GLENDALE, Ariz. – Joe Schmidt sat in his locker Friday afternoon still in full uniform. Most of his teammates had already showered and headed out of the Fiesta Bowl. A few lingered around the locker room. Schmidt was in no hurry to go anywhere.
The Notre Dame captain had just played his last game, an alarming 44-28 loss to Ohio State that felt closer and further than the final score. It was a perfectly Schmidt performance by the program, the Irish ravaged by injury in a Shakespearean tragedy kind of way. They also kept throwing punches against the defending national champion and its uber talented roster.
“I hope people realize that physically we can play with anybody,” Schmidt said. “I’m confident in that. I didn’t feel like our guys were physically overmatched.”
This wasn’t a replay of Notre Dame’s no-show in the BCS National Championship Game when Alabama exposed Brian Kelly’s program as a pretender. But this wasn’t anything close to validating Kelly’s most talented Irish roster either, one that could have three first round picks. Notre Dame’s best win was probably Navy, maybe Temple or possibly USC. That’s not a College Football Playoff resume.
Some of Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl failings do go back to injury. Some could call that an excuse. In reality it’s a reality. At full strength the Irish wouldn’t have been overmatched by the Buckeyes. But these lineups were, Jarrett Grace forced into a new position, C.J. Prosise tapping out, Matthias Farley unable to keep up and DeShone Kizer looking like a red-shirt freshman.
“We certainly needed to execute better, but didn't feel like we were out-manned,” Kelly said. “We were shorthanded today, but we weren't out-manned.”
That’s a distinction with a difference. And it makes evaluating Team 127 difficult.
The Irish finished down Jaylon Smith, Jarron Jones, Max Redfield, Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston, Prosise, Te’Von Coney, Daniel Cage, Shaun Crawford, Jerry Tillery, Alex Bars, Equanimeous St. Brown, Drue Tranquill, Devin Butler and KeiVarae Russell.
All would have been in the Ohio State game plan.
Most would have started.
From that standpoint what Kelly achieved is remarkable, a two-point conversion from beating Clemson and a missed field goal from taking down Stanford.
From calling on “Lone Survivor” Marcus Luttrell at training camp to hiring APTUS to better understand how his players learned, Kelly pushed the right buttons. He gave it digestible buzz words “burn the boats,” “accomplish the mission” and the well worn “Next Man In.”
“We're going to keep banging at the door,” Kelly said. “Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games.
“We've made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We'll get there. Hopefully we won't have as many injuries. We'll get back here again. We'll win 'em.”
The biggest catchphrase of all was “Culture Beats Scheme” that Kelly turned into a preseason talking point. Irony aside that it came from Chip Kelly and the Philadelphia Eagles, the motto worked. It invested the entire roster in preparing for Georgia Tech and Navy.
“The seniors, they put together a really good culture,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “We’re not gonna change anything, we’re gonna build on what they’ve done. It’s a culture of winning, it’s a culture of working really hard.”
Now Kelly needs the scheme to match that culture. His hire of Mike Sanford in the quarterback room was inspired. Sticking Bob Elliott on option detail is what successful CEOs do. But Notre Dame’s defensive scheme failed the Irish too often to stay the same.
Even with all those injuries, Brian VanGorder’s defense was less than the sum of its parts. The Irish allowed 26 touchdown drives of at least 75 yards this season. During that BCS National Championship Game season Notre Dame allowed five. And four of those came against Alabama.
The Irish were below average in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry. Notre Dame ranked No. 110 in turnovers forced with 14 all season. And for a second straight season the defense collapsed at the end, allowing 82 points combined against Stanford and Ohio State. The Irish let the Cardinal go 18-of-30 on third downs, a 60 percent fail rate that would rank dead last nationally for a full season.
Whoever is running the next defense, he’ll have to do more with less. Sheldon Day is gone. Smith should be gone too, the most athletic linebacker in Notre Dame history. Same likely goes for Russell. Schmidt, Romeo Okwara and Elijah Shumate are done.
“Sky’s the limit for this program,” Day said. “We’ve got a lot of guys coming back next year. Coach Kelly is doing a great job of preaching to the young guys and making sure they understand the philosophies behind this program.”
That made Notre Dame football an incredibly entertaining ride this fall.
Culture beat scheme most of the season. The mission didn’t get accomplished, but it made for quality television. Next Man In helped Notre Dame survive, even if it got pushed beyond its logical limits in the Fiesta Bowl.
“It’s not about this game or that game, it’s about your program,” said athletics director Jack Swarbrick. “Have you got all the elements in place you need to build a great program, player development, recruiting, nutrition, strength and conditioning, scheme, I don’t see any holes right now.
“You gotta do better because that’s the only way you’re gonna win a national championship, but I don’t see program holes that existed before.”
Credit for that should be spread, but Kelly gets most of it. When Notre Dame needed a new approach to beating triple option football, Kelly devised one. When Notre Dame needed to change its recruiting approach after getting worked by Alabama, Kelly redoubled the lines. When the program needed a rallying cry this summer, Kelly offered one.
When it comes to the corporation of Notre Dame football, Brian Kelly knows how to run it. And when something needs to get fixed, there are few better coaches at making repairs.
Now he needs to make a few more.