“You forget what you want to remember, and you remember what you want to forget.” – Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Unfortunately for Irish head coach Brian Kelly, that mantra provides an apt summary of Notre Dame football fans, most of which barely recall the time when Kelly, currently mired in a 5-9 slump in enemy territory, owned the opened road.
Five wins in his first eight games – that despite a middling 16-10 start overall – then a 4-0 mark in 2012, one that raised Kelly’s road record to a robust 9-3 over his first three seasons in South Bend.
- Two wins in five chances during the 2013 campaign, and those came against 1-11 Purdue (the Boilermakers did not defeat an FBS foes that fall) and 2-10 Air Force
- In 2014, Notre Dame’s campaign was felled, in large part, by its 0-3 mark in true road tilts, albeit vs. strong foes Florida State, Arizona State, and USC
- The Irish rebounded last fall to beat the three teams they should have (Virginia, Temple, and Pittsburgh) but fell a play short against future national runner-up Clemson, 24-22, and Rose Bowl Champion Stanford, 38-36
- This season they’ve already been saddled with a loss, 50-47 at Texas.
2010-2012: 9-3 with a pair of upset wins over ranked foes Michigan State and Oklahoma
2013-present: 5-9 highlighted by last season’s 3-2 effort (it came on the heels of five consecutive road defeats, mind you) though the two losses last Fall will forever resonate in program lore.
Now the Irish take to the road again with a first-ever trip to Carter-Finley Stadium to take on 4-1 North Carolina State, currently staked as favorites of 2.5 points over the Irish.
Kelly’s record as a true road underdog with the Irish? 3-9.
Can Notre Dame reverse its road fortunes beginning this Saturday Raleigh? History suggests improved defense is the only method to that end.
A COMMON THREAD
The old football adage, “When you pack for the road, the first thing you must bring is your defense,” illustrates perfectly Notre Dame’s dichotomous road results, split down the middle of Kelly’s tenure.
First, a review of his initial three seasons (2010-2012) en route to a 9-3 overall record in true road games:
- Combined Road points per game average (both teams): 49.0
- Average PPG Opponents: 16.6
- Average PPG Irish: 24.8
Conversely, in the ensuing three seasons plus one outing this fall (2013 to the present, a span of 14 games with a 5-9 W-L record as a result), the following numbers have presented in true road matchups:
- Combined Road PPG average (both teams): 62.7
- Average PPG Opponents: 32.4
- Average PPG Irish: 30.3
Nearly twice as many points scored against Kelly’s defenses over the last 14 outings more than offsets the extra touchdown his more potent offenses have produced. It’s unlikely – and clearly not ideal – that the Irish offense begins to score less, but high-flying affairs on the road don’t seem to favor Notre Dame when the final score is tallied:
- Teams’ Combined Point Total Under 45: 9 wins, 1 loss
- Combined Point Total between 45-55: 3-3
- Combined Point Total between 56-65: 1-3
- Combined Point Total 66+: 1-5
Assuming the 2016 squad qualifies for a bowl bid, Kelly’s current offense will approach program records for touchdowns (64 in 1991 including the Sugar Bowl), yards gained per contest (510.5 in 1970) and points per game (37.6 in 1968).
But without continuous improvement defensively it will be for naught. Especially when they venture into enemy territory.
PACK YOUR DEFENSE
A final illustration on the importance of D on the road:
-- Points scored by Irish foes, respectively, in 14 Notre Dame road wins beginning in Kelly’s first season: 13, 16, 12, 10, 17, 3, 13, 6, 13, 24, 10, 27, 30, 20
-- Points scored by the Irish in 12 road losses: 31, 31, 14, 30, 21, 20, 27, 31, 14, 22, 36, 47.
Remarkably, Notre Dame averages 27 points per game when it loses on the road but just 26.7 when it wins. In short, the Irish are a better football program when not relying heavily on the power of their offense.
Kelly’s Notable Road Wins:
- No. 8 Oklahoma 2012 – This 31-13 handling of the Sooners in Norman remains Kelly’s signature win to date
- No. 10 Michigan State 2012 – A 20-3 dominant defensive effort that launched a march to No. 1
- USC 2012 – 22-13 and the final chapter in a remarkable 2012 regular season
- USC 2010 – An ugly 20-16 victory but one replete with relief as it broke an 8-game program-losing streak to the Men of Troy.
- Virginia 2015 – The beginning of the DeShone Kizer Era in South Bend and one of the most amazing endings in team history, 34-27 Irish.
Kelly’s Notable Road Losses:
Would Kelly and the program be viewed with less skepticism had Notre Dame prevailed in just one of first three matchups listed?
- #2 Florida State 2014 – 31-27. The Flag that started the spiral downward…
- #12 Clemson 2015 – 24-22. New math fails in the monsoon…
- #9 Stanford 2015 – 38-36. One defensive stop. One. Defensive. Stop.
- Texas 2016 – 50-47 2OT. A gut-shot for Irish fans expecting another season of playoff contention.
- Michigan State 2010 – 34-31 OT “Little Giants” remains one of the worst ways to lose a football game…
The Face Plants:
The category that raises the ire of most Notre Dame fans – as well it should.
- Michigan 2011: Led 24-7, lost 35-31. Of all the programs to lose such a lead…
- Arizona State 2014: Fell behind 34-3 – while firmly in playoff contention, to boot. Lost 55-31 or something like that. Who cares?
- USC 2014: 49-14. Broken mentally and physically entering the contest and it only got worse.
- Michigan 2013: Fell 41-31 in the Big House and it was clear there’d be no repeat run by Diaco’s defense.