And the beat goes on

O'Malley's Sunday Drive Thru looks at the fragile state of the 2010 season heading into a still-crucial home stretch.

Tougher, both mentally and physically; better prepared by a staggering margin; superior conditioned student-athletes; stronger and quicker on both lines; quicker in pursuit; more physical in every attributable aspect of the sport; far more competitive; smarter in their collective ability to comprehend and execute offensive and defensive assignments. And to top it off, they wanted it more.

Guess which team won?

"Look, you get what you deserve," head coach Brian Kelly said post-game. "We got beat today. Navy was the better football team today."

Kelly could have dropped the final word on his final sentence. Navy is the better 2010 football team and it's not close. Whatever evidence someone proposes to the contrary is irrelevant to what actually transpires on the field, where it matters.

A rudderless Irish offense was led by the efforts of senior tailback Armando Allen functioning with one healthy hip, and freshman T.J. Jones auditioning in a new position. Allen's classmate Duval Kamara answered the bell as far as I could tell, too. That's the end of the October 23 Irish roll call.

The names Allen and Kamara illustrate one silver lining in Year One of the Kelly regime: his seniors appear to be on board. That's generally the sign of a coach with leadership qualities.

Speaking of those seniors, the Notre Dame recruiting class of 2007, the graduating class of 2010, ranked No. 11 on National Signing Day. They're guaranteed to be the first Notre Dame class since 1960 to finish with a .500 record or below in their collegiate careers, falling to a head-shaking 20-25 Saturday with either four or five (a potential bowl game) contests remaining.

Navy's '07 group – ranked 118th out of 119 for those who might have missed the Midshipmen's National Signing Day festivities – has won 31 games in that same span, including three contests vs. their former tormentors from South Bend.

Blame Rolls Downhill

Brian Kelly made the right decision to attempt to punch the pigskin into the end zone from the one-yard line on the game's opening drive. A QB sneak is also the correct play call in that instance: when a 6'4" 235-pound QB needs three feet and has 600-650 pounds available to him in either A Gap, turning and handing the ball off to a trio of tailbacks who've had only intermittent success in such situations is not prudent.

You do, however, have to push the ball across the goal against one of the smallest defensive lines you'll face this decade.

As in all goal line situations, the low man won. The Middies won. They then marched 99 yards to pay dirt. Ballgame? Maybe not, but the tone had been set; the gauntlet lain down: "Buckle up, it's gonna be a lot like last year."

Kelly noted post game that, "If you can't punch it in to start the game from the foot-line with the big guys we have up front and a 230-pound quarterback, that says something right there."

It does, it means that all the training table meals and hill installations and proclamations of body fat measurements and squat reports amount to the same as they did under the previous staff. I have no idea how much 240-pound Navy defensive end Billy Yarborough squats, or 252-pound nose tackle Shane Bothel benches, but on Saturdays in the fall, the duo pushes about 850 pounds of Charmin-soft Irish.

When self-assessment must suffice

Criticism, both internal and external, of the defensive staff is warranted after another unexpectedly horrendous effort against the Middies: new staff, worse result. Navy piled up its second-highest rushing total and far and away it's best rushing average (6.1) of the season – through both the unexpected veer, through the standard triple-option, and fittingly, through the heart of the Irish defense.

They converted 10 of 13 third down opportunities; scored four touchdowns in four red zone trips and possessed the football for 11:38 longer than did the Irish.

The Irish were without Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph and Theo Riddick. The Naval Academy was without the 2009 contest's MVP: fullback Vince Murray who rumbled for a buck-fifty-eight and a touchdown through former coordinator Jon Tenuta's troops.

Murray was replaced Saturday by former starter Alexander Teich, the 2010 contest's MVP whose 210 rushing yards marked the third time in nine games that an Irish opponent topped the 200-yard plateau (Denard Robinson in Week Two; Toby Gerhart in the '09 finale).

A fullback totaled 210 net yards in a Notre Dame game and he wasn't named Bettis, Zellers or Edwards. Why include "net"? because for the second consecutive season, the Navy starting fullback never lost a yard vs. the Irish defensive front. Talk about being green with envy: the Irish haven't had a 100-yard back since Week Two of 2009. The program has enjoyed just six such performances since Darius Walker hightailed it out of town before disaster struck South Bend in 2007.

