SOUTH BEND — Freshly showered after another home game that didn’t go their way, four Notre Dame football players carried with them the distinctive smell of soap — Dial? — into a stuffy and stagnant postgame interview room.
No amount of hot water or body wash or shampoo or anything else could completely cleanse the lingering stink from this one. You could try by lathering and rinsing and repeating, but it still would be there.
Smell it? Sure you do. You have to after a 16-14 loss to Stanford on Saturday.
“It’s just frustrating, man,” said Irish head coach Marcus Freeman, who at times looked as cold on the sideline as his team did incompetent. “Frustrating. We’ve just got to be better.”
Having won three straight games after starting 0-2, Notre Dame was supposed to be better. Supposed to be beyond the point where it again found itself Saturday as midnight neared. Beyond having to dissect what went wrong after another four quarters of uncertain football at home. Beyond the point of singing the alma mater half-heartedly in their house, which again included the occasional chorus of boos when it wasn’t going right.
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It never really went right.
Beyond the point of losing a football game it had absolutely no business losing to an opponent that had no business winning. Yet, they all are. Again.
Last month, it was Marshall — Marshall?!? — that left this Notre Dame football program searching for answers. They were answers that the Irish thought they had found after those three straight wins, including a pair away from home. But all those answers again became questions as a struggling Stanford team that showed zero sign of life the first five weeks (1-4) flew across the country and prepared to fly back with its season’s biggest win.
Notre Dame in Week Six looked nothing like it did in Weeks Three, Four and Five. Confidence? Where was it? As a result, an Irish outfit that had designs on chasing their first national championship since 1988, of getting back to the College Football Playoff for the third time in five years, of again winning double-digit games for a sixth straight season, find themselves in a place that is all too foreign.
And all too unacceptable.
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“There’s a bunch of guys that came back for a reason,” said safety Houston Griffith.
This — 3-3 — isn’t it. But it’s all they have. With six games down and six to go, this is an average program from top to bottom and all around. Average coaching. Average assistants. Average players. Average mindset. Average results. Average fans.
Nothing about that campus, about that football program, about Notre Dame is average. Not the academics. Not the reputation. Certainly, not the football program. But average the Irish are after Saturday, after a team that many figured Notre Dame would dispatch with a flick of the wrist came to town and took the Irish so completely apart. One play at a time. One quarter at a time.
Game plan was a disaster
The Irish defense did enough to win this game. It allowed one touchdown, and that was five minutes in. The sun had barely set before it was 7-0 Stanford. Still, that should’ve been more than enough to win, especially given the way the Cardinal seemingly wanted to gift-wrap this one for the home team. Stanford fumbled twice — seemed like it coughed it up at least a half dozen times — but Notre Dame never cashed in. Never pounced on the loose ball when the ball was loose. Again, couldn’t muster an interception. Or that one big play.
“Today was a day we needed the defense to play perfect,” said Freeman. “It didn’t happen.”
Those defensive shortcomings should’ve been enough to overcome, except coordinator Tommy Rees and the Irish offense couldn’t get out of their own wandering way. That was a complete dumpster fire of a game plan. Where was the ingenuity, the creativity, the certainty that the group had played with in wins at North Carolina and over Brigham Young the previous week in Las Vegas? Where was the grind-it-out/pound-it-out run game?
We saw so little of it. Quarterback Drew Pyne, who had looked so comfortable the previous two weeks, was uncomfortable. The run game never got going. The pass game leaned a little too hard on tight end Michael Mayer. Hey, look, Tobias Merriweather can make a play. Even Rees, who twice seemingly strayed from the call sheet to dial up wide receiver runs — from Jayden Thomas and Braden Lenzy — that gained a total of (-8) yards. Good calls, there.
The Thomas play call was especially curious. It came on a fourth-and-2 from the Cardinal 5-yard line. Don’t know what call sheet Rees was scanning, but that situation screams this — POUND IT!
With bruising tailback Audric Estime. Behind a veteran offensive line that finally had found its mojo. Steamroll that Stanford front out of the back of the south end zone, tie the game and establish something.
Instead, Rees got cute. Cute doesn’t cut it at Notre Dame. Never has. Knute wasn’t cute. Neither were the Four Horsemen. Or the Gipper. The lore of Notre Dame was built on black and white film and old-fashioned, bare-knuckle football. When we needed old-fashioned football, we got receiver reverses.
In the end, Notre Dame wound up right back where it was five weeks earlier. It’s again about execution. It’s again about preparation. Time to take a deep dive into everything. Here we go again. Blah, blah, blah. Sigh.
“There’s going to be no one that will work harder than us,” Pyne said.
Last week’s work in practice was dubbed by captain JD Bertrand as “awesome.” Work during the week isn’t necessarily the issue. Winning on Saturdays is.
“It’s those little details we need to focus on,” Bertrand said.
You can crunch all the numbers, rewind all the missed plays and near-misses, but it’s all going to come back to something nobody around the program wants to hear. Notre Dame is average. At the end of the day, at the end of Saturday night, at the end of any win streak that this group that again faces a moment of truth might cobble together the rest of the way, this is an average program.
Notre Dame doesn’t do average. It is now. Maybe for a while.
Standing in the north end zone as this one prepared to go final after Pyne’s pass to Thomas on fourth down fell harmlessly incomplete, you were stuck by the quiet of everything. From the stands. From the Irish sideline. Even when this game was still in doubt, the place felt library-silent.
The only ruckus came from the visitor’s sideline. Again. That’s become all too common. Welcome to Notre Dame, and thanks for giving the Irish another “L.”
“We’ll figure it out,” Freeman said.
Maybe the Irish will. Maybe next week will be different. They’ll be different. Better. But for how long?
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.