Former players say Notre Dame should be better than 4-3

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Southern California tight end Randall Telfer makes a catch to core USC’s first touchdown in the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly and team watch during a NCAA college football game in South Bend. Ind., Saturday, Oct. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Notre Dame has lost so many games in ways that defy explanation in recent seasons that it’s only natural to wonder if greater forces are at work.

‘‘You’d think divine intervention would work in our favor,” former Irish quarterback Joe Theismann, an analyst for NFL Network, said with an exasperated sigh.

Name another team that twice has fumbled on its opponent’s 1-yard line and had it returned for a touchdown. Scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 30 seconds left and still losing at Michigan isn’t something that happens every day – or every decade.

At what point, however subconsciously, do players begin expecting bad things to happen, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?

‘‘It can get in your head if you let it, just like anything could,” safety Harrison Smith said. ‘‘You just can’t really have that mind-set that everything is going to go wrong. .  .  . You just can’t think like that, no matter what. You’ve always got to think, ‘I’m going to make the next play. We’re going to make the next play. We’re going to finish the game.’  ”

Two of the Irish’s most influential former players remain confident coach Brian Kelly will restore the program to its former glory, although it might take longer than they originally hoped. Theismann and former offensive lineman Aaron Taylor are convinced the tide will turn.

‘‘I share the same frustrations a lot of other people are feeling, including coach Kelly himself,” said Taylor, an analyst for CBS Sports Network. ‘‘The bottom line is, Notre Dame is better than a 4-3 football team. They’re seven or eight plays away from being undefeated. That’s what so frustrating.

‘‘Prophetically, one thing [former Irish coach Lou Holtz] always talked about is there’s nothing worse in life than a missed opportunity. This 2011 team is missing out on a tremendous opportunity because they could be sitting here undefeated. They’re losing games they should win.”

What Taylor thinks must be done echoes what Kelly has been preaching since Notre Dame’s 31-17 loss to USC last Saturday. Taylor said games are won during the week, when players should be focused on how to achieve success in that game. No detail is too small, which is what Kelly has been emphasizing all week – even having his players spend extra time on pre-practice calisthenics until they were done precisely as he wanted.

Kelly admitted the level of preparation wasn’t as high as it should have been leading up to the loss to the Trojans.

‘‘It’s more about how I want things done, how I want this team to play,” Kelly said. ‘‘I haven’t been able to get it the way I want them to play. For me, if they’re going to do all the things the right way and we’re just getting beat because the other teams are better, I’ll be OK with that. But that’s not the case right now. I’m not very happy about the way we handle the little things.”

Several players who expressed frustration via social media this week after Kelly implied not all of them were in sync with his philo-sophy might want to stop reading now because Taylor thinks they are mostly to blame. He said the leadership within the team is lacking.

‘‘I don’t think it’s an issue about talent or coaching,” he said. ‘‘My personal opinion is .  .  . they don’t have a sense of urgency, and I put it squarely on shoulders of the senior class. Somehow, it has been OK to fumble on the goal line. When I see Kelly on the sideline, it feels like he cares more than those seniors do.

‘‘I wonder if guys understand the enormity of the responsibility of wearing the gold helmet, if they really get that what they’re doing is a big deal.”

Perhaps most frustrating of all is that Kelly has cured much of what ailed the program. The Irish no longer get pushed around up front. This is an experienced, physical team that has established an identity on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, being mistake-prone is part of that identity. Only the players can change that.

‘‘They all knew this was a good football team – the players, coaches and fans,” Theismann said. ‘‘That’s what’s most disappointing to the Irish Nation: The expectation was for something so much more. But I don’t believe that expectation was unreasonable. I know it was Brian’s expectation, as well. This football team is a lot better than it has shown.”

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