accountability from everybody, coaches and players alike and sometimes it falls on us a group, all of us. But they just they didn’t play as well as they needed to play.”
Individual responsibility, rather than any bye-week preparations or coaching leadership, were at the root of the problem for Notre Dame’s early lack of energy, Gray said.
“The coaches did a great job in preparing us,” Gray said. “For whatever reason, we didn’t come out with that urgency.
“We regressed a bit, and we didn’t do the things that we did the previous four games. We’re just back to the drawing board.”
Though the environment may have added pressure on the Irish, the answer to Notre Dame’s weakness was simple, junior tight end Tyler Eifert said.
“It was just not executing,” Eifert said. “You can make all the excuses you want, that we had time off, that we were rusty or that they hyped this game up so much and took our focus off what was really important, but I don’t think any of that. We just didn’t execute and go out the way we had to.”