Brian Kelly Can’t Solve The Notre Dame Post-Season Riddle

Disappointment. That’s what it is more than anything else.

Notre Dame entered the Cotton Bowl as 13 point underdogs, so going in the idea of losing isn’t exactly farfetched. But, if you’ve watched them all year, as most of us have, we know what their best game is. We know what they are capable of doing. And that wasn’t it.

The problem is, I could sub out the words “Cotton Bowl” above and insert the Orange Bowl or the Fiesta Bowl and the rest would still be true. For the third time in the Kelly era, Notre Dame brought a very good team to a major bowl game and left looking like an 8-4 club. This has happened across seven seasons, different coaching staffs, different players, and different opponents. There is one common denominator and that is Brian Kelly, the one in charge of the whole operation.

The only thing that matters now is how this gets solved. Everyone knows the stat by now, he’s 22-4 since the debacle of 2016, and he returns a team that should win double digit games again next season. His program has been built and he was excellent in building it. The job, however, is not complete and he would be foolish to think it is. And to be honest, I don’t get any inkling he thinks his program has arrived. He knows where the failures have been. Kelly went through a soul search after his team went 4-8, and he needs another one after 30-3.

Success In The Regular Season

One of the most common phrases I saw postgame was “Notre Dame was just completely overmatched and couldn’t compete.” I don’t agree with that. Notre Dame has competed, and won, against similar rosters. But, it’s only come in the regular season.

  • In 2012 Notre Dame was double digit dogs going to Oklahoma and beat them 30-13.
  • In 2014 the Irish went to defending national champion and #2 Florida State and was within a controversial (see: terrible) offensive pass interference penalty of taking them down.
  • In 2015 they lost to national runner up Clemson by two on the road, with a failed two point conversion in the final seconds
  • In 2017 they lost to national runner up Georgia by one, fumbling with just over a minute left. They were #4 in 247’s team talent rankings.
  • In 2017 they beat 11 win USC 49-14, a team who at the time was #3 overall in the team talent rankings.
  • In 2018 they beat Michigan 24-17, #8 in the team talent rankings.
  • For reference, Notre Dame is 10th in the team talent rankings, Clemson was #6.
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Notre Dame also has some bad losses in there, to Miami last season most notably. The point is, they can compete and win against teams with similar rosters to Clemson this season. It isn’t that they are overmatched in those games. And Kelly has shown the ability to get his team ready to go and come up with a game plan that can win. If you add up the scores to all those games and add Miami, Notre Dame is +11. In the three marquee bowl games, Notre Dame is -69. They are nothing like what they have been when they play in those games.

Where To Go From Here

Obviously this is the question for Kelly, and the only one that really needs answering today and in the offseason. There is a chance they get back into a big game next season, if not the playoffs. The offense is back, minus Dexter Williams, with a possible upgrade at quarterback (more on that later), and a defense that will lose Coney, Tranquill, and Tillery, but perhaps retain Julian Love and all of the defensive ends.

They’ve recruited very well on the lines, but they don’t have anyone who is of the Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross mold at receiver, two top 50 players. In last nights game in particular, the lack of that big play punch hurt them, as there wasn’t a 50 yard touchdown just sitting out there for them whenever they felt the offense was scuffling (and Clemson was scuffling). That could continue to be a problem offensively, especially with Book at quarterback who hadn’t thrown a good deep ball all season and missed a touchdown again last night.

Overall, they need to recruit better across the board. They are currently top 10, good enough to make it, not good enough to be favored, which is the common denominator across most of those games up top. They are never favored, always needing a huge performance to compete.

As it is, it’s another offseason of the same conversation with the same questions, and at best a year away from being able to answer them. Disappointing. Just disappointing.

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45 comments

  1. Denis 2 weeks ago

    I have been an ND fan my entire life but this loss is very straightforward, ND was overmatched on talent. End of story. To address the loss by talking about calls, schemes, coaching, etc. are missing the point. Nobody is matching up with Clemson and Alabama today because of the talent gap. Handcuffing the coaches on recruiting by insisting on high academic standards is the root cause. This is what Holtz talked about years ago. ND is so focused on elevating their status to Ivy League status (and then believing they can win the national championship) are dreaming and missing the broader points. Sometimes giving a student that doesn’t meet those high standards (Chris Zorich) results in giving someone a better chance at life and making them successful. Clemson is a fine academic institution, I know as I have had four children there. Their recruiting standards don’t take away from that and they produce winning athletics while giving good students a chance at a better life.

