The more things change, the more they stay the same.
After 12 months of introspection, change, yoga, and new beginnings, Notre Dame and Brian Kelly are right back where they started: leaving California following an embarrassing loss, left to wonder where to go from here. It’s most likely Kelly and co. won’t be going anywhere; he wasn’t fired following 4-8, athletic director Jack Swarbrick doesn’t figure to fire him after 9-3, with a 35 point win over their biggest rival in the books.
Defenders of Kelly will point to the five game swing from 4-8 to 9-3, as if those two things occurred in a vacuum, without six other seasons as data points, and also as if Kelly was somehow not instrumental in the 4-8 to begin with.
Don’t get me wrong, Notre Dame was at times great this year. Their three best wins have come against teams with a combined 27-9 record, by a total of 76 points. Those aren’t flukes, or a bunch of smoke and mirrors. It was built on physical domination, on both sides of the ball. They deserved all the accolades they got, full stop.
That makes their eventual collapse even more frustrating. They broke down in the humidity against Miami, and then wilted against the pressure of Stanford. It was all to familiar to those who have followed the Kelly era closely, which was the problem. So much of what happened this year was new. The way they carried themselves, the way they played, the way they won. It made it feel real, it wasn’t the same old Brian Kelly outfit. Saturday night was a blast from the past, in the worst way possible.
Gone was the edge, gone was the confidence. Instead of being the team that made the plays, they watched Stanford first out compete them at receiver, then on the front line. The quarterback looked lost, the running back lacked burst. In short, they weren’t what they had been, at least not through the first nine games.
And so it goes, on to a bowl game where the team will try to get the sour taste of November out of its mouth,as they did in 2014. Unfortunately, we know where this road leads. In a vicious circle.
Tillery hasn’t gotten enough praise in this space this year, but wow did he turn in a good season. He finished the year on a high note, with six tackles and three tackles for loss against a premiere running team. He flew under the radar because of the stellar play of the linebackers behind him, namely Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill. But, he put up numbers that outpaced those turned in by Louis Nix in 2012, the gold standard for nose tackles in the Kelly era. Tillery posted more tackles (52 to 50), tackles for loss (8.5 to 7.5), sacks (4 to 2), and quarterback hurries (10 to 3) with still a bowl game to play.
He left the field in shame following the loss to USC last season, having been ejected for stomping on a player. He not only redeemed himself with his play, but was constantly a part of a number of hustle plays that don’t show up in stat sheets. Looking ahead to next season, if he can build off of his play, an anchor up the middle like Tillery is vital to any good defense.
No one benefitted from the play of Tillery more than Coney, and he capitalized on the openings Tillery created for him, leading the team in tackles and tackles for loss. No one would have predicted Coney would be the best linebacker on the team in the preseason, but it proved itself out over the course of the 12 games. The perfect illustration of the difference between Coney and Morgan this season was Coney coming unblocked against Bryce Love in the first half, and bottling him up for a two yard loss, unassisted, while Morgan, in the same situation, whiffed on his tackle, springing Love for a 40 yard gain.
Again, looking to next season, being strong up the middle is key to any good defense, and Notre Dame looks to be in good shape there.
Yoga As A Cure All For Coaching Deficiencies
Brian Kelly was able to rid the program of the dysfunction of last season, but not of the habit for his teams to fall apart at the end of the year, which was the problem before the team stopped lifting weights and taking things seriously.
It’s easy to change coaches and strength programs and get rid of the malaise of familiar faces around the program. But, the end of season struggles are now happening across coaches, quarterbacks, and programs. The only constant is Kelly, who might have a little more trouble solving this problem as it takes more than a coaching change here and there.
A question I saw a lot today in the Twitterverse was whether or not we, as fans, would have taken a 9-3 season in August. I mean, sure, it beats 4-8. Fact is, it doesn’t really matter what I would have taken or what someone else thinks is a good season. Because the administration, the people who matter, clearly would have signed up for it. Again, there is this desire to compare 9-3 to 4-8, to separate one from the other, as if 4-8 was an obstacle to overcome and Kelly conquered it. He created the obstacle! He doesn’t get credit for rebounding to 9-3 from the depths of despair, especially when he was the author of that awful story.
After all that, from coaching changes, to the yoga, and the coaching re-birth, Notre Dame went from contender to pretender to flame out. And their coach is left to find answers again, this time without whole sale changes to the coaching staff to fall back on.
Maybe he can try Pilates this time.