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Football: Turnovers, quarterback controversy mar lackluster season

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Irish had plenty of momentum heading into the 2011 season, but Notre Dame’s BCS aspirations were quickly thrown to the wayside after consecutive losses led off a disappointing 8-5 season.

After earning the starting position in fall practice, senior quarterback Dayne Crist was pulled at halftime of the season-opening 23-20 loss to South Florida with the Irish down 16-0. His replacement, sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees, mounted a comeback attempt and never relinquished the starting spot but was plagued throughout the season with the turnover bug that doomed Irish coach Brian Kelly’s second squad at Notre Dame.

“You can’t start winning until you stop losing, and the things that we did today out there obviously go to the heart of how you lose football games,” Kelly said after Notre Dame’s five-turnover performance. “You lose football games because you turn the ball over.”

Seven days later, Notre Dame turned the ball over five times again, and it lost again.

In the first-ever night game at Michigan Stadium, the Irish surrendered a 24-7 fourth-quarter lead to Michigan and lost in a wild 35-31 affair. The defeat marked the second consecutive fourth-quarter comeback win for Michigan over Notre Dame.

After two weeks, more than 1,000 total yards and 10 turnovers, Notre Dame was reeling at 0-2.

Kelly said it was frustrating to see his squad commit so many miscues after entering the 2011 campaign with such high expectations.

“I think when we came out of preseason camp, we felt like we had the chance to be a good team,” he said. “I can see those things in practice, I can see those things in the development of our players, but that chance to be a good team is everything that you just mentioned: It’s those turnovers, it’s the little detail things. And until we can clean up those detail things, we can’t be a good team.”

The next week, Notre Dame’s turnover issues were far from solved – the Irish committed three turnovers – but No. 15 Michigan State’s miscues proved to be more costly in the 31-13 Irish win on Sept. 17, their first of the season.

“[It was a] much needed victory for our kids today,” Kelly said. “We obviously felt like coming into this ball game we hadn’t lacked any confidence in our ability to win football games. We just had to find a way to win, and that was the theme this week. By any means, just find a way to win the football game … We needed big plays at times of the game. Obviously last week, you know, a lot of the talk was the secondary.”

Notre Dame benefited from big plays by its secondary – the maligned unit that was torched the previous week by Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson – in the victory, including an 82-yard interception return by senior cornerback Robert Blanton that sealed the Irish win.

Irish freshman kick returner George Atkinson sparked the team with an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown toward the end of the first quarter that put Notre Dame ahead 14-3. The touchdown marked the first such score by an Irish freshman since Raghib Ismail returned a kickoff for a touchdown as a rookie in 1988.

“It feels great,” Atkinson said after the win. “[Ismail] is a great returner. I’d like to see some film and see how he does things and pick up some pointers and stuff. I was on the sideline [after scoring] and I was like ‘What just happened.’ It was like a dream come true. I thought I was dreaming. It was a great feeling to get the points on the board and to know the special teams unit put some points on the board.”

Notre Dame catapulted its success against Michigan State into a four-game winning streak, with victories over the Spartans, a 15-12 win at Pittsburgh on Sept. 24, a 38-10 victory at Purdue on Oct. 1 and a 59-33 offensive outburst against Air Force on Oct. 8.

Notre Dame’s 59 points in the win over Air Force were the most points scored since Lou Holtz’s last home game as head coach Nov. 23, 1996, when the Irish defeated Rutgers 62-0.

Rees’ performance against the Falcons was arguably his best of the season, as he completed 23-of-32 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns.

“[Rees is] growing as he goes here,” Kelly said. “He’s 8-1 as a starter and he continues to grow and develop, and we are seeing that maturity. He got flushed out of the pocket a couple of times, threw the ball away, made some very good decisions in pressure situations when something wasn’t there. He’s just developing, maturing.”

Rees and the rest of the squad seemed to be on a positive trajectory with a 4-2 record entering its biggest test of the season at that point – a date with archrival USC. The Irish were hoping to turn the page in the rivalry by winning their second consecutive game in the series behind the backdrop of Notre Dame Stadium’s first night game since 1990.

