Year seven of the Brian Kelly era wasn’t supposed to start out like this. Notre Dame wasn’t supposed to be out of the playoff mix by the middle of September. Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t supposed to be among the nation’s worst. But it did, they are, and it is. And at this point “almost” being great is no longer good enough.
Last year, with a star studded team that featured multiple early NFL Draft picks, Notre Dame “almost” made the playoffs. Two close losses to two of the top 5 teams in the country separated Notre Dame from a perfect regular season and a 10-2 mark.
Two years ago Notre Dame was undefeated after six games and traveled to Tallahassee to take on the defending champion Seminoles. Notre Dame almost pulled off the road upset but came up short. The season completely unraveled shortly after.
Fast forward two years and Notre Dame is still almost winning big road games and prime time matchups with top 10 teams. Keyword: almost.
Notre Dame has as many new starters on both sides of the football as anyone in the country this year, but that’s college football. Everyone’s rosters turnover every year. The Irish still started the season ranked #10 and talked about the playoffs being their goal this season.
Notre Dame’s latest almost came last weekend when the Irish let Michigan State rip off 36 unanswered points until they woke up and tried to make a roaring comeback. The Irish fought valiantly and nearly pulled it off. Notre Dame deserves credit for not surrendering when it would have been easy to do so, but the underlying point is they should have never been in the position to begin with.
Michigan State came into town as the higher ranked team, but by no means are the Spartans so supremely talented that they should have been able to run off 36 straight points. That is not meant in anyway to downplay the Spartans either. They are every bit of the top 10 team they are ranked as. On paper though, the Irish have at least as much, if not more talent, than Michigan State.
Game aren’t won on paper though. They are won between the hashmarks. And between the hashmarks Notre Dame was outworked, outexecuted, and outcoached. Mark Dantonio brought a team that lost a lot of starters of their own from its 2015 playoff team to town. His team, however, was fundamentally sound played smart, and muscled their way to 260 yards rushing and over 500 yards of offense.
The same couldn’t be said for Brian Kelly’s troops last weekend. Notre Dame missed tackle after tackle and assignment after assignment. Kelly said this summer that this was a team that needed to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well to get where they wanted. Last Saturday night the Irish didn’t do the ordinary things even satisfactory.
All week long Kelly has preached that he and his staff need to coach better and to his credit he has refrained from throwing any of his assistants under the bus unlike say Charlie Strong at Texas who hung his staff out to dry following the Longhorns loss to Cal. Good luck finding a strong supporting cast at your next gig, Charlie.
Brian Kelly has done a tremendous amount of positive things for Notre Dame during his tenure and his fingerprints are all over the program at this point, but almost winning big games is no longer good enough. At one time almost winning big games was a big step forward after getting used to 38-0 drubbings at the hands of bitter rivals under previous coaching regimes.
That time has come and past because of the success Kelly has had. Notre Dame, for the most part, now wins the games it’s supposed to win, but it’s become rare for Notre Dame to win those games that are toss ups or games in which they aren’t given a strong chance to win.
Michigan State this year. Clemson, Ohio State, and Stanford last year. Florida State in 2014. Stanford and Oklahoma in 2013. All games against big time programs in which Notre Dame played tough but came up short on in the end.
During that same the only wins the Irish have had against programs that still looked good by the end of the season were Stanford in 2014 and Michigan State in 2013. That’s two games in three and a quarter seasons.
Notre Dame will almost certainly run off a few wins in a row here by feasting on some ACC bottom feeders in Duke, Syracuse, and NC State but then Stanford and Miami come to town in October. Will the Irish use this three game stretch to improve and be ready to take on Stanford or will the Irish fall again before the Cardinal even flies into town in a few weeks?
It’s about time Notre Dame wins a game in which it’s the underdog under Brian Kelly. Baring a collapse from Stanford over the next few weeks Notre Dame’s next chance for that will come October 15 (unlikely under David Shaw). Will the Irish rise to occasion or will they come up just short as they did a year ago when it appeared they had the game won with 30 seconds to go only to come up short?
Three weeks isn’t an insignificant amount of time in which a young team can improve. Winning the next three games and knocking of Stanford could change the entire narrative of what is now looking like another disappointing season for the Irish. That of course requires the Irish to reel off three straight wins and then get over the hump of almost winning a big game when Stanford rolls into South Bend.
Almost is good if you’re playing horseshoes or hand grenades as my old 5th grade teacher Mr. O’Donnell – a huge Notre Dame fan himself – used to tell me. Brian Kelly is out of horseshoes though and the only hand grenade he might have left if this season continues to go South will need to be used to blow up the defense and start over.