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Missed opportunities doom Irish

| Sunday, November 16, 2014

Irish senior running back Cam McDaniel fumbles in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s 43-40  overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Michael Yu| Observer
Irish senior running back Cam McDaniel fumbles in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s 43-40
overtime victory over Notre Dame on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
For the most part, Saturday was a statistically even matchup between Notre Dame and Northwestern.

Only 49 yards separated the two teams’ total offensive output, with the Wildcats (4-6) taking the slight edge at 547 over 498 for the Irish (7-3).

Each team picked up 28 first downs.

Northwestern ruled time of possession, but by only three-and-a-half minutes.

And of course, both teams ended regulation with the same number of points, 40, to force overtime.

What separated them, though, was that Northwestern capitalized on late scoring opportunities and Notre Dame did not.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly said there were so many miscues on either side that “it’s hard to put them all in perspective,” but he did point to one crucial play that turned the tide late Saturday: senior running back Cam McDaniel’s fumble with 2:42 left in the game.

That turnover at the Northwestern 31-yard line set up the Wildcats’ game-tying field goal, which forced overtime.

“I think the thing that stands out is, we have the game pretty much in our hands, and we turn the ball over,” Kelly said.

In overtime, Irish senior kicker Kyle Brindza missed a field-goal attempt wide left, and Northwestern responded on its next possession with a made field goal for the upset victory.

Brindza’s miss was his second of the game after his first came near the close of the first half.

Though the new battery of junior long snapper Scott Daly and sophomore holder Malik Zaire might have got Brindza “thinking a little too much” on the first kick, Kelly said, that did not explain the second one.

“No, I think it was behind him at that point,” Kelly said. “I think he just missed it.”

The Irish struggled in the red zone, collecting touchdowns on just two of their four trips inside the Northwestern 20-yard line. The Wildcats, on the other hand, came away with points on five of their six trips.

On one of Notre Dame’s drives in the third quarter, the Irish offense could not take advantage of a Northwestern fumble, and senior quarterback Everett Golson turned the ball back over two plays later at the Wildcats’ seven-yard line.

In the fourth quarter, junior receiver Chris Brown lost possession at the Northwestern one-yard line, and Wildcats senior linebacker Jimmy Hall recovered it in the end zone for a touchback.

“We’ve had too many opportunities to score points that, you know, fumbled it on the goal line, fumble it on the seven-yard line, turn it over when you’re trying to close out the game,” Kelly said. “Those are critical errors.”

However, perhaps the day’s two most glaring errors came after touchdowns instead of on plays that should have led to touchdowns.

Brindza’s extra-point attempt after Irish graduate student safety Austin Collinsworth’s fumble recovery for a touchdown was blocked in the first quarter. Wildcats junior cornerback Nick VanHoose ran it back to the other end zone to bring the score to 13-9 in favor of Notre Dame when it easily could have been 14-7.

On a highly criticized call later in the game, Kelly decided to go for two points after a fourth-quarter touchdown reception by junior receiver Will Fuller, but Golson could not find anyone open and failed to convert the attempt.

That decision — which Kelly called a “coin toss” in going for one point or two — and resulting miscue made it possible for Northwestern to claw back from a 40-29 deficit and tie the game with a touchdown, successful two-point conversion and field goal, all within the game’s last five minutes.

“Our chart tells us in that situation to go for one, but we were up, I think, 11 at the time, and we felt like given the circumstances, our kicking game situation, that we were going to try to extend it with a two-point play,” Kelly said.

With nine turnovers and a six-for-10 success in the red zone the last two games, both losses, Kelly said the Irish have hurt themselves more than they’ve helped themselves.

“Again, it’s the critical errors through the game,” he said. “I mean, we just don’t play clean enough … as a football team, and those are the things that prevent us from winning.

“You can’t start winning until you stop losing.”

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Current Assistant Managing Editor, former Sports Editor of The Observer | Follow Mary on Twitter: @maryegreen15

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