Well, Irish fans, it’s been an interesting September. With one-third of the season already in the books, our beloved Notre Dame has managed to achieve their best record through four games since 2002. It’s been a remarkable couple of weeks filled with triumph, tragedy and plenty of tense moments. As we prepare to head into a much-needed and perfectly-timed bye week, here are a few thoughts and notes on the first four games:
As the Irish head into their bye week
It’s important to remember 2010. That season, Kelly’s first in South Bend, the Irish struggled to a 4-5 record heading into the break, with two straight losses to Navy and Tulsa highlighting the team’s difficulties. Coming out of that bye, the Irish were a different team. Beginning with a dominating victory over #15 Utah, the Irish rattled off four straight wins, which included breaking USC’s eight-game winning streak against Notre Dame, and dominating Miami, 33-17, in the Sun Bowl. During those four games, the defense especially turned a corner, and went from giving up 25 ppg to just 10. If the Notre Dame coaching staff can elicit similar improvement this year, with particular focus on the offensive line and Everett Golson, the rest of the season may be as exciting as we all hope.
Success needs to be renewed each week
While the Irish have exceeded most expectations, a challenging schedule lay ahead and they must continue to be focused and motivated throughout the course of the season. While it’s always exciting to put a winning streak together, good seasons can quickly turn mediocre. In 1987, Notre Dame began the year 8-1 before dropping its last three games, including an embarrassing 24-0 loss to Miami to end the regular season and a crushing 35-10 defeat to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Similarly, in 2002, the Irish began 8-0 before a sloppy loss to Boston College, which featured seven fumbles (three lost) and two interceptions by Notre Dame. This led to Notre Dame splitting its last four games, which included ugly losses to USC (44-13) and NC State (28-6) in the Gator Bowl. Ironically, the difficulty of Notre Dame’s schedule may help them avoid a collapse this year as it will keep this team focused on the “one game at a time” approach necessary to keep winning. With a healthy mix of veterans, who’ve known much disappointment in their careers and aren’t likely to take success for granted, and younger players who have not been jaded by such experiences, the Irish should have no excuses as they head into the heart of their season.
There is another instructive moment from the 1987 season to remember
Tommy Rees playing the role of “relief quarterback” has caused some consternation among fans, and raised concern as to the effect it might have on Everett Golson’s confidence. In 1987, Tony Rice would ultimately be the QB who saw the majority of snaps, but he did share time behind center with Terry Andrysiak (who started the first four games, until an injury against Pitt took him out for most of the year) and Kent Graham. While the experience may not have been ideal for Rice, the things he learned that year helped him guide the Irish to a national championship the following season. If Golson allows himself to be a good student, he could experience similar benefits in 2012.
After years of struggling against “quality competition,”
ND has now won two straight over Top 20 (including a Top10) teams. As much as anything, this shows the level of improvement this year’s Irish have made, and how they differ from previous “Return to Glory” candidates.
Finally, If this is truly to be a special season for Notre Dame...
They will have to continue to find ways to win all sorts of games. While most of us would prefer to have things go like they did against Navy every week, it’s just not realistic to expect, particularly with so many good teams on the docket. The good news, though, is that this team has learned to win. That component has been missing from Notre Dame’s football culture for some time, and restoring it has been a prime objective of Brian Kelly. Notre Dame is quickly proving that when the game’s on the line, they believe they will be victorious and that confidence has been invaluable in some hard-fought games this season. A great recent example of the same phenomena is Auburn’s 2010 national championship team. In winning 14 games that season, Auburn achieved victory every conceivable way – from blowout to nail-biter. While there was a 52-3 win over Louisiana-Monroe and 56-17 victory over South Carolina that year, the Tigers also survived a 27-24 OT battle with Clemson, and later narrowly snuck by Kentucky, 37-34. What’s even more amazing is that both Clemson and Kentucky had losing records that season, as both finished 6-7. In all, five of Auburn’s wins in 2010 were by a TD or less. Even great teams will be challenged, and don’t always overwhelm lesser squads as they’re supposed to. Learning to win different types of games is the key to a championship, and it starts with simply believing you will win. The Irish have definitely changed their mindset, and the results on the field are bearing the fruit of this progress.