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  2. david 2 weeks ago

    Pat Fitzgerald announces at the trophy ceremony…loud and clear…he ain’t goin’ nowhere.

    Lincoln Riley snuffs out the rampant NFL rumors by agreeing to an extension at OU immediately after his semi-final loss.

    Brian Kelly in 2013? Radio silence for 2 weeks, while he interviewed for an NFL job.

    But that low-character issue has sorted itself out in very Shakespearean fashion. Unfortunately.

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  3. HURLS 2 weeks ago

    Hey come-on, now. NOTRE DAME LOST BECAUSE CLEMSON IS A BETTER TEAM. (period) And we didn’t get any (opportune) breaks. Nothing can be done about losing to a better team and program. (ask UMichigan about their losing to us) To win against the elite programs you need the breaks to go your way. They didn’t. Notre Dame looked like an average football team against Clemson. That’s because we played like an average football team against Clemson. Why? Because CLEMSON IS BETTER. We’re good. Not great. Yet…

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  4. Jim Boyle 2 weeks ago

    ND’s number 2’s have no game experience. When Julian Love went down he was replaced by a highly recruited, athletic corner. Why did he look scared? not enough game experience. Clemson and Alabama’s number 2’s look battle tested, because they have played a bunch this year. As long as Kelly and the Irish play tight games with the likes of Ball State our 2’s are never going to see the field. We are Notre Dame put the hammer down on teams you are supposed to pound, get your 2’s some game experience, before it comes back to haunt you as it did against Clemson

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  5. david 2 weeks ago

    Pat Fitzgerald just coached his team to a 28-point. 6 T/O comeback bowl win. Lineman even caught a pass for a TD. Really entertaining to watch.
    Imagine that.

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    1. Ron Burgundy 2 weeks ago

      I have the NW v Akron game on DVR, can’t wait to watch.

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      1. david 2 weeks ago

        Why, have you already watched all the Brian Kelly blooper reels?
        This last one is a beaut.

        And BTW…
        An ND football fan (such as you are) ridiculing Northwestern.
        Hunh.

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  6. Mike Deverich 2 weeks ago

    OI agree with your assesment concdernig the lack of success in Big Bowl games. The ND team I watched on Sat. wasn’t the tsame team I watched all year, they played their owrst game at the biggest moment. However, with the academic requirements at ND most of the 5* recuits woudn’t be accepted. ND, Stanford, Northwestern, and a few others are behind the 8 ball when it comes to recuiting while maintaining their academic standards. ND gets its share of 4* recuits but is stymied with the 5* players. They definately need more speed at WR, a couple of players that can take the top off the defense and get the safties out of the box. Kelly has done a damnfine job bringing the Irish back to national prominence, 2 undefeated regular seasons against very good oppenents, now he need to to take that final step and beat the top teams in the country. He has changed since he first became the HC and I believe he will comtinue to look for ways to bring a couple of national titles home, where they belong.

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  7. Michael_Dee 2 weeks ago

    One glaring problem i see every year is the ND receivers being able to catch the ball “In Stride”. The QB has to be able to throw the
    ball downfield 25-30 yds and have the receivers take it the rest of the way. This is sorely lacking in the passing game.
    This will stop defenses from loading the box and stuffing the run. Book hasn’t really thrown a deep ball all year. ND needs to be able
    to stretch the field and give the offense another dimension.

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    1. Scott 2 weeks ago

      Book hasn’t thrown deep because he can’t. His accuracy is in dinks and dunks and some mid-range stuff. He grossly misse3d a wide open Finke in one game this season, he missed Boykin for a sure 6 in this one. I am hoping that Jurkovec competes with Book and takes over. You can call me crazy all you like, but when I see him missing receivers who created separation for sure TDs, he’s not the answer (neither was Wimbush, as we saw early on this season). Much of the problem is Kelly and his OC being unable to adjust in-game (sorry, Mr. Long, your play selection and game plan sucked against a top-notch D…WTF were you thinking?). ND doesn’t have the money to lure in a top-notch OC?

