All weekend long I had this seeping suspicion we were going to be in for a letdown and the reason I felt this way was simple. Every time over the last decade or so when it has appeared as though Notre Dame was about to turn the corner and get this program back on track, they squander a golden opportunity to do so and Saturday’s crushing loss was no different.
The stars had aligned for Notre Dame this weekend. First night game in Notre Dame Stadium in 20+ years. Check. Brand new helmets that looked amazing from the stands. Yup. Largest recruiting weekend possibly ever with almost 50 juniors and seniors on campus. You betcha. Being a 9.5 point favorite over arch rival USC for the first time in 15 years. Yes sir. Music over the sound system for the first time? Yup, we had that too.
Everything was aligned for Notre Dame this weekend and just as has become the case over the last 10-15 years, Lucy pulled the football away just as we ran up to kick it.
As everything played out last night, I sat in the stands and questioned why I was surprised, and why I let myself believe I was just being paranoid all week and that we would come out and take care of business, collect a number of verbal commitments, and call it a weekend.
We’ve all seen this story before. Charlie Weis had a number of opportunities where it looked like he was about to turn it all around. The last of which came two years ago – the last time USC came to town. In Pete Carroll’s final season in charge of the Trojans, USC came to town and faced a 4-1 Notre Dame team coming off of a bye with a lot of top recruits in town. A win that weekend would have ended USC’s then 7 game winning streak and pushed the Irish into the top 25 in front of a lot of talent recruits.
That Saturday we came up a few yards and few seconds too short and were left wondering what if as the clock read 0:00 while the scoreboard still showed we had one timeout remaining.
This was the first such game for Brian Kelly so it’s still too early to know if he will suffer the same fate as Weis or if he will indeed turn it around. In 2009, Notre Dame didn’t respond well after losing to USC and would only win two more games the entire season resulting in the firing of Weis and the hiring of Kelly.
Should Notre Dame head down that same path again, then it might not be too early to know if Kelly will follow in Weis’s footsteps or finally be the coach that puts Notre Dame back amongst the nation’s elite programs.
While Kelly and Notre Dame squandered a golden opportunity, they can’t worry about it anymore because next weekend now becomes the first must win game of the Brian Kelly Era. Last year Navy embarrassed Notre Dame in the Meadowlands. A similar outcome this year is one that Kelly just might be able to recover from. Simply put, Notre Dame has to win next weekend and has to do so comfortably.
Notre Dame will have more opportunities to turn this thing around – maybe even this year if the offense can reduce the turnovers over the next few weeks and head into Palo Alto without losing another game in between. Based on the performance Stanford put together on Saturday compared to what Kelly and Notre Dame were able to produce the notion of even being competitive in that contest might sound far fetched right now, but at this time last year who would have ever thought Notre Dame would ended the season with wins over Utah, USC, and Miami?
Until Notre Dame finds itself in another situation like Saturday where they have a chance for a signature win though, the Irish and Brian Kelly will be left just answering a bunch of what ifs. What if they had played like the 9.5 point favorite they were on Saturday? What if Dayne Crist cleanly handled the snap at the goal-line and the Irish punched it into the end zone at the end of the 3rd quarter? What if Cierre Wood cleanly handled Tommy Rees’s lateral pass in the 4th?
Unfortunately this is a situation Notre Dame has found itself in far too many times in recent memory. Kelly and the Irish will have four more weeks to clean things up and based on what we saw against USC, they will need every minute of practice in those four weeks to put themselves in a position for that Stanford game to have be another opportunity to make a statement – the type of statement they want to make anyway.