Not even the hurricane experts provided ample warning to the miserable conditions that awaited the Notre Dame football team for its weekend trip to Raleigh, N.C., and a date last Saturday with North Carolina State.
Hurricane Matthew – which made landfall in South Carolina about 200 miles south of Raleigh -- brought 50 mph winds and almost four inches of rain to Carter-Finley Stadium during a game that in hindsight probably should’ve been postponed.
But it was played, and Notre Dame lost, 10-3, in an inexplicable performance that drove even the most ardent supporters of head coach Brian Kelly to the ledge after his Irish dropped to 2-4 on the season.
See, when Kelly fired his defensive coordinator a couple of weeks ago, he cited Brian VanGorder’s inflexibility and narrow-mindedness as the two primary reasons for the coaching change. Fast forward to Saturday in Raleigh, and Kelly demonstrated the same stubbornness that cost VanGorder his job.
Inclement weather was a coaching concern last week in South Bend during prep for the trip to Raleigh, and Kelly vowed he would devise an offensive game plan that could withstand anything Mother Nature sent his way.
“We are very good at moving the ball and throwing the football in most conditions, unless the wind becomes at a point where the ball just can’t be moved through the air,” Kelly said last week. “Then, we get into those [rushing] formations that we already have in our system and we’ll employ those.”
Kelly never followed through, relied disproportionately on his passing game, made no in-game adjustments as the wind howled, and ended up without a touchdown for the first time in his seven years at Notre Dame and for the first time in any Irish game since 2008.
There’s an old adage that insanity is best defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s an applicable summation for Saturday after the Irish coaches defied all logic and called 26 passing plays and 38 rushing plays. For comparison sake, North Carolina State threw only 14 passes for the game and ran the ball 51 times.
“No, I don’t think I would second-guess that,” Kelly said when pressed on his commitment to a passing game that had no chance of succeeding with Hurricane Matthew helping out in pass coverage.
DeShone Kizer became the fall guy for Kelly’s offensive strategy, suffering through his worst game as an Irish quarterback. Kizer completed only nine of his 26 passes for 54 yards. He threw an interception, averaged only 2.1 yards per pass attempt and was sacked five times. Try as he might, Kizer didn’t complete a pass in the second half until midway through the fourth quarter.
“I think it was pretty evident to me,” Kelly said, “that we were in need of throwing the football when we did throw it.” An awkward explanation from Kelly that could only be considered convoluted to anyone who watched the game or glanced at the post-game box score.
Notre Dame throwing the ball 26 times was confusing on its own. But that the Irish threw the ball 12 times on its 23 first-down plays is unforgivable. Kizer hit only four of his 12 first-down passes for the entire game for 33 yards. Four other Kizer first-down passes skidded incomplete along the wet turf and he was sacked on the other four first-down plays.
The result? The Irish spent the entire game in third-down-and-impossible situations and came away just 1-of-15 on third-down conversions.
“It was definitely difficult,” said Irish wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., who had two catches for 19 yards. “The wind in your face plus the rain in your face and all that, it’s just difficult to get something going in the passing game, but we still tried to.”
Indeed they did. Neither Kizer nor the Notre Dame receivers should be blamed for dutifully running the offensive plays sent their way.
Kelly refuses to admit it, but the offensive identity of his team this season is built exclusively on Kizer’s play with little or no commitment, or even consideration, to a running game the coach vowed in the preseason would carry this unit.
But the wicked weather Saturday in Raleigh should’ve caused a coach to put stubbornness aside and try something different -- anything -- that might’ve helped his offense score at least one touchdown and average more than 1.8 yards per play.
Because as we all found out, trying nothing different all afternoon and getting the same result over and over again turned a difficult defeat into an insane one.
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer who covers University of Notre Dame sports.