SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly apologized to his players in the locker room after the loss at North Carolina State, sorry that he couldn’t find a way to win.
“I’ve got to look hard at how I’m doing it to figure out a way to get a win for you guys, because you deserve it,” he said.
Kelly has done a bit of everything to try to turn around Notre Dame’s fortunes. He said after the loss to Michigan State that he and his coaches needed to do better. He placed the blame for the loss to Duke on his players, saying they needed to play with more passion. He fired his defensive coordinator and told the other assistants and the players that everyone’s job was in jeopardy, including his own. He’s taken a more active role in coaching the defense and he’s encouraged the Irish to play with more enthusiasm.
So midway into a season that’s quickly spiraling out of control, what move can Kelly make to help the Irish (2-4) as he tries to avoid his first losing season since his first year at Central Michigan in 2004? Kelly’s push this week as the Irish prepare for Stanford (3-2) is for players to finish games stronger.
“I need your best in these moments,” he said.
He sounded a similar theme following a 50-47 double overtime loss to Texas in the opener. Kelly is 21-16 in games decided by a touchdown or less in his seven seasons at Notre Dame, including 0-3 this season.
“We expect to win some of the close games that we’re going to be playing in over the next six weeks,” Kelly said.
The Irish were 3-2 in those games last season — and that includes a 38-36 loss at Stanford where DeShone Kizer led the Irish on a 15-play, 88-yard drive that used up 6 minutes and 18 seconds before Kizer scored on a 2-yard run with 30 seconds left. But the Irish defense allowed the Cardinal to drive 45 yards on five plays for the 45-yard game-winning field goal that ended Notre Dame’s playoff hopes.
The Irish haven’t won a close game since.
Kelly said he should have done a better job preparing the Irish for close games.
“On the level of what we were trying to do, I think that kind of fell lower on the list of priorities,” he said. “I think priority one was getting them lined up and getting them to play at a high level against Texas right out of the gate. And then, we had some issues on defense.”
Kelly wouldn’t get into the specifics about what changes he is planning to finish stronger, but said part of the focus will be on awareness.
“You’ve got to say, ‘All right, four minutes to go in the game. Let’s move the chains. Let us go up and down the field with that same kind of process so everybody is alert, locked in and understands. Let’s go win the game,'” he said.
Because of the close losses, the Irish have gone from being ranked No. 10 in the preseason to a team that desperately needs wins with the toughest games still ahead, including No. 16 Miami, No. 17 Virginia Tech and No. 25 Navy. The struggles have some questioning whether Kelly’s job could be in jeopardy. Kelly said he doesn’t pay attention.
“Everybody has struggles. Everybody goes through some tough times. You’re going to have some adversity. If you cave to adversity then how strong are you really? I’m looking for guys that are strong, guys that bounce back higher when there is some adversity,” he said