Settling Down...and In

A look at the state of the Irish heading into a Week Four matchup with No. 16 Stanford.

Culture Clash

Earlier this month, Brian Kelly noted that he had compiled 47 special scenarios over his 19-year coaching career. Some were the result of preparation and due diligence while others were gleaned in memorable fashion – lessons learned after a tough loss or narrow escape.

Defending a fake field goal is a standard "safe" call for every coaching staff, as are safe punt return alignments when expecting a fake or a safe kick return approach when an opponent's onside kick isn't completely unexpected.

Saturday night's call of the century might not have been completely unexpected (Manti Te'o had an inkling), but it did shock 99 percent of viewers, and that includes this writer, most coaches and former players who tuned in.

A game-winning gadget play is a bitter pill to swallow, and it officially put an end to Kelly's honeymoon period at Notre Dame, but there was an undeniable tip-your-hat element involved as well. The call took guts; the play took execution, timing (extra time, in fact) and courage from all involved.

It was also avoidable (it made sense in hindsight) and defended improperly, as were two crucial 31-yard passes the previous week vs. Michigan. Likewise a 23-yard untouched TD jaunt on 4th down in the season opener vs. Purdue. Those issues plagued the program last season vs. Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Washington, USC, BC, Navy, Connecticut, et al.

Kelly's Midas Touch has yet to rest on the systemic problems the program endures. Opponents continue to execute decisive plays vs. Notre Dame – it's both commonplace and expected by the fan base. That same trait has been exhibited by Kelly-coached players over the course of his championship career, most notably and recently last season in Pittsburgh where a collection of Bearcats with which few national fans were familiar, found a way to win their 12th game in as many tries under the most dire circumstances.

I'm steadfast in belief that Notre Dame Football 2010 will be a well-schooled on-field unit. They're prepared; focused and believe in each other and their teachers. But the gaping hole between winning football and a sub-.500 group remains. No player on Notre Dame's roster has dressed for more wins than losses during his college career. It's a fact hard to imagine and though it's not the reason the Irish lost Saturday night and it doesn't mean the 2010 squad is headed for the Hawaii Bowl, it remains relevant three weeks into the 2010 season.

"There's not a lot I can tell them that is going to make them feel better," Kelly said "But this is about belief. What do you believe in after a loss as difficult as this? What do you believe in? Do you believe in your teammates? Do you believe in your coaches? Do you believe in the preparation?

Last year's squad believed, too, though most Irish fans didn't want to acknowledge that fact over the off-season – comfortable in the convenient belief that the difference between Brian Kelly and Charlie Weis was a matter of motivation gained through a lifetime on a college sideline.

Kelly has noted on multiple occasions that to start winning, the Irish must stop losing. In reality, a 1-2 start, while difficult to swallow, ranks as but a single loss more than expected by most fans and followers at this juncture.

Kelly's 18-game regular season winning streak was snapped last week; his personal 9-game road win streak ended Saturday. His former run of 11 consecutive wins in games decided by a touchdown or less is now a two-game skid. He hasn't started 1-2 since 2006 at Central Michigan (0-2, actually). That season, Kelly's Chippewas responded with nine wins in their next 11 games. Handling adversity isn't the issue for the man in charge, but his troops have become all-too-familiar with the wrong side of the ledger.

Fit to be tied: The nonsensical overtime format (earned field position is the root of the sport) used by various high schools across America was adopted at the Division 1-A (FBS) level in 1996.

Notre Dame's first encounter with the tiebreaker occurred that season in South Bend with the No. 8 Irish enduring a shocking 20-17 loss to unranked Air Force. 10 overtime contests have followed for the program with the Irish prevailing in just three of 11 overtime contests over a 15-season span.

Throw for Show

Brian Kelly's spread is a passing offense. He piles up points and wins despite a complete disregard for the admittedly overrated Time of Possession statistic. But his system is hardly as simple as 1-2-3. In both of his previous stops, Kelly's first-year squads ran more than they passed. They also improved in win totals over the previous season, then continued that trend in Season 2 and Season 3 under the head coach as passing yards and attempts piled up to Kelly's comfort level.

The 2010 Irish are throwing plenty. They're just not scoring as much as most teams (73rd nationally) and have but one win to show for their aerial efforts; their 8th ranked passing offense grounded by the even more overrated statistic of passing yards.

Against Purdue, as in 20 previous wins over 20 contests, Notre Dame ran for more yards than did its opponent. Against Michigan and Michigan State, Big 10 Football bit the Irish in the backside.

Notre Dame will evolve into a top tier passing program. Maybe by mid-October when the slate becomes more forgiving; maybe by a mid-tier bowl; or maybe not until next season. And the upcoming opponent struggles to defend the ball in the air.

But Kelly's current Irish need to rediscover and reestablish a consistent ground attack. Armando Allen is running harder and with more of a purpose than at any point in his career. He appeared to have a change-of-pace sidekick in Cierre Wood, who has seemed tentative and average since a sterling Week One debut. The running back unit features two other ‘backs are capable of stressing a defense over the course of a contest.

The game has changed since, but Woody Hayes old adage remains true today: "When you pass, three things can happen, and two of them aren't good."

Notre Dame quarterbacks have experienced both with four interceptions and 53 incomplete passes in 125 attempts through three games. Kelly noted last Winter that he wasn't interested in what his players couldn't do, rather, he wanted to develop their strengths. In the pre-season, he offered that depth at running back served as a strength of his football team.

It's time to consider playing to your strengths.

Even Steven

National fans and those who remember the halcyon days of a power-laden schedule have panned the 2010 Notre Dame slate for its additions of non-traditional programs Western Michigan and Tulsa, as well as the inclusion of Army and (erroneously) Utah rather than a BCS-power with more pizzazz.

But a closer pre-season look revealed the nation's only schedule that included six consecutive BCS conference opponents to begin the season. The toughest test to date awaits Saturday, with the 3-0, No. 16-ranked Stanford Cardinal coming to South Bend.

I hesitate to throw around must-win phraseology for the contest, but a 1-3 mark heading into Chestnut Hill – with a visit from Pittsburgh to follow – would be a worst-case scenario for hopeful Irish fans who believed the 2010 campaign resembled Ara's reclamation project of 1964.

Four-point underdogs as of Monday morning, Kelly's Irish have no choice but to regroup and come out fighting – it's a perfect circle-the-wagons scenario for a coach that still has the rapt attention of his troops.

But a win is necessary if not mandatory. 12-game seasons and program interest tend to hit a downward spiral when crooked numbers continue to pile up on the wrong side of the W/L ledger.

Stanford hasn't won in South Bend since the Irish were legitimately great – prevailing as double-digit underdogs in both 1992 (a 33-16 Bill Walsh-led beating of the then No. 7 Irish) and in 1990 when the Cardinal upended No. 1 Notre Dame just seven days after suffering a loss to San Jose State.

Kelly and his staff realize the path to sustained success doesn't necessarily lie in a 3-0 or 2-1 start. After all, the last Irish coach to lose to both Michigan and Michigan State and beat Purdue over his first three games as the program coach was a guy named Holtz. And while his current roster has endured far worse over the last three seasons, Kelly was correct in saying its not enough to play hard.

Winning is what matters to coaches, players and fans, and the Irish need to win Saturday to remain focused on the present and remain relevant nationally heading into October.

Note: IrishEyes will resume its regular publishing schedule today. I was away for the birth of our first child from Thursday through Sunday over the past week. Thank you for your patience and for the well-wishes and kind words over the weekend as well. Top Stories