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Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Utah

Nov 13, 2010, 9:07 PM EDT

MFUtah

It was an analogy Brian Kelly didn’t want to use, but football is a lot like the game of life. Ebb and flow. Highs and lows. Good and bad. And after three solid weeks of nothing but negativity, Kelly’s Notre Dame squad went out on Senior Day and summarily dispatched Utah 28-3 on Saturday afternoon.

“Through the last three weeks, we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group,” Kelly said. “In those times, to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

After counter-punching much of the first quarter and spotting Utah a field goal on a failed fourth down gamble, the Irish got a big special teams play from cornerback Robert Blanton, who blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown. From there, the Irish systematically beat down the No. 15 Utes, giving the Irish their biggest win over a ranked opponent since 2005.

Any hope Utah had of overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit was eliminated thirteen seconds into the second half, when freshman Austin Collinsworth stripped Shaky Smithson on the opening kickoff and Tommy Rees found senior Duval Kamara in the corner of the endzone to push the score to 21-3. Kamara would add another touchdown catch in the third quarter to seal the deal.

After losing a plethora of starters and last minute games to Michigan, Michigan State and a shocking defeat to Tulsa, the Irish finally came unbridled, finding their stride.

“You saw today a football team that didn’t have on their shoulders the traditions and reputations and all the things that you have to worry about sometimes being a football player at Notre Dame, and they just flat out played,” Kelly said.

And for the first time since the gallows of 2007, the senior class walks away from Notre Dame Stadium with a win, celebrating with a student section that had no intent of leaving the field.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s commanding 28-3 victory over No. 15 Utah.

1) That’s a cathartic victory for Notre Dame.

As dark as the loss to Tulsa was for Notre Dame collectively, you can’t help but feel great for the players, coaches, students and staff at the university. Just a few weeks after a student mockingly suggested storming the field on Senior Day to celebrate the Class of 2010′s ineptitude after a near-certain loss to mighty Utah, students stormed the field in jubilance, unwilling to let go of the euphoric feeling that comes with winning a big game, “what though the odds be great or small.”

Brian Kelly spent the entire week talking about the foundation that this senior class was building for the football program, and after the game freshman quarterback Tommy Rees talked about how important it was to win a game for them.

“That was our number one goal,” Rees said. “Seniors have done an unbelievable job all year. Whether it be preparing us or keeping us focused, especially in the past two weeks. You know, to send them off with a win is truly special.”

2. That was the most important win for Brian Kelly of his career.

It’s easy to get caught up in hyperbole, but make no mistake — that’s the most important victory Brian Kelly’s ever had as a head coach. With the vultures circling his football program after the death of videographer Declan Sullivan, and his own fanbase openly questioning if Kelly and his staff were too “small-timey” or too hellbent on imposing his offensive system, Kelly and his lieutenants put together a flawless game plan.

“We wanted to get the game into the fourth quarter,” Kelly said. “That was the most important. Our theme this week was get it to the fourth quarter and let’s put this nonsense to bed that you can’t win games in the fourth quarter.”

Thanks to excellence on special teams, an efficient offensive day, and a rabid defense, the only thing decided in the fourth quarter was when to let senior walk-on quarterback Matt Castello take some snaps.

A week after Tommy Rees threw the ball 54 times for 334 yards, the Irish ran it 29 times for 127 yards compared to just 20 throws for 129 yards. Even though the Irish were playing a Utah team that had been stout against the run and the Irish had shown no ability to move the ball with the run, Kelly made it clear that the offensive line was going to determine whether or not the Irish would win the football game.

“We had talked all week about there has to be a time and place where you win the game up front,” Kelly said about his offensive line. “It can’t be finesse football and fast break, and 30, 40 throws. There’s got to be time and place. This was a game where it had to be won up front. I think just putting it on their shoulders from that perspective, and committing to it and staying with it. This game was won up front.”

3. Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, two unsung seniors, led the day for the Irish.

With Carlo Calabrese and TJ Jones unable to answer the bell this afternoon, Brian Kelly turned to two reserve seniors that have drawn the ire of Notre Dame fans in the past, and the duo lead the team to victory. Both Brian Smith and Duval Kamara, playing in their final games in Notre Dame Stadium, played heroic football, large keys to the upset of Utah.

