by John Vannie
Notre Dame managed to stumble into another inexplicable defeat on Saturday, as the Irish handed a 28-27 gift to the previously unheralded and decidedly mediocre Tulsa Golden Hurricane. The visitors had taken the lead with 3:23 remaining on a 27-yard field goal, but freshman quarterback Tommy Rees led Notre Dame well within kicker David Ruffer’s range as the clock ticked down. With the ball resting between the hash marks at the Tulsa 19 yard line and 45 seconds left, Irish coach Brian Kelly had a better idea.
The Irish simply needed to set up the chip shot for Ruffer, call timeout, and send the Hurricane packing. Whether his strategy was driven by a fatal devotion to the pass regardless of the game situation, or simply an over-inflated ego, Kelly was not satisfied with such a mundane finish. Instead, he ordered Rees to launch his 54th pass of the day. As one might expect in this season marked by boneheaded play calls, Tulsa’s John Flanders made an all too easy interception in the end zone to seal the victory.
The loss overshadowed encouraging performances by Rees and the much maligned Notre Dame defense. Rees was pressed into service when Dayne Crist was knocked out of action at the end of a 29-yard scramble by a hit near the Irish sideline. The hard-luck Crist, who injured his right knee on October 31, 2009, suffered a torn patella tendon in his left knee in the early moments of the game. Rees came in and threw for 334 yards and four touchdowns, but his third interception of the game will be remembered above the rest of his passes.
Notre Dame defense started a bit shaky, but settled down after the first quarter to smother the Hurricane until a critical breakdown led to Kevin Fitzpatrick’s winning field goal. The Irish held Tulsa scoreless on nine consecutive possessions from the beginning of the second period until late in the fourth, and forced two turnovers in this stretch. Unfortunately, poor coverage on a third and 26 pass by G.J. Kinne to Ricky Johnson enabled Tulsa to convert, and a 32 yard pass to Genesis Cole two plays later set up Fitzpatrick.
The game had the makings of a shootout in the early going. Tulsa drew first blood with an impressive first drive, and Notre Dame was attempting to answer when Crist went down. Rees provided a spark with quick, pinpoint passes, and his ten yard bullet to Michael Floyd completed the drive that Crist had initiated. Instead of a 7-7 tie, however, Tulsa blocked the extra point and returned it for two points.
The Hurricane extended its 9-6 lead by three points on the ensuing series after a 37 yard field goal. A solid kickoff return by Bennett Jackson set up another well-execute drive by Rees, and the Irish took a 13-12 lead when T.J. Jones grabbed a short pass and pitched it back to Cierre Wood, who streaked into the end zone from 23 yards. This play seemed to energize Notre Dame’s defense, who immediately forced a Hurricane punt. When return man John Goodman fumbled it at his own 14, the Irish defense rose to the task and ultimately forced an errant field goal attempt by Fitzpatrick.
Notre Dame took advantage of the momentum swing to complete another long scoring march. After a 21 yard reverse by Jackson off a fake punt kept the drive alive, Rees hit Floyd again for a 20-12 advantage midway through the second stanza. Tulsa’s offense went into a funk, and the Irish were looking to pad their lead just before intermission.
As has been the case in several games this season, Notre Dame hurt itself with a key mistake at the end of the half. This time, a screen pass by Rees was tipped by a Tulsa player and intercepted by linebacker Shawn Jackson, who returned it for a 66 yard touchdown with only 37 seconds remaining. The Hurricane failed to tie the game with a two-point conversion, so the Irish led by 20-18.
Tulsa began the second half with a promising drive, but Darrin Walls recovered a fumble deep in Irish territory at the end of an 18-yard run by Ja’Terian Douglas. Rees went back to work and directed an 81-yard march that resulted in his fourth touchdown pass. Wood was on the receiving end of this one from four yards, and Notre Dame led 27-18 midway through the third quarter.
The teams then traded defensive stops, but Notre Dame came up short on this exchange. Damaris Johnson took an Irish punt, eluded the first wave of tacklers and burst 59 yards for a score to trim the lead to 27-25. Neither offense could generate a threat from that point as the game moved well into the last period.
It appeared that Notre Dame would hold on after a sack and offensive pass interference penalty on Ricky Johnson put the Hurricane in the 3rd and 26 hole, but Johnson managed to get open downfield for a 31-yard gain that devastated the Irish. Although the defense kept Tulsa out of the end zone, Fitzpatrick’s field goal provided the narrowest of winning margins.
One can point to a number of individual plays that could have changed the outcome. The blocked extra point resulted in a negative impact of three points, and Jackson’s interception return accounted for seven while preventing the Irish from adding a field goal on that drive. The punt return by Damaris Johnson was as much a breakdown by Notre Dame as a great play by the speedy all-purpose athlete.
Despite each of these failures by the Irish, the pain of a loss might have been avoided if Ruffer had been afforded a chance to send 80,000 fans home happy. Instead, gutty performances by several players were wasted, and the 4-5 Irish will most likely end their season in Los Angeles at the end of November rather than at a bowl game. Kelly defended his all-or-nothing approach after the game, stating that the aggressive play will continue and Notre Dame fans should “get used to it”. Unfortunately, the only thing Irish faithful have gotten used to in recent years is losing to teams with inferior talent.
Let’s take a final look at the questions raised in the pregame analysis.
Will Notre Dame be ready emotionally to battle another highly motivated opponent? The team started slowly on both sides of the ball, but played with heart after the first couple of series.
Can Crist find the accuracy and consistency needed to win? Sadly, Crist will not have a chance to finish the year with a flourish. Rees’ performance was a pleasant surprise, but Tulsa’s pass defense is the nation’s worst.
Will the depleted Irish defense allow Tulsa to convert third downs at a 50% clip? The Hurricane were held to 6 for 16, but the 3rd and 26 conversion was a game-changer.
Can the Irish avoid costly turnovers? Ummm, no.
Will Floyd’s presence be enough to lift Notre Dame’s offense? Floyd was outstanding – 11 receptions, 104 yards and two touchdowns.
Which team’s 3-4 defense will do a better job of stopping the run? Tulsa had over 200 yards rushing to 125 for Notre Dame. Crist accounted for 29 of these on his ill-fated scramble.
Will the Irish be strong enough to overcome adversity during the game? Absolutely. The players fought through the loss of Crist, and both defensive and special teams scores by Tulsa. They deserved better than the utterly indefensible decision by Kelly.
Notre Dame has a bye next weekend before facing Utah in the final game in Notre Dame Stadium this season. Players such as Floyd, Theo Riddick, Jamoris Slaughter and Carlo Calabrese have a chance to get completely healthy, while Crist, Armando Allen and Ian Williams are likely out for the duration. A more important goal for the Irish, however, is to repair the confidence that has been shattered in the wake of two deflating losses to teams they must know they should have beaten. The Notre Dame community as a whole must never get used to this.