The script was set, but it was the performance that was lacking in a 31-17 defeat to the Trojans.

“[It was] disappointing we could not play better football in what I considered a great environment, [the] stadium was electric, the fans were terrific,” Kelly said. “It’s the kind of environment we want to create here. We just have to play better football.”

The turnover problems that plagued Notre Dame in the first two losses returned at the wrong time for the Irish, as the team committed three turnovers and fell to 4-3 on the season as a result.

With two weeks to prepare, Kelly said the loss was especially frustrating. He entered the game 7-1 in games immediately following a bye week as an FBS coach. Notre Dame finished 4-0 in 2010 following its bye week.

“You know, I’m going to fall on historic nine out of 10 times,” he said. “I know what I’m doing on a bye week. I’ve had great success. I know what it looks like. And for us to come out and be less than what we should be, I’m not happy about it.”

With 3:22 remaining in the second quarter and the Trojans leading 17-0, Atkinson returned a 96-yard kickoff for a touchdown to propel the Irish into the game.

The stadium’s electricity was deflated in an instant in the third quarter when Crist was unable to handle a snap at the USC 1-yard line. The ball rolled back to the 20, where it was picked up by Trojans safety Jawanza Starling and returned for a touchdown. Crist had driven the Irish down the field after Rees left the game with a hyperextended knee.

The following Thursday, Kelly made some controversial comments regarding players he brought to Notre Dame and those recruited by his predecessor, Charlie Weis.

“You can see the players that I recruited here,” Kelly said. “You know who they are. We’ve had one class of recruiting, kids that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it’s a process. It can’t happen overnight. They’re getting there. They’re making good progress.”

Although a few players voiced their displeasure with Kelly’s comments over social media, come Saturday the team looked and sounded united in a 56-14 blowout win over Navy.

“Everybody said what they needed to say [at a team meeting], got it out in the air and figured it out,” Irish fifth-year captain and safety Harrison Smith said. “Obviously, we showed it’s not something that’s going to split us up. If anything, it’s going to bring us together.”

The Navy win began Notre Dame’s second four-game winning streak of the season, which included a 24-17 win at Wake Forest on Nov. 5, a 45-21 win over Maryland at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Nov. 12 and a sloppy 16-14 senior day victory over Boston College on Nov. 19.

Senior day quickly became bittersweet for the Irish despite the win, as senior running back Jonas Gray suffered a torn ACL and was lost for the remainder of the season. Gray rushed for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns in a breakout senior campaign at an astounding rate of 6.9 yards per carry.

The Irish showed just how much separation there was between them and college football’s elite when they lost 28-14 at Stanford in the season finale Nov. 26. The loss dropped Notre Dame to 8-4 on the season and sent them to Orlando, Fla., for the Champs Sports Bowl instead of a prized BCS bid.

“[I’m] disappointed that we didn’t come here and get a victory,” Kelly said after the loss to top quarterback prospect Andrew Luck and the Cardinal. “We didn’t come here to get second prize. We came here to get a win. Nobody in that locker room is happy with the outcome. We got off to a slow start and battled against it, kept playing, kept competing. To me, the scoreboard showed 28-14 and that’s not good enough, but I love the heart of our team.”

After another turnover-riddled second-half collapse in an 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl, Notre Dame finished 8-5 for the second consecutive season, leading to questions regarding the direction of the program and, specifically, the quarterback position.

“[The turnover issues] started in South Florida,” Kelly said. “And it continued to shoot itself throughout the entire year. We know what we need to do. We’ve already talked about it, and the players that are going to be back for the 2012 football season will be committed to getting that end done.”

Two of those returning players include linebacker Manti Te’o and tight end Tyler Eifert, who both passed up the NFL Draft to return to Notre Dame to face a daunting 2012 schedule in Kelly’s third season with the Irish.

Contact Andrew Owens at [email protected]