November 12, 2017
By John Heisler
University of Notre Dame fans clearly savored every moment of their team’s run back to college football relevance in 2017.
A two-week run amidst the College Football Playoff’s top-three rankings had Irish supporters thinking Brian Kelly’s squad could ride a proven running game, an improving defense and mostly mistake-free football through even a minefield of a late-season schedule.
Unbeaten Miami clearly had other ideas Saturday night in South Florida.
In fact, the Hurricanes borrowed multiple pages from the Irish recipe book, controlling the line of scrimmage, outrushing Notre Dame 237-109 and taking full advantage of an uncharacteristic four Irish turnovers from a team that had turned it over only seven times in its first nine outings combined. Miami turned those four mistakes into 24 points, and that essentially decided the outcome.
The end result was a 41-8 triumph for the now 9-0 Hurricanes—in a game they led 27-0 at halftime and 34-0 until the final 12 seconds of the third period.
Said Kelly before the contest, “Understand they will come out with a ton of emotion. You have got to be in your optimal mode right out of the gate, immediately. You have to meet that. Emotion tails off, grit doesn’t. It’s sustained effort over a long period of time, through the ups and downs. You keep playing, you are prepared for this.
“You have put in the time, you don’t do anything different. Trust your training and go out there and play Notre Dame football. Nothing different. Get in your zone, lock in. The process is fearless.”
On a 79-degree night with 75 percent humidity in a noisy Hard Rock Stadium, Miami scored on its second possession, with a Malik Rosier pass to Travis Homer for 25 yards (on third and seven) setting up a scoring throw to Braxton Berrios.
Three plays later, on third and six, Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s throw was picked off by Jaquan Johnson and two plays later Rosier ran it in himself from the 16 for a 14-0 advantage.
After a three and out by the Irish, Miami drove 48 yards for a field goal. Miami led 161-50 in total yards, and Notre Dame tailback Josh Adams had been limited to 22 yards on his first 11 carries.
A second Wimbush interception (both of those floating high), this one on the first play of a possession, set the home team up nicely at the Irish nine—and resulted in another field goal.
At that point, with Wimbush only two for 10 throwing, the Irish turned to Ian Book. He led Notre Dame on its longest march of the opening half at 54 yards, only to see a Trajan Bandy interception return go 65 yards the other way to make it 27-0 with 22 seconds to intermission.
At the break, the Irish were a combined five for 16 in the passing department for 63 yards, with three interceptions.
Notre Dame, without a turnover in any of its last three games, suffered through more in a half than it had surrendered in any full game in 2017.
“This is about being more physical than your opponent, and it starts one play at a time. You put together successive plays one play at a time. Where’s our physicality?” asked Kelly at halftime. “That’s the question. We need to be more physical—this a football game. This is about who is more physical for the next 30 minutes. This game separates you when you step out there.
“We’re not physical enough right now. We’re not butting people in the mouth, we’re not getting off blocks. We’re not controlling the line of scrimmage. We’re not doing the things we do all year. That’s where we are right now. Let’s do something about it. If you are more physical, you’ll make strides. I want to see a football team that resembles the one I’ve seen before when it comes to physicality. That’s the only way I know this football team has been successful.”
Any designs the Irish had for a comeback likely dissolved when the home team took the second-half kickoff and drove 90 yards for a score.
Wimbush, to his credit, returned to play the second half and completed all six of his third-period throws, including a 14-yard TD throw to tight end Alize Mack 12 seconds before the third period ended. That couldn’t counter a Miami offense that put points on the board on six of its first nine offensive possessions.
A neck strain limited Adams to a single second-half carry. The last Irish miscue—a fumble lost by Wimbush--set the ‘Canes up for their final TD on eight straight running plays.
For Miami, it was a fourth straight game with four takeaways. And the contest marked the fourth time in 2017 the Hurricanes reversed a decision against a team they lost to in 2016.
“There’s no sense in rehashing what happened out there,” Kelly said to his team in the locker room. “It’s what we do from this point on that matters the most. This is collectively us--we’re all in this together. We’re all part of what happened tonight. We make a decision in here where we go from here. Where do we want to go? Do we want to do something about what happened?
“I remember a month ago we beat the heck out of USC. They haven’t lost a football game since that time. They made a choice—they made a decision. You’re going to be confronted with the same decision. Are you going to look at this as an opportunity to learn and grown and make sure it doesn’t happen again?
“The most important thing now is to find a way to beat Navy to eradicate this feeling we have right now. We’re all in this together. What do we need to do to get better in our last home game against Navy?
“Miami was the better football team today and they deserved to come away with the kind of win they had. We’ve been on the other side of it. We did not deserve it tonight.”
Irish fans probably wonder what it takes to win a game in South Florida where a Notre Dame football team has not come away with a victory since the 1977 national championship season. The Irish have not been able to defeat a ranked Hurricane team in Miami since 1955, the first time the two programs met.
After five straight games of at least 318 rushing yards, Notre Dame managed 109 against the Hurricanes.
“We did not see this coming,” said Kelly. “We needed to play at a high level and we did not. We put ourselves in tough spots when we turned it over.”
Kelly and the Irish will determine their postseason destiny in games the final two weekends at home against Navy and then at Stanford.
“It’s about how we respond now.”