Quitting? Say it ain’t so, Notre Dame

It’s so easy to take cheap shots on the bus out of town. USC beat up — and beat down — Notre Dame on Saturday, and since then, several USC players have said that the Irish gave up, that they are a bunch of quitters.

“To the victors go the spoils,’’ Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Sunday, explaining it away as if it were meaningless cockiness.

But is that all this was? Bad winners? I think it carried a lot of weight. At the very least it was a big, loud warning about what is happening with Notre Dame football.

This game was always meant to be a defining moment for Notre Dame, and so it was pretty shocking to see USC quarterback Matt Barkley say that, “It seemed from our sideline and our perspective that they did give up.’’

And linebacker Chris Galippo told ESPNLA, “That’s what Notre Dame football’s about.’’

To be honest, I’m not positive if Notre Dame’s players gave up. But Kelly?

He definitely did. He quit on his team and then blamed them later.

This was as ugly as any moment Notre Dame had under Charlie Weis. And if the team’s leader gave up, then it’s not hard to imagine that the team followed his example.

It’s one of the biggest insults a football player can hear, that he gave up. It’s the same as questioning manhood. It’s also an easy thing to say. But Notre Dame fans might want to take this one seriously.

The program of Rudy might have just had a “no mas’’ moment. And if you believe that it did, then the question is why?

Well, this is a program now spooked by its grand past. It has such great tradition, and everyone keeps waiting for that one moment to get it all back. But Notre Dame keeps losing that moment. It’s hard to remember the last time the Irish won a big game.

Kelly built up this moment as a way to forget all other lost moments.

He put the team in super bright helmets with extra gold. (They looked ridiculous, like football players with Christmas lights on their heads). They blared Ozzy Osbourne music over the PA at every chance to get the crowd going. They handed out towels for fans to wave.

Kelly was just so sure of himself, so sure that this moment would be his, with an extra week to prepare for a night game with a huge TV audience and a ton of top recruits in the stands against a rival that’s on probation. So he ended up doubling and tripling the pressure of the moment to get the biggest payback. And when it wasn’t going right, the defeat was double and triple.

Kelly gave in. And maybe the players did, too.

After a while, you lose enough times, under this much pressure, and the weight can be too much. Kelly made a point of saying after the game that. no, he doesn’t put the pressure of BCS hopes on his team. On Sunday, he said his talk about that stuff was just a sound bite. His point: He talks about that stuff to the media, but not to his players.

But after the game, I asked a player whether Kelly talks about it with the team, and he said, “Oh, yeah. Lose one time, and we’re out.’’

The glaring thing about Kelly was his use, or non-use, of timeouts.

Notre Dame was down 14 points with just less than seven minutes left when it turned the ball over near midfield. That’s two scores and a bit less than half a quarter left.

USC started running the ball. Pounding Notre Dame back. That’s when USC players said they saw the Irish give up. It’s definitely when Kelly did. USC ran out the rest of the game without giving up the ball. And when it was over, Notre Dame . . .

Still had all three timeouts left. Kelly had never stopped the clock.

One day later, Tim Tebow scored two touchdowns in the final three minutes for the Denver Broncos. Before the first of those drives, Denver used all three of its timeouts to get the ball back as quickly as possible.

Kelly never gave Notre Dame a chance at a similar miracle.

“I was shocked that they didn’t use the timeouts,’’ Barkley said on ESPN radio. “I thought they were planning on stopping us and saving their timeouts for the end when they had the ball.’’

Everyone had to figure there was at least some strategy involved.

Instead, the clock just kept running. If Notre Dame is already giving up, out of shell shock, then Kelly has a lot more to do than anyone realized.

But a coach can never give up. His unspoken promise to his players has to be that he’ll always fight to the end, no matter what. That’s the kind of thing they make movies out of. If this is what Notre Dame is about now, then Rudy will be covering his face.