Win #9 Means?

Program growth, season-ending victory loom as dual goals as the 2011 season winds down.

Asked what the ultimate team goal of bowl season was earlier this week, Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered a quizzical glance, before noting: "Winning the game. Getting to nine wins is a mark that any program would have, getting that ninth win. Finishing with a win going into the off-season means a lot too."

That's Job #1 – one that will put a cap on an uneven season. Then again, the Irish have lost four or fewer just seven times in the last 17 seasons preceding the 2011 campaign. It's a modest program goal in modest times.

Bowl Season Job #2 offers a nod to the future.

"I would say that we also would say that we also have to take a look at the players who are going to have to play a significant role in a very difficult schedule next year. So there's a lot of moving pieces there," Kelly added. "It starts with winning the game, getting to nine wins, sending our seniors off with a W. I think it's one of those things where you're living in the now, but you've got to have an eye toward the future. I don't want to be all about the future, I want both."

The approach served the Irish well in last year's bowl preparations for Miami in the Sun Bowl, a game Notre Dame led 30-3 near the 10-minute mark of the fourth quarter, winning 33-17.

Easing in, then ramping up

Thirty minutes here, maybe 45 the next day. Guys named Golson, Grace and Councell earning more practice snaps than stars such as Floyd, Smith, and Eifert.

Bowl season is an adjustment for veterans and rookies alike.

"I'm trying to stay more focused because it's a limited amount of reps," said team captain Harrison Smith. "Coaches are gone recruiting, or practices are geared toward the younger guys. You have to value your reps."

Smith made mention last season to an approximate four scrimmage snaps prior to bowl week. Proven players such as junior linebacker Manti Te'o are excused from early bowl practices to attend award shows, and of course, hitting is nearly non-existent as the team works out the kinks before looking to fire on all cylinders on game week.

"You have as many practices (as in a normal week), it's not like there's one week to prepare," said sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees of the extended period between games. "You have a lot of time to study the opponent and prepare in the film room, so I think bowl prep is a good time to get guys better at the things they need to improve on."

Rees noted last year his biggest improvement occurred between a win at USC (in which he struggled) and the bowl victory over Miami (in which he starred). A similar outcome is the goal following a rough first half in the team's regular season finale at Stanford.

"Stanford was definitely a learning experience for me, similar to USC last year," Rees offered Saturday. "We have another big matchup against a good team with a month to turn things around and get back to play the football we know we can play.

"As an individual I'm going to use this time to build off Stanford and continue to get better."

Rees' approach is similar to Smith's, likely because the pair enjoyed nearly ideal end results last December.

"You have to make the reps count and make sure that you're timing is good," Rees said. "Try to be perfect on every rep because there aren't as many chances. Then from what I remember from last year, bowl week is similar to game week."

Like many seniors and especially 5th-year players, Smith's class work has lessened at this point in his college career. He's one player who wouldn't mind more practice time, but he understands it's the nature of the season.

"It's nice to get a break, but sometimes you feel like you could (practice) more," he said. "But we start to ramp it up. It's a good balance and you can focus on finishing school."

Smith authored the Sun Bowl's biggest hit, seven tackles, and tied a program record with three interceptions in last year's late-December victory. Three picks will be a tall order to repeat; he might have to settle for a similar scoreboard result.

"To leave on a win makes your memories that much fonder," Smith said. "For the guys coming back, it'll give them more momentum in the off-season. Both recruiting and off-season workouts."

What's in a number?

Brian Kelly twice-referenced "nine wins" as a goal. Junior Theo Riddick mentioned it following practice Saturday as well.

The total appears modest by major program standards; certainly Notre Dame's lofty annual goal is to win more than nine – 33 teams of 120 FBS teams did so last year, though not all schedules are created equal. Another 42 teams could (not all will) in 2011.

From a historical perspective, it might be the number of losses, four, that is considered acceptable by Irish fans and followers. Lou Holtz coached 11 years at Notre Dame and lost more than four games just twice – his first season in 1986 (5-6) and his ninth in 1994 (6-5-1).

The only time Holtz lost exactly four games, 1987, the Irish responded the following season to win the program's 11th national title, finishing 12-0. Notre Dame lost its 1987 season bowl game, 35-10 in the Cotton Bowl, prior to winning the title in 1988.

Since Holtz's departure, just five Irish teams have finished with fewer than five losses: 1998 (9-3), 2000 (9-3), 2002 (10-3), 2005 (9-3) and 2006 (10-3). Each of those seasons ended with a bowl defeat; three of them epic in measure.

With the exception of the South Bend Tribune's Al Lesar, who predicted not only an 8-4 mark for the Irish, but that three quarterbacks: Dayne Crist, Rees, and Andrew Hendrix, would lead Notre Dame during the season, most fans and media members expected three or fewer losses for Kelly's second Irish team.

But a 9-4 finish this year, plus two bowl wins vs. nationally recognized programs (Miami and Florida State), and a 13-4 mark in the program's last 17 games would certainly signify tangible progress, something that's eluded the school since at least the conclusion of the 2006 regular season (prior to that year-ending bowl blowout at the hands of LSU, Notre Dame had won 19 of 23 games, but a 41-14 defeat in the Sugar Bowl took any bloom off that rose).

A win over Florida State would likely rank as the second or third-best win of the Kelly era (behind Michigan State this season; in-step with the streak-breaker at USC last November, and slightly ahead of the Sun Bowl win over Miami last year or against a collapsing but technical #15 Utah last November.)

It would give the program its third straight bowl victory, something not seen since 1993 when the Irish won six straight major bowls from 1988-93.

And it would likely propel Notre Dame to its first post-season poll position since the conclusion of 2006. (It would help Kelly avoid the dubious distinction of joining Gerry Faust as the only Notre Dame head coach to finish his first two seasons at the helm outside the final polls.)

And it wouldn't hurt near-term recruiting in the state of Florida, either.

Nine wins to conclude 2011, especially considering the team's 0-2 start, would be a nice boost for the players, staff, fans, and program. It of course guarantees nothing for 2012, but the alternative presents a less-attractive number: 9 months of doubt.


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