You know it’s bad when a coach tells a sideline reporter that the best way to find the fixes needed for the second half is for the other team just not to show up. “Maybe Alabama doesn’t come back in the second half,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in a moment of uncomfortable realism. “It’s all Alabama. I mean, we can’t tackle ’em right now.”
And for Notre Dame, it was that bad. The Crimson Tide rolled over Notre Dame’s vaunted defense with 28 unanswered points in the first half. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron completed 20 of 28 passes for four touchdowns and 264 yards. Linebacker and Heisman candidate Manti Te’o missed more tackles in this game than he had all season, combined. With the whole world watching—the game was promoted as a historic rematch between two football powerhouses—Notre Dame was simply swamped. It was a rout, plain and simple.
I found myself wondering as those shiny gold helmets jogged into the locker room just how Kelly would ever motivate his team for the second half. Any football novice could watch the first 30 minutes and see the Irish didn’t stand a chance to win. The usual half-time adjustments for a losing team—a change in play calling, a defensive strategy fix here or there—seemed like the proverbial moving of the deck chairs on the Titanic. This ship was going down.
Who knows what Kelly said to his team to try to buck them up after the first half. There was little hint of it in his postgame press conference or his remarks to a reporter after the game. His comment that he had to get the team to “play with some pride in the second half and try to get this thing closer so we can try to find a way to win” was the nearest thing we got to knowing what was said.
And more than likely, pride was the main message. There was little Kelly could do to convince a team that was down by four touchdowns and a defensive line that had been literally run over by Alabama’s Eddie Lacy that there was a likely route to a win. Rather, it had to be all about “closing the gap” (a line that was used over and over again in postgame talk), representing Notre Dame, and getting close enough to at least be back in the game. That never happened, of course: Though the Irish did manage to score two touchdowns, the gap never closed within 28 points.
After the game, Kelly gave credit to Alabama, and seemed almost to treat the trouncing they’d just received as a lesson—a field trip, so to speak—to the big leagues. “Our guys needed to see what it looked like” to play a championship team, he said in the postgame presser. There was very little post-game analysis of what he or his players could have done differently; rather, there was a focus on the future, now that they’d seen the best. “We all now know what we need to do” to play like a team that wins championships, Kelly said, calling it a “great, great opportunity.” In other words, he seemed to be saying, I realized pretty quickly we were never really in it, so let’s at least try to learn something from it.
It was a little sad, and almost quaint, to hear Kelly implicitly admit what the whole world knew: Notre Dame was simply outmatched. But as the leader of a team that had been blown out while the world watched, it was about all he could do, too: Set the team’s sights forward. Show that he and his players learned from the experience. And try to get his kids to hold their heads with pride.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.