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  8. C-Dog 2 weeks ago

    Anyone hear that the Georgia players are dissing on ND for being in the CFP? I wonder who wrote their tweets for them. Can’t imagine a Georgia player can read or write.

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    1. Ron Burgundy 2 weeks ago

      I see what you did there. Sick burn dude!

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    2. Damian 2 weeks ago

      Yeah, I have absolutely no sympathy for Georgia. Hey guys, maybe you shouldn’t have lost 2 games. They only have themselves to blame.

      UCF, ok, maybe I can sympathize just a little bit, but then they didn’t help themselves with their out of conference schedule. But they at least won all their games.

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  9. C-Dog 2 weeks ago

    Offensive line wasn’t prepared. That’s on the coaches. Clemson had the scheme scouted and ND did not have an answer for quick lineman. Defensive line depth also kept Clemson for fatigue at D-Line. Plus assuredly guys who didn’t get caught were also juicing. The Russians will tell you, todays juice prevents fatigue.

    If ND’s offensive line could have bought Book time or opened a few holes, the game goes differently.

    Remember Etienne gets no meaningful yards until they are up and NDs D has to sell out.

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  10. Bob Rodes 2 weeks ago

    All I will say is that I would change “can’t solve” to “hasn’t solved.” Defeatism just isn’t in my makeup, I guess, and that sounds defeatist to me.

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  11. Jim 2 weeks ago

    There is no doubt the Irish lose is very
    disappointing. The real question is
    recruiting. Can Notre Dame recruit the
    same players that Bama and Clemson
    are able to recruit? I would say many of
    the players on Bama and Clemson could
    not be recruited due higher academic
    standards that the University requires.
    The only answer is to keep recruiting
    and trying to those great players who
    are out there and get to come to N.D.

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  12. Smokeyrob 2 weeks ago

    KELLY HAD A TERRIBLE GAME PLAN YESTERDAY! HOW DO YOU HAVE A MONTH TO PREPARE FOR THE BEST DEFENSE IN THE COUNTRY, AND, CHANGE NOTHING. HE SHOULD HAVE ADDED NEW PLAYS, FORMATIONS, MISDIRECTION, ANYTHING TO CONFUSE CLEMSON. YOU KNOW CLEMSON IS THE BETTER TEAM, BUT, YOU THINK YOUR BEST WILL BEAT THEIR BEST. WIMBUSH SHOULD HAVE PLAYED SOME SERIES IN THE FIRST HALF. HE COULD HAVE MADE PLAYS WITH HIS LEGS THAT BOOK COULD NOT. THIS CLEMSON D LINE WAS SIMILAR TO MICHIGAN. IF YOU DEVISED A GAMEPLAN SPECIFICALLY FOR WIMBUSH TO BEAT MICHIGAN, HE SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN SOME REPS LAST NIGHT. IF SUCCESSFUL, LEAVE HIM IN THE GAME. BOOK LACKED THE SPEED TO EVADE CLEMSON ‘S PASS RUSH. KELLY ALSO HAD SOME REALLY FAST FROSH RECEIVERS ON THE BENCH. THEY SHOULD HAVE BEEN UTILIZED TO TUN DEEP ROUTES, LOOSEN CLEMSON D. ALSO, REPLAY OFFICIALS WERE HORRIBLE! TWO FUMBLES GO THE IRISH WAY, GAME MIGHT HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT!🍀🏈🍀

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    1. Alley O'Cat 2 weeks ago

      Was also hoping to see Wimbush get some reps.

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  13. Tom Catty 2 weeks ago

    Good comments. So angry I don’t know what to say, I try to keep it simple. I thought the defence deserved a medal, how many times did they stop them, only to give up a big play? Only one TD in the second half. But they were on the field too long. Why? the offence couldn’t do shit. Why? Because Clemson was in their faces all afternoon. I think Jeff is correct. You leave THOSE guys on the field that long and they are going to complete some big plays.