Smith’s 10 tackles playing out of position at inside linebacker led the defense in stops. Kamara’s two catches both resulted in touchdowns, capitalizing for an offense that was working at maximum efficiency. Kamara’s big day was a critical part of the Irish game plan.

“We told Duval for the last ten days, this is your game,” Kelly said. “You’re going to get matched up. You’re 6’4″, you’ve got to help us. You’ve got to be there for us. And he was huge.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Kamara led the Irish offense in receiving as a true freshman in 2007. After getting lost in the shuffle with the ascension of Golden Tate and Michael Floyd, Kamara stuck with it and turned his final game in Notre Dame Stadium into one for the memories.

As for Smith, Kelly was incredibly candid earlier in the week about the linebacker he inherited from the previous regime. But one look at the emotion in the eyes of both Smith and his father as tears flowed during the pregame ceremony, and you know how important Irish football is to him.

4. Bob Diaco’s defense was astounding in every sense of the word.

If a coaches reputation can be made (or ruined) in one Saturday, Bob Diaco tested the theory during the Irish’s loss to Navy. Unable to solve even the most rudimentary elements of the Midshipmen offense, Diaco admitted that the 35-17 loss was his most frustrating as a defensive coordinator.

While Kelly caught some flack for keeping Diaco and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar away from the media this week, the move obviously paid dividends, as Diaco’s defense put together their most complete performance of the season, holding a Utah team that averaged 41 points a game to a single gimme field goal, one that was courtesy of an offense that turned the ball over on downs at midfield.

How dominating was the Irish defense’s performance? Consider that it was only after the score was 28-3 that Utah put together a drive that was over 24 yards. The front seven of the Irish defense completely dominated the line of scrimmage, holding a powerful Utah running game to 2.4 yards a carry and under 100 yards, even without interior stalwarts Ian Williams and Carlo Calabrese. The pass rush pressured Utah quarterback Jordan Wynn endlessly, and the secondary blanketed Utah receivers, with Harrison Smith making the best interception of his career and Gary Gray in the right place at the right time all day.

Diaco deserves all the credit in the world for dialing up a game plan that terrifically suited an Irish defense still incredibly thin due to injury. Even more impressive, the development of the defensive roster is incredibly apparent after 10 football games, with freshman like Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke making big plays, and guys like Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar rising to the occasion. It’s easy to see how defensive line coach Mike Elston, linebacker coaches Diaco and Kerry Cooks, and secondary coach Chuck Martin have put their fingerprints on this unit. Their performance might get lost in the shuffle, but it certainly shouldn’t tonight.

5. There’s plenty to like about this Notre Dame football team.

Brian Kelly was asked earlier in the year if he’d have been happy playing for bowl eligibility during the home stretch of the season, and it was clear then that he — like most fans — expected more from this football team. But this 5-5 Irish squad is certainly one that Notre Dame fans should be proud of.

Consider the decimation to the Irish roster. We’ve discussed it before, but the Irish beat their first ranked team in over five years without their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, two wide receivers, nose tackle, middle linebacker, outside linebacker and safety. That doesn’t happen with a football coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

While Kelly has been pointing at things that have been happening behind closed doors, he opened up a bit after the game about the process of transforming this football team.

“You’re still trying to lay the foundation of how you play this game,” Kelly said. “You play it hard for four quarters. You get it to the fourth quarter and you close. My career has been built on closing games out and building the mentality of that football team. That’s what we had to make sure we got done.”

Even more interesting, Kelly gave us a true look behind the curtain when he was asked if this was “the moment” that the Irish football team had been waiting for.

“You missed the point,” Kelly said. “It’s not a moment. It’s the culmination of what we’ve been working on since December. You don’t just pull these out of a hat. You don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s rise up today.’ It’s the consistency of an approach from a day to day basis and how we go to work every day. We’re not a finished product by any means, but we’re starting to develop the mental and physical toughness for the way you need to go and approach this game.”

That process continues next week as the Irish battle for bowl eligibility against an Army team that’s already earned its way to the postseason, the first time the Knights have done so n 14 years. Adding to the intrigue, Army runs the same triple option attack that absolutely flummoxed the Irish defense less than a month ago. This season may not have been the one Irish fans (or players and coaches) envisioned, but next Saturday’s date in Yankee Stadium, not to mention the upcoming clash in the Coliseum, remind us that there’s still plenty to play for this season.

