When it rains it pours: Notre Dame falls to N.C. State, 10-3
Alex Carson | Monday, October 10, 2016
RALEIGH, N.C. — Coaches and analysts love to discuss the importance of special teams. But it’s rare that the units have more of a direct impact on a game than Notre Dame and North Carolina State’s did Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Amidst heavy rain and high winds that lasted the entire game, played on the edges of Hurricane Matthew, every point was scored by a special teams unit as N.C. State downed Notre Dame, 10-3.
Each side got on the board with a field goal — the Wolfpack (4-1, 1-0 ACC) on a 39-yard try from sophomore Kyle Bambard in the first quarter, the Irish (2-4) on a 40-yard kick from sophomore Justin Yoon in the third — but with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, it was the N.C. State punt unit that stepped up to win the game.
Early in the game’s final stanza, with the Irish facing fourth-and-14 from their own 25, Wolfpack redshirt junior Pharoah McKever blocked Irish sophomore Tyler Newsome’s punt; the loose ball was snatched up by Wolfpack redshirt sophomore Dexter Wright and returned 16 yards for the only touchdown of the game for either side. Bambard sent through the extra point, ultimately closing Saturday’s scoring.
The block came as Notre Dame unveiled a new punt scheme Saturday, switching to a two-man, rather than a three-man protection system in front of Newsome, enabling him to try rugby-style punts. For Irish head coach Brian Kelly, it was an opportunity to second guess his tactics.
“I feel terrible that we let them down,” Kelly said. “ … They were excited to play today, and you want to be there for them. You want to make the right call. You want to put them in the right position. You had two guys back there [on the punt block]. You second guess yourself. Maybe we should have been in a three-man wall there instead of rugby.”
The Irish offense struggled all day long. Junior quarterback DeShone Kizer finished just 9-for-26 on the day, throwing for only 54 yards and an interception, while at one point, the unit had run more plays than yards it had gained.
Yet, with 9:33 to play, Kizer and the Irish offense got the ball back, down 10-3, 80 yards away from a tie game.
The drive started well, as Kizer hit sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for his first completion of the half, before the Irish ground game got moving for the first time all day, gaining 44 yards on 10 rushes in an 11-play sequence — two of which were successful fourth-down completions to keep the drive alive.
But that final Irish drive fell short. The Irish would pick up one more first down, on a Kizer-to-St. Brown 11-yard gainer, but facing fourth-and-8 from the 16-yard line, junior center Sam Mustipher snapped the ball over Kizer’s head, creating a broken play that effectively finished Notre Dame’s chances of a comeback.
“[Mustipher] thought he heard something,” Kelly said. “We were trying to scan the play. We were trying to get a peek at what it was, and he heard something and the ball got snapped.”
Despite just putting up three points, it wasn’t as if the Irish offense didn’t have the opportunity to put points on the board: On three occasions, Notre Dame started on or inside the Wolfpack 25-yard line. It scored just the singular field goal.
In the first half, after an N.C. State fumble forced by Irish freshman linebacker Daelin Hayes and recovered by junior linebacker Nyles Morgan, Kizer and the offense took the field on the Wolfpack 22. The drive started well — Notre Dame moved to first-and-goal from the 6-yard line — but a false start penalty, a sack and an incompletion brought up fourth-and-goal from the 19.
There, Kizer was intercepted by Wolfpack redshirt freshman safety Jarius Morehead, looking for senior receiver Torii Hunter Jr. It left the Irish with nothing on a once-promising drive.
“When the ball left my hand it was supposed to hit before the safety,” Kizer said. “Lost the ball a little bit, and it hit after the safety. Safety made a play. Torii’s open, very small window. Once again, we’re not going to shy away from calling a play that we’re going to have open receivers on. He was an open receiver at that time. I just wasn’t able to get the ball in his hands.”
Notre Dame got its only points after a bizarre play when Wolfpack sophomore punter A.J. Cole III took a knee after catching the snap, giving the Irish great field position on the N.C. State 25-yard line. While the offense moved the ball just two yards, Yoon delivered when called on with his 40-yard effort.
After another forced fumble on the ensuing drive — this one caused by junior defensive lineman Daniel Cage and recovered by senior linebacker James Onwualu — the Irish stagnated after taking over on the N.C. State 22. But instead of letting Yoon attempt a 41-yard try, just one drive after he hit from 40, Kelly kept his offense on the field for fourth-and-12. Kizer’s pass attempt fell incomplete.
“The ball came out so low [on the make],” Kelly said of the decision to go for it. “I didn’t want a block in that situation, and [Yoon] was past what we felt like was his distance there. You start flirting with low kicks in that situation, and I thought we were just outside his range.”
Aided by the extreme weather conditions, the Irish defense forced six fumbles Saturday, recovering two, holding the Wolfpack offense to just three points.
At the end of the day, though, the biggest story from Saturday’s game, which endured a short delay at halftime, will likely be that extreme weather. Playing in a driving rain and high winds from Hurricane Matthew, players often slid across the field with standing water visible in multiple places. Despite the weather, Kelly wasn’t making excuses for his squad, which now sits in legitimate danger of missing out on bowl eligibility.
“Both teams turned the ball over in very difficult conditions,” Kelly said. “Both teams had a hard time moving the football. Both field goal kickers managed to eke one up over the uprights in sloppy conditions. And we give up a flipping blocked punt for a touchdown. That’s the difference in this one.”