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  14. NemesisTheDestroyer 2 weeks ago

    9 years at the helm and 3 shot opportunity in a big time bowl game ( and I don’t consider the Sun, Champs, Pinstripe, Music City, and the Citrus bowls as big time major & MEANINGFUL bowls) and 0-3 results with poor play and preparation including getting blown out in each of those losses. I am not harping here to “Fire Him” because I don’t know if anyone else would do any better, but, after 9 seasons, I would expect a team going on the national stage to be better prepared and to issue better game time decisions by the head coach and HIS staff. I only see Kelly leaving if he chooses to leave or a repeat of a 2016 season ( or worse) occurs to where it may warrant a termination or induced resignation. Though I know it was a different era but I remember many good Nebraska teams under Tom Osborn fail repeatedly in many big bowl games of significance until he put together that nice run from 94-97 of winning major bowls and of course the 3 NC’s he won too. I wish that could happen to Kelly but I am not counting on that happening. He may not be the highest paid coach but he’s making enough to do better figuring out how to have post season success in major bowls running ND’s program. I am at a point that a 12-1 team with a win in a major bowl is better than a 12-0 team reaching the CFP which then gets blown out in the CFP.
    September is a long way away. I guess being a long time Cubs fan may have made or help me tolerate disappointing team sport endings.

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    1. Damian 2 weeks ago

      Probably the best bowl win they’ve had under BK was last year in the Citrus Bowl against LSU. It’s a just outside the NY Day 6 bowl on NY Day.

      The only thing I disagree with is about a major bowl win over a CFB appearance. In hindsight, yes, it feels better. But imagine if they beat say Georgia in one of the NY Day Six bowls. That would be a great win yes, but you know what else we’d all be wondering in that scenario? What if….what if this were a Playoff Bowl, then we’d be playing for a NC. We’d all be thinking we were close.

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  15. Steve 2 weeks ago

    Claypool dropped a wide open pass on the very first drive for a potential first down that could have gotten the offense off and running, next drive was the Book fumble. Boykins did not
    leap fully for a ball down field that allowed an easy knock down by Clemson defender. A
    poor showing looking unprepared where many opportunities were there and we had no execution. The defense played well on their end
    but the absense of Love for the second
    Quarter was the turning point in the game. We need better recruiting and I don’t know how
    We go about doing that. When was the last
    group of 5 star recruits we landed?? Who
    could replace Kelly as head coach that would
    make that difference?

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  16. Andrew J Virgil 2 weeks ago

    1 Offensive Coordinator Coach Long, did not put together a good game plan. Fact, Clemson loves to bring pressure. ND time and again threw the deep sideline routes. Too much time and Ian does not throw a good deep ball. My humble opinion, short, middle, comebacks and screens to offset the rush.
    2 Defensively ND played well. The plan was good, just stayed on the field too long due to offense inability to move the ball. Fresh legs went south. Watch the game again if you can bear to, what a difference from 1st quarter and 4th.
    3 Clemson has more speed then ND right now. RECRUIT.

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  17. Andrew Shepherd 2 weeks ago

    The riddle is easily solved. Brian Kelly doesn’t have what it takes to win a championship at ND. The problem is that nobody does. Dabo and Saban aren’t coming, neither is Urban. ND isn’t winning crap any time soon, no matter who the coach is.

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  18. Alley O'Cat 2 weeks ago

    Very disappointing. This poor performance will have lasting implications. No longer will 12-0 be good enough for the Irish to reach the CFP. The Irish cemented their reputation as not being as good as the big boys. I give coach Kelly credit for turning things around after the 4-8 season. However, he’s clearly not able to properly prepare his Irish teams for the big games. I was hoping the Irish would at least not get blown out and make a game out of it. That lasted for one quarter.

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    1. WillyT 2 weeks ago

      When UCF defeats LSU and then wins 12 games again next year, the CFP will be extended to 8 teams. Hopefully, by then ND will figure out how to prepare for a postseason game. They may not return to the CFP unless the field is extended. Go Knights beat Tigers!

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  19. Pete 2 weeks ago

    After the 1st quarter I thought, wow, ND can compete with these guys. Then we lost a single player (Love), and the game was over. The program in its current condition cannot withstand the loss of one of its elite players. Clemson was without its top defensive lineman and there was little to no drop off. We absolutely need more depth to get over the hump, but we’re closer than most realize.
    Biggest talent differential is at the most critical position, quarterback. If you replace Book with Kyler Murray, for example, then this was a one score game I guarantee. Biggest play of the game was Book missing an open Boykin for TD. Not a difficult throw at all.
    Offense was historically bad, and QB play was the reason. Book looks at first read, and if covered, he panics. Played like a freshman.

