NOTRE DAME, Ind. – With Saturday’s bullet dodged, Brian Kelly and his Fighting Irish football are back to work as they gear-up for another week and another opponent. Notre Dame had its biggest scare of the season on Saturday when it was forced to overcome a 14-point fourth quarter deficit en-route to a 29-26 triple overtime victory over unranked Pittsburgh (4-5).
“I really didn’t have any problem with their preparation during the week,” Kelly said during his Sunday media teleconference of his team’s mental state leading up to the Pitt game. “We just didn’t play with the same focus and intensity that we need to each and every week against quality opposition.”
“There can’t be any difference between Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, because they’re gonna play at the same level and we’re not good enough not to play our A-game.”
The lack of focus and intensity showed itself in multiple forms in the dramatic comeback win. The Irish lost the turnover battle 3-0, they committed six penalties after being flagged just once last week at OU, they missed both a field goal and an extra point kick, and they also saw Pitt average nearly 26 yards on five kick returns.
“I think the learning experience is that you’re 9-0, but you have to play your very, very best or all these games are going to come down to one or two plays,” Kelly said of his new message for his team. “Hopefully they’ve learned from that.”
Kelly said immediately after the win that his team would have found a way to lose rather than fight to the win if this were last season. On Sunday he listed perseverance, toughness and confidence among the key ingredients for a team to be able to battle back from the kind of odds Notre Dame did Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.
Luck, however, was not an ingredient in Kelly’s recipe for hard-fought success.
“I’ve never had a team that won because it was lucky,” Kelly said when asked about how luck comes into play for a championship team. “But I’ve had many teams that were fortunate because they were good football teams and they found a way to win.”
“I don’t think that I’ve ever had a lucky football team,” he continued. “I think I’ve had a team that has gotten some breaks along the way, but generally those teams have earned them along the way.”
Going Back To Golson
For the third time this season Kelly pulled Everett Golson from a game and replaced him with Tommy
Rees due to non-injury related performance. However, for the first time this season Kelly went back to Golson when he went back to Golson after Rees threw a third quarter interception.
“I don’t know that it was just the one interception,” Kelly said of his rationale for replacing Rees with Golson. “I just felt like the offense was a little stale and we needed a way to kind of jump start it.”
Kelly’s “gut feeling” to put his starter back in came shortly after his team fell behind 17-6 after tight end J.P. Holtz’s 9-yard TD reception from Tino Sunseri. He cited Golson’s ability to “create things” using his feet as the spark that might eventually revive what was a slumbering Irish offense for most of the day.
His impact was not felt immediately upon his return to the field, but he had a pair of rushes for 16 yards in his second drive, which culminated in his 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Jones to bring his team to within eight points of Pitt after Kyle Brindza’s missed PAT.
Golson had multiple opportunities to show his own growth from both a mental and physical standpoint during the game. The first came when he was benched late in the first half.
“He handled himself much better than say the first couple of times when we took him out of the game,” Kelly recalled of Golson’s attitude after being replaced by Rees. “But I think he’s a very competitive kid, and I’ve got a feeling he wanted to get back in there and compete and he certainly did that.”
Golson’s other opportunity came after he threw an end zone interception with just 5:58 remaining and his team still down 20-12. He needed just two passing plays, including a 45-yarder to DaVaris Daniels, to get ND back in the end zone and then scored the two-point conversion to tie the game 20-20.
“We hope that he takes from this game that if you just keep fighting and you just keep sticking with the game plan you’ve got a chance,” Kelly said. “Every step for him has been a learning experience. I think he takes that with him from yesterday’s game.”
The Fighting Irish caught a major break on the play that Pitt kicker Kevin Harper missed what would have been a game-ending field goal in the game’s second over time. Notre Dame should have been penalized on the play, because Chris Brown and Bennett Jackson, who both wear No. 2 on their jerseys, were both on the field for the play at the same time. Kelly calls it “bad coaching”.
“It was a coaching mistake,” Kelly commented. “We had put our “Desperado Team” on there. Chris Brown is part of Desperado. We’ve gotta do a better job. (It is) an oversight that can’t happen.”
Kelly went on to indicate that Brown will likely have a new number this week.
More Special Teams
While Notre Dame’s woeful 2.6 punt return average has drawn most of the ire from Irish fans this season, Kelly has other specific areas where he needs to see improvement.
“I guess the area that we need to continue to grow towards consistency is the skill area,” Kelly began. “It’s fielding all those punts. It’s kicking the ball consistently. It’s snapping the ball consistently. I guess those are the areas that I want to see improvement on, but by and large our special teams have not been a reason for me to stay up all night.”
In addition to a high snap on the missed PAT and missing a field goal, Kelly says there were two instances where Brindza kicked the ball down the middle of the field on Saturday when he should have “pinned” the ball in a certain spot. The Irish also averaged just 18 yards on five kick returns. Pitt averaged 40.4 net yards on five kickoffs, while Notre Dame averaged 34.2.
Kelly said after the game on Saturday that safety Matthias Farley played against Pitt with a cast after having screws inserted into his hand during surgery on Tuesday. Farley practiced at full speed Wednesday and Thursday, but Kelly did not think the sophomore was up to full speed right away during the game.
“He didn’t play with the same speed in the first half,” Kelly said of Farley. “(I) don’t know why. (In the) second half he was flying around. He was coming down and making tackles. It looked like Matthias Farley. It might have had a little bit of an effect on him in the first half.”
There’s a chance the season could be over for Tate Nichols. The reserve offensive tackle has had knee issues since before the season began and Kelly says he will likely have an MRI after apparently injuring it more severely.
“We’re still in the process of getting more information, but he did suffer an injury,” Kelly said of Tate’s status. “We won’t have any definitive information for a couple more days.”