Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Something Gained

“Just play well.” That was the meek battle cry of at least half of the Irish Illustrated staff for Notre Dame’s final regular season game. The Irish did, competing to the bitter end, which is fitting, because they did the same all season long.

PALO ALTO, Calif. – One year ago today, I wrote a column detailing Notre Dame’s disparate endings over a two-year span inside the program’s house of horrors, the Los Angeles Coliseum.

It was A Long Way Down, indeed – a remarkable, sobering fall from competitive grace that culminated in a bludgeoning and mercy-killing at the hands of their archrival USC Trojans.

Over the 365 days since, head coach Brian Kelly’s Fighting Irish have come a long way.

Not far enough if you’re the head coach, or one of the handful of front line players huddled in a crowded, somber post-game hallway last night, that was made abundantly clear.

(And certainly not if you’re an ardent fan of a program where gut-punch disappointment has been the prevailing theme of the last quarter century.)

But considering Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback, nose tackle, top cornerback (you could stop right there, with three of the sport’s four most important positions), Sam linebacker, running back, backup running back, tight end, nickel defender, and dime defender along the way – and considering the squad was without each for Saturday’s season-defining contest on The Farm – perhaps the group’s 10-2 mark should be celebrated rather than lamented in Irish football circles.

Notre Dame fell short of its stated goal. And they’ll likely play next season bereft of their two best defensive players and best offensive linemen from the current group – each of whom ranks among the best at his position in the program since the new millennium.

The presence of that NFL-ready trio – Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, and Ronnie Stanley – was, in part, why this was supposed to be the year.

Now next season, despite a remarkable arsenal of offensive firepower at Kelly’s disposal, is likewise in danger of falling a few plays short of its sure-to-be stated goal.

That is of course unless the other side of scrimmage receives a much-needed overhaul.

RECURRING NIGHTMARE

75, 75, 75, 80, 75, 83, 75, 77, 70, 75, 71, 75, 83, 80, 94, 78, 77, 75, 76, 80, 86, 75, 78, 75, 76, and 74 yards.

The similar numbers above represent the length of various touchdown drives (26 of the 33 total) surrendered by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s ill-conceived operation this season.

At least they’re consistent.

To be sure, Notre Dame’s defense had its moments: Texas…Georgia Tech for about 55 minutes…Pittsburgh and Boston College for about the same…Navy during the decisive second half…pitted against a potent USC offense here and there. (And oddly, in retrospect, the equivalent of three quarters at Clemson.)

But opposing offenses – good, bad, very bad, and very good alike – had their collective way far too often against a unit with championship aspirations.

I noted on these pages in the spring of 2014 that the VanGorder hire was likely a wink-and-nod two-year agreement between the coaching nomad and an Irish program in defensive flux. Or as Irwin F. Fletcher once mused, “A lease with an option to buy.”

Through 25 games – the equivalent of half of the collegiate eligibility of each player under VanGorder’s tutelage – that purported lease turned out to be a lemon.

Lemonade was never made. 

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING

“It’s unfair to this football team, to the relationships that we’ve built, to how hard we’ve worked, to just throw in the towel. It’s not what we’re about; it’s not what I’m about. And in that locker room I know there’s not one guy that doesn’t want to play our best football game in our last football game. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

Joe Schmidt’s determined post-game words rank as more than rhetoric. No daily observer of Kelly’s program, one replete with veteran leadership, doubts that the Irish, whether over- or evenly-matched next month, will rise to the occasion in what is sure to be a New Year’s Six bowl.

Instead of ranking among the sport’s top four, they instead currently place among the three most difficult teams to beat among those that aren’t partaking in the second annual college football playoffs.

They’ll doubtless compete with passion and should again be expected to play well in search of a program rarity: Win No. 11 – a feat achieved or exceeded just six times in Notre Dame football’s last half century.

A mere 365 days ago, a middling USC Trojans squad showed it was light years better than the ashamedly uninterested Irish. Today you can make a rational argument that there’s no team Notre Dame couldn’t beat if a few breaks were earned or gained along the way.

Today you can state with absolute confidence that the Irish fell short of their mission as competitors worthy of wearing the blue and gold.

They’ll be hard to beat in Atlanta, or in the Desert, or wherever else they’re matched with one of the sport’s almost elite.

Considering the horrors of November 2014, and the persistent bad luck that struck throughout this campaign, and considering a rudderless defense that never seemed to secure a foothold, or figure a way to maximize its many strengths while masking its obvious weaknesses, Notre Dame Football 2015, in the end, produced a season worthy of respect and admiration.

Consider that when you lament the obvious opportunity lost, because much more was gained.


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