Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly insists latest big-game disappointment in Cotton Bowl not comparable to past
Despite the latest in a long line of bad big-game finishes, Kelly feels better about his program
ARLINGTON, Tex. -- Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wanted to make something clear: getting wasn't like all the other big losses for the Fighting Irish in the past.
"This felt so much different, like we gave up four big plays that we characteristically don't give up," Kelly said.
OK, but if it feels the same, it's probably because it sure as heck looked the same. After all, the Irish are now 0-3 in New Year's Six bowls and national championship games under Kelly dating back to 2012 with a combined point differential of 116-45, or an average of 38-15. And if you really want to go back, Notre Dame is now 0-7 in such games dating back to 1994. The last time the Irish won a postseason game this big? The Cotton Bowl, of all games, 24-21 over Texas A&M.
And there's a stigma that Notre Dame carries with it that won't be shaken until it gets that huge postseason win -- a stigma that it can't win the big game, that it's overrated. Some of that narrative is fueled by a predisposed distaste for the Irish that exists only for a few programs in college football, but it's not like they've done their job to disprove it.
Still, Kelly was steadfast in countering that narrative, interestingly noting that he didn't feel there was a large talent gap between his team and Clemson. Instead, he focused on the aforementioned four plays and one word: "opportunistic." As in: Clemson was opportunistic and Notre Dame was not.
"You can't give up four big plays on defense. We did not do that all year. Uncharacteristic of our defense," Kelly said. "And we generated virtually no big plays. We didn't play the kind of offense that would lend itself to scoring enough points to beat a talented Clemson team."
To wit, Notre Dame's offense averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per play. Quarterback Ian Book was on the run the entire game, getting sacked six times and hurried another five. Nothing worked.
"It's hard to win a game when you score three points. And as an offense, we've just got to do better," Book said. "And we've just got to play the way we've played throughout the whole entire year and just control what we could control. And we didn't need any super-human efforts today. We just needed to do what we've been doing all season, and we weren't able to do that.
But it was the Irish's defensive shortcomings that were the most shocking. Trevor Lawrence, Clemson's sensational true freshman quarterback, threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns against a pass defense that ranked in the top two nationally in many statistical categories. Lawrence's 8.4 yards per pass attempt were three yards more than what Notre Dame's defense allowed on the season. Meanwhile, another freshman, receiver Justyn Ross, had a career day with six catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Overall, Notre Dame's vaunted secondary looked largely lost in zone coverage and outmatched in man coverage.
And the four plays that Kelly was referring to? Two came on a pair of long touchdown passes from Lawrence to Ross of 52 and 42 yards, respectively, in the second quarter to tilt the game in Clemson's favor. A third was running back Travis Etienne's 62-yard touchdown run to put the game away for good.
For reference: Notre Dame allowed five plays of 40 yards or more all season, tied for fourth nationally.
"I definitely feel like the game was much closer than the score reflected. It was really a matter, in my opinion, of four or five plays," said linebacker Drue Tranquill. "Defensively, you can't give up explosive touchdowns. You can't misfit gaps and allow the running back to hit his head on the goal post running through the red sea. You just can't do those things and win in the playoff. We shot ourselves in the foot. I felt like we had control in the first half -- they weren't able to run the ball – we just needed to make plays down the field and we weren't able to do that.
Of course, losing star cornerback Julian Love, an All-America selection and Thorpe Award finalist, didn't help. Love exited in the first half with a head injury, and by the time he re-entered the game, the outcome was decided. But Kelly put an uncharacteristic performance on him and the coaching staff for failing to adjust.
"It's really too much to get into right now," Kelly said about his gameplan. "But I think you know that we lost a very good corner. And to get any further into it would be really trying to talk about players and their performance. As coaches we should have done a better job in putting together a plan during that time. Clemson was outstanding in taking advantage of some things, and we needed to do a better job in that situation."
A diplomatic response, to be sure, though Love's presence may not have made a difference in the score. Clemson was simply the better team.
But in Kelly's defense, he's done a good job at getting Notre Dame to the big show, even if the results haven't been favorable. Even with Saturday's loss, Kelly has won 70 percent of his games and posted four 10-win seasons in nine years, including three of the last four.
Kelly also has proven capable of reinventing himself, having completely retooled his program on multiple occasions, once after losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship in 2012 and again after the Irish went 4-8 in 2016. This year, he went undefeated while playing 10 power opponents and zero FCS opponents. At any level against any competition, winning every game is tough.
Moving forward, Kelly feels much better about his program than he did following the BCS National Championship loss to Alabama seven years ago.
"I feel terrible for our seniors. They put us on the brink of a championship," Kelly said. "It's now up to everybody else that has eligibility in that locker room to get this football team to a championship. So the challenge is in that locker room now is to dedicate themselves to taking what this senior group has given the group that comes back and running with it and winning a championship."
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