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Things We Learned: Notre Dame won the ‘no-win’ narrative, raising the bar for the future

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In a “no-win” bowl game, No. 15 Notre Dame found a way to win the narrative, nonetheless. Blowing out Iowa State was not expected in any corner, and yet the Camping World Bowl domination extended past the 33-9 Irish victory and into a new Notre Dame standard.

Notre Dame (11-2) has now tied a program-record with 33 wins in three seasons, it has not lost to an over-matched foe in three years — a low bar to clear on the surface but undeniably a very difficult one in this sport — and most pertinently, the Irish made it clear they are different than their predecessors.

“Anytime you win 11 games, that’s an outstanding football season,” head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “Everybody measures it — there’s only one team that can win a national championship. I can measure it by what our kids did at the end of the season. That is, they got back up, they went out and competed and overcame adversity.”

In what turned out to be an overblown manner, overcoming that adversity included winning in Orlando. Pick your phrasing of choice: “Notre Dame should have been in the Orange/Cotton Bowl,” “The Irish don’t care about this second-tier game,” or “Iowa State is an overmatched opponent so it doesn’t prove anything if Notre Dame wins.” The prevailing sentiment before kickoff was this would become a classic case of lacking motivation in a non-prestige bowl game.

Despite Kelly’s track record of avoiding that apathy — only popping up in an 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl in 2011; avoiding it in 2010’s Sun Bowl and 2013’s Pinstripe Bowl — even he bolstered that thought process with his criticism of the week’s Irish practices. Perhaps he should have known better, though.

Twice this season, against both Virginia and Virginia Tech, Kelly acknowledged many of his nine previous Notre Dame teams might not have won those games. The Cavaliers kept the game close and are an underrated team; the Hokies benefited from a one-play, 14-point swing to keep the Irish behind until the final minutes. Both times Notre Dame responded with a win, the latter instance coming a week after a humbling in Ann Arbor.

“We knew that the way they played against Virginia Tech, after the Michigan game, what their identity was of this group and who their character was and truly who they were as a football team,” Kelly said. “That was the case each and every week. They didn’t complain about what they didn’t have.

“They knew what they had, and that was they had each other and a chance to play another game together.”

A cliche, yes, but one that proved true. That much cannot be argued after holding Iowa State to 68 yards in the second half, after averaging 7.0 yards per play in quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees’ first day calling plays, after finishing the season on a six-game winning streak.

Going 33-6 since a program reset following 2016’s debacle may not emphasize enough how high Notre Dame’s floor now is. Of those three teams, this was the one with the lowest ceiling, limited by both injuries and a lack of first-round talent. Yet, it ended the season most emphatically, it won the games it should have even if some were the types often lost from 1997 to 2016, and it capped it all by so completely dominating a Big 12 dark horse that the Cyclones’ offseason will now be rife with the type of angst Irish fans are accustomed to.

This was a Notre Dame team that in years past would have lost one of those Virginia games, as well as this bowl game, to finish an uninspiring 9-4.

“It’s just so satisfying that this team has been rewarded with 11 wins because they have thought about only their teammates and how they can get better each and every day,” Kelly said. “They overcame adversity, lived the life lessons of it.

“They’re not perfect, they never pretended to be perfect, never wanted to be, but always strived for excellence.”

Literal perfection went by the wayside in September and figurative perfection disappeared entirely in late October, but the end of December was marked by an afternoon of excellence.

That excellence once again reminded the world — “We had our fan base complaining about where we were going, we were happy.” — of how stable this program has become. Kelly was disappointed by the Irish practices during the Christmas week, questions continued to swirl around the offensive play calling, and Iowa State is a team that came three total points short of two massive upsets this season.

When Kelly said, “You just read this team wrong,” he was right in that the week in Orlando created a maelstrom of speculation, but he was also accurate in that a fan base and media corps conditioned to expect Notre Dame to stub its toe needs to be disabused of that anticipation.

The Irish are no longer a folly inevitably waiting to happen. If they were, an over-achieving team with strife among its coaches would have stumbled against an ambitious Virginia team, would have lost twice to Michigan by failing to come back against Virginia Tech, or would have enjoyed central Florida nightlife too much to send Iowa State packing before the first half ended.

Notre Dame has set a sustainable standard of near-excellence, highlighted by moments of genuine excellence. The Camping World Bowl was the latter, and to incur more such displays, Kelly now must find the right offensive coordinator and continue building on a 2021 recruiting class currently considered the best in the country.

Rees made an excellent argument to be that coordinator, and when Kelly wasn’t lamenting practice performances in Orlando, he was publicly raising expectations on recruiting. But the best evidence more dismantlings of worthwhile opponents are on their way came in the thorough domination of Iowa State to end 2019 and further the three-year reset of Notre Dame’s national standing.