The late October days back in 2010 that witnessed a blowout loss to Navy, the tragic death of Declan Sullivan, and culminating in the loss to Tulsa were truly dark times for Irish football. Hope with a new coach took an absolute beating for 3 weeks or longer. I went back and re-read my game review for the Tulsa game and it’s depressingly gloomy in parts. I was there in person in the south end zone and it was a sad and weird feeling leaving the stadium that day.
Times are different now. So, I’d like to walk back through a few things from the Tulsa game with several years of hindsight.
1) Tulsa Weirdness
A lot of the history of this game continues to be wrapped up in terms as if Tulsa was a hapless opponent. Actually, the Golden Hurricane were in the middle of perhaps their best run in school history aided by Todd Graham as head coach and Chad Morris (his lone year with Tulsa before taking the same job at Clemson) as offensive coordinator. They’d finish 2010 as the 6th highest scoring offense at 41.4 points per game and won 10 games. Some Irish fans don’t care about this–if you’re not playing a Power 5 opponent you might as well be playing William & Mary and it should be a blowout win either way.
The funny thing is Notre Dame is currently a larger underdog to Clemson in the semi-finals than Tulsa was visiting South Bend in 2010.
This loss hurt in the aftermath of Declan’s death but also because of the ending (we’ll get there!) and that it was one of the weirdest games in all of college football during this season. A brief summary:
Tulsa’s vaunted offense scored 1 touchdown in the entire game, just over 5 minutes into the 1st quarter on their first drive.
Irish quarterback Dayne Crist was lost for the year on the second series due to a patella injury, thrusting true freshman Tommy Rees into his first extended action.
Notre Dame’s PAT after their first touchdown was blocked and return for 2 points to push Tulsa’s early lead to 9-6.
TJ Jones and Cierre Wood executed a beautiful hook and ladder touchdown to give Notre Dame a 13-12 lead.
John “Fair Catch” Goodman did not fair catch and lost a fumble on a punt return.
Tulsa missed a field goal from 32 yards.
The Irish executed a fake punt in which Bennett Jackson picked up 20 yards and a first down, leading to a touchdown and 20-12 lead.
Tulsa gave Notre Dame a free first down after a roughing the punter call. The Irish later punted again anyway.
With 1:07 remaining in the first half, Rees found Toma for 26 yards, then a roughing the passer penalty brought the ball to the Tulsa 30 yard-line. Rees threw a pick six on the very next play. Attempting to tie the game, Tulsa failed to convert the 2-point attempt.
Rees threw another pick on the first throw of the very next series, luckily deep enough that Tulsa didn’t have time to score before halftime.
Tulsa scored on a 59-punt return to close the Irish lead to 27-25.
In the 4th quarter, on a day where they’d throw 56 passes, the Irish ran the ball on 3rd & 7 for 2 yards to the Tulsa 38-yard line. They inexplicably punted.
Tulsa converted a 3rd & 26 on what would turn out to be a game-winning field goal drive.
Nothing could top the bizarre circumstances surrounding the South Florida game to open the following season but this Tulsa game was right up there as the strangest of this century.
2) The Interception
I was pissed about the final interception. But, people change and for years I’ve revised my opinion on the matter so much so that I forgot I was originally pissed about the decision that ended this game.
At the time, everyone was just thinking get out of here with the win and I understand that completely. However, many people seem to forget that it was only 2nd down with 42 seconds remaining in the game.
Tulsa had taken their second timeout 4 plays prior before a 3rd down conversion by Notre Dame. The Irish had a pair of timeouts and could’ve bled the clock down to a few seconds remaining and attempted the game-winning field goal. This is the conservative approach that nearly everyone favored.
Even still, the run game largely sucked in this game (Wood & Hughes combined for 70 yards on 20 carries woof) and Cierre Wood gained 2 yards on first down to move the ball to the Tulsa 19-yard line before the infamous interception. From there it’s a 36-yard field goal attempt, what many have (unfairly) called a “chip-shot” field goal. Does the run game lose yards in an obvious run situation and now we’re looking at close to a 40-yard field goal?
They tried to take a shot to an All-American receiver to win the game against one of the country’s worst pass defenses. The worst outcome happened but had it been an incompletion the offense is still set up for a field goal try either on 3rd or 4th down. Plus, we have to at least admit the conservative route of attempting a mid-range field goal wasn’t a sure thing either on a day with swirling winds and tons of wacky happenings. Further, I think a field goal from mid-30 yards would miss more often than this throw to Floyd would be picked off, but fate wasn’t in Notre Dame’s hands this day.
One of the really interesting things to me on this play (the only clean version I could find on the whole internet was from Todd Graham’s TV show later that week) is how long Rees keeps his eyes to the left after the defensive back blitzes. I bet most remember this as a clean throw to Floyd but Rees seems to be looking at something to the other side of the field before panic running to his right and throwing over to Floyd who had been in single coverage. Had Rees gone straight to Floyd with his feet set we may be talking about a different outcome.
3) Get Used to It
A comment that lives on in infamy!
The post-game after Tulsa is important because it shed some light on the decision-making–and like many Kelly soundbites that got blown out of proportion–wasn’t treated with proper nuance. Here’s the full quote:
QUESTION: Can you take us through the last play with the interception in the end zone, what you were hoping to see there.
COACH KELLY: Yeah, we knew we had a one-on-one matchup with Mike Floyd. We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there.
But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one-on-one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again. We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today. But in time we’ll make that play.
Be honest, had you ever read the full quote? What’s interesting to me is you can read that as a defense eventually Rees will make that throw and Kelly is sticking up for his guys. His detractors would say Kelly isn’t taking the blame and it was a perfect call if only the players could execute. The quote actually makes a lot of sense to me. Get used to us playing aggressive and trying to exploit matchups with our best offensive player. What a mad man, that Kelly.
Since some Irish fans have a conniption about throwing the ball and that is largely where the anger from “get used to it” came from then and today. That kind of morphed into that snippet of the quote taking on a life of its own with anything Kelly screwed up.
Interestingly, this was 1 of only 5 games during Kelly’s tenure where quarterbacks threw the ball at least 50 times and the program has currently gone 56 straight games without throwing that much in a single game. I guess we really didn’t have to get used to it that much. Over eight years later with the program in a far better place maybe it’s time to stop being so mad about one interception and a parsed quote.