Saturday after Notre Dame’s 45-3 win over Pitt, Brian Kelly offered a rare glimpse of total transparency that most college football head coaches never give. Instead of the usual coachspeak about winning one game at a time and just thinking about the next game, Brian Kelly admitted to doing what we’ve all been doing for months – looking ahead to Clemson.
“What’s important now, is also about what’s important next,” Kelly said, hinting at bigger games ahead for the Irish. “There’s this understand, with this group now, that everything they do now has bearings on who we are as a football team later in this season.”
Those bearings on later this season were a clear indicator of Kelly having an eye towards Clemson in two weeks. He would get even more apparent, though.
“A lot of times you get caught up in the grind of just trying to win football games, and ‘We said we’re past this,’” Kelly said. “We’re not just interested in winning football games. We’re interested in being a championship football team. Just playing to win games is not good enough anymore.”
Kelly talked about how he and his coaching staff needed to elevate the team’s play in all three phases last weekend after some uneven performances earlier this season.
“We need to elevate our compete level. We need to coach better. We need to play better. We need to play at an elite level,” Kelly said. “It starts with playing at a level that allows you to not all of a sudden play your best when you have to but to have that ready to go because you are playing at a high level, and that hasn’t been the case.”
Then he said what he was hinting at and what all Notre Dame fans have been thinking for months.
“That was the challenge, and it’s risky because, in some instances, people would say ‘you’re looking ahead.’ Well, we are looking ahead a little bit,” Kelly said. “ We needed to get this football to understand that they are really good, and we needed to up our compete level in all three phases. We did that today (Saturday).”
This was a far cry from Kelly’s message two weeks ago following a disappointing effort in a 12-7 win over Louisville. That afternoon Kelly perched about winning being hard and how the team battled, offering up a litany of normal coachspeak.
That was not the case following the win over Pitt. Kelly flat out stated that this team has its eyes on bigger games than Pitt without mentioning Clemson by name. However, his message was clear, and it was definitely heard in Clemson, and you better believe it was heard in Atlanta by this weekend’s opponent Georgia Tech.
What Kelly did on Saturday was a risky proposition. Should the Irish struggle this weekend against the Yellow Jackets, his words will no doubt be used against him. And you better believe that Tech head coach Geoff Collins will be using Kelly’s words as a motivational tool for his squad this week.
What Kelly did was also show some incredible faith in his team on Saturday. You don’t make a statement like that unless you trust your team to handle their business this week and prepare for Georgia Tech like they need to so that they are still undefeated when Clemson comes into town on November 7.
Four years ago, at this time, Notre Dame was stumbling to a historically bad season, causing Kelly to reboot his entire program. In the last few years, it’s hard to imagine Kelly being able to display that same kind of faith, but this program’s culture is night and day what it was back then.
Notre Dame fans have been defining the 2020 season by the Clemson game since the reduced 2020 schedule removed the likes of Wisconsin, USC, and Stanford. Ever since then, the season has been all about how the Irish play against the Tigers. It seems as though the Irish staff has been doing the same – preparing their players all season long, not just for their current opponents, but doing so to prepare for what should be the biggest game in Notre Dame Stadium since the 2005 USC showdown.
Again this all means nothing if the Irish were to stumble this weekend, but you get the sense that Kelly has been waiting to deliver the message he did on Saturday until he saw his team play close to what they are capable of. Now, the Irish were far from perfect against Pitt, but they played well in all three phases against a Power 5 opponent with the kind of defense that has been able to trip up top teams in the past.
Notre Dame has one more week to get better for that showdown with Clemson, and they have a lot more to do than just talk. The passing game looked better but still left a lot of plays on the field. The running game excelled on third and short but wasn’t as explosive as it was against lesser defenses. Special teams made some big plays, but the return game is still pretty much a non-factor. We saw the Irish improve in all three phases last weekend, though, and maybe, just maybe, the Irish staff has this team working towards peaking at the right time.
We’ll see if Kelly’s words ring hollow or if the trust he placed in his team last weekend is rewarded. Regardless, I loved hearing Kelly say what he did because it validates how fans and alumni feel about the state of the program. Winning the games you’re supposed to win is no longer good enough. It’s time the Irish start winning the ones that they’re not just supposed to win and being an elite team.