Among the many reasons Charlie Weis lost his dream job coaching Notre Dame was the Irish’s stumbles in November. Even with a guaranteed 10-year contract, Jack Swarbrick couldn’t watch Notre Dame melt down in November for another year, with Weis’ final two seasons ending with Notre Dame going 1-9 after Halloween. That’s a scary movie franchise that needed killing, no matter the expense.
Brian Kelly turned that around, and in the process became one of the premiere coaches in all of football in the season’s final month. From 2008 to 2012, Kelly put together an insane regular-season record once the calendar turned to November, going 17-1 between Cincinnati and Notre Dame. No head coach in college football — Not Saban, Meyer, Patterson or Stoops — came close to having that type of success.
That’s what made last season’s late-season stumble to Pittsburgh such an aberration. With two fourth-quarter interceptions dooming the Irish, Kelly’s football team did something they don’t usually do: Beat themselves.
“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said after that difficult loss.
You can understand losing to Stanford, a late-season game that saw the injury-depleted Irish hang in there until the end against a Stanford team that would win 11 games and the Pac-12. But the Pitt loss hurt, though luckily didn’t rattle the team’s foundation, as it came along during a horrific injury stretch and some bad luck (the officiating crew that worked the Pitt game has heard its name mentioned a time or two these past few weeks). A Senior Day victory over BYU steadied the ship, and combined with an ugly victory over Rutgers finished the season with a more-than-respectable 9-4 record.
Entering the home stretch of a surprising 2014 season, the Irish will be defined by their ability to win this November. Playing five straight Saturdays, Notre Dame can determine whether or not they’ll have one of four coveted seats in the first College Football Playoff.
That the Irish got a much-needed week off before heading into this stretch was important. Because on Saturday, they’ll face a stiff test against Navy’s triple-option attack that pushed the Irish to the max last season, needed a late fourth-down stop to escape alive. After watching Bob Diaco, Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta all struggle in their early attempts to slow down the Midshipmen, Brian VanGorder will get his first look at a triple-option offense in a decade, doing so in primetime on CBS, the proud flag-waver of the SEC’s dominance these past few years.
Even as more than two-touchdown favorites, the Irish will be tested in ways they haven’t seen this year. And after that, they’ll travel across the country to face another explosive offense. Arizona State’s high-powered passing attack will certainly test Notre Dame’s depth-deprived secondary. A year after pulling out an impressive victory in Dallas over the Sun Devils, the Irish defense will face an ASU team looking for revenge, not to mention positioning in the wide-open Pac-12 South race.
Each week has a chance to define Notre Dame’s season. And while the narrative will likely still include the lack of a “signature victory,” taking care of business while others falter does more than rewrite early-season history.
So while the win could lack style points, beating Pat Fitzgerald’s Northwestern team is no easy task. Nor is beating Bobby Petrino’s Cardinals, likely closer to playing like Louisville teams of old by then. And a finale against USC will give the Irish plenty of challenges from a young and talented Trojan team that can play with anybody when they’re on.
Worried about a beauty pageant? As they always do, the next few weeks will reveal the cream of the crop.
“October is for pretenders and November is for contenders,” Kelly said last year as the team prepared to go into November. “We try to ingrain that within our players’ and coaches’ minds that this is now the time to kick it into gear, because this is where you get the opportunity to play for championships.”
Because of the work this team has done through seven games, that opportunity is still alive. But the Irish will need to display improvement on both sides of the ball to achieve their goals.
That mission starts Saturday against Navy.