Notre Dame's 2013 calling cards entering Saturday were few and far between. On Senior Day -- a date either 10 games too late or just in time, pending how full your glass might be -- expectations of what an encore Irish season might look like finally came to fruition.
The defense played inspired and fast. The rushing attack was the offense's focal point. Notre Dame won at home because it was A.) better and B.) determined. The reigning national head coach of the year put forth his best effort when his team, his program, and a frustrated fan base needed it most.
It remains unlikely that Notre Dame will beat Stanford next week for a best-case scenario finish to 2013. They're still depleted up front, and Brigham Young isn't the Cardinal, but for the first time since a 60-minute sleepwalk in the Steel City, speculation is at least allowed.
"This is the way we've got to play football. This is Notre Dame football," said head coach Brian Kelly. "This is the way we need to play. This is what we're capable of playing. It's a much more physical brand of football that we are capable of playing, and quite frankly, our team did that and they responded accordingly."
Forgiving for a moment that this approach was established as the blueprint more than a year ago and since abandoned, Kelly's post-game revelation marks the first acceptance, the first, "This is who are, try to stop us" offering since he buoyed the team to 12-0 last fall.
Notre Dame played determined, physical, emotional football. They competed. They (save for two costly misses) tackled. They secured blocks, they secured the House that Rockne Built.
"This now puts us at I think 11-1 in our last 12 (home) games," said Kelly. "And that's something that is so important in developing a consistency in your program…winning at home, and our seniors are so much a part of that in building that consistency at winning at home. And so I thank them for that."
Ground and PoundQuarterback Tommy Rees connected on 15 passes Saturday, four of them covered 17 or more yards, two more drew pass interference penalties downfield. Key to those completions was an acceptable, prudent number of total throws: 28.
The Irish are great when Rees or any Irish triggerman throws 30 or fewer passes (21-1 in the Kelly era). It's easy to understand why -- the alternative to the pass is the run.
The plan was to run. As a result, they won.
The Irish ran the ball either three or four consecutive times on four different occasions during Saturday's first three quarters. The end result of those drives varied from touchdown to field goal to punt to turnover on downs, but the end result is less important (on occasion) than the commitment itself.
When Notre Dame ran the ball, they didn't throw an interception. That's not a typo or nonsensical sentence, it's the reality of the present offense and the reality for most (not all, admittedly, but most) college football teams in general.
"We went back to saying, you can't start winning until you stop losing," said Kelly post-game. The reference was to a renewed attention to detail demanded of the players by the staff over the last two weeks. In the film room, in the locker room, on the practice field and ultimately, on Saturday.
He might as well have been looking and preaching inward.
Notre Dame had no business losing to Pittsburgh on November 9. They did, and to Kelly's credit, the team put it behind them. Fans might not, the media and pollsters won't, but Notre Dame has.
Kelly has. The offense has, and a focus on fundamental toughness and aggression serves as both the root cause and its effect. Relying on the run and mixing in passing strikes again proved profitable. The Irish are 33-4 in the Kelly era when they run more than 30 times in a game.
3-10 when they rush 30 or less. Bang your head.
"Running really hard, running really physical and maybe the next caliber up of football team," said Cougars head coach Bronco Mendenhall of the reality the Irish offense presented Saturday. "It's really what they do, they do well, and so I think more credit to Notre Dame than maybe what a player or players (on his team) didn't do."
It's an established blueprint for the program. Embraced by Kelly in his best season and best intermittent moments outside of that magical four-number collection Irish fans call, "2012."
It's a blueprint for the future, next Saturday, next month, and next season.