The Kelly Era: The Wins

A comprehensive review – and ranking – of all 45 wins of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame to date.

In the first of a two-part series (yes, the losses make up Part II), we present a detailed reminder and review of Brian Kelly’s 45 victories as Notre Dame head coach heading into his sixth season at the helm.

Each category lists victories in order of importance, to either the fan base, to those inside the program, or both.  


A healthy dose of Pleasant Valley Sundays ensued for Irish fans young and old after each…

USC 2012: Without it, Oklahoma, and everything else goes for naught. And for fans of the Notre Dame program during its pre-Holtz halcyon days, nowhere had more Irish No. 1 rankings gone to die than the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

This 22-13 Irish victory fittingly ended with a goal line stand that included eight USC snaps, one net yard gained, and no points. An emotional Zeke Motta offered the following in the Coliseum tunnel shortly thereafter: “Just because they put the ball on the one-yard line…that s--- aint over! You have to bring it!”

The Irish defense did so for 12 straight games that season.

Oklahoma 2012: A convincing 31-13 victory over the heavily favored Sooners (10.5 points) announced to the nation that Notre Dame was a legitimate championship contender. It ranks as one of the two most surprising wins of the Kelly era (LSU the other) and was the most important victory for the program since Tyrone Willingham took out 11-point favorite Florida State to extend his record to 8-0 in 2002.

-- Kelly Quote to Note: “We really don't care what other people think of us. (The players) really just care about each other, Notre Dame and winning football games. They'll let everybody else decide who we are."

Stanford 2012: An all-time head knocker, Notre Dame prevailed 20-13 in a game that saw more combined points in the fourth quarter and overtime (20) than in the three quarters preceding (13). Stanford did not score an offensive touchdown during the contest and was famously – and controversially – stopped on four downs inside the Irish 4-yard line to conclude the contest.   

Michigan State 2012: Notre Dame’s championship march of 2012 officially started in East Lansing, winning 20-3 over the favored (4.5 points) Spartans in mid September. The Irish defense registered six sacks, broke up eight passes and never allowed their hosts to penetrate the 26-yard line offensively.

Michigan 2012: The one that could have gotten away: An ugly offensive performance including the benching of Everett Golson, the only rushing touchdown of quarterback Tommy Rees’ career, and a 13-6 Notre Dame victory that included six Irish interceptions, five from the arm of previously avowed Irish killer, Denard Robinson.

Michigan 2014: Sure Michigan devolved into an unmitigated disaster. A train wreck. A rudderless ship. A waste of…okay, that’s enough. The 31-0 bludgeoning of the once-proud Wolverines last September resonated with every Irish fan nonetheless.

Stanford 2014: After four weeks of handling relative patsies, Notre Dame finally had a real foe. Modern rival Stanford brought its defense and attempted to knock a stunting Brian VanGorder defense off the ball. The Irish instead won the battle of the trenches and Golson to Ben Koyack for the win serves as the lasting highlight of the 2014 campaign.  

LSU 2014: Underdogs of 8.5 points and fresh off its worst stretch of defensive football since, well, football was invented, Kelly’s Irish expertly executed his two-QB game plan en route to a stunning 31-28 victory over the Tigers. A remarkable turn of events that served – it is to be hoped – as a springboard for the 2015 season.

USC 2010: Eight straight times Notre Dame faced off against USC and eight straight times they were turned away, six in blowout fashion. Kelly’s first “big win” came in a contest between two teams far from full strength, but it exorcised his program’s demons nonetheless, a 20-16 Irish victory in Los Angeles.

Miami 2012: They stunk; Notre Dame was great. The end. 41-3 Irish. For Irish fans and especially Notre Dame graduates of the late 1980s and early 1990s, beating Miami is always a source of pride. Emasculating them was icing on the cake.

Miami 2010: They stunk; Notre Dame was great that day. The end. 33-17 Irish and it wasn’t that close. An ideal ending to a trying first season for the head coach. Sure it was the Sun Bowl, but it was also a victory over Miami, 20 seasons after the last. 


Victories that might not have resonated outside the program’s walls or beyond the smiles of its die-hard followers, but each was a quality win by the Irish against a tough foe and/or long-time rival.

Michigan State 2013: Little did we know that Michigan State would prove to have the nation’s best defense. Or that the Spartans would lose just once in 14 games. Or that they’d handle undefeated Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship game and that they’d later beat Stanford at its own game to claim the Rose Bowl crown.

Prior to that run of excellence, this 17-13 teeth-pulling victory by the Irish ended the Spartans undefeated season in mid-September. Little did we know how much that would matter in the end.

