Brian Kelly won his 100th game at Notre Dame a week ago, nine more than his three predecessors did across 13 seasons. He has lost 37 games across 11 seasons with the Irish, 30 fewer than they stumbled to.
The last of those predecessors’ losses, immediately preceding Kelly’s first win at Notre Dame Stadium, underscored the stability Kelly would bring when he arrived in 2010. When Charlie Weis took the field against Connecticut to end the 2009 home slate, he did so with arms linked with the team’s captains, a player-driven move intended to convey confidence and unity.
“It was just us being behind coach Weis 110 percent,” junior quarterback Jimmy Clausen said. “He’s leading the program and we just wanted to show our support.”
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In the linked arms, one could also see desperation and a need to literally hold things together because figuratively they were falling apart, though when the Irish got off to a 14-0 start, a Clausen pass to Golden Tate followed by a Clausen 1-yard run, the confidence and stability seemed to be the day’s driving narrative.
Notre Dame would not find the end zone again until the first overtime. Not to diminish the Huskies too much, but needing to designate first overtime when hosting Connecticut is not exactly the trademark of a program heading in the right direction.
Consider: The Irish just went five seasons between overtimes at home, a streak snapped by No. 1 Clemson a few weeks ago. That’s a game worthy of double overtime drama. Randy Edsall and the then 4-5 Huskies? Not so much.
And if reaching two overtimes against Connecticut is an indicator of trouble, losing in two overtimes against Connecticut only amplifies that concern. When Clausen’s third-and-four pass for Tate fell incomplete in the second extra period, forcing Notre Dame to settle for a David Ruffer field goal, the writing was on the wall.
Not only would the Irish lose 33-30 to the Huskies, but Weis’ time leading his alma mater would end after a loss at Stanford a week later.
“Today’s not the day for me to reflect on things like that,” Weis said after his final game in Notre Dame Stadium. “Today’s the day for me to be worrying about those guys, those 33 [seniors]. I really feel absolutely miserable for those 33 guys. … I’ll worry about me tomorrow.”
Of Kelly’s 100 wins, 31 have been part of an active streak of wins against unranked opponents, an Irish record. Undeniably, he suffered a few lumps at the outset and then unexpectedly again halfway through his tenure — Navy and Tulsa in 2010, South Florida in 2011, overtime against Northwestern in 2014, all of 2016 come to mind — but this consistency against lesser teams is what Notre Dame most lacked under Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie.
The Irish did not win the games they should. Now they do.
And they did in Kelly’s debut, a 23-12 bore against Purdue.
“That will be something that is very memorable,” Kelly said. “Hopefully there are many more of those to come.”
Little did he know. Little did anyone know.
“100 wins,” he said after the 45-31 win at Boston College a week ago. “I was going to say it felt like 100 years.”
Praising Kelly for beating the Connecticuts and the Purdues of the world may seem like a low bar to clear, but it was a bar Notre Dame had not been clearing before his arrival. Before 2009 Connecticut there was 2009 Navy, before that there was 2008 Syracuse … 2008 Pittsburgh … 2007 Air Force, 2007 Navy, 2004 Pittsburgh, 2004 Purdue. All at home.
The Irish haven’t lost at home in 23 games. The inexplicable debacle of 2016 aside, they haven’t lost at home to an unranked opponent since 2014. Notre Dame now clears that low bar, establishing a higher floor for the program as a whole.
What did Kelly bring different from Weis or Willingham or even Davie?
“Maybe this is just my background, but anytime I’ve gone into a stadium with 81,000, I’ve always played up to that opponent,” he said 11 seasons ago. “Now, it was 81,000, and it was our people.”
That is too easy an answer. Rising from Division II to the MAC to the Big East does not assure a coach of success on the big stage, but it may have given Kelly an understanding of how to handle those lesser foes, and that gave him a runway to find the dominance Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) has now reached, sitting at No. 2 in the polls with an inside track to its second Playoff appearance in three years.
“I took on the challenge at Notre Dame because I want to see this program back to where I believe it should be, and that’s amongst the elite in college football,” he said in 2010. “We’ve got some work to do. We are not there yet, believe me. Trust me. But we took a step today and we’re going to keep pounding at it and working at it.”
Taking a 20-3 lead into the fourth quarter against the Boilermakers, via a combination of Armando Allen, Dayne Crist and Ruffer, did not serve as a harbinger of Kelly fulfilling those lofty goals. It didn’t undercut his message, either, something that could not be said 10 months earlier, arms linked or not.
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