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  20. Joe 2 weeks ago

    Stop pretending you’re special, join a conference and prove yourself worthy. Until then, forever forward, an after thought

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  21. Greg Kelly 2 weeks ago

    I was listening in on espam ( sec) radio. They were mocking ND at every chance. But, what caught my ear was they mentioned a ball that could have been caught by Boykin or Claypool and that his hands and leap were not fully extended. Anyone know about that one.

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    1. ChrisJ 2 weeks ago

      Greg, it was the underthrow that could have been a TD. Boykin stops and comes back to the ball and it’s an easy catch. Instead, he keeps running, let’s the ball come to him and the dB breaks it up without his head even turned. Terrible on Boykins part adjusting to a football in the air. Boykin can catch slants, back shoulders on the sidelines, rare deep catches (more on broken coverage) and draw an occasional PI on deep throws but has no true ball skills adjusting in the air. That’s what separates the elite receivers from the good ones. Claypool is much better at it but didn’t get thrown to other than tunnel screens the whole night.

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  22. Damian 2 weeks ago

    Good analysis Greg, which makes our poor showing even more confusing. We’ve played well against some elite teams, and have beaten some pretty soundly during the regular season.

    If we had played Clemson during the regular season we may very well have had a better showing. There’s something the elite teams do during this long layoff that ND is not. Something they do to prepare for the ‘big’ game that ND is missing.

    On the flip side look at Alabama some years. They don’t always go 13-0 on their way to a NC, in fact, it seems a lot of years they lose a regular season game. But when it comes to the big game, they are prepared and usually win those games. Saban may lose to Texas A&M, or Auburn, or Georgia during the season, but when they play in their biggest game of the year for a NC, they usually come out on top.

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    1. jeff 2 weeks ago

      Damian, If you give a team as loaded with talent as Bama and Clemson FIVE WEEKS to prepare, game plan, and get healthy they are nearly impossible to beat. Notre Dame is not as talented as those teams mostly due to quality depth and QB play. Its not even close. Book looked like a deer caught in the headlights most of the game. He is not a top tier QB. Now moving forward one has to wonder if we will ever see Jurkovek develop let alone play. Would ND have been better off to replace Wimbush with Jurkovek? Might have been some growing pains and a couple of losses but he would’ve developed. We may never see it now as Kelly has fallen in love with Book. And How bout Dexter. Four fucking years and we got what amounts to a 9 game season out of him. The list goes on and on lol.

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      1. ChrisJ 2 weeks ago

        Jurkovec should have played the entire 4th quarter with the game already decided and having one more “free” game to keep his redshirt. Just another stupid decision by Kelly to not get the kid meaningful experience.

        And you’re absolutely right about Dex. Worst utilization of a player I’ve ever seen in the history of ND. Not one touch against GA last year. Wow. And to keep going on personnel issues, not playing Bracy over Vaughn last night! Bracy showed all season long he was better than Vaughn at covering. Just look at the Pitt game alone. Kelly doesn’t make good decisions even with personnel. Doesn’t bode well for success does it?

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      2. Damian 2 weeks ago

        That’s just it. Jurkovec is the next big thing we’re told, but I’ve heard this record numerous times before dating back to Golson. I just don’t have faith anymore that the next QB is ‘the one.’ And they start off strong. Zaire was a monster against Texas. I thought, damn, maybe we have THE QB this time. He gets hurt and never is the same. EG had a great 2nd season until FSU, then he fell apart and was never the same. BW, same story. Kizer was probably one of the better QB’s but even he hit a wall that couldn’t be overcome.

        And yeah, Williams is a lost talent. I know he had some issues, some self inflicted mistakes that kept him off the field. But I can’t help but feel the coaches could have done more with him. He had some raw ability that went wasted too often. And Wimbush too. I still think he could have made a contribution to this offense. He has phenomenal running and escapability. There should have been a way to use that ability in some fashion.