Utah 2010: The Irish entered at 4-5, a bye week removed from back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa, defeats made insignificant by the tragedy of Declan Sullivan’s death in between. At no point was the Kelly era under more fire, on or off the field. The Irish prevailed 28-3 over No. 15 Utah in a game the staff couldn’t afford to lose. Three more victories ensued – I’d argue as a result of this one – and an acceptable 8-5 mark concluded Kelly’s first season in South Bend.

USC 2013: Inspired defense by the Irish in what was the last important win of the Bob Diaco era as defensive coordinator. And for one half, the Tommy Rees Appreciation Society reached full capacity – a 14-10 Irish with a forgettable second stanza no fan should be forced to re-watch.

Arizona State 2013: A wild affair won 37-34 by the Irish at Cowboys Stadium and highlighted by the return of what had been a dormant Irish pass rush (six sacks, four turnovers forced including a defensive touchdown). The loss of blossoming linebacker Jarrett Grace to a serious leg injury marred the contest thereafter.

Michigan State 2011: The “Aaron Lynch game,” as 0-2 Notre Dame beat a solid Spartans squad from wire-to-wire in a 31-13 victory in South Bend. The true freshman Lynch’s six QB hurries had recruitniks everywhere atwitter. And they took to Twitter…

BYU 2014: Senior Day 2014 had the 7-3 Irish fresh off a 28-21 sleepwalking defeat at middling Pittsburgh, and with Top 10 Stanford on the horizon. The Irish responded by winning handily at the line of scrimmage, eliciting the following from Kelly on his team’s physical efforts:

-- Kelly Quote to Note:“This is the way we've got to play football. This is Notre Dame football. This is the way we need to play.”

Thirteen months later, they played that way again.


“In the successful organization, no detail is too small to escape close attention.” – Lou Holtz

Pittsburgh 2012: The defining outing of Golson’s career, pre-2014. It took about three overtimes and one half of football too long, but the Irish finally subdued a game Panthers squad, 29-23 in the end. Season-end highlights producers, chroniclers of Irish lore, and filmmakers everywhere rejoiced while fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.

-- Kelly Quote to Note: “I'm tired of talking about last year. I think this year the way our guys believe in each other, they believe in their coaches, they believe. They've won these games before. They believe they're going to win. The leadership is outstanding.  We've got great competitors.”

Purdue 2012: Consider this scenario: In the season’s second game, a backup quarterback in exile replaces the largely successful, hugely popular second-time starter (a future backup quarterback in exile, as it turns out) in the final minutes of a matchup vs. a middling foe. He’s booed, repeatedly. He leads his team to a last-second, 20-17 victory. Neither speaks to the media post-game.

Yep, sounds like a 12-0 season to me!

Navy 2013: Earlier in the week we found out Louis Nix wasn’t “fond” of facing option teams. He rests his aching knee as a result. Turns out, no one on Notre Dame – coaching staff included – is all that fond of attempting to defend the triple option. Notre Dame escapes 38-34 on its home turf thanks to the efforts of Eilar Hardy and Jaylon Smith who sniffed out and ran down a masterful end around headed for the game-winning score.


Enjoyable for Irish fans because of the level of domination, for the players and coaches because of the level of execution, and for the national media because stories could be submitted shortly thereafter.

Wake Forest 2012: A 38-0 Senior Day celebration for the undefeated Irish. Few Notre Dame teams over the last 20 years looked as powerful as did the Irish this afternoon. Why is this #1? Because that’s what the Irish became by night’s end.

Navy 2012: The No. 1 game on the list for every writer covering the team, a 50-10 domination of Navy in Dublin, Ireland. More seasons should begin in Dublin.

Rice 2014: Everett Golson’s homecoming included five touchdowns (three rushing) and NFL-level passes downfield in a 48-17 Irish victory to kickoff 2014. Beating Rice was somehow made fun.

Army 2010: Few remember the Irish were favored by just eight points due to recent issues (read: Navy) against the option. A 27-3 win ensued inside Yankee Stadium and Notre Dame’s pleasant November resurgence continued. 

Navy 2011: A 56-14 win and eight offensive touchdowns nearly erased the week prior’s controversy regarding Kelly and the literal line he drew between “his” players and the previous regime’s. Of note, after Kelly divided his locker room, Notre Dame won 16 of its next 18 games.

Maryland 2011: An unexpected up-tempo attack highlighted this 45-21 Shamrock Series Irish victory at FedEx Field.

Air Force 2011: How do you stop the Falcons multi-faceted offense? Putting 59 points of your own on the board by the middle of the fourth quarter is a nice start. Air Force piled up yardage but trailed 59-19 before a pair of cosmetic late scores.

Purdue 2011: The Irish ruled from the outset with Michael Floyd murdering ill-advised single coverage and Cierre Wood running wild on the Boilermakers, 38-10 ND to move to 2-2.

