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Ringmaster Kelly to blame for Irish's flop

Image: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly places blame on his players, but the responsibility is his.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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SOUTH BEND, Ind.

This was desperation. An entire game, an entire week, an entire program. The whole thing turned into one big Hail Mary from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on Saturday. It is just the middle of his second season, and he’s already resorting to gimmicks?

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New-style or old-style, uniforms and helmets were the talk of the town. Here are some of the most distinctive.

That’s the pressure at Notre Dame, and of a team that simply is not turning around as expected.

New, bright shiny helmets for Saturday’s game with extra gold. Extra gold! Ozzy Osbourne music blaring throughout the stadium all . . . night . . . long. Little flags for the fans to wave. A night game at Notre Dame for the first time since 1990. And plenty more.

It was desperation followed by ridicule and humiliation for Notre Dame, which lost to USC anyway, 31-17.

“Our whole thing this week was not about the hype,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “It was about the prep. It was about preparing really well, finishing games off and not letting the other stuff get involved.

“You get the sense that this was their Super Bowl here ... So it’s even more pleasing.”

If you are missing it, that was Kiffin making fun of Kelly, who was trying to create — and win — a big game based on his own personal genius.

Kiffin made some remark about the loud music playing every time the Trojans came to the line, which “really helped us a lot.”

Know this: Every coach thinks he is magic. The best coaches, such as Kelly, think they have just a little something on everyone else.

Kelly found out Saturday that he doesn’t. Or maybe he didn’t find that out. But for sure, everyone else did.

This isn’t just about one game. It’s a about an entire program. It’s about the most historic team in college football — and the most entitled fans, alumni and power brokers.

So the desperation wasn’t limited to the pregame or to the game itself. The postgame was just as bad. Notre Dame even scheduled to have a week off before playing USC. All part of Kelly’s bag of magic.

Did he have any thoughts on why then, after all that, the Irish still got off to such an embarrassingly bad start — falling behind 17-0?

“You know, I generally — I’m falling on the sword nine out of 10 times,” Kelly said. “But I know what I’m doing on a bye week. I’ve had great success. I know what it looks like.”

Uh oh.

“I’m certainly not going to go back and second-guess the way I’ve prepared over 21 years in a bye week. Sometimes there’s some accountability from everybody, coaches and players alike ... They didn’t play as well as they needed to play.”

It is not a good idea for a coach to blame his players, not publicly. It’s not what the players are looking to their leader for. A coach, publicly, is supposed to have his team’s back.

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Kelly seems to believe he has placed his magic in them, and if they aren’t winning, it must be their fault.

Look, it’s not that players aren’t responsible. At the end of the third quarter, the Irish had driven 90 yards to the USC 1. A touchdown would have tied the score at 17.

Instead of tying it, though, quarterback Dayne Crist dropped the snap on third-and-goal and accidentally shoveled it backward through his legs all the way back to the 20-yard line, where USC’s Jawanza Starling picked it up and ran the final 80 yards for a touchdown.

It was just so reminiscent of a play in Notre Dame’s loss earlier this year to South Florida. So Crist dropped the snap, not Kelly. But I’m sorry: This game is on Kelly. Crist’s fumble was less important than that 17-0 start.

“To turn the ball over in the ridiculous fashion that we have, it just makes me crazy,” Kelly said. “I just don’t understand how something so easy can come out the way it does.”

Kelly told the team that this wasn’t going to be a fun week for them in practice.

This is just starting to look all wrong, sound all wrong. It’s so familiar. I sat in that same postgame interview room and heard Charlie Weis say almost all of those same words a few years ago when the Notre Dame program wasn’t turning under his magic, either.

“My greatest attribute professionally is as a teacher,” Weis said that day, Nov. 9, 2007. “I’ve always been able to do a good job of getting my message across. . . . You would like to think that there would be a direct correlation between the classroom and the practice field to the game.”

Kelly sounded the same Saturday, a teacher blaming a classroom of students for not getting the message.

Maybe there aren’t any magic answers in football. Maybe the incredible history at Notre Dame is just too much weight. With all the legends and ghosts, Notre Dame Stadium is turning into a haunted house.

Notre Dame (4-3) has lost three games this year, and it should have won all of them. South Florida, Michigan and now USC. Its only impressive win was over Michigan State. Now, the schedule gets easier until the season-ender against Stanford and Andrew Luck.

But if the Irish can’t win after having an extra week to prepare against their rival, which is on probation and playing in South Bend, well, imagine what Luck is going to do to them in California.

No, this was the all-in game for Notre Dame. The Irish’s defensive front was supposed to bully USC. Instead, from the start, USC ran right over Notre Dame.

“We had some guys that didn’t play with poise that needed to play with poise,” Kelly said. “Championship football teams play with competitive grace, which means that when the stakes are high and the stage is great, they raise their game. Today, in that same situation, some of our players didn’t raise their level of play.”

Darn students. They just don’t know how to learn.

Tagged: Buffalo, Stanford, USC, Notre Dame, Dayne Crist, Brian Kelly

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