The Kelly Era: The Losses

Part II of our review of Brian Kelly’s 65 games as Notre Dame head coach focuses on his team’s 20 defeats.

Wednesday afternoon we categorized, ranked, and reviewed each of Kelly’s 45 wins as Notre Dame’s head coach in his five seasons at the helm. (Click here: THE KELLY ERA: THE WINS).

Today, 20 in defeat.

A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

“Kneel before Zod.” – Superman II

For 44 days Notre Dame and Alabama were atop the football world, and for the first time in 19 seasons, Irish fans woke from their slumber in January believing a national title would be claimed later that evening.

Whether you list this crushing defeat at the hands of an awesome Alabama team as the best loss or the worst is your prerogative, but it’s nowhere in between.

Alabama 2012 BCS Championship: I mean, I probably don’t need to review this much, right? 42-14 Tide. Said director of athletics Jack Swarbrick post-game, “They’re not just better than us, they’re better than everyone."

Auburn, Florida State, Oregon, and Ohio State have since caught up. Notre Dame hopes to by season’s end 2015.

HEARTBREAK

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” – The Usual Suspects

Not since USC escaped South Bend in October 2005 had an Irish fan base felt simultaneously deflated, proud, and violated.

Florida State 2014: The most compelling football game played during the 2014 football season and easily the most impressive outing of the Kelly era since Oklahoma 2012, but the Irish came up one play – and one judgment call – short, losing 31-27. The Seminoles extended their winning streak to 23 straight as Notre Dame fell to 6-1.

MEN AGAINST BOYS

“To be able to go into another stadium, into a hostile environment, I mean, nothing makes you feel quite like a man like that does, you know?” – Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh postgame in South Bend.

Stanford 2010: In retrospect, the four-point underdog Irish were drastically overmatched vs. a Cardinal program at the height of its powers. Harbaugh’s crew finished 12-1, scored 35 or more points in 11 outings, and beat 11 Power Conference foes by an average of 24 points per game in 2010. The 37-14 victory over the Irish served as a sounding board for Brian Kelly thereafter:

“If you look at the physicality that Stanford played with; their body types, they were lean, athletic. That's the model I've built my programs on. We're moving in that direction.”

Two years later, the Irish achieved that goal, beating Stanford on the field en route to a 12-0 regular season.

FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT (5)

“Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment, full effort is full victory.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The requisite hand wringing of the Irish fan-base followed each defeat, but it’s pertinent to remember two truths regarding college sports:

1.) Sometimes you have to take one on the chin
2.) Other programs give out scholarships, too.

Stanford 2013: Injured, severely undermanned in the trenches, and broken down after a trying season that included matchups against nine bowl teams, the 16-point underdog Irish (Sixteen!) battled the Cardinal to the bitter end, losing 27-20 when Tommy Rees’ (open) go route to Will Fuller was underthrown and intercepted with 2:25 remaining.

There’s no such thing as a “good loss” at Notre Dame, but this was close. Their 60-minute effort that evening cannot be in question.

Florida State 2011: Two defense-heavy squads with promising young rosters poised for great things in the near future met in the Champs Sports Bowl following a pair of disappointing four-loss regular seasons. In the end, Seminoles quarterback E.J. Manuel wasn’t as bad as Notre Dame’s dual-trigger attack of Rees and Andrew Hendrix, winning 18-14 as a result despite a 14-0 Irish lead at the break.

An insane amount of talent on the field for teams that combined for nine losses at season’s end.

Louisville 2014: There’s likely a contingent of Irish fans that believe Notre Dame should never lose to Louisville but the reality of this individual matchup was Notre Dame played without four of its five best defensive players, three of them in the middle of its defense.

Of course, the offense and special teams were intact, and they let down the squad in the end. After three true freshmen recorded goal line stops to keep the Irish in position to win late, a missed chip shot field goal concluded the contest, a 31-28 loss to the Cardinals on Senior Day.

Michigan State 2010: Well, they tied in Vegas. The three-point underdog Irish lost 34-31 in overtime as a result of Mark Dantonio’s expertly called “Little Giants” fake field goal play, a 29-yard touchdown pass from holder Aaron Bates to Charlie Gantt. It was a competitive matchup throughout by a pair of evenly matched teams three games into the Kelly era and he’s beaten MSU in three straight, since.

Michigan 2010: Notre Dame played without oft-injured starter Dayne Crist for the duration of the first half, a span that included three interceptions by admittedly unprepared backups Tommy Rees and Nate Montana, turning a 7-0 Irish lead to a 21-7 deficit at the break.

The requisite Irish comeback thereafter was punctuated by a thrilling 95-yard touchdown pass from Crist to (also injured) Kyle Rudolph for a 24-21 lead with just under four minutes remaining.

But in Denard Robinson, Michigan had far and away the best player on the field that day, and he was electric in a 28-24 Wolverines win.

FAILURE TO LAUNCH (6)

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” – Mike Tyson

With one exception, Notre Dame began horribly but pulled to within a touchdown at some point in the fourth quarter. Of course, whatever you do, don’t insinuate they came out “flat.”