What a difference 24 hours make.

  1. fitz79 - Nov 13, 2010 at 10:28 PM

    A game like this will make a believer out of ya in a hurry. Due props to the seniors but I’m especially encouraged by how many freshmen we’re out there playing terrific today. Bodes well for the future. I hope we can take this momentum and win out and go to a decent bowl game. Not too overlook Army, they’re better than they have been of late but let me be the first to say bring on USC! They’re more vulnerable this year than in a long, long time.

  2. jpwills19 - Nov 13, 2010 at 11:48 PM

    I’m pretty fired up, obviously, but I think that might have been a program-changing win. I thought NBC did a great job of keeping focus on the fan energy once the student came on the field. To me, there was just a completely different vibe, like the tide had been turned. These true freshmen are really stepping up. Win out and the recruiting momentum will follow.

  3. jimbasil - Nov 13, 2010 at 11:50 PM

    Nice Win. Utah, as much as many will say they were a weak No. 15 team, was not prepared for ND’s Defense size and speed. The Irish D played with more tenacity than I’ve seen in sometime. Blanton’s block, aided by a good special teams call, really was a play waiting to happen after the first defensive set against the Utes. The Utes are a well coached team, but today in the rain they were not ready for an all around talented team rising from its injuries and bad defeats.

    Kudos to Rees and the O Line for playing with intent and smarts and Kamara for not giving up belief he could make some big plays, not only receiving but blocking very well down field as did Floyd.

    This was the team effort ND fans have been wishing to witness and this may be where we see this team begin to come of age.

  4. danno27 - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:13 AM

    Agreed – H. Smith has never made a better play in an ND uniform. This win was sweet.

  5. 9irish - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:29 AM

    Best game I have seen in several years. No mistakes. You can be the best pistolero in the world, but if you shoot yourself in the foot all the time, it does not work out too well. I think they have figured out how to win. Looking forward to next week.

    go Irish

  6. irishfan2791 - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:31 AM

    Gosh, I was going into this game dreading the outcome (I almost didn’t watch) I have supported Brian Kelly throughout the season and been bitten in the rear for it a couple times more than i’d like, it sure felt great being a Irish fan today. The overall preformance of everyone on the team was awesome to watch. If the Defense plays this well against army especially the D-line (who pushed the line of scrimmage back two yards every play) it should be a great game to watch and showcase the talent of the Irish. And, trying not to look forward too far but if we beat SC in LA all will be forgiven. But pumped for the game under the lights in NYC!!! GO IRISH!!!!!!!!

  7. domjay - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:56 AM

    Make no mistake it was the commitment to the running game, excellent defensive effort, and great special team plays that won this game. ND absolutely must bring this kind of effort to their next two games because they will not be easy. Please BK bring the same kind of offensive game plan into the next two games and show the commitment to running the football that you showed today and limit Rees to high percentage throws that limit his mistakes. Do this and we have a shot at 7-5, do it not and 6-6 would not even be a given.

  8. c4evr - Nov 14, 2010 at 1:38 AM

    I will temper my exuberance with a sober reminder that, as great a win for ND as it was, it is also a Utah team that has been exposed. Most encouraging for the Irish is hearing names like Shembo, Schwenke, and Rees mentioned after big plays. If freshmen are making game changing plays at this point, that’s a great sign for the future. I still didn’t like Kelly’s 4th down call on the first drive – but a win covers a multitude of sins. Rees showed incredible poise for a youngster. He had no ‘deer-in-the-headlights’ look on his camera close ups that Crist sometimes has. The running backs still hit their holes late and I really don’t like the spread’s ‘hand it off and let the runner look for an opening’ approach. Call me old fashioned, but I still prefer Lou’s north/south, smash mouth running game. But these days, wins are at a premium, so I’ll take what I can get. On to NYC with my 3 yr. old to witness history at the game at Yankee stadium… hope they’ve been watching a lot of tape from the Navy game : )

  9. jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 14, 2010 at 2:39 AM

    5 Things I Learned:

    1) Boy did we need that win. If we can just do it one more time a bowl appearance will help this young team out immensely for next year.

