What a difference a week makes. For all the talk of turning the page and putting the challenge of option football behind his team, Brian Kelly looked like a beaten man when he took the podium late Saturday night. Rather than build from their success vs. USC, as he'd hoped, his defense took a giant leap backwards. Rather than flash maturity and development, his QB regressed to his turnover prone ways. Brian Kelly wore the stress of seeing his team's poor performance on his face Saturday evening as he tried to make some sense of a game filled with odd plays, even odder calls, and an ugly loss to the Pitt Panthers.
Did Kelly suddenly lose his ability to coach in one night/one week? I don't think so, but his team's performance certainly opened the door for his critics. The more optimistic among us recall that less than 12 months ago, he led his team to a victory in the LA Coliseum that sealed a perfect regular season. Kelly's supporters point out that this regression on the road vs. Pitt doesn't invalidate the progress the program has made under him and his staff. The optimists will call this the anomaly to the trend.
Of course, the other side of this coin sees a woeful game like Saturday as proof of the cracks in the foundation. They'll point out every reason why last year was the flash in the pan, and Kelly and his staff lucked in to a situation that can't be sustained. You hear many calling games like Saturday the norm for a coaching staff that is over their head at ND.
Let's take a look at some of the specific things the Head Coach of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Program addressed with the media following ND's frustrating loss. We can decide for ourselves where we think the arrow is pointing for this season, and beyond, and I'm sure we'll find more than enough material to feed the optimists and pessimists alike.
Post Game Comments
Kelly entered the press room late Saturday evening looking like a very tired man. For someone who is usually incredibly buttoned up behind the podium, Kelly wore his frustration and exasperation on his face and in his demeanor. This was a time where simply reading his comments or the transcript would never have given you the whole story.
In particular, read this quote:
Hats off to Pittsburgh. They deserved to win.
Then listen to it in the first 38 seconds below. What he says and what he "says" seem to diverge a bit.
Kelly did a good job in his 10 minute post game session avoiding the traps that come with an emotional and disappointing loss. You can see in his demeanor that he's working hard. He's taking accountability and eliminating factors like the wind and officiating as excuses. He takes accountability and pushes his players and coaches to examine how they executed.
Kelly pushed back his normal noon time on Tuesday to 2PM because he had elected not to practice this week. Instead of his normal sport coat and dress shirt look, the Irish head coach approached the podium in a sweatshirt and a look of someone who's been at work diagnosing the issues that plagued his team and setting about solving them.
A great example of that focus was the head coach's command of a few simple facts. He didn't need to go to a notecard to explain that in ND's three losses, they have 8 turnovers to only 1 takeaway. In the seven wins, 5 turnovers and 7 takeaways. In ND's three losses they gave up pass plays of 64, 63, and 54 yards. In the seven wins, just a single 48 yard pass play to Purdue. Kelly emphasized that he and his team can't worry about other things. He simply wants to go with the facts, and for him, if you take care of the football and avoid giving up the big play, you can win at Notre Dame. If you don't, you're going to lose. He calls it "Pretty simple stuff," and reinforces the belief he stated on Saturday that you "can't start winning until you stop losing."
Most of that statistical lesson was wrapped in a response to a question regarding the criticism leveled at quarterback Tommy Rees. His whole answer is incredibly insightful on Kelly's coaching philosophy. He preaches accountability, but rather than dragging himself and his players into the criticism, his focus is on finding solutions. Kelly does a lot of work to try to simplify the game and the improvement process for his players. Stick with facts, and work to get better every day. These seem to be the pillars of Kelly's coaching philosophy and approach for building the program.
Kelly establishes that approach in his first 2 answers of the update. First, he makes sure everyone knows that he and his team are focused on beating BYU and sending out the seniors with a home victory. There isn't any looking forward or deviation from standard procedure, just prepare to win. Second, he dismisses the idea that there's nothing tangible left to play for this year. Once again, Kelly tries to explain the difference between a fan and a competitor. A fan looks at the season as lost. Kelly and his staff preach to the players about each and every week being a new battle and chance to prove themselves. They are all about getting better and beating that next opponent. Kelly represents all the other bowl games as "runner-up" games anyway. He views every week, every practice, every meeting, every rep as a chance to build up to that BCS championship or playoff berth. While fans and media may love to look at the big picture, Kelly understands and preaches to his team the only way to build that picture is to have success every week along the way.
I know it is proper coach-speak to ensure that people hear you say that the Stephon Tuitt targeting call didn't lose the game, but as a fan: oh yes it did. Sure you can point out that ND had plenty of opportunities to win despite one of the worst calls I've seen on a college football field, but that misapplication of a well-intended but poorly-implemented rule cost ND this game. Let me try it for you this way: You tie a boxer's hand behind his back, then you curse him for losing the fight because he didn't land enough punches. Sure, he got a few shots in and moved as best he could, so he kept it close and hung in, but there's no way he's winning when you take away a vital part of his game. The officials took one of ND's strengths and made it a weakness.
