PITTSBURGH - Brian Kelly's Notre Dame had made a living off of playing strong late-season ball.
The Irish have not always looked perfect over the past four seasons, but they very nearly had been perfect in November games in the same span.
In Saturday's 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh, Notre Dame's turnovers, defensive lapses and inability to execute overwhelmed the team's attempt to extend its winning streak to five games. The defeat is only the second November loss for the Irish under Kelly, a stretch in which Notre Dame is 12-2.
"I think what I'm most concerned about is the inability to put together a consistent effort tonight, in November, 10 games into the season," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "There's really, for me, no reason why. And I take full responsibility for it as the head coach.
"There's no reason why we don't execute the level we should in November. And that happened tonight."
Key among the many Irish mistakes was a trio of turnovers from veteran starters. Senior receiver TJ Jones fumbled the ball at the end of a 34-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter. Pittsburgh recovered the fumble on its own six-yard line. Rees added two fourth-quarter interceptions, one of which came in the end zone and the other of which came on an overthrown ball down the middle of the field.
"I just know we made mistakes and kept making mistakes," Jones said. "It's hard to get momentum going when you make those types of plays."
Another glaring miscue came on the defensive end, when Irish senior linebacker Prince Shembo forced a fumble while bringing down Panthers redshirt senior quarterback Tom Savage for a sack. Several Irish players, including sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day, were within reach of the bouncing ball but did not pick it up.
"It was just a lapse," Kelly said. "A bunch of inexperienced guys out there not seeing that they should have been on the ball."
Penalties constituted another set of errors for the Irish. Irish junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt drew a flag for targeting in the opening quarter and senior cornerback Bennett Jackson was flagged for pass interference on a 4th-and-5 play in the third quarter.
Taken together, the array of errors proved to be insurmountable for the Irish.
"No big-picture things," Kelly said. "Not really big, heady stuff. These are just fundamentals of the game of football that were not attended to in the manner that they needed to be. Our mantra is 'you can't start winning until you stop losing,' and we did things tonight that cause losing."
The loss drops the Irish firmly out of the hunt for a BCS bowl berth, forcing them to look elsewhere for motivation moving forward.
"Just go out the best you can," Jones said. "You don't want to go out on an 0-3 streak. So you finish up the season the best you can and you take the bowl game that you get."
Notre Dame will have an extra week to ruminate on its mistakes and regroup following the loss, as it heads into a bye week before welcoming in BYU on Nov. 23.
"We'll go in Monday and put this behind us, from a film standpoint," Kelly said. "We won't put this behind us from an evaluation standpoint. But we will put it behind us in terms of the game itself. We'll weight-train on Tuesday, and then I'll make my decision about how we move forward the rest of the games."
Contact Joseph Monardo at firstname.lastname@example.org