SOUTH BEND, Ind. — All four of Notre Dame’s losses this year have been by eight points or fewer, which is troubling not only for the inability to come through in those close games but also because this team is consistently finding themselves in those no-room-for-error situations.
Asking a team full of underclassmen and inexperience to deliver late in games has proven too tall a task for Notre Dame this fall. But the larger issue here is that the Irish, a preseason top-10 team with August playoff hopes, has found itself in one-score games against Texas, Michigan State and Duke — three teams that, like Notre Dame, could struggle to reach a bowl game.
“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game and then finish as strong as we started,” quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. ... We haven't done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that's the truth. That's the reality of how this season has started, and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”
In Notre Dame’s first three losses, a bad defense coupled with those offensive lulls and a few special teams mistakes conspired for the Irish to need those late-game, last-ditch drives. A handful of ineffective possessions led by Malik Zaire at Texas saw Notre Dame fall into a 17-point hole from which they eventually recovered, but ran out of steam without a concussed Torii Hunter Jr. — the team's only veteran receiver. A big-time lapse, triggered by a special teams turnover, against Michigan State allowed the Spartans to rip off 36 unanswered points. And against Duke, Notre Dame jumped out to a 14-0 lead but allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown that threw them back into a close battle with the lowly Blue Devils.
The point here is Notre Dame, even with a lagging defense, could’ve done plenty more earlier in games to make sure they didn’t need a young offense to execute to perfection down the stretch.
“We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put up so many more points and move them forward,” Kizer said. “That potential makes me excited what this offense can do. We have the potential to put up 70 points a game, which we're going to get 10 drives. That should end in 10 touchdowns, and we know it. We just look forward to going out there and getting better each week and keeping our pedal to the floor and getting those points to win games.”
Last year, Notre Dame’s offense came through, to an extent, in every one of its four close games — wins against Virginia and Temple and losses at Clemson and Stanford (Notre Dame was a two-point conversion away from tying Clemson and took the lead with under a minute to go on Kizer’s touchdown at Stanford). This year, the Irish offense has stalled in the fourth quarter and overtime at Texas, was shut down late by Michigan State and couldn’t re-take the lead on its final possession at Duke.
(For these purposes, the loss at North Carolina State is thrown out given the horrible conditions, though the Notre Dame offense fell short on an 18-play drive late in the game that could’ve tied things up.)
“A lot of young guys have had to step up in roles that are pretty big-time for college football and for Notre Dame,” offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said. “And I think that a lot of it just comes with experience and getting that mindset at all times, being able to execute and not let other things get in our way. And I think we've gotten in our own way a little bit a lot this season coming down to final drives or coming down to getting a stop when we needed to.”
It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame’s two most successful years in close games were 2012 and 2015, seasons in which the Irish were stacked with upperclassmen and leaders in almost every unit.
Notre Dame can’t magically gain in 2016 the kind of team-wide experience it had in those 12- and 10-win seasons. Coach Brian Kelly has worked this week to get his team better prepared for close games by switching up the practice regimen and over-emphasizing how to win by a narrow margin, something which he admitted he didn’t do a good enough job of driving home previously.
“Look, it would be easier if we were getting beat by 40 points, you know? We could resign ourselves to the fact that it is what it is,” Kelly said. “But we're in a position to win these games, and we have to find a way to win. I think we can coach them to the point where they understand it now we can go do it.”
If Notre Dame has any hope of pulling out of its 2016 tailspin and making a bowl (at best) or avoiding a 2007-level of embarrassment (at worst), it’ll have to find one of two solutions. Either it’ll have to start winning close games or playing well enough to relieve some of the late-game pressure under which it’s folded this year.
And at this point, the latter of those two solutions looks the most feasible.