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      3. ChrisJ 2 weeks ago

        I don’t know if Jurkovec is the next great qb or not but the whole point is not taking advantage of opportunities to get him meaningful snaps. Just like not blowing out ball state and vandy to allow him to play more. The redshirt rule change is huge for players and coaches but Jurkovec threw like 2 passes the whole season in 3 games. That’s not enough for one of your better recruited qbs to get experience. Book is accurate on short passes, great. That’s not elite. Watch Jurkovecs tape and throwing intermediate and deep throws. He’s money. Plus his size and surprising speed is a huge bonus.

        I really hope it’s an open competition this spring and summer because I’d hate to lose Jurkovec too. Agree about wimbush. I know he is inaccurate but throws a better deep ball and brings the running dimension to keep defenses honest. We probably should have utilized that last night at some point to not allow Clemson to keep doing the same thing all night long. But again goes back to our coaches not adjusting to anything.

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      4. Brian Phillips 2 weeks ago

        Dexter’s years were wasted for sure. However, NFL scouts are thankful, they’re going to get an elite level back in the 2nd/3rd round with basically zero miles on his body! Good for Dex…

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    2. Bruce Gregory Curme 2 weeks ago

      When did Saban lose to Georgia?

      BGC ’77 ’82

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    3. Doc Savage 2 weeks ago

      Yes your right Damian those other teams call it Ostarine!

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  23. Sean 2 weeks ago

    Kelly just does not know how to prepare his team for the big game.

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    1. Andrew J Virgil 2 weeks ago

      1 Offensive Coordinator Coach Long, did not put together a good game plan. Fact, Clemson loves to bring pressure. ND time and again threw the deep sideline routes. Too much time and Ian does not throw a good deep ball. My humble opinion, short, middle, comebacks and screens to offset the rush.
      2 Defensively ND played well. The plan was good, just stayed on the field too long due to offense inability to move the ball. Fresh legs went south. Watch the game again if you can bear to, what a difference from 1st quarter and 4th.
      3 Clemson has more speed then ND right now. RECRUIT.

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  24. david 2 weeks ago

    Coach of the Year.

    Compare his TV interviews, and his sideline demeanor, to that of Swinney, Saban, or Riley yesterday.
    Those guys were being coaches, competing in a critically important game.
    Kelly was a heavily sedated man walking to the gallows.

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    1. sebastian 2 weeks ago

      They don’t call him big game brian for nothing! what an overrated joke! big stage and he folds everytime. people this is the same team that had trouble getting by ball state, vanderbilt, and usc! fire kelly, fire swarbrick, fire jenkins

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  25. Rayjay 2 weeks ago

    It has happened to many a good team. Kelly has won the big games you mentioned but for some reason the momentum goes the other way come bowl time lately. He does deserve credit for winning the two bowl games against LSU which were at the time, “Big games”. I got very frustrated because in a game I thought we were close though not quite evenly matched, bad breaks have a big influence as do self inflicted wounds. The illegal motion penalties were brutal the late hit by Tillery cost us dearly, but what really hurt last night were the two maybe three overturn rulings by the booth that even the NFL expert says should not have happened. He in particular mentioned the kickoff fumble/nonfumble and the fumble/whistle blown play by Book. Also questionable was the no football move/ football move made by Mack on a key pass completion that of course Mack made more difficult than it was. I think those momentum plays along with Tillery’s bonehead play really hurt us.

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 2 weeks ago

      Rayjay, When your offensive players jump a snap count (or whatever we use nowadays to start a play) FOUR times (on four different possessions) your “O” is not even in snyc with itself, let alone up to the challenges just across the line from them. They were not ready to play…actually, more than that, they were not capable of playing. There are a few things on offense that we need to work on over the off-season…and the “O” line leads the parade there, with the blocking back (if we even have one) a close second.

      BGC ’77 ’82

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      1. southside 2 weeks ago

        Agree BGC and with C-Dog post about O-Line performance. 5 weeks to prepare and knowing Clemson best D line in the country was going to bring it . Irish OC Chip Long and QB Book were all the rave in making adjustments during 12-0 road to playoffs. Disappointing to see Irish Offense put a measly 3 points. Embarrassing is the word — on a national stage. As always I’ll be hoping the Irish can be better the next season. I’m not a Cub fan like Nemesis The Destroyer—- Sox fan , Bears fan so I know what he’s talking about when Championships are far and few over a life time. Better coaching , better recruits , QB competition will be up coming next spring. GO Irish.

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