Half of those efforts arrived via the legs of senior ‘back Robert Hughes, who didn't earn a carry yesterday, and a runner whose north-south style apparently doesn't jibe with that of an offense going sideways.

Impossibly Bad: Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is a bright person and coach. He's a student of his craft and also a good soldier, one that functions as a coordinator whose main job is to augment his head coach's particular plan each week.

Diaco regular talks about two kinds of traits: tangible and intangible. Only Kelly and he know the intangible improvements their players have made in 11 months. Only they and the rest of the staff know how far the roster was behind after three years of wallowing in the muck.

But tangible improvement has not appeared through eight games. The 2010 Notre Dame defense has allowed more touchdowns (22) than did the supposedly ruinous co-reign of Tenuta and Brown in 2009 (21). The '10 team has yielded more yards, created fewer turnovers and yes, has fared worse in the heavily mis-reported (don't believe it unless they include stats next time) Red Zone defensive effort than did the '09 group. After eight games the "poorly conditioned" Irish of 2009 finished 15th nationally in red zone defense; the '10 group now ranks 73rd.

And to avoid (further) piling on Diaco's defense, not one aspect of the 2010 offense currently ranks higher than did the 2009 squad en route to two fewer wins in as many games.

In retrospect, intangible improvements and a team that passed relevant Eye Tests were key to Lou Holtz's 1986 reclamation project – a team that finished 5-6 with a string of head-shaking losses that made the new head man seem, at times, less-than-prepared for the tall task at hand.

Holtz obviously was. I believe Kelly is too, but it's time to stop talking about "Championship Football" and to stop talking, entirely, about all the improvements that are apparent from the bottom-up. We were led to believe the infrastructure of the program Kelly inherited was a train wreck – that manifested itself on the field as late as Week Eight vs. a team with zero contributing players that received more than two recruiting stars from Scout.com (no player receives just one).

White flag?

Losing a heartbreaker to Michigan hurts. Playing the role of victim during East Lansing special teams trickery can take its toll on your ego. Losing your lunch money at home to a school with tougher academic standards serves as a wake up call.

And being brutalized at the point of attack by Navy for 60 minutes will lower the support of your fan base…but failing to attempt an onside kick with 6:12 remaining in an 18-point game – concession vs. the veer option by any reasonable measure – that might be a cardinal sin Brian Kelly will look to avoid on future occasions.

The head coach noted post-game that they "needed" a stop" before then needing two successful onside kicks (and points in three possessions). What defensive evidence existed that a defensive stop was a viable option?

Two years ago Ken Niumatulolo's Midshipmen trailed the Irish 27-7 with 2:30 remaining. Navy fell valiantly, 27-21 and had a chance to win with two passes outside the red zone and 34 seconds remaining.

What though the odds be great or small, indeed...

It's (no longer) how you start…

Because of its decisiveness, Saturday's defeat ranks among the program's worst – or at least most sobering – in my three decades a follower (Georgia Tech and Michigan '07 in their unexpected brutality; Syracuse '08 for its ignominy; Navy '09 in its folly…and a handful of Faust-ian faux pas and Willingham no-shows are in the conversation. Let's not split hairs…)

At 4-4, finishing strong is all this team has left. Six wins gets them a bowl bid – one they'll accept without hesitation because every practice is crucial between now and September 2011. Seven wins could bring back the growing contingent of fans suddenly teetering, but still hold out hope.

The suggestion of eight elicits no less than a smirk.

Saturday's contest with Tulsa will likely feature the lowest game day turnout since the Dukies visited South Bend in a 2007 season-ending downpour. Winning that game is absolutely essential heading into a much-needed Bye in Week 10. Don't expect it to be decided entering the final quarter.

Two weeks to prepare for Utah might not be enough, but a victory over the potentially undefeated and Top 5 Utes would serve as the Notre Dame Moment that the new regime desperately needs (your best win can't be against Dave Wannstedt) and the previous group never experienced.

Army and another option attack follows (lets home they haven't been holding something back); then a trip to the program's all-time house of horrors in LA.

They're injured, they're down, but Kelly promises they're not out.

"Last year you lost to Navy and you lost the rest," Kelly said following Saturday's contest. "Well, that means this football team broke apart. We're not going to let this team come apart. I just speak from my heart, tell them how I feel, how we're going to have to go to work every day, and continue to build on getting better."

Its incumbent upon a head coach nearly everyone believed in to ensure that progress manifests – on the field – in the season's final month.


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