by John Vannie
A funny thing happened to Notre Dame as it headed toward another epic collapse fueled by a handful of horrific special teams miscues – the Irish caught a break. With two minutes remaining and the winning score a few tantalizing feet away, tight end Durham Smythe had the ball knocked out of his hands as he stretched toward the goal line, and a wild scrum ensued. Somehow, Notre Dame came up with the ball, and managed to hang on during the next few plays before Justin Yoon booted a 23-yard field goal for a much-needed 30-27 victory. The Irish had led 20-0 after a fast start, but in what has become an all too familiar script, they squandered the advantage with fundamental errors and questionable play calling such that a weaker opponent was able to come back and take the lead.
The escape provided palpable relief for the players and embattled coach Brian Kelly. In truth, however, superior talent and strong character prevailed in a game that should not have been close. It’s painfully obvious that he 2016 Fighting Irish are not a well-coached team, and the initial energy in evidence after the bye week quickly dissolved into the same pattern of sloppy play and over-reliance on individual heroics. Speaking of heroes, defensive tackle Jarron Jones, cornerback Donte Vaughn and running back Josh Adams were the stars for Notre Dame, and quarterback DeShone Kizer was solid when his teammates needed him most.
Notre Dame started strong with a crisp, up-tempo attack that found the end zone on the opening drive. Following a quick three and out by the Hurricanes, the Irish came right back with a three pointer by Yoon for a 10-0 advantage. Cole Luke intercepted Brad Kaaya three plays later and the hosts were in business at the Miami 13. A laser from Kizer to Equanimeous St. Brown stretched the lead to 17-0 with 4:23 still left in the opening period. As Jarron Jones continued to terrorize the Hurricane offensive line, Notre Dame regained possession and Yoon tacked on another field goal early in the second quarter.
As has been the case in so many recent losses, the situation suddenly and completely deteriorated for the Irish. Trailing 20-0, Miami was forced to punt once again after three forgettable plays failed to produce a yard. This time, the bouncing punt struck Notre Dame’s Troy Pride and the Canes fell on it at the Irish 38. The turnover inspired Kaaya to hit a few passes and ultimately connect with tight end David Njoku for a score. Notre Dame’s offense seemed to go into a funk, but Miami was unable to capitalize late in the half came as a fourth down run in Irish territory fell inches short.
The Canes took the ball to open the second half and immediately drove down the field for a touchdown to close the gap to 20-14. Meanwhile, the Irish had abandoned the run and the offense fell out of synch. When Tyler Newsome’s punt was partially blocked on the next series, momentum shifted to the visitors. Miami drew within 20-17 with a field goal on its next possession, and Notre Dame failed to answer once again. This time, a flat pass on fourth down and a foot at the Miami 29 lost five yards, and Coach Brian Kelly’s detractors booed lustily from the stands and in living rooms across America. Inevitably, the Canes marched down for a tying three pointer at the 12:30 mark of the final period.
The teams then exchanged punts, but Notre Dame’s special teams were not finished being charitable. C.J. Sanders tried to field a bouncing punt on his own three yard line, but bobbled it into his own end zone. Miami pounced on it for the go-ahead score with 6:49 remaining in the contest. Suddenly, the Irish woke up from their long slumber as Kizer connected on two passes and Adams burst through a crowd for a 42-yard touchdown to tie it at 27. Jarron Jones then reasserted himself on defense to shut down Kaaya, and Kizer got the ball back at the Miami 40 after Chris Finke contributed a solid punt return with five minutes left.
Adams took over to bring his team inside the ten as time ran down, setting up the pass to Smythe and scramble for the loose ball that decided the outcome. The Irish and Kelly were greatly relieved afterward and the head coach tried his best to sell an “All is Well” narrative on another flirtation with disaster against an obviously inferior opponent.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions:
Does Chad Thomas record two sacks of Kizer himself? No, Thomas was not a factor and probably is not yet at 100%.
Will Miami be able to stop Kizer after getting shredded last week? Not when it mattered most, although the Canes made a few defensive adjustments after the first quarter that slowed the Irish attack.
Will Yearby and Walton combine for over 150 yards rushing? Jarron Jones made sure this was not going to happen.
Will Brian Kelly give an ND running back more than 9 carries? It was very close. Adams had only seven carries before breaking loose in the final period. At that point, even the pass-happy Kelly had no excuse to keep him under wraps.
Did Kelly pay any attention to the defense during the bye week or will it be more of the same? The defense played well for the most part, although the Miami offensive line was horrible. What Kelly should have done during the bye week was devote even five minutes of practice time to special teams. He didn’t.
Will there be blue or green smoke when Notre Dame comes out of the tunnel? I really didn’t notice, but we’ve all been numbed by smoke and mirrors from Kelly.
Bonus Question: Will Doug Flutie’s head explode during the broadcast? Doug was rooting so hard for the Canes that my head almost exploded.
Next week’s opportunity is against a Navy team that gave up 650 yards to South Florida this week in a 52-45 loss, but the 3-5 Irish cannot book anything as a sure thing just yet.