EAST LANSING, Mich. – So much for the luck of the Irish.
Whether it's Charlie Weis or Brian Kelly in charge, Notre Dame is stuck in a rut, losing game after game by the slimmest of margins — and now on the wackiest of plays. On Saturday night, the Fighting Irish were on the wrong end of perhaps the season's most stunning finish, allowing a touchdown to Michigan State on a fake field goal that gave the Spartans a 34-31 overtime win.
Since starting last season 6-2, Notre Dame has lost six of seven, and every defeat was by a touchdown or less.
"There is not much you can say after a loss like that," Kelly said Sunday. "There is nothing that is going to make anybody feel any better. Other than, do you want to come back and work on getting better? And we'll know on Monday where it is. My guess is these guys got a lot of pride just as our coaches do and we're going to come back to work and continue to put ourselves in a position to close out and win games."
Kelly replaced Weis as coach after the Irish lost four straight to finish 2009. He's already made an impact, as evidenced by his team's smooth offensive performance in the second half against the Spartans. Dayne Crist threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns in the game, which was Kelly's first on the road as coach.
Crist's sharp performance was negated when, with Michigan State's Dan Conroy lining up for a 46-yard field goal to tie the game in overtime, holder Aaron Bates took the snap, stood up and threw to Charlie Gantt for a 29-yard touchdown.
"Words really can't explain it right now," Notre Dame safety Zeke Motta said after the game.
There was even a hint of controversy on the play — questions about whether the Spartans took too long to get the play off. The Big East said Sunday that officials handled the play correctly, and Kelly wasn't looking for excuses.
"Could there have been zero on it before it snapped? I mean, yeah. There's that possibility," he said. "I really haven't spent much time thinking or complaining about that as much as we've got to defend the play. And that's what really my focus has been on."
And the Irish didn't even defend the play that badly. The fake was designed to go to Le'Veon Bell, who wasn't able to get down the field. Gantt did, however, and Bates had enough time to find him.
"Right now, guys are upset, obviously," Crist said. "It's a tough loss and guys are hurt by that, but we'll give it time to get out of our systems."
The loss to Michigan State made some of Notre Dame's other recent defeats seem tame by comparison. The Irish began last November with losses to Navy and Pittsburgh by a combined seven points, then fell 33-30 to Connecticut in double overtime.
Stanford then ended the Weis era by beating Notre Dame 45-38 on a last-minute touchdown by Toby Gerhart.
After a win over Purdue in this year's opener, the Irish lost to Michigan 28-24 on a touchdown with 27 seconds left.
"The Michigan game we hold Michigan scoreless for 30-some odd minutes and then obviously a couple of big plays," Kelly said. "So for us it's been carrying that play after play after play and then having one breakdown here or there and that's how you get beat."
Notre Dame hosts No. 16 Stanford on Saturday, and one thing Kelly doesn't want to do is panic — no matter how much the pressure from fans might increase with each close loss.
"I don't think that you have any head coaching position, whether it's Notre Dame or anywhere else, and sit around and worrying about what those people think," he said. "You're going to work every day, trying to get your football team to be the best they can be."