Brian Kelly’s most iconic win at Notre Dame is rather obvious. It was two weeks ago. Beating No. 1 Clemson in double overtime brought drama (fourth-quarter comeback), plays and names to remember (Avery Davis’ 53-yard reception; Daelin Hayes’ and Ade Ogundeji’s game-sealing sacks), and lasting imagery (a certain storming of the field).
That will all stand the test of time.
Of Kelly’s 100 Irish wins, arguably only one other compares, bringing all those same qualities in a moment steeped with consequence.
When Notre Dame shut out Michigan in 2014, the Wolverines were unranked, and while the closing moments were exciting, they were far from dramatic. When the Irish topped Michigan in 2018, Chris Finke’s leaping touchdown was too early in the game to be immediately recognizable as a snag for the ages that kick-started a Playoff run. And when Notre Dame beat Duke to open 2020, every observing intellect recognized the magnitude of hosting a game during a pandemic, but little else about the 27-13 win was memorable.
But beating No. 17 Stanford in overtime with a classic goal-line stand, to reach 6-0 thanks to a defense that did not give up a touchdown for the fourth game in a row, prompting the first genuine field-storming of the Kelly era, that was a win beyond much comparison.
None of the game should be overlooked, a classic knock-down affair then a trademark of the Cardinal, but little of the first 54 minutes warranted note. At that point, with No. 7 Notre Dame trailing 13-10 after a Stanford field goal, the 80,795 in attendance got tense. Expectations were low for an offense that had gained just 230 yards on a soaked and muddy field. Covering 84 yards seemed unlikely.
Halfway down the field, quarterback Everett Golson was sent to the sideline after taking a blow to the head; he would not return. Hopes were not extinguished — then-quarterback and current-offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had literal years of experience and already had proven himself in a super-sub capacity that season — but they were dwindling.
If Kelly had a worry regarding Rees, it was the most fundamental.
“Get your helmet and let’s go,” Kelly said. “He couldn’t find his darn helmet. So just get in his helmet.”
Rees would not throw a touchdown pass on that drive, but he did direct Notre Dame to an overtime-forcing field goal courtesy of Kyle Brindza.
Then came the drama, the moments that elevated the sloppy affair to one to remember whenever discussing Kelly’s tenure. Rees found receiver TJ Jones for a 7-yard touchdown and a lead. Stanford responded with two long runs to reach the Irish 4-yard line. A second overtime, a la Clemson eight years later, seemed inevitable.
Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor gained one yard to reach the 3, then two more to get to the 1 with third down coming. And Nix had had enough.
The 300-plus pound sophomore defensive tackle dug his heels in at the goal line and did not let the Stanford offensive line move him an inch. Kelly gave credit to the entire defense, offering some of the same “one of 11” plaudits his team has used again this season.
“Game ball went to our defense,” Kelly said. “How do you not give the defense the game ball after the way the game was played?”
Nix was the centerpiece on third down, and once again on fourth. Taylor ran into a wall, allowing cornerback Jackson enough time to come around the edge and drag him down from behind.
“It’s a play for every inch,” said star linebacker and Heisman candidate Te’o, also involved in both goal-line stops. “The inch is what it’s all about. Football is a game of inches and you’re fighting and our guys had him on his legs holding up. I was just glad I got in there.
“Those are moments that you remember and I think that you remember it’s one of the most gritty, just get-after-it defenses.”
The Irish won 20-13. The students stormed the field, although somewhat cautiously simply because the stands and the sidelines were that slippery with mud. Few pants worn that evening were worn again.
“It’s always special,” Te’o said. “Show our fans appreciation and how thankful we are for their support. It was a loud environment.”
Ending Clemson’s 36-game regular-season winning streak a couple weeks ago goes on the top line of all-time Notre Dame victories, alongside beating No. 1 Florida State in 1993, No. 1 Miami in 1988 and 1957 Oklahoma. The 2012 Stanford Stop lands on the next line
Because homo sapiens evolved to have 10 digits spread across two hands, it is our nature to count by 5s and 10s. There is no greater significance to those groupings (and, thus, no greater significance to Kelly winning 100 games aside from him tying Lou Holtz and now sitting five victories short of Knute Rockne’s Irish record).