    2) Dayne who? Rees is a player. That first pass to Kamara was off his back foot and he laid it in there perfectly.

    3) This defense is continuing to improve. Hope Diaco can figure out the Army option attack.

    4) Why does it take Senior Day to put tears in the eyes of Brian Smith and his father? They should have been that pumped up for every game. Yes, the Dad too.

    5) This was not a “signature win” for Kelly. It was a great win, but people will argue that Utah is an exposed fraud of a team due to last week and this game. Let’s wait and see how far they fall in the rankings next week.

    Lastly, I would give my eye teeth to see ND do the same thing to USC in 2 weeks. Even though the same detractors will argue that USC is down this year , in disarray as a program, etc. I want to beat them convincingly and then I will consider this year well-played.

  10. jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 14, 2010 at 2:41 AM

    Oh, and 6) Alex Flanagan even looks hot on those giant Tommy Rees pictionary cue cards. Not too sure about what the Curious George one meant however.

  11. krups06 - Nov 14, 2010 at 2:54 AM

    Great win for the seniors, Coach Kelly and his staff, as well as the underclassmen. I will be the first to admit that Utah was completely overrated at #5 just a week ago, but they are a well coached team none the less. What we saw today was an Irish team that basically said “No, not today, not in our house, we want it more than you, and we are going to humiliate you along the way.” This season has certainly been one of misfortune coupled with inconsistent execution from the players and coaches, but an effort like this is very encouraging. I also can’t emphasize enough what this win did for recruiting today, not just for those visiting but for the ones watching at home as well. I am now eager to see how the story is going to end for this team. Its going to have to start with another effort like this in Yankee Stadium under the lights of prime time next week.

  12. danno27 - Nov 14, 2010 at 7:02 AM

    About those cue cards – I was watching the game at a crowded bar and didn’t get audio. What in the blue blazes were they doing with those things? Was it simplified play-calling?

  13. spankyomonkey - Nov 14, 2010 at 8:06 AM

    ouch … from article about Ute’s loss … “humiliating 28-3 loss to a really bad Notre Dame squad” … but a win is a win

    • terryb101 - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:03 PM

      pretty sad state of affairs when we get excited about beating utah(regardless of ranking) hate it when people or players say a win is a win,that usually means that the team isnt that good and is happy to get a win..and i just dont feel that that is the notre dame that i grew up with from the late 60′s onward,

  14. willmose - Nov 14, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    It was a good win for the Irish. One thing we have learned is that Kelly is gambler, he expect his team to make plays. While that philosophy has bitten him in the butt a few times this season, he has a team that is not timid and looks to make big plays. It is a foreshadowing of what is to come.

  15. tbpeterson2 - Nov 14, 2010 at 8:55 AM

    Great article.

  16. olemantj - Nov 14, 2010 at 10:51 AM

    Keith:

    Excellent stuff. Agree with just about everything you said in this post. The one thing I have a problem with is your line about the vultures flying…..

    I think I know what you meant, but the initial image in my head of vultures flying over the body of DS just didn’t set well. I think an update to that line would be most appropriate

  17. oceanman1 - Nov 14, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    I don’t understand why NBC still has a dedicated column about Notre Dame football … WHIO CARES ??
    This ain’t 1966 ….
    Notre Dame has been irrelevent in all major sports for a long time !!

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:17 PM

      Not to us. If its so irrelevant then why are you even here commenting dirtbomb?

    • ndfan82 - Nov 14, 2010 at 12:52 PM

      Ocean man you are the perfect example of a ND hater you obviously know NOTHING about ND athletics. Do your research before commenting on a topic you know absoluty nothing about, so if you do respond please come back with FACTS rather than your thoughts.

  18. vegasmike74 - Nov 14, 2010 at 6:40 PM

    Good coaching and good player execution wake up the echoes!

  19. nd52 - Nov 15, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    Can anyone out there explain to me why Robert Hughes hardly played this year?
    He’s a tough effective running back and yet hardly played.

  20. Chris Maza - Nov 15, 2010 at 3:48 PM

    The rollercoaster ride continues for Notre Dame… http://wp.me/p15q0r-2X

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