Shortly before the start of the 2016 season I wrote an article stating Notre Dame had an opportunity to do something this fall that it had not done in 23 years: post back-to-back 10-win seasons. Instead, Brian Kelly’s team doubled-down and managed to do something that has not been done in South Bend in 56 years: fail to win two games in a row for an entire season. There really isn’t a better way to juxtapose the high expectations of this football team heading into September to the reality of how low Notre Dame has truly sunk this season.
Yes, the officiating was atrocious and yes, all of Notre Dame’s seven losses have been determined by eight points or less, but make no mistake about it: this is a football team that is failing to improve. Similar to many games this season Notre Dame jumped out to a significant lead over Virginia Tech and began to bully the Hokies all over the field. At the end of the first quarter Notre Dame held a 10-0 advantage and had outgained Virginia Tech 168 yards to 4 yards, and by the middle of the second quarter held a commanding 24-7 lead. True to this season’s form, however, the moment Notre Dame encountered a hint of resistance the team folded and embraced the free fall.
Virginia Tech responded to the 24-7 deficit with a 10-play, 75 yard touchdown drive to draw the Hokes within 10 points heading into halftime. Justin Fuente’s squad then took the ball with the first drive of the second half, and Irish fans could only watch helplessly as quarterback Jerrod Evans hit C.J. Carroll for a 62 yard pass, setting up a 5-play, 75 yard touchdown drive. With the score sitting at 24-21 early in the third quarter, honest Notre Dame fans knew how it would end, and true to form Notre Dame was outscored 27-7 after holding a 17-point lead.
And the colossal collapse was due to the same mistakes that have plagued this team throughout the season: a lack of focus and poor coaching. Team captain and starting left tackle Mike McGlinchey continues to cost Notre Dame with ill-timed false start penalties, including one that derailed a Notre Dame attempt to answer Virginia Tech after the Hokies drew within 3 points. But nowhere was the issue of coaching more prevalent than in Notre Dame’s final offensive drive. On a critical 3rd and five, quarterback DeShone Kizer checked down to an open Josh Adams, who promptly dropped the ball. And on the final play of the game, forced to relieve Kizer after suffering an injury, quarterback Malik Zaire held the ball far too long while bouncing around the pocket, draining the final seconds on the clock and effectively ending the game. It was an extreme lack of situational awareness that even Brian Kelly himself labeled a coaching error.
“Obviously, didn’t coach it well enough,” Kelly curtly said to the media regarding the final play.
Kelly now faces the difficult task of trying to build the team back up after another devastating implosion in time for a cross-country showdown against archrival USC. For Notre Dame, the game could not come at a much worse time. The Trojans have been on fire after racking up seven straight wins, with six of those wins involving a double-digit margin of victory. The most impressive of those wins was convincingly defeating No. 6 Washington on the road, the lone blemish on the Huskies’ season. With Notre Dame sitting on the opposite end of the college football spectrum, this year’s edition of the rivalry appears headed for a possible repeat of the 2014 contest where a downtrodden Notre Dame team was massacred in the Coliseum 49-14.
Whatever may come of next Saturday’s game against the USC Trojans on Thanksgiving weekend, at least Notre Dame fans can be thankful the train wreck that is the 2016 football season will finally be over.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for The Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.