Mazurek: Despite bad loss, Notre Dame’s season isn’t over
Marek Mazurek | Sunday, November 12, 2017
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Notre Dame’s playoff hopes died in Miami on Saturday night. There’s no doubt about that.
Well, maybe died isn’t the right word. Gutted, demolished, strangled or dismantled might be better verbs.
The No. 3 team in the country got on the plane to go down to Miami, but based on the product on the field, a group of high schoolers got off in its place.
Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush was benched for sophomore backup Ian Book in the middle of the second quarter, but the two signal-callers combined for three interceptions in the game’s first 30 minutes, and Miami (FL) went into the locker room at halftime with the win.
Well, technically just a 27-0 lead, but for all intents and purposes, the game was over.
But the point remains the same, whether the Irish lost by 33 points or by one: Without a conference championship game, there’s virtually no chance the Playoff Committee puts a two-loss Notre Dame team in the top four of its final rankings of the season.
The loss was embarrassing for the Irish. Statistically, it was their worst loss since 2014, when the Irish fell to USC by 35. But that was a defeated team falling apart from injuries.
Saturday’s loss felt more like the 2012 national championship game against Alabama, where the Irish lost 42-14. Coincidentally, that loss also took place in Hard Rock Stadium, albeit under the name of Sun Life Stadium.
Yet, for how badly the Irish lost, there are still two games left in the season. And if Notre Dame wins those two games, it could very easily find itself playing in a New Year’s Day bowl with a 10-2 record.
That may seem like a sore consolation prize after being in the thick of the playoff hunt for a month, but for a team that struggled to a 4-8 finish last year, 2017 has been hugely successful.
If you watched Notre Dame lose to USC in November of 2016 and thought that the Irish would be ranked No. 3 in November of 2017, you would have been kidding yourself.
Brian Kelly’s complete overhaul has produced twice the wins of last year’s team, with the possibility of a 10-win campaign — and a major bowl win — still alive.
That doesn’t excuse his coaching performance Saturday night, though. The Irish were out-coached in every aspect of the game, and Kelly couldn’t pull the right levers or push the right buttons to get Notre Dame back into the game.
But there are two more games left for Kelly to right the ship. He’s had success building a winning team, but now he faces a different challenge of keeping his team together after a crushing loss.
Kelly faced the same challenge in 2014 after a different, but equally devastating, loss to No. 2 Florida State. The Irish fell apart that year, losing four games in a row to end the regular season.
How Kelly handles this year’s challenging loss will set the foundation of Notre Dame’s rebuild. An 8-1 start that falls to an 8-4 finish doesn’t do much for the Irish, but a 10-2 finish and a New Year’s Day bowl win would signal the Irish are knocking on the door of being “back.”
And knocking on the door is a lot better than being locked in the basement.
After Saturday’s loss, you can say Kelly did a poor job preparing his team to play. You can say the Irish were out hustled and outplayed in almost every aspect of the game. You can say Kelly hasn’t picked up a big win in a true road game since 2012 and that Notre Dame won’t make a serious run at the playoffs until he can find a way to win those games.
All of those things are true. But it’s just as true that Notre Dame’s season isn’t over.
Senior captain Drue Tranquill said after the game that the team’s goal is to “restore the pride and tradition of Notre Dame football.”
Is that a lesser goal than making the College Football Playoffs? Yes.
But it’s not a goal that should be overlooked.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.