Is a Victory Over Notre Dame Really Worth Celebrating These Days?
Brian Kelly needed one more than that to raze Notre Dame's 2010 football season. Eight days. From a failed fourth-and-goal attempt on the one-yard line in the game's opening drive against Navy to an ill-conceived end zone pass to Michael Floyd on Notre Dame's final offensive play against Tulsa on Oct. 30, Kelly shepherded the Irish through, and was certainly as responsible as anyone for, the worst eight-day stretch in the school's gridiron history.
In the midst of it, of course, was the horrific death of Declan Sullivan, which occurred two days after Kelly celebrated his 49th birthday.
It was a week of unspeakable loss, wrapped inside a season of unforeseen defeats, lapping up against a decade or so of interminable anguish.
Lost games, lost coaches and ultimately, for this once-proud program, lost aura. The most oft-repeated scene any Notre Dame senior has witnessed is the players of an underdog, unheralded program celebrating inside Notre Dame Stadium.
"I've never been a part of anything like that," Tulsa quarterback G.J Kinne said. "It was an awesome feeling."
Like what? You've never been a part of beating a .500 team?
Opponents still regard a win at Notre Dame the way a deer hunter does a 12-point buck, but the truth is winning at Notre Dame Stadium is a lot like marrying Elizabeth Taylor in her 70s. The name still draws attention, but the edifice is crumbling. And it has been for some time.
In the wake of this latest humbling, it was noted that it was Tulsa's first win against an automatic-qualifying BCS program in its last 20 tries. Just like last week, it was Navy's biggest win against the Irish since 1963. Just like in September Stanford's Owen Marecic may have become the first FBS player ever to score touchdowns on consecutive plays from scrimmage on offense and defense. Just like two weeks before that when Denard Robinson of Michigan shattered the record of total offense by a Notre Dame opponent by a full 82 yards.
Are you sensing a trend? On its website Sunday, NBCSports.com featured a video of the postgame wrap-up by commentators Tom Hammond and Mike Mayock. The video was entitled "Irish Suffering Continues."
As does the football, the days take funny bounces. Before September, Kelly was a Rockne-like 94-24 in the past nine seasons. He's a winner, by definition, and the past nine games of his career, while certainly enigmatic, do not undo that. On the other hand, the headline "Trust Me, Brian Kelly Is Notre Dame's Next Knute Rockne" seems like something The Onion conjured as opposed to this website, which ran those very words just eight weeks ago.
The 2007 season was miserable (3-9), but everyone knew the Irish had no talent or veteran leadership. As one of my overlings at NBC, back when I worked for it, asked me before the season-opening loss to Georgia Tech, "Are you going to be with us when this thing turns?"
The 2008 season was darkly disappointing (7-6), but at least the Irish ended on a positive note with a dynamic performance at Hawaii that fans had been expecting all season. Maybe Charlie Weis, who now sits upstairs for the 5-2 Kansas City Chiefs, should have remained up in the booth?
Then 2009 began with a bang (35-0 over Nevada) but unraveled to the point of irreparability. Even then, however, Kelly arrived with his "five-minute plan" mantra and that 18-game regular-season win streak.
It feels as if the only Hope left in northern Indiana resides in West Lafayette. The Irish have for the season lost: their nose tackle, Ian Williams, who last Tuesday Kelly called "our best defensive player," their quarterback, their running back, their second-leading wide receiver and their tight end, who is in my opinion their best overall player.
In the past two weeks they've also lost three recruits, including their No. 1 overall, Aaron Lynch, who only excels at the position (defensive end) at which the Irish are in their most dire need of help.
And, unless they win two of their last three versus unbeaten Utah, Army and their 21st century overlords, USC, they've lost 15 practices they sorely need and a bowl game.
It's never been darker in South Bend, and that's partly because it's been so long since this program has provided anyone a glimpse of light. Kelly, who is in the midst of "the most difficult time of my life," is also facing the greatest challenge of his career. During Sunday's press conference, he exuded not one iota of self-doubt or lost faith. He'll need every ounce of that self-assurance as November, a month in which the Irish have a six-game losing streak, begins.
By the way, on Sunday the Notre Dame women's soccer team, which had won 77 straight games against Big East competition dating back to 2005, lost 2-0 at home to Connecticut. A few starters from the Notre Dame football team attended.
• Notre Dame followers who don't already know this will be thrilled to learn that last Saturday was the first time in 12 games that David Ruffer did not attempt a field goal. Since becoming the starting kicker last November, Ruffer has not missed a field-goal attempt (18-for-18). Which is what makes Kelly's decision to have true freshman Tommy Rees launch an end zone pass to Floyd with 0:42 remaining, trailing 28-27 and with Ruffer in the wings awaiting a 37-yard attempt, inexplicable.
"Keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that's the way we're playing," Kelly said.
One can appreciate the audacity, but at the end of a week when the program and the university needed a feel-good moment as much as it ever has, it was reckless. Not a term this program needs any more association with at the present time.
• "Gamer." That's how Kelly described Rees, who has thrown five touchdown passes in five quarters and whose 39 completions in that same period are four more than another Irish QB with those initials, Tony Rice, threw in all of his first season as a starter back in 1987. Rees, in reality the fourth-string QB (fellow frosh Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa, considered to have more value, are being held out this season), is a gamer. As is Ruffer.
As was wide receiver Jeff Samardzija, one of the best wideouts in school history who for some reason could not get onto the field his first two seasons in South Bend. As was Pat Kuntz, a two-star recruit who became the heart and soul of the Irish defense at nose tackle in 2008.
Five-star recruits are wonderful. Gamers are the heart and soul of a program. Kelly needs more of them, particularly on defense.
• Sunday was a clear, crisp autumn day in South Bend. The gates at LaBar Practice Complex were open and the two Skyjack scissor lifts were positioned at either end of the nearest field. Notre Dame students were playing football on that field, but it was not the football team, which has not practiced on it since last Wednesday's tragedy.
Instead, a girls' intramural playoff game was taking place between Pasquerilla West and Lewis Hall, the latter of which is the dorm in which Declan Sullivan's younger sister resides. Being Notre Dame students -- football-crazed and smart-alecky-- the Lewis Hall jerseys were adorned on the back with the words "Intense Action Verbs."
Meanwhile, the portion of the chain-link fence through which the lift toppled has been repaired and a new evergreen tree planted just outside it. The hedge still had a lime-green ticket on it.
• The two numbers that point most markedly toward Notre Dame's need to get more athletic are 10 and 2,014. Ten is the number of games that have transpired since the Irish last had a 100-yard rusher. The nation's leading rusher, LaMichael James of Oregon, operates out of virtually the same offense that Notre Dame does. And 2,014 points to the number of defensive snaps Notre Dame has taken since it last created a turnover and scored on the same play, which is something Stanford and Tulsa have done against the Irish this season. That drought extends more than 30 games.
• The two biggest landmark dates in Notre Dame football of the modern era are Oct. 15 and Nov. 13. On Oct., 15, 1988, the Irish took down No. 1 Miami and on Nov. 13, 1993, did the same to top-ranked Florida State. On Oct, 15, 2005, they took No. 1 USC down to the wire in the most inspired game they've played since Lou Holtz departed. In less than two weeks, the Irish host what might be an undefeated Utah team on Nov. 13.
• Kelly spoke to his injured quarterback, Dayne Crist, on Saturday night. On Halloween morning, Crist commemorated the one-year anniversary of having torn his left ACL by having surgery on his right patellar tendon. Kelly said that he told Crist, "Sometimes in life we look for answers, and there are no answers."
Pretty much sums up the past week.