"The mental toughness and physicality of their football team. Those two things stood out when you watched them play... They were a physical, good looking football team, something that we have worked on considerably…I think it was 20 games ago. I think if you go and look at where we are, we have made substantial progress in that period of time."
For the first 30 minutes of Saturday night's Stanford/Notre Dame matchup, Stanford was altogether bigger, stronger, leaner, meaner, more aggressive, more engaged, more disciplined, better coached, and just plain better. They out-gained the Irish 287 yards to 75; outscored ND 21-0…out-hit them during every snap.
They rightfully remained the model to which Kelly's program could aspire.
Then Notre Dame responded with an inspired second half. The Irish defense limited one of college football's best offenses over the last two seasons to 42 yards on its first 19 snaps – into the middle of the fourth quarter before the nation's best quarterback hit the nation's second-best pass-catching tight end for a back-breaking 55-yard score. The Irish offense scored a crucial third quarter touchdown and moved the ball well, earning 178 yards while the game was still in doubt, then finishing with pride to cut the final margin to 14.
Asked post-game Saturday how far away his team is from BCS contention after two seasons, Kelly responded. "I don't know, you guys watched the game, what did you guys think. Did you watch the second half?"
We did, and it was admittedly surprising and frustrating that a team that could lay a colossal egg in the first half (again) could respond in such fashion.
Kelly added that he wants "a team that will compete for four quarters."
His team instead concluded the season the same way it began: competing for two.
In four losses this season, the Irish threw away three first halves and a fourth quarter of football to help account for their defeats. In losses to USF, USC, and Stanford, Notre Dame hit the field and immediately, for whatever reason, shrunk, falling behind 16-0, 17-0, and 21-0, respectively before scoring a point.
The team's only first-half touchdown in the trio of contests came vs. USC – a kick return from one of Kelly's freshman. Their first offensive touchdown vs. the Trojans came in the fourth quarter – it unfortunately followed the second full-field defensive touchdown handed on a silver platter by the Irish offense to its opposition this season.
We'll likely not understand the latter until well after the bowl season concludes, but this much can be gleaned: somewhere between the 2-yard line of the north end zone and the goal line of south end zone in the USC game, the Crist era ended in South Bend.
To be fair, I'd have played Andrew Hendrix over Crist Saturday in Palo Alto as well. Its clear Crist will graduate in December and move on – his tearful post-game goodbye on Senior Day removing the 0.01 percent doubt that he could apply for a 5th-season. At 8-3, there's little reason for Kelly to play a quarterback that has nothing to do with Notre Dame's future (unless you count going for win No. 9, but I digress…)
Asked if bringing in Hendrix to replace Rees (who was injured on the first series, forcing an emergent, temporary substitution) was "the plan all the way" – Kelly offered, "No. that wasn't the plan."
Draw your own conclusions.
(It could be that Kelly was already fed up by QB question No. 2, he was previously asked about the quarterback moves and responded, "We have to evaluate the guys that can give us a chance to win and we felt like Hendrix was that guy today." Sometimes the question is answered before it's asked).
Future PackagesKelly's offense showed signs of life with Hendrix, who provided a spark running the football and occasionally throwing it.
Hendrix completed passes Notre Dame's other two quarterbacks probably couldn't/haven't. He also threw an ugly, drive-killing, momentum-killing interception and took unnecessary sacks for huge losses – game errors Rees and Crist suffered through, respectively.
In Kelly's view, Hendrix was the best the team had to offer under center after 12 games – his famed "package of plays" expanded on an emergent basis.
"In the second half, coach Kelly called my number and I did everything I possibly could to help this team win," Hendrix offered."
Did his package of plays expand in the second half?
"A little bit. It's a pretty extensive package for me on the call sheet. I have a large number of plays that, if I was to come into the game, I'd feel comfortable with. So in ‘package's past' there's (the same plays) whether utilized or not.
"Tonight they were, so even when my number was called in the second half it didn't go too much out of the package. There were a couple of pass plays that he asked and I was comfortable with that I executed during spring ball and summer camp that were basic routes that work against multiple coverages and I was comfortable with those…the run plays were pretty much the same."
Asked if Hendrix could start the bowl game, Kelly responded, "Anything is possible."
With eight wins for a second straight season, Notre Dame is out of college football hell (3-9, 7-6, 6-6) and firmly entrenched in college football purgatory.
In other words, it's time to expand that package.