EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – They gathered on the sidelines, finding the pocket of Irish fans that stuck it out at MetLife Stadium on Saturday. Then, without a marching band for backup, the roster broke out into an a cappella version of “Notre Dame, Our Mother,” which was as in tune as you’d expect from a few dozen college kids who’d just finished a football game.
But hey, at least they knew the words.
This qualifies as progress in a season off the rails and not coming back.
Notre Dame won, 50-33. It’s better than the alternative, which is why it’s worth acknowledging the victory as a victory, at least for a moment. Because go the opposite way against Syracuse, lose for a fourth time in five games, lose for a sixth straight defeat to a Power 5 program and more than Brian VanGorder would be on his way out the door.
“I thought overall there’s certainly things that we can do better,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “But I think the big picture here is proud of the way our kids bounced back from a disappointing loss last week and go on the road, make a change on defense and play with great energy and enthusiasm and come up with a win.”
To recap that week, Kelly fired his defensive coordinator, called out his entire roster beyond Dexter Williams and Scott Daly and put his entire coaching staff on notice that their jobs were in jeopardy. And then he demanded everybody turn that frown upside down and starting having fun.
In terms of program management, it didn’t really feel like much of a direction.
But put that aside and look where Notre Dame football is today outside of that 2-3 record that shelved the No. 1 jersey because the program is now No. 2 behind Michigan in all-time winning percentage.
The Irish played four freshmen at once in the secondary, overwhelming evidence that Notre Dame’s recruiting operation the past few years hasn’t been nearly as good as advertised (including here). The teams that have beaten Notre Dame have all tanked since, with Charlie Strong’s job in jeopardy at Texas, Michigan State getting shut down by Wisconsin and Indiana, and Duke’s red-shirt freshman quarterback crashing with five interceptions in a home loss to Virginia.
Not only has Notre Dame not beaten a good team in almost a year, it’s lost to some wretched ones too. What happened against Syracuse doesn’t change any of that. The most generous reading of DeShone Kizer’s record day and the defense surviving the Orange is to see this as simply the prologue to something better, even if that something won’t come until 2017.
“I just think in general when you’re 1-3 you’re gonna go one of two ways,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “You’re gonna rally around each other or you’re not.
“When you’re 1-3 it’s a terrible place to be. We’re looking for something, we found it and we played well.”
Where Notre Dame deserves honest credit is the fact Kelly – perhaps at the urging of his boss Jack Swarbrick – dumped VanGorder for a short-term fix in Greg Hudson. This defense had been in an over-complicated hole for two years under VanGorder and the former NFL defensive coordinator insisted the Irish just keep digging. In appointing Hudson, Kelly took away the shovel.
It was amazing to watch the emotion Hudson expended Saturday and the players repaid afterward, hugging their new boss like they’d known him for more than a week.
In the final team meeting at the hotel before heading to MetLife on Saturday, Kelly told the roster it would win that afternoon and he knew who would lead the Victory March in the locker room after. He was right on both counts. After crying his way off the field after the final whistle, Hudson got his moment.
“It was pretty cool,” Kelly said. “He led them. Just a lot of positive energy.”
Nail Kelly all you want for not making this change earlier. The Irish never should have been in position to field an interim defensive coordinator in the same way they never should have rotated quarterbacks at Texas. But this is where Notre Dame is and that’s not changing next week or next month. It will be next year when the Irish get this fully turned, a bizarre state for a professionally built head coach now in his seventh season here.
The hope moving forward is that more youth plays more reps, that this lost season doesn’t need to be a total loss for roster development.
There’s a lot to like about that incredibly green secondary, even if a program like Notre Dame should never start four freshmen in the back. Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem have potential at defensive end. What’s young on offense has already been developed into star quality in Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders.
It might be a couple years before Notre Dame can make another serious push at the College Football Playoff. The issues within the Irish defense and how that side has been recruited run that deep. Maybe there’s a good team in here somewhere, but any push toward greatness will take more time than you’re probably willing to give.
When Kelly admits the change in defensive systems requires a complete memory wipe and retraining, it tells you what we saw Saturday was simply the first step in a marathon. The VanGorder era, in scheme, culture and recruiting, set Notre Dame back that far.
The Irish have something resembling a foundation now. But that’s it.
“It’s a big brick,” said linebacker Nyles Morgan. “Big stepping stone. Something we can build on and go from there.”