GLENDALE, Ariz. – Only the fifth-year seniors and some fourth-year seniors had taken up space on planet earth back then.
A 32-year old Brian Kelly was in his third year as a head coach at Grand Valley State.
A 12-year old Mike Sanford didn’t know his father would end up coaching quarterbacks at Notre Dame, let alone himself.
Jack Swarbrick, just 17 years removed from his graduation from Notre Dame, was a proud alum a decade-and-a-half away from ascending to the role of director of athletics.
Another year will roll by without Notre Dame – known through the years for its ability to battle with and defeat the heavyweights of the game – winning a major bowl game, as they last did on Jan. 1, 1994 against Texas A&M when an up-and-coming coach named Bob Davie was still defensive coordinator of the Aggies.
It’s gone well beyond an aberration or a mere anomaly. When Notre Dame plays a major bowl against a high level opponent, they lose, and generally, they lose decisively.
Add the 44-28 loss Friday to Ohio State in the 45th annual Fiesta Bowl, although much like 10 years earlier against the Buckeyes in the 35th annual Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame remained on the fringes of competing for a W.
Since that 24-21 win over Texas A&M, the Irish have lost by 17 to Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl, five to Florida State in the Orange, 32 to Oregon State in the Fiesta, 14 to Ohio State in the Fiesta, 27 to LSU in the Sugar, and 28 to Alabama in the BCS national championship game.
While one can say the Irish certainly competed against the Buckeyes Friday morning at University of Phoenix Stadium, they never led, trailed for 54:53, fell behind by three scores with 12:10 remaining, and were chasing double-digits for 47:41.
If that’s competing, it’s right on the line perilously close to getting brushed away had Notre Dame’s defense not bowed its back in the fourth quarter to force three field goals.
“I like where we are,” summarized Kelly, when asked how he and the Irish could finally overcome this major bowl drought. “Keep banging on the door. Keep playing Ohio State. Keep playing Florida State. Keep playing Alabama. Keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues and these kinds of games.
“We don’t want to be playing directional teams with no profile. Big names, great traditions, New Year’s Six games…Keep playing them.”
At some point, however, six years into the Kelly regime, the College Football Playoff committee may start shying away from Notre Dame if it can’t compete at a higher, more consistent level against the big boys in post-regular-season play.
In six years as head coach of the Irish, Kelly’s teams are 3-3 in bowl games with wins over 7-6 Miami, 6-7 Rutgers and 8-5 LSU, and losses to 9-4 Florida State, 13-1 Alabama and 12-1 Ohio State by an average margin of exactly how much the Buckeyes defeated the Irish – 16 points.
And yet in 2015, Notre Dame’s losses were by two points to Clemson, which will play for the national championship on Jan. 11, two points to Stanford, which added another 12-victory season to its ledger with a Rose Bowl hammering of Iowa, and Ohio State, which under Urban Meyer won 50 games in four seasons.
“I don’t think there’s a team in the country that this team couldn’t have played with this season,” said Irish captain and departing fifth-year senior Joe Schmidt. “Obviously, we took Clemson to the very end, took Stanford to the very end, and we were in this ball game the whole game, even after giving up 14 points to start it off.
“I really don’t think physically there is an issue. Coach Kelly has brought in some incredible players and they’re doing great things. I’m very confident in this football program and where it’s at. Anyone that says we’re not ready to compete in big games isn’t really watching the tape. I’m excited to see where this program goes in the future.”
Clearly, the Irish were compromised by the loss of Jaylon Smith to a knee injury in the first quarter against Ohio State, a serious foot injury incurred by Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, earlier in the week, the suspension of starting safety Max Redfield, a foot injury suffered by his replacement, Devin Butler, and the myriad physical setbacks that befell the Irish in 2015 (and 2014 and 2013).
Yet the Buckeyes could make a similar call with the suspension of All-American defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and soon-to-be high first-round draft pick Joey Bosa to a first-quarter targeting penalty.
Injuries and bowl suspensions have become a front-and-center issue for most teams in college football, and for the most part, the Irish overcame those setbacks in ’15 to record just the program’s fourth double-digit victory total since Lou Holtz’s glory days from 1988-93 when Notre Dame did it five out of six seasons.
Notre Dame will walk away from the 2015 season with a belief that 10-victory-plus seasons can become the norm if, as Kelly stated, the players can stay the course, the recruiting process can continue to move in a positive direction, and the Irish can get a few more overachieving performances like that of red-shirt freshman DeShone Kizer, who rose above and beyond the occasion time and again in his first season of collegiate competition.
“You’ve got to play the big dogs to understand how to beat the big dogs,” said Kizer, who completed 22-of-37 passes for 284 yards, two touchdowns and a pick. “As long as we can continue to buy into Coach Kelly’s system, we’ll be successful. It’s all about execution and consistency.”
Kizer is determined to take what he learned in his inaugural year in the lineup, compete with another quarterback who wants to be the starter, Malik Zaire, and take the next step of maturity and development as a college quarterback.
“I’ve got to take everything I’ve learned from this season, take all the experiences that I’ve had, and become a consistently good quarterback,” Kizer said. “There were a lot of spurts where I looked pretty good this year. There also were some spurts where I looked awful, and those spurts have to go away.”
Of course, the issue is not on the offensive side of the ball. It’s on defense where the Irish don’t measure up on a consistent basis against the teams that regularly compete for a playoff spot. The fact that the defense stepped up in the fourth quarter against Ohio State to force some field goals was a departure from the norm over the previous 20 games in which the defense allowed 588 points (29.4 points per game).
In the first 36 games of the 2015-16 bowl season, 31 teams have allowed at least 35 points with the Irish joining the near majority out of 72 participants. Twenty-two bowl teams coughed up at least 40, including Notre Dame.
Of the 21 other teams that have allowed at least 40 points this bowl season, their average defeat total this year was five. North Carolina, Iowa, Notre Dame and Northwestern are the bowl teams with three losses or less that surrendered at least 40 points in a bowl game, and North Carolina was vastly improved defensively this year while Iowa was exceptional until Stanford put a pasting on them.
Sink or swim, or unless Brian VanGorder is enticed to leave Notre Dame after two seasons – new Miami coach Mark Richt, who once employed VanGorder at Georgia, hasn’t tabbed someone to run his defense – the Irish will go into 2016 with way more questions than answers
The 2016 Notre Dame defense will not have Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, Schmidt – the brains of VanGorder’s operation – and Romeo Okwara, who emerged as a pass-rushing force the second half of the season. There remains talent, but none quite as proven as those four, particularly Smith and Day.
In the meantime, it’s back to the business of building upon what has been a relative rarity at Notre Dame – a 10-victory season – at a program that certainly appears to be moving on an upward arc with a barrier usually awaiting in post-regular-season.
“I had a similar process earlier in my career back when I was in Division II,” Kelly said. “It took us about six years to win a playoff game, and then we won three national championships.
“I’m not saying we’re ready to win three national championships, but stay the course, keep doing what we’re doing, keep recruiting, keep bringing in great guys, and we’ll get there.”
For the record, it took Kelly 11 years to win a playoff game at Grand Valley State, and the Lakers went to three Division II national championship games, winning two.
It’s all a little difficult to keep track of, particularly at a program that looked to be on the verge of ending a generation-long skid in major bowls, but once again fell short of attaining the ever-elusive goal.