Looking through Kelly’s wins by 10s does, however, bring up a few curious memories:
No. 10 — Jonas Gray’s 79-yard run at Pittsburgh in 2011, an inexplicable display of speed from the senior running back;
No. 20 — Notre Dame intercepting five consecutive Michigan pass attempts in 2012.
No. 30 and No. 40 — Ho-hum wins against Purdue.
No. 50 — A 2015 win against Navy that was, instead, nearly a comeback win at No. 11 Clemson in a storm.
No. 60 — Beginning the 2017 season with a win against Temple that washed out some of the taste of the 2016 debacle.
No. 70 — The aforementioned Finke touchdown against Michigan in 2018.
No. 80 — Thumping Syracuse at Yankee Stadium in 2018, a moment that seems to have broken the Orange to this day and many more to come.
No. 90 — Navy, once again.
No. 100 — Boston College, nipping in the bud a narrative’s chance at a backup quarterback’s revenge.
Aside from Nos. 20 and 70 and their roles in unbeaten regular seasons, little stands out by that human-nature counting mechanism.
But looking through those as groups of 10 for periodic statement wins, a clearer selection of Kelly’s trademark wins reveals itself:
1-10 — Rees’ first career start, an upset of No. 15 Utah that led to a field gathering of its own.
11-20 — There is no reason to remove the 2012 Michigan game just because it also landed at exactly No. 20.
21-30 — This Stanford Stop came in this range.
31-40 — Shutting out Michigan, 31-0, in 2014 may not have been dramatic, but it is memorable.
41-50 — A last-minute, Golson-to-Koyack touchdown topped Stanford, and it is increasingly distinct Kelly’s greatest wins have come against Notre Dame’s greatest rivals and that certainly makes sense.
51-60 — It took 20 games for the Irish to win these 10 games, and none of the victories stood out, its own appropriate way of reflecting the 2016 wreck.
61-70 — Beating No. 11 USC 49-14 in 2017 served as notice that Notre Dame had overcome whatever went wrong the year before.
71-80 — Let’s cheat and pull in Win No. 70, that Finke touchdown against No. 14 Michigan.
81-90 — This may have seemed like a home-focused run, but aside from leaving out 2012’s win at No. 8 Oklahoma, little has been left out, long a misguided criticism of Kelly. There have been few opportunities for a statement win on the road. Completing 2018’s unbeaten season at USC serves as one, given how much joy the Trojans would have found in pulling the upset and knocking the Irish out of Playoff contention.
91-100 — Hmmm, maybe a particular double-overtime upset.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 21, 2020
INSIDE THE IRISH:
— Jarrett Patterson lost for the season
— Postponements become cancellations
— Eligibility mulligan in 2020 creates new set of questions for Notre Dame seniors
— RIP to a pair of Irish icons
— 30 Years of ND on NBC: 100 wins later, Brian Kelly’s debut following Charlie Weis’ end
— ND nears completion of distant recruiting cycle, no worse for wear, for now
— Irish pull 4-star CB Philip Riley back from USC
— A second flipped recruit in two days
— Hawaiian LB and 4-star OT join Irish recruiting surge
— Notre Dame to limit attendance at final home game to faculty and staff, players’ families
— How Brian Kelly was chosen back in 2009
— Coach of the Year race expands with all conferences in play
— Breaking down the current Playoff picture
— Questions teams need to address if they want to make the College Football Playoff
— SI’s top 10
— Ranking all 127 FBS quarterback situations ahead of CFB Week 12
— Remainder of college football season going to be a wild ride
— Potential for healthy teams to be left home alone forces Pac-12 to rethink ban on non-conference games
— The Pac-12 vs. BYU during a pandemic: Not as simple as it seems
— Chase Claypool becomes first rookie receiver in Super Bowl era with 10 TD in 10 games
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) November 22, 2020