Oct. 9, 2016
By John Heisler
The sun shone bright and temperatures reached the high 60s Sunday in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Unfortunately for the Notre Dame football team, those conditions came a day too late for the Irish and North Carolina State who spent a miserable Saturday dealing with—or at least attempting to deal with—brutal conditions produced by Hurricane Matthew.
There was rain, there was wind, there were puddles, there were light standards swaying in the gusts, there were fumbles galore, there were multiple snaps that never reached the quarterbacks, there were seven drives that produced negative yardage--there was almost nothing close to normal in terms of the weather conditions.
That meant that much of the tactical work by both coaching staffs went down the tubes Saturday. Irish coach Brian Kelly felt his team had come in well-prepared and ready to play in building off the win over Syracuse a week ago. But the wind and rain changed all that.
How bad was it? Neither team managed an offensive touchdown—and the two field goals that went on the board both barely leaked over the goalpost.
The conditions proved so raw that about half the ticket-holders on Carter-Finley Stadium’s 50th birthday opted to stay home.
The difference in the result came down to one special-team play in which NC State blocked a Tyler Newsome punt and the Wolfpack ran it in less than three minutes into the final period.
That sent the drenched Irish home stuck with a frustrating 10-3 loss.
Veteran Irish observers struggled to remember when Notre Dame played in such awful conditions—with the 1979 Mirage Bowl game in Tokyo against Miami and the 1971 one-point win at Purdue coming close, though neither featured the strong winds that thwarted the action Saturday.
“We know how to play the game,” Kelly told his squad Saturday morning at the team hotel. “Let’s finish it off. It’s about players making plays. All that preparation culminates with being successful today. How do you do that? Let it go, let it go. Just like last week.
“You’ve put yourself in position to be successful. But you can’t be successful without action. If you’re going to watch, you can’t be successful. You’ve got to take action, you’ve got to initiate that. Don’t wait for the circumstances to present themselves. We’re gonna make things happen. Go make it happen. You can’t just wish it and hope it. You gotta go do something about it.
“Field position will be huge today. Special teams will be very, very important. Everybody’s got to be locked in today. Keep your cleats in the ground. Take action to be successful.”
The rain already was falling steadily outside when Kelly made those comments a few minutes after 9 a.m.—and who might have guessed that on the second Saturday in October some of the more valuable sideline items at Carter-Finley Stadium would be hand-warmers for the kick returners and other special-team players?
The Irish were jazzed in the locker room before the contest began.
“If you don’t want to hit, step aside,” yelled one Notre Dame player.
“Are we good?” asked Irish linebacker coach Mike Elston of the defensive players. “This is chapter two. The page is blank! Who’s gonna write this chapter?”
“Claw, scratch, whatever you have to do,” said associate head coach Mike Denbrock to the offense. “Conditions are less than ideal. Who cares? Let’s let it rip! We’re not gonna call the game soft, we’re not gonna play the game soft. Your will against their will, it’s that simple. Embrace it, love it, relish it. Be part of the atmosphere.”
The final pregame thoughts came from Kelly:
“It’s north and south today. Every inch is precious. Stay on your feet. Speed to power. Balance, balance, balance. Take care of the football.
“Everybody plays with action today. Great week of preparation—now you gotta put it into play.”
Putting any sort of game plan into play proved way more complicated than either team likely anticipated.
The Irish began with three straight pass attempts—and NC State’s sixth play featured a toss-back to quarterback Ryan Finley that produced fumble number one of the day and ended in a five-yard Wolfpack loss.
DeShone Kizer completed five of his first six passes—before one string of 12 straight incompletions (including none of five through the air in the third period).
The Irish ended up moving the football inside the NC State 25-yard on five occasions, but those forays produced only three points:
--In the second period the Irish reached the Wolfpack 22, only to lose a fumble.
--On the next drive (after an NC State fumble lost), Kizer threw a third-down interception from the NC State 19.
--On the first possession of the third period, after NC State’s punter botched an attempt by kneeling to field the ball, Justin Yoon managed a 40-yard field goal for the only Irish points.
--On the following possession the Irish had the ball on the Wolfpack 24 before a fourth-down pass fell incomplete.
--The game ended, at least from the Notre Dame standpoint, on the NC State 16 in the final two minutes, when a fourth-down snap went past Kizer.
If there were MVPs to be selected, they were probably the ball boys who worked feverishly and mostly unsuccessfully to keep dry balls in play. On NC State’s field goal in the opening period, the officials twice traded balls after the Irish called timeout.
Late in the first half, the public-address system played “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” by B.J. Thomas.
Fans probably didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
A half-hour lightning delay at halftime gave Irish players an extra chance to change out jerseys, shoes and socks.
Kelly’s Irish had the wind in their favor in the third period, and they thought they could take control with their offensive line and a couple of defensive stops. Notre Dame accomplished the defensive end of that—forcing a three-and-out sequence by NC State and turning that into Yoon’s tying field goal and then on second down forcing a fumble that gave the Irish the ball back at the Wolfpack 22.
But, as the weather got worse, so did the ability of the offenses to produce much of anything. Notre Dame’s 10 third-period plays netted minus-three yards, as NC State dominated with 10:59 of possession time over that quarter of play.
After the NC State punt block and score, the Irish fumbled on their own 45. The very last Irish possession equated to an 18-play march that lasted nearly eight minutes (no previous Notre Dame drive lasted more than 3:37). On two occasions the Irish converted successfully on fourth and two. But the final fourth-and-eight attempt fell short.
By then maybe only 5,000 of the heartiest fans remained.
Said Kelly to his players postgame, “Today shows how you have to do all the little things right to win football games. You have to do your job in so many areas to win. It’s executing your schemes and all the other things, too.
“I’m sick that we didn’t leave here with a win—you were ready to play, you were excited to play, you were energized to play. I’m sick about it.
“The energy and enthusiasm you played with--all those things that were missing are present.
“I saw guys with heart and enthusiasm and a passion today in horrendous conditions. In tough circumstances, guys battled.
“We need to continue to ascend defensively, and we’re gonna play our best football this year. And we’ll all know it together.
“We’re gonna work harder to get all three units playing and ascending to the level we’re capable of. If you’re all in, we do together. It’s not gonna be easy. We’re going to have to work our butts off to do this. It’s our obligation and our responsibility. We’re not where we want to be. It’s gonna require a commitment and everybody’s best to bring it all together.
“Let’s just focus on getting all three units to play with a single-minded focus.”
Irish fans reconvene Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium to watch that process transpire against Stanford.
Notre Dame senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Irish athletics communications team since 1978.