Nov. 20, 2016
By John Heisler
This one had all the trappings of a vintage Notre Dame football kind of day:
--Good old-fashioned late fall weather in South Bend—with the snow flying and the wind whipping and the spectators bundled.
--A quality opponent in town in Virginia Tech—a program that had never visited Notre Dame Stadium before and what now is an eight-win team that will claim the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division crown next weekend if it can defeat instate rival Virginia.
--A chance for something of a final feel-good moment on Senior Day, an opportunity to erase at least a few of the memories of earlier frustrations in 2016.
“When you have that ball in your hands you are running through tacklers,” Irish coach Brian Kelly told his team before the game. “When you are tackling you are bending back. It’s not just a physical game, it’s a dominating style of football. That’s what we’re playing today--nothing else is acceptable today. Nothing else.
“I don’t really care what the scoreboard says, I care how we play this game in our last home game. That’s what I want –I want a physical style of football.
“Keep the pressure on this team—every single snap. That’s how we’re playing in our last home game. That’s the message that’s being sent today. I want this Notre Dame football team in 2016 in its last home game punishing its opponent.”
And through an amazingly productive start on both sides of the ball, to the end of the third at which the Irish held a 10-point lead, it appeared those Irish dreams would come true.
And then they didn’t.
“It’s not been one thing I can point to,” Kelly told his players after it was over.
“What the issues are are cumulative—it’s a mistake here, a missed tackle here, a dropped ball here, a penalty here. It’s not one thing we can put our fingers on. It’s a cumulative effect. And it continues to be the one thing we can’t put away. It happened again today.”
Two 17-point Notre Dame leads—at 17-0 seven seconds into the second period and at 24-7 with six minutes remaining in the opening half—represented proof of the early Irish dominance.
And then, somehow, Virginia Tech scored the last 13 points of the game, kicked the game-winning field goal with 4:16 on the clock and defeated the Irish 34-31.
Seven defeats by a grand total of 32 points.
This was a photo finish the Irish had seen before.
“There’s not a magic message today,” Irish assistant Mike Elston suggested to the Notre Dame defense before the game.
“It’s gonna take more than talk from this point on. It’s about doing it for those seniors in the tunnel.”
And the early script played out almost fairy-tale like.
Four straight pass completions by Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer and after 78 yards Notre Dame led 7-0 barely three minutes in.
After a three-and-out sequence for the visitors, Kizer zeroed in on walk-on Chris Finke for a 31-yard scoring dagger on the first play of the second period. 17-0 Irish.
Even after Virginia Tech’s first TD, Kizer came right back—hitting Corey Holmes for 18 yards (the longest catch of his career) and a wide-open Miles Boykin for 18 more and a score (the first of Boykin’s career). Twenty-four minutes into the game Notre Dame led 24-7. The Irish had run 36 plays to 19 for the Hokies and held a 14-5 edge in first downs.
And in many other ways it could not have been more one-sided—with the Irish holding leads of 204-19 and later 273-77 in total yards. Notre Dame controlled the football to the tune of multiple advantages of nine minutes in possession time.
Kizer connected on seven of his first eight throws for 134 yards and by that time already had gashed the Hokies for five completions of 20 or more yards, all to different receivers. The visitors were reeling.
The halftime message?
“No foolish penalties, can’t have ‘em,” said Kelly. “The difference in this game is somebody that can’t hold their water on the offensive or defensive line. We can’t get behind the chains. We’ve got to be smart. We’ve got to finish off our runs. Eliminate penalties from what we do.
“The last thing I’m going to tell you is this—if you’re timid at all or indecisive, don’t get on the field. I only want warriors out here in the second half—guys that believe in themselves, that they’re going to get the job done.
“We believe in you--believe in yourselves. Believe you’re gonna get it done no matter what. That’s the football team that we have to have representing us in the second half—with unbelievable confidence and belief in each other and yourself. That’s how we’re playing. We’re not playing tentative, we’re not waiting for something to happen.
“They’ve got the football, and we’re taking the wind in the third quarter, so we have to get it done defensively in the third period and win the game in the third period. We’re putting it on the line in the third period, and we’ve got to put points on the board. We’ve got to knock ‘em out in the third quarter--and then in the fourth we’ll scratch and claw and do whatever we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get the third quarter in our favor. When we get to the fourth quarter we’re gonna win the football game.”
But that third-period plan couldn’t have gone haywire quicker.
Virginia Tech scored a touchdown in less than three minutes, driving 75 yards, most of those on a 62-yard Evans completion.
Notre Dame had the ball—with the wind at its back—for three third-period possessions. But, outside of Josh Adams’ 67-yard TD dash (Notre Dame’s longest rush of the season, coming four plays after a Drue Tranquill interception), the other 10 Irish plays from scrimmage accounted for only 34 yards (Virginia Tech had 143 passing yards in that period alone).
Still, the scoreboard read 31-21 in Notre Dame’s favor with one period to go. Kizer and Evans both had completed 15 passes to that point, Kizer for 215 yards, Evans for 204. The time of possession differential had righted itself to less than a minute.
But essentially nothing went right for the Irish in that final quarter.
Notre Dame’s first three possessions in the period equated to nine plays, a net of minus-three yards and three punts.
Tech took advantage of an interference call on Cole Luke (“He did exactly what we teach him to do,” said Kelly later) to score the tying touchdown with 9:13 left in the game.
By now the Hokie players were busy exhorting their noisy fans in both ends of the stadium.
“There came a point in time where it became much more difficult for them to move the ball on us,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said later.
Tech grabbed its only lead at 34-31 on a field goal after a 51-yard drive reached the Irish two. Then Notre Dame punted it away on fourth and 15 from its own 24.
The last Irish foray—with no timeouts remaining—began with 67 seconds left and got as far as the Virginia Tech 47. But Kizer’s fourth period began with seven consecutive incompletions, and he took two hard un-penalized hits to the head, the last of which forced him to the sidelines with 13 seconds on the clock.
And suddenly it was over.
“We’ve been down this road before, right?” Kelly queried his players in the locker room.
“We’ve lost seven games this year, seven points or less in six of those and one by eight. One thing that always happens is you play your hearts out. You compete, you prepare and you did that again today. That has not changed. You represented Notre Dame football in the manner you need to.
“But losing football games is not part of what our tradition is. That’s not who we are. We need to win football games. We all know that.
“We could not overcome the mistakes we made and that’s a shame. It’s a shame we couldn’t get you over the top and find a way to win the football game.
“The effort was great—the want-to was there. We couldn’t find a way to win the football game. We needed to play better in the second half.
“The third quarter was absolutely crucial, and the third quarter did not go the way we needed it to. We needed to make a stop defensively and we couldn’t make a stop. We needed to play better offensively—we could not do that. And the third quarter got away from us and the fourth quarter became a grind for us.”
As Kelly offered a few minutes later to the media, “I’m at a loss for words on what to tell them.”
There was little else said in the postgame locker room—replaced instead by muted consoling verbal offerings and a good share of embraces between players and coaches faced with the hard reality that some of those Irish players would be exiting Notre Dame Stadium for the final time.
And it wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling the fortunes of Notre Dame football since 1978.