Air Force 2013: A 45-10 win in which a school record five different Irish receivers secured touchdown passes including three for the first time: Corey Robinson, Will Fuller, and Chris Brown.

Quote to Note: “It's just a job. Grass grows, birds fly, waves pound the sand. I beat people up.” – Muhammad Ali


Victories only a mother – or head coach – could love.

UNC 2014: Exciting? Yes? A portent? You bet. Notre Dame wins 50-43 in the highest scoring game played inside the House that Rockne Built. That’s not a compliment.

-- Kelly Quote to note: “I was concerned. This was not an ideal match-up for us… I felt like, and I made it pretty clear coming into the season, that there were going to be some games that we needed to outscore some people, and I felt like on the schedule this was one of them.”

A portent indeed, and the head coach realized it despite outstanding defense played by his team over the season’s previous five games.

Wake Forest 2011: Kelly was thrilled with road win and thus miffed at a media horde that questioned his team’s ability to put down a .500 Wake Forest squad (6-7 finish). In retrospect, the Demon Deacons were the second-best team the Irish beat in the annoying season of 2011, so congratulations!

Navy 2014: Another back-and-forth affair that didn’t need to be. The Irish held on to win 49-39, lost team MVP Joe Schmidt to season-ending injury, and in no way resembled the No. 6 ranked team in the nation. They wouldn’t again that season.

Purdue 2014: The Shamrock Series setting aided the build-up to the game, won by Notre Dame 30-14 due in part to a reshuffled offensive line that stayed intact and gelled over the duration of the season.

Pittsburgh 2011: Notre Dame wins 15-12 and Tyler Eifert is officially a stud. Also, Pittsburgh stunk, Notre Dame stunk, the quarterbacks stunk, the noontime kickoff ensured that the atmosphere stunk, and oh yeah, the Irish special teams stunk as ND moves to 3-2 on the year.

Boston College 2011: The Irish subdued their rival 16-14 on Senior Day. Side note, Notre Dame was favored by 24.5 points and punted from the Eagles 39-yard line because Kelly wasn’t confident his offensive line could pave a yard for Cierre Wood to gain.

Sobering side note: He made the right decision.


Wins that rank nowhere in Irish lore, but each situation was not without struggle and nonetheless fairly enjoyable along the way.

Boston College 2012: A 21-6 victory moved No. 4 Notre Dame one step closer to the BCS Championship game as No. 1 Alabama lost earlier in the day. This day also gave the world Johnny Manziel, so maybe it should rank, um, lower?

Brigham Young 2012: The “sandwich game” of 2012 (played betwixt Stanford and Oklahoma), a Tommy Rees-led squad outslugged a strong Cougars defense for a 17-14 victory.

Purdue 2010: Brian Kelly’s first win as Notre Dame head coach, 20-12. Up-tempo offense reigns and players talk about how much easier the game felt than practice. Kelly is asked the following remarkable question post-game:

Q: A lot of people see you as the white knight coming in to save the program. Do you see yourself that way?

Kelly (sarcastically): “Oh yeah, exactly. I couldn’t put it any better.”

Boston College 2010: Mired at 1-3 to begin the Kelly era after heart-wrenching losses to Michigan and Michigan State followed by a humbling at the hands of Stanford, Notre Dame marched into Chestnut Hill and dominated its recent rival, winning 31-13, allowing an aggregate five rushing yards for the contest. It kept the season afloat heading into October.

Pittsburgh 2010: Notre Dame won 23-17, improved to 3-3 on the season and Harrison Smith had a breakout performance, posting 11 tackles with two leaping pass breakups and a pick.

Syracuse 2014: Golson completed a team record 25 consecutive passes, committed four turnovers (including one interception returned for a score) and the Irish improved to 4-0 with a 31-15 decision. I also left my phone in MetLife Stadium, thus, the last-place ranking.


“There is no passion to be found playing small; in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela

Temple 2013: Irish win 28-6 in the 2013 season opener. Yay…

Western Michigan 2010: Are you serious? (And for a half, Western Michigan was just as good.) 44-20 Irish in case you care.

Purdue 2013: Arguably the least satisfying win of the Kelly era, Notre Dame CAME BACK to beat Purdue in West Lafayette, 31-24. Purdue beat Indiana State that season…and that’s it.

Rutgers 2013 Pinstripe Bowl: What’s worse, playing in the Pinstripe Bowl, or beating Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl 50 weeks after playing for the BCS Championship?

O’Malley Quote to Note: I mean, come on! You’re Notre Dame!

Editor’s Note: A smaller (thankfully) breakdown of Kelly’s 20 losses at Notre Dame will follow Thursday. Top Stories