Six weeks, five games and four wins later, the program's growing legion of skeptical fans finally have something to point to in terms of tangible, on-field progress.
A three-game winning streak vs. impotent Boston College, perpetually mis-managed Pittsburgh, and some team from a little conference in the Midwest looking for a big paycheck did little to quell the fan base's concerns after the unexpected 1-3 start.
That streak opened premature bowl speculation for the 4-3 but no more impressive Irish. The two-game nightmare that followed put the new head coach's approval rating at an all-time low. (If the program's upswing continues, October 30, 2010 could prove to be the all-time low point for Notre Dame's new head coach.)
Staring at a 4-5 record, bowl ineligibility, and two games over the final three contests that would pit the Irish vs. supposedly superior teams, Kelly again called upon indefinable internal belief that things were looking up despite the disappointing record.
Sunday, November 14, 2010 marked the first post-game morning in at least four seasons that the team's head coach would find agreement among his program's fandom.
Yesterday's decisive, three-phase team victory over No. 14 (and plummeting) Utah was the first concrete piece of evidence change may be afoot.
The whole was greater than the sum of its partsAs with the 2008 Sheraton Hawaii Bowl win on Christmas Eve, yesterday's streak-snapping victory over a ranked team means little without a follow-up performance. Yes, it was healing to the Notre Dame fans collective soul that Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate ended the ridiculous fervor over the program's 9-game bowl losing streak.
It's likewise convenient that Kelly, efficient freshman QB Tommy Rees, and a stout defensive effort put an end to the head-shaking – and oft-referenced – 11-game program losing skid vs. ranked foes, as well as to the lesser known 9-game losing skid for Irish when listed as Vegas underdogs (Kelly is now 7-4 in the underdog role over the last four seasons).
But those ugly skids were more internet and television fodder than substance. Who cares if you lose nine bowl games or nine out of 10? Does beating one team ranked No. 25 matter in a five-year stretch? Saturday's win didn't send shockwaves around the nation; it's unlikely to register a blip in future media guides and it might not rank as the most important win of the season when the Irish gather for the banquet or after the Holidays.
But Saturday's cathartic win carried a far more relevant and likely long-term property than that of mere hope: for the first time in the Kelly tenure, Notre Dame won all three phases of a matchup. The offense struggled early but proved efficient and opportunistic through 60 minutes. The defense beat Utah at its own game, proving more physical, focused and, surprisingly, stout at the point of attack.
The Irish special teams, maligned all week after a sloppy and ultimately fatal performance vs. Tulsa, scored a touchdown; later created another, and stifled the Utes' top-ranked punt return game on six Ben Turk offerings.
In Game 10, Brian Kelly's first Irish squad finally carried out the head coach's wishes: they played to the best of their collective abilities.
They played without five of six offensive skill position starters, without nose guard Ian Williams, perhaps the singular key defensive starter in a matchup vs. a power running team, and without inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese.
And they played a more complete football game than any Irish squad since at least the season opener in 2009…only this opponent had a pulse.
"We just need to develop a consistency. I think that's the word that I would underline more than anything else," Kelly noted when asked about the program's struggles earlier this week. "This program needs consistency. And I'm going to provide it that."
It also needed a relatively big victory. With that crucial first step out of the way, step two toward some semblance of consistency begins this weekend in the Bronx, and concludes in the regular season finale on the opposite coast vs. their tormentors from Los Angeles.
Beauty in its simplicityNFL scouts certainly won't begin following the Irish from coast-to-coast over the season's final two weeks to get a first glimpse of freshman QB Tommy Rees in action. His stature is far less impressive than that of his processor Dayne Crist; his accuracy and zip nowhere near the level of Clausen or Game 12 opponent Matt Barkley.
But the new Irish triggerman has proven to his coach and fan base he how to make the most of limited opportunity. Rees attempted just 20 passes: three ended up in the end zone in the arms of Irish receivers. There were no hook-and-laterals implemented in the game plan to spark his cause. There were no exotic formations nor was there an overabundance of controlled screens.
Rees was rightly protected as a freshman in his first start – one facing by far the best collection of defenders in his four appearances to date.
"Wee had to set a game plan that I wasn't going to put this game on Tommy Rees, Kelly noted post-game." I was going to take shots when we had opportunities because he's an accurate thrower of the football. But it was all going to be predicated on our ability to get this thing into the fourth quarter and have a presence on defense as well."
That was the head coach I suspected Notre Dame had hired in the off-season. A confident but thoughtful leader that played the hand he was dealt to the best of his ability. One that extracted every ounce of talent from every player possible.
We saw that head coach Saturday in Game 10. Reckless rolling of the dice took a back seat to prudence, something that had been in short supply over the last six seasons. A 28-3 dominant effort followed.
Game 11 and 12 present far different challenges. For the first time since the season kicked off, it appears the Irish could be ready to meet them.