In 2010, there were six such contests. 2011 housed seven, as did 2012.
Last fall, Kelly and the Tommy Rees-led Irish played a remarkable 11 games "close and late," hereafter defined as a contest in which the losing team was within one touchdown of the winner at some point in the fourth quarter. The total is unlikely to be topped. (Charlie Weis' final Irish squad of 2009 played 10 close and late prior to Kelly's arrival.)
2013: No margin for errorNotre Dame was good enough to contend, but not to pull away, in nearly every game played last fall. From Game Two (Michigan) through Game Seven (USC), each were played close and late, as were each of the season's final five contests. Only Temple, the season opener, and Air Force (Game Nine, October 26) featured wide scoring margins throughout.
@ Michigan (Game Two): The Irish trailed 34-30 with under five minutes remaining but fell 41-31.
@ Purdue (Game Three): Tied at 17 entering the final quarter, Notre Dame prevailed 31-24.
Michigan State (Game Four): Kelly's crew won 17-13 in a game that saw a tied score and four lead changes despite a combined 30 points scored.
Oklahoma (Game Five): Notre Dame trailed 28-21 with just under 12:30 remaining but lost 35-21after a short slant to Sooners slot receiver Sterling Shepard ended with a 54-yard touchdown catch-and-run. Neither team scored in the game's final 12:23.
Arizona State (Game Six): The Irish prevailed 37-34 in a contest that included four lead changes and a 27-27 tie with 8:18 remaining in the fourth quarter.
USC (Game Seven): Neither team scored in the second half with the Irish grabbing a 14-10 lead near the final minute of the second quarter. The score stood -- and offensive football was set back decades -- for the duration of the contest.
Navy (Game Nine): The heavily favored hosts won 38-34 in a contest that featured a whopping nine lead changes (and an early tie at 7).
@ Pittsburgh (Game 10): The Panthers prevailed 28-21 despite never leading in the contest until their final touchdown scored at the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter. Neither squad scored thereafter in Notre Dame's Great Giveaway of 2013.
Brigham Young (Game 11): The Cougars were within seven of the Irish with under seven minutes remaining before junior kicker Kyle Brindza booted a 51-yard field goal to ice the contest in a 23-13 Irish victory.
@ Stanford (Game 12): Notre Dame fell 27-20 in a game it never lead, but had played to a mere four-point margin nearly six minutes into the fourth quarter.
Rutgers (Pinstripe Bowl): The Irish clung to a 19-16 lead entering the fourth quarter before finally extending the margin to 10, 26-16, with 3:38 remaining. A 49-yard field goal by Brindza thereafter added additional breathing room.
2014 -- Prime CandidatesNone of the scheduled 12 games are certain to include a wide final margin, though Notre Dame is likely to be a double-digit favorite vs. Rice, Purdue, and Syracuse, and a double-digit underdog at defending national champion Florida State.
If not asked to specify the contest(s), I'd wager two of the four above will be played "close and late," that is, with one team pulling within a touchdown of the other at some point in the fourth quarter.
The only other potential 10-point margins for the Irish are a November 1 matchup with Navy at FedEx Field (Landover, MD) and perhaps on November 15 against Northwestern in South Bend.
I expect one of that pair to be played close and late -- and to be blunt, it'll be Navy, with the Midshipmen having a chance to win (again) at the end.
Each of the remaining contests are close and late candidates: Michigan, Stanford, North Carolina, and Louisville at home, and PAC-12 foes Arizona State and USC on the road. I'd be surprised if more than one is not played close and late and equally surprised if the favored team is staked to more than an 8.5-point edge entering the contest.
Add them up and it's roughly 7-9 games played "close and late" for 2014, with my official prediction at NINE. (Seven might be a better sign for Irish fans.)
If that's the case, Kelly and his fifth-edition will likely need to win eight of those nine close and late contests to secure a major bowl berth -- unless a seismic upset of Florida State is realized.