The entire press room wanted to turn a good chunk of Tuesday into a referendum on the targeting rule. Kelly does a good job saying a lot of the right things, but again, his tone and demeanor also suggest that he understands his team got screwed on Saturday. There's a ton in there, so if you're interested in his approach and his hopes for modification of the rule, give it a listen. What I liked best was his insistence that he and his staff never talk about "punishing" the ball carrier or leading with the helmet. They use the "right vocabulary" in talking about tackling. (of course, we could argue a safety could use a little more tackling vocab)
The real crime in this comes at about the 17 minute mark in the video. Kelly is asked about Stephon's mental state following his ejection and banishment to the locker room. Kelly said Tuitt "was confused." That's perfectly understandable. As Kelly said:
Clearly, when a 320lb inside player is running from the hash to the numbers at full speed and trying to make a play, and he gets thrown out of a game. Clearly, that isn't what the rule was intended for.
Stephon Tuitt, by many accounts, is a really hard working, likable, good young man. What happened to him Saturday was shameful.
- Kelly tried for a little levity when discussing the ankle injuries suffered by Isaac Rochelle and Jarron Jones. Both are in the, "new line of shoe wear, called the boot."
- Kona Schwenke was having his cast removed shortly after the press conference and Kelly was hopeful to have him back for BYU.
- Ishaq Williams had his knee injury improve from a grade 2 to a grade 1 sprain, and while Kelly wasn't expecting him to be 100%, he seemed hopeful he could contribute vs. the Cougars.
- Nick Martin broke his snapping hand with a "boxer's fracture" in the first quarter of the Pitt game. He managed to finish that game out, and Kelly expects him to be able to play effectively with a cast on for the BYU game.
While Larz pointed out some frustratingly poor defensive scheming and play, Kelly and many Irish fans have hung primary blame for the Pitt game on the offense. Aside from the aforementioned turnovers, there are plenty of disappointing results in how the Irish are executing with the ball. Playcalling was a central theme of the Tuesday session. Kelly was quick to say that Chuck Martin is calling the plays, but Kelly himself holds veto authority. However, "if you're vetoing every other play, you might as well call the plays." Kelly talks to Martin between series and gives his input at that time.
Aside from the play calling process, the gathered media wanted to penetrate the issue of run/pass balance. Obviously a source of many OFD
complaints and arguments discussions, Kelly provided additional insight in to his "take what the defense gives you" philosophy. Several times on Tuesday he indicated that calls are dictated exclusively by down and distance and game conditions. I was a little disappointed Kelly didn't have a decent answer for why in the 2nd half, protecting a narrow lead and guarding against a depleted defense, he only ran the ball 6 times in the 2nd half, but he stayed extremely vague in that answer. Later though, he provided some insight in to his own approach. When asked about "imposing their will" on the opponent, Kelly said that imposing one's will can take a lot of forms. In his mind, it isn't about running the ball down someone's throat. He views quick-strike ability, pass protection, etc. as ways to impose one's will on the defense. It will be interesting to see how MANBALL enthusiasts interpret Kelly's response.
Kelly's senior QB also was a prime topic of conversation. Tommy Rees hears the criticism and knows it is part of the deal at Notre Dame. Going 0-5 in the screen game isn't going to win a QB a lot of support. Kelly has done a great job sticking by a kid he's characterized as "Fighting Irish," but he also gave some insight into the true evaluation of the current QB situation:
We're not a huge move the pocket team with Tom. We were with Everett and I have been with other QB's. We struggle with other parts of the passing game with him in there. We try to stay with what his strengths are.
For the first time in Kelly's coaching career, his team will not practice during the bye week. Instead they'll lift and condition heavily. Kelly was quick to point out that a typical bye week schedule really only has 1 serious practice, and he felt it was a situation with a "diminishing return" to get his guys in this week. It sounds like the focus is recruiting and preparing the BYU game plan while guys get in the weight room and training room to get healthy. Expect a lively week of preparation this week.
I'll allow Jim and our other recruiting mavens to weigh in, but Kelly also makes some interesting comments about new recruiting rules and the financial assistance commitments schools can now make towards athletes. He views it as more than a verbal commitment.
There are going to be a lot of "fans", pundits, and blind oracles that will declare this ND season a failure and the Pitt loss as a disaster of epic proportions. Many will call for a coach's head after losing to a "lesser" opponent and point to the team's poor execution on Saturday. You won't find me among them. Eighteen to twenty two year old men make mistakes. Trust me, so do 40 year olds. Perfection is a ridiculous standard. Point to Nick Saban or whoever you want to, but I believe Kelly has ND on the right track and improving steadily. One setback in a set of crappy circumstances doesn't invalidate all that. Maybe I'm a crummy judge of this, but I love the message Kelly sends to his student athletes: be accountable and get better every day.
As a ND grad, I'm sensitive to claims that someone doesn't "get" Notre Dame. Certainly, there are the Mark May's and Colin Cowherd's of the world who will never understand ND. However, the next person who tells me Kelly and his staff are D2 guys who don't understand the magnitude of their charter, will get politely directed to the 31 minute mark of this video and Brian Kelly's answer regarding Louis Nix III's success at Notre Dame:
I think when you come on campus and breathe the air of Notre Dame, it has a tendency to help you. So just being on this campus, being around the students, being around the faculty, being around the staff, you're in an incredible environment of successful people. Success breeds success. He [Nix] is around other football players and student athletes that are like-minded. And let's not forget Louis' goals, because I think that's central to this. Louis chose Notre Dame because he wanted more. He wanted that degree from Notre Dame. He could have gone anywhere, but I think central to all of that is Louis Nix waned a degree from Notre Dame, and he's going to have one. When you cut right to it, it worked because Louis Nix wanted it to work.... I think it is a great story.
Yep, the guy clearly doesn't get it.