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The Journal Gazette

Monday, November 13, 2017 1:00 am

Title dreams dashed, Irish pick up pieces

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

The demolition of Notre Dame's grand 2017 plan means that, although the program may have come a long way under coach Brian Kelly, the Irish still have plenty of ground to cover.

In many ways, Saturday night's 41-8 loss to No. 2 Miami (9-0) was the third strike in Notre Dame's quest to turn opportunity into a national title.

The comprehensive drubbing at Hard Rock Stadium will certainly sting for some time. It almost assuredly means yet another season of championship ambitions that are not met. The Irish's stated mission is to call themselves champions. Or bust.

Now that No. 9 Notre Dame (8-2) likely can't get into the College Football Playoff, Kelly is left with the other half of that equation.

“We have had one mission, and we didn't live up to that standard,” Kelly said Sunday. “We'll go back to applying that standard in everything we do and learn from what happened and look to live up to the standard of excellence at Notre Dame on Saturday against Navy.”

Notre Dame's first swing and miss was Jan. 7, 2013, a 42-14 loss to Alabama in the national title game. Then, there was 2015's late-season fade after a mid-November top-four ranking from the CFP selection committee. And now there's Saturday's loss as a road favorite on a bright stage that resulted in nothing close to Notre Dame's best effort.

“In retrospect, it was a big game,” Kelly said. “There was a lot to the atmosphere. I have to do better keeping them from being distracted.”

The Irish dug out from a dismal 4-8 record a year ago to start 8-1, set a pile of offensive records and earned the No. 3 spot in the CFP rankings. Once they got to Miami Gardens, Florida, they didn't make the most of it, a shocking cave-in from a team that had framed itself as a hardened group comfortable in handling all forms of adversity.

So, now the questions come. Why did the Irish look tight? Why was the offense unable to find a rhythm? Why couldn't the defense get any kind of key stop?

“Credit to (Miami) all over the place,” Notre Dame defender Drue Tranquill said. “That was the loudest game I've ever played in.”

The Irish are left with the cold, empty feeling of a plan gone awry. They believed they were – and at times played like – a more well-rounded team than the one that had a 12-0 regular season in 2012.

Now, they will wrestle an odd sense. That all that came before Saturday, the 8-1 start, blowout wins over Michigan State, Southern California and North Carolina State, added up to nothing.

Notre Dame's next task is to pick up the pieces, climb out from those shattered plans and learn from its Miami meltdown.

The Irish looked out of sorts from the start. Perhaps most troubling was, when the first domino of despair fell, they did not respond. They did not pick themselves up. They did not dust themselves off. They simply weren't good enough, not tough enough, not resilient enough to recover when things went badly early.

“A number of these kids hadn't played in a game of this magnitude since maybe the (October 2015) Clemson game,” Kelly said. “I didn't do maybe my best work at settling our team down with the moment being so big.”

cgoff@jg.net