Road Wary

Notre Dame looks to turn around its recent road struggles with three successful trips east and a fourth west over the next five football Saturdays.

East Lansing, Michigan in prime time? No problem.

Norman, Oklahoma? I’ve got your Boomer Sooner right here.

Los Angeles and the program’s biennial House of Horrors? Conquered.

The above trio plus a victory at Boston College represents Notre Dame’s remarkable road journey during its undefeated 2012 regular season. Four games, two underdog scenarios and a third situation (in the Coliseum) staked as the slight favorite.

Wins across the board – one of the five best road performances in the program’s last four decades and doubtless the best since the 1990 season that saw Lou Holtz’s Irish win at #24 Michigan State (the Immaculate Deflection), Pittsburgh in prime time, #9 Tennessee, and #18 USC.

Since? Would you believe 3 up, 7 down? Would you believe one of those three wins occurred vs. 2-10 Air Force and another vs. 1-11 Purdue.

The third victory can doubtless be named by Irish fans everyone – 34-27 at Virginia earlier this season – with “Kizer to Fuller” forever earing a place in Irish lore.

But those expected successes in (chronologically) West Lafayette, Colorado Springs and Charlottesville pale in comparison to lost opportunities in Ann Arbor, Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, Tallahassee, Tempe, and Death Valley, plus a no-show in Los Angeles.

Kelly’s hardly alone in his recent road woes as Notre Dame head coach. Only seven Irish squads since Ara Parseghian’s national title team of 1973 have escaped a season’s road slate unscathed, with four of them (1988, 1990, 1992, 1993) coached by Holtz.

THE BROKEN ROAD

It’s relevant to note that Kelly’s Irish have won six consecutive neutral site games during this ignominious bumpy road run. Included is a pair of underdog scenarios against Arizona State in Cowboys Stadium and the oft-referenced Music City Bowl triumph over LSU.

Kelly is 11-3 in neutral site games since he took the reigns for the 2010 season but just 12-10 in true road tilts. (2-1 in 2010, 3-2 in 2011, 4-0 in 2012, 2-3 in 2013, 0-3 in 2014, 1-1 this season.)

Clearly it’s more difficult to win in an opponent’s stadium than a neutral setting, especially for Notre Dame, a program that benefits from a preponderance of fan support at purported “neutral” sites.

“I think we’ve played some tough teams,” said Kelly of the program’s recent road woes. “Our kids have been prepared, they’ve played hard. If you want to go on the road (and win) you have to take care of the football. That’s the most important thing. You have to have a mindset when you’re on the road that you have to play from behind at times, overcome the crowd (perhaps) officiating.

“We just really talk about taking care of your own business. Play hard for four quarters, get (the game) to the fourth quarter and you have a chance to win.”

A review of Notre Dame’s road outings over the last two-plus seasons show a mixed bag of performances, regardless of the end results:

The “Good” (#8 Stanford 2013, #2 Florida State 2014): The Irish were badly undermanned up front (injuries) in the former but performed admirably in a 27-20 defeat, then put forth the “best” losing effort of the 2014 college football season in the latter, falling on the final play. In short, two games in which every Irish player could hold his head high in defeat.

The Bad (Pittsburgh 2013, #9 Arizona State 2014, USC 2014): Searching for a definition of mediocrity? You could do worse than a detailed breakdown of the 2013 Pitt Panthers. As for the latter pair of contests, there’s no reason to revisit the carnage. 

The Maddening (#17 Michigan 2013, #12 Clemson 2015): Taking the tenor of both games into account, both the Wolverines and Tigers were the better team on those respective evenings. But victory/Overtime was nonetheless there for the taking in the final minutes (Michigan) and seconds (Clemson).

The Wins (Purdue, Air Force, Virginia): Respectively – the only “bad win” of the Kelly era, Taking Care of Business, and  “Holy Cow They Pulled it Out!”

Add it up and there’s a respectable effort (Stanford), two classics (FSU, Clemson), two in which they played down to the competition (Pitt and Purdue), three that will forever draw ire from the fan base (Michigan, ASU and USC), a win over Air Force, and an all-time heart-stopper – albeit against an inferior foe in *Virginia. 

(*Pending Notre Dame’s playoff fate, September’s win over the Wahoo’s will either qualify as part of Irish Legend or merely an enjoyable footnote in Irish Lore.)

NOVEMBER REIGN OR HOLIDAY PAIN?

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Jack Kerouac might not be on Kelly’s short list of travel reading this month but the veteran head coach would do well to follow such sage advice nonetheless, as Notre Dame has to be perfect away from home to put itself in position for a playoff spot.

“I think when you look at the kind of football teams that play late – and by late I mean (for high stakes) in December and January – they have to have these stretches,” said Kelly of the team’s four games outside of South Bend in the next five weeks. “They have to play well on the road. I think the really good football teams have to prove themselves.”

What lies ahead?

-- At inexplicably undefeated Temple, marking the latest calendar date against an undefeated foe for Notre Dame since its 2004 season finale at No. 1 USC.

-- At #23 Pittsburgh. (The Panthers host North Carolina on Thursday). Last six outings vs. the Panthers show three wins and three defeats: L 36-33 4OT; L 27-22; W 23-17; W 15-12; W 29-26 3OT; L 28-21.
 
Aggregate score – Pittsburgh 146 Notre Dame 143 with 7 OT intermixed and seven points the largest margin of victory

-- At current #8 Stanford. The Cardinal are 44-5 at home since the beginning of the 2009 season.

-- Three true road games in five weeks with a pseudo-road outing in Fenway Park vs. Boston College.

“For us, October is for pretenders and November will be for contenders,” said Kelly. “We’ll show ourselves in that regard because of our schedule in November.”

Indeed, if the Irish don’t show well in November on the road, they’re certain to spend New Year’s home, wondering what could have been.


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