As the Irish coach indicated throughout December, Tuesday's contest against LSU was indeed about 2014. The result of his team's preparations to that end included unexpected victory achieved, stunning ground game dominance displayed, and a season-changing -- if not saving -- feeling of relief following a fruitless, endless November.
Notre Dame's 31-28 win over over LSU -- they're in the SEC, you know -- affords Kelly, his staff (totally intact or otherwise), and legions of Irish fans a chance to exhale.
The off-season won't be unbearable. The off-season won't be rife with talk of mythical hot seats, recruits lost to rivals due to on field ineptitude, and dominated by the head-shaking daily angst and hand-wringing that accompanies the nearly-annual nine months that follow Notre Dame's requisite five-loss seasons.
Because of this there is no doubt: a potential sixth defeat would have been much, much worse. Instead, one enjoyable win will resonate throughout the off-season, regardless of its unlikely impact on anything between future scrimmage lines.
"Look, when you work so hard at something you need to start to see the benefits of that," said Kelly of a squad whose practice habits he continued to compliment, even in the wake of four straight defeats. "And they were working hard, they were preparing hard, but they weren’t seeing the benefits of that and that was, they weren’t seeing the wins.
"Now they know that if they continue to work the same way, they’re going to see the benefits of their work and that is winning football games. That benefits you going into 2015.
Notre Dame needed a win like this. It needed the relief and glass-half-full feelings beating LSU engenders.
Now they need much more. And step one to that end might include an unplanned two-step at the trigger.
Duel or Dual?As two-time Super Bowl champion Bill Parcells once mused, "If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have a quarterback."
That adage has proven correct far more often than not, but consider the quandary faced by Kelly entering his sixth season at the helm in South Bend: two of his five best playmakers are born to take snaps from center -- and there's only one snap submitted from center on a given play.
"Part of playing Malik (Zaire) and starting him was to try and find out how we were going to utilize him in the game, and how to construct playing two quarterbacks," said Kelly. "Part of making the decision to start him was to find out how we were going to move forward and effectively craft and put together a game plan for both of them.
"Today I think we kind of saw a glimpse of what that’s going to look like. I couldn’t have done that without starting him, playing him and getting a feel for the game. I think we can move forward looking at that and how we can construct that."
Sharing the reigns. Two cooks, one kitchen (and of course, an omnipresent head chef).
It worked for Tim Tebow, Chris Leak, and Urban Meyer en route to the 2006 BCS Championship. It worked to a lesser extent for Everett Golson, Tommy Rees, and Brian Kelly six years later. Same destination, different end result.
It usually doesn't, but it can. And it might have to for Notre Dame to reach its ultimate goal. Everett Golson is the best passer at the program since Jimmy Clausen. Malik Zaire the best runner since Carlyle Holiday. Golson moves light years better than did Clausen; Zaire throws immeasurably better than did Holiday.
Can they co-exist? Will the pending 5th-year senior Golson accept such status one year away from potential professional riches? One semester away from graduation (May 2015) and a potential 5th-year starting gig elsewhere?
Zaire, still wet behind the ears, would appear all in as long as true opportunity presents.
"Life is about these opportunities that we get each and every day and taking advantage of them," said Zaire post-game. " I'm thankful for that lesson and I didn't want to ruin it for this football team coming off the losses we have. I think it was important that we took advantage, do whatever it took to win. This team came together and we got the job done."
The first-time starter didn't hold back his emotions as the team celebrated teammate Kyle Brindza's winning field goal. Raw, delirious joy replaced a month of sullen, shocked faces among the battered troops.
"The whole season, being a little bit frustrated in terms of pondering my place on this football team," he said. "Being able to still stay focused, still staying tuned-in even when things around me weren't going the way that I felt I could contribute to the team."
Zaire delivered for Kelly & Co. Tuesday in Nashville. Golson did as well (the Irish lose, period, without his three crucial third-and-long conversion passes that moved the chains and later led to 17 points).
Now the trio is tasked with delivering long-term. Notre Dame is loaded entering 2015. Good health, clutch play late, and a break or two along the way will put the program in contention for the second annual college football playoffs.
But a singular element, present yesterday in a one-off scenario, must tie myriad moving parts together.
Trust. Difficult to earn; harder still to keep.
"They trusted what we called," said Kelly of his triggermen. "The big word for us was trust. Let us call the game. Trust what we’re calling. Trust what we’re doing. And we’re going to get you there. I thought that was pretty evident from Everett and from Malik. Just giving us that opportunity to trust what we are doing. If you do that and stay within what we’re calling in the system, we’ll have success. I thought they both did a great job."
Enough so that Kelly's job just got harder.
Welcome to 2015.