In Brian Kelly’s 84 games as head coach at Notre Dame spanning six-and-a-half seasons, 39 (46.4 percent) have been decided by one score, which for the purpose of this evaluation, is a game decided by eight points or less.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Irish had won 22 and lost 13 games decided by one score (62.8 percent), which is a solid number. The won-loss mark has dipped to 22-17 (56.4 percent) with losses this season to Texas (50-47 two OTs), Michigan State (36-28), Duke (38-35) and N.C. State (10-3).
In close games by season, the Irish were/are:
• 2-3 in 2010
• 3-3 in 2011
• 5-0 in 2012
• 5-2 in 2013
• 3-3 in 2014
• 4-2 in 2015
• 0-4 in 2016
But it’s too easy to limit the evaluation to just close wins and losses. There can be close wins with a 23-point fourth-quarter lead (Georgia Tech 2015) or close losses with an 18-point third-quarter deficit (Clemson 2015).
There can be close wins with a noteworthy comeback from down 14 after three quarters (Pittsburgh 2012) to close losses with a 17-point lead in the third quarter (Michigan 2011).
Such an evaluation doesn’t take into account slow starts and the holes that Kelly’s teams have dug (17 games of double-digit deficits). But that’s for another evaluation.
For the purposes of this evaluation, we have broken down the 39 close games into five categories:
• An “even” response in a close win.
• A negative response in a close loss.
• A negative response in a close win.
• A positive response in a close loss.
• A positive response in a close win.
For each of the 39 games, we’ve used the halftime score, the third quarter score, and the fourth quarter/overtime response to determine which category the close games have fallen under. In most cases, determining which category a close game should fall under is clear; in some instances, a subjective decision has been made.
‘NEUTRAL’ RESPONSE IN CLOSE WIN (6)
This is where considerable subjectivity comes into play. There have been six such games placed in this category where the fourth-quarter performance was insufficient defensively, but the Irish still found a way to win.
• 2010: 23-17 vs. Pittsburgh – Up 17-3 at halftime and 20-10 after three quarters, the Irish were out-scored 14-3 in the second half and needed a Gary Gray pass broken up on fourth down to secure the victory.
• 2012: 20-17 vs. Purdue – A Boilermaker squad that finished 6-7 trailed the Irish 17-7 after three quarters. But Purdue scored the first 10 points of the fourth quarter before Rees led the Irish to the game-winning field-goal drive as Kyle Brindza delivered from 27 yards out with seven seconds remaining.
• 2013: 37-34 vs. Arizona State – The Irish turned a 14-13 halftime lead into a 24-13 lead after three quarters. But the Sun Devils scored 21 points in the fourth quarter (including an interception return for a touchdown). Fortunately, the Irish scored 13, including Notre Dame’s own interception return for a touchdown (Dan Fox).
• 2013: 38-34 vs. Navy – Up 24-20 after three quarters, the Irish allowed 75- and 70-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to fall behind each time. But the offense ultimately responded with an 11-play, 76-yard drive, capped by a one-yard Tarean Folston touchdown run.
• 2015: 34-27 at Virginia – Notre Dame made QB Matt Johns a household name by allowing the nondescript signalcaller to complete 26-of-38 passes for 289 yards. But the Irish held a 26-14 third-quarter lead when Malik Zaire went down with a season-ending injury. Virginia took the lead with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter before inexperienced DeShone Kizer struggled and then became a household name in his own right with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 ticks on the clock,
• 2015: 24-20 at Temple – Up 17-10 after three quarters, the Irish allowed a 14-play, 78-yard touchdown drive and an eight-play, 42-yard field-goal drive in the fourth quarter as the Owls took a 20-17 lead with 4:45 remaining. The offense marched 75 yards on six plays with a DeShone Kizer-to-Will Fuller touchdown pass with 2:09 remaining for the game-winning score.
NEGATIVE RESPONSE IN A CLOSE LOSS (11)
These are the games that haunt Notre Dame football fans’ souls. There have been at least one of these games every season except 2012, and there have been two such games in five out of seven years, including 2016. They represent 64.7 percent of the 17 close losses.
• 2010: 34-31 OT at Michigan State – “Little Giants” became possible when the Irish allowed a four-play, 56-yard touchdown drive midway through the fourth quarter.
• 2010: 28-27 vs. Tulsa – Up 27-25 after three quarters, the Irish fell behind on a field goal with 3:23 remaining. But Notre Dame marched well into David Ruffer’s field-goal range, only to see chances for victory eliminated by a Tommy Rees interception in the end zone.
• 2011: 35-31 loss at Michigan – Leading 24-7 after three quarters, Notre Dame’s defense collapsed as QB Denard Robinson led the Wolverines to 28 fourth-quarter points. This is the worst of the close losses.
• 2011: 18-14 loss to Florida State (Champs Sports Bowl) – Leading 14-3 after three quarters, the Irish were out-scored 15-0 in the fourth. The game ended with a Rees’ interception in the end zone.
• 2013: 28-21 at Pittsburgh: Winners of four in a row and upping the season record to 7-2, the Irish had a 14-7 halftime lead and a 21-14 lead with 3:29 left in the third quarter. Notre Dame allowed the last 10 points of the game, falling to a Panther squad that would finish 7-6.
• 2013: 27-20 at Stanford – Pulling to within 24-20 with 1:37 left in the third quarter, the Cardinal pitched a shutout in the fourth as Rees was picked off with 2:24 remaining.
• 2014: 31-27 at Florida State – Some will claim the Irish were robbed by an offensive interference penalty in the end zone. But after taking a 17-10 halftime lead, the Seminoles scored 14 points in the third quarter and seven more in the fourth to out-score the Irish 21-10 over the final 30 minutes.
• 2014: 43-40 OT vs. Northwestern – The Irish led 27-23 at halftime and 34-26 after three quarters. Kelly’s ill-advised two-point conversion attempt paved the way for the Wildcats to send it into overtime. Northwestern out-scored the Irish 17-6 in the fourth quarter/overtime. This ranks with the blown lead at Michigan in 2011.
• 2015: 38-36 at Stanford – The Irish allowed five touchdown drives of 74 yards or longer as well as a 45-yard field goal as time expired – following an inadvertent facemask penalty. That negated what looked like a game-winning 15-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that was capped with 30 seconds remaining by a Kizer touchdown run.
• 2016: 38-35 vs. Duke – Coming off a disheartening home night loss to Michigan State, the Irish were outscored 38-21 over the final three-and-a-half quarters, including the final 10 points of the game.
• 2016: 10-3 at N.C. State – Notre Dame’s intention was to throw it a whole lot more than run it in hurricane-like conditions, which resulted in no touchdowns and no points over the final 26:04. The dagger was a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
NEGATIVE RESPONSE IN A CLOSE WIN (3)
These are close wins that shouldn’t have been close, although a traditional rival was involved twice:
• 2011: 16-14 vs. Boston College – The Irish jumped to a 10-0 first-quarter lead and led 13-7 at halftime. The offense produced just three points the rest of the way and allowed a 72-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes remaining against an Eagles team that finished 4-8.
• 2015: 30-22 vs. Georgia Tech – The Irish stymied Paul Johnson’s vaunted triple-option attack and took a 30-7 lead in the third quarter. The Yellow Jackets scored 15 points within the last minute of play before Torii Hunter, Jr. recovered the onside kick to seal the victory.
• 2015: 19-16 vs. Boston College (Fenway Park) – A 3-9 Boston College team with one of the most anemic offenses in the country looked as if it would fall quietly. Notre Dame led 10-0 at halftime and 16-3 after three quarters. The Eagles scored on an 80-yard run and an 86-yard touchdown drive to make it ugly.
POSITIVE RESPONSE IN A CLOSE LOSS (6)
It’s small consolation, and usually a result of a slow start. But there have been half-a-dozen close losses in which the Irish have fought valiantly, only to lose a close game.
• 2010: 28-24 vs. Michigan – Trailing 21-7 at halftime, the Irish scored 17 straight points in the second half to take the lead, only to succumb to a Denard Robinson two-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds remaining.
• 2011: 23-20 vs. South Florida – No one would consider this a “good loss” to an eventual 5-7 squad, but the Irish trailed by 16 at halftime and scored 20 of the 27 second-half points. It wasn’t enough in the turnover-marred (five by the Irish) opening-season loss.
• 2014: 31-28 vs. Louisville – Again, not a fond memory for the Irish amidst a November collapse. But the Irish trailed 17-6 at halftime and responded by scoring the first 14 points of the second half to take the lead. The Cardinals scored a pair of touchdowns of their own to squeak out a victory.
• 2015: 24-22 at Clemson – Down 14 points less than seven