SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For the first time since 2007, Notre Dame is not eligible to play in a bowl game.
Saturday’s 34-31 home loss to Virginia Tech represented Notre Dame’s seventh defeat in a dismal, humiliating season for a program that only a year ago was a legitimate playoff contender and Fiesta Bowl participant. The latest loss followed a familiar pattern, with Notre Dame starting strong but failing to hold on to that early success.
Notre Dame blew double-digit leads against Duke, Stanford, Miami and now Virginia Tech, losing all but the Miami game. And while the Irish surely will point to all seven losses being by eight points or fewer, that’s hardly a consolation for a team that will have nine months to chew on the disappointment after next week’s season finale against USC.
Notre Dame last missed out on a bowl game in 2009, though that was on its own accord — the Irish won six games that year but declined to participate in a bowl as coach Charlie Weis was fired at the end of the season. 2016 will be Notre Dame’s worst season in nine years and given the preseason top-10 expectations, it may one of the most disappointing years in program history.
The Irish opened the game by battering Virginia Tech for 17 unanswered points with DeShone Kizer efficiently working off an effective running game. Josh Adams supplied the game’s first score, a one-yard plunge, and after Justin Yoon connected on a 25-yard field goal, Kizer found receiver Chris Finke for a 31-yard score, the former walk-on’s first career touchdown.
Virginia Tech battled back, though, with quarterback Jerod Evans dashing 23 yards on a read option run for a touchdown later in the second. And the Hokies looked to have some momentum in their favor after Notre Dame went three-and-out following Evans’ score, but coach Justin Fuente deservedly drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct flag for extending his berating of an official over a false start flag well beyond an acceptable level.
Instead of a shot at picking up a first down, Virginia Tech was forced to punt, and a seven-play, 60-yard Irish drive ended with Kizer finding Miles Boykin for an 18-yard touchdown — the first touchdown of Boykin’s career, too.
Virginia Tech clipped a touchdown before halftime, putting the score at 24-14 in favor of the Irish after 30 minutes, but Notre Dame clearly played better in the first half, averaging 7.3 yards per play to Virginia Tech’s 4.5, with Kizer doing most of the damage: 13/18, 199 yards, two touchdowns and 10 rushes for 40 yards.
Then the second half happened.
Virginia Tech quickly struck to begin the third quarter, with C.J. Carroll’s 62-yard reception setting up Steven Peoples’ two-yard score. Notre Dame’s offense sputtered on its next possession, which turned out to be a harbinger of how things would go in the final 30 minutes.
Notre Dame was dealt a temporary reprieve when Evans fired to a wide open Cam Phillips, but the ball tipped off the hands of the Hokies receiver and into the diving arms of Notre Dame safety Drue Tranquill for an interception. Notre Dame converted that turnover into points when Adams blasted 67 yards for a touchdown to put the Irish back up by 10. That was Notre Dame’s only good offensive play of the half.
The Irish defense bent but didn’t break on Virginia Tech’s next possession, which drove 66 yards but was stuffed when Jarron Jones dropped Evans for a loss of one on third and one from the Notre Dame three-yard line. Virginia Tech settled for a chip-shot field goal to pull within seven.
After another three-and-out on offense, Notre Dame’s defense cracked, with a questionable pass interference call on Cole Luke setting up Evans’ seven-yard fade to tight end Bucky Hodges for a game-tying score.
Following Notre Dame’s third three-and-out of the second half, Virginia Tech continued to efficiently push back against the Irish defense and took its first lead of the game when Joey Slye connected on a 20-yard field goal.
Notre Dame’s next possession was listless: A three-yard loss on an Adams run, an incomplete deep ball intended for Equanimeous St. Brown and a sack from Ken Ekanem — who alleged this week that Notre Dame pulled a scholarship offer it extended to him after he injured his knee.
Notre Dame had one final chance, taking over at its own 10-yard line with 67 seconds left. While Kizer did his best, with an 11-yard run and a 20-yard completion to St. Brown, it wasn’t enough.
This is a season that cannot be positively spun, even through the lens of all the returning talent that’ll be here in 2017. The close losses aren’t something to point to for optimism because, to repeat, they’re losses.
Seven losses — and, likely, eight after next week’s season finale at USC — is a stain on Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend that won’t easily be washed away.