USC 2011: More than 50 prep prospects were on hand to witness Notre Dame don shiny new helmets that glistened under the lights; the first prime time kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium in 21 seasons.

What followed was an epic no-show by the Irish who fell behind 17-0 early. The program-wide, four-hour face plant was punctuated by a full-field fumble recovery touchdown by USC, the result of a fumbled snap by Crist (who was freshly back into the game in relief of Hendrix, both replacing the injured Rees).

Instead of a tied score at the conclusion of the third quarter it was a 14-point swing in the Trojans favor en route to a 31-17 final.

Arizona State 2014: Notre Dame entered at 7-1 and ranked No. 8 but as three-point dogs at the 12th-ranked Sun Devils. With 1:09 remaining in the opening half, it was ASU 34, shell-shocked Notre Dame 3.

Golson and the offense staged an epic comeback, pulling to within a field goal – one botched by the curiously debilitating snap-hold exchange – and Notre Dame’s long fight back to 34-31 late in the fourth quarter spiraled back out of control in a 55-31 defeat.

Michigan 2013: The Wolverines were the aggressors throughout, taking leads of 10-0, 27-13, and 34-20 en route to a 41-31 victory. It was not without late controversy as a dubious pass interference call against Bennett Jackson would have otherwise afforded Notre Dame a chance to drive for the win.

But the sobering reality of the contest was the that Irish defense – just 10 months removed from its modern-era peak – looked slow to the ball, weak when it arrived, and out of shape up front.

Oklahoma 2013: In trouble from the outset (Oklahoma scored on an interception touchdown on Notre Dame’s third snap), the Irish fell behind 14-0 early and 21-7 at the break. After cutting the Sooners lead to 27-21 early in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma took advantage of plodding Irish inside ‘backers in space, turning a short slant on third-down into an untouched 54-yard score in a 35-21 Sooners victory.

Stanford 2011: The matchup was supposed to put a bow on 8-3, No. 22-ranked Notre Dame’s recovery from an 0-2 start. Instead, No. 4 Stanford put it on the Irish from the opening kick, taking a 21-0 lead into the break and knocking out Rees (physically) plus his backup Crist (mentally). Andrew Hendrix and a battered Rees were left to fight the good but unwinnable fight in a 28-14 defeat on The Farm.

Pittsburgh 2013: Actually, I have no idea where to rank this uninspired stink-fest. 28-21 Panthers in a contest that ended all dubious speculation that 7-2 Notre Dame should have a shot at a BCS Bowl. Also it should be reiterated: Pittsburgh stunk.

Irreconcilable? (6)

“Now you don’t, talk so loud. Now you don’t, seem so proud.” – Bob Dylan

USC 2014: A 49-14 loss and it was nowhere near that close. I mean, defend yourselves for crying out loud!

The ridiculously undermanned Irish defense had no chance, but they tried. Conversely, the fully intact Irish offense showed no pride, no fight, and no inclination to compete. This all-time program embarrassment was put in perspective by Kelly post-game, and it will be put to the test in 2015:

"We have to remember where we are after today's loss," said Kelly. "It's a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike. Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today we got our butts beat. And it wasn't as close as the score. I thought coach (Steve Sarkisian) was very generous today running the football to keep the score where it was."

Northwestern 2014: A 43-40 defeat in overtime on the day simple math (not to mention logic) took a vacation on the Irish sidelines and headsets. Fans often blame a 60-minute outcome solely on a team’s coaching staff. They’re patently wrong to do so in 99 percent of those assertions.

This is an exception.

Navy 2010: The harsh truth? Navy would have beaten them had the game been played one week earlier or one week later, too. Midshipmen 35 Irish 17 and the Academy took mercy, late. (FYI: Notre Dame was favored by a mere four points.)

Tulsa 2010: Holy Cow. A lot went wrong, beginning with the loss of Crist to a season-ending knee injury on the game’s first drive. What followed was a combined six turnovers, a defensive touchdown, a punt return touchdown, a two-point conversion returned for a score (each of those three scores came courtesy the Golden Hurricane) and a stunning 334 passing yards from a skinny kid named Rees.

And then, my goodness: the decision to eschew a 36-yard field goal for the win (From the foot of a kicker that had not missed in 19 career attempts, it must be restated) for a needless shot at the end zone.

30-28 Tulsa. Somehow.

South Florida 2011: Wait, how is this fifth on any list?

It appeared as if Notre Dame’s players and coaches met for the first time in the parking lot a few hours before the game and decided to try to play a football game together. Instead, they had nine months to prepare.

Bulls 23 Irish 21 in the 2011 season opener.

Michigan 2011: Less egregious than the quintet above? Yes, because the Irish looked like a title-contender for the better part of three quarters. Sixteen minutes later, a 24-7 lead evaporated in an impossible confluence of missed tackles, missed assignments, ridiculous turnovers, head-shaking defensive coaching, and one hideous breakdown by the Irish prevent defense.  35-31 Wolverines under the lights.

What would erase the lingering memories of the sextet above? One defeat or less in 2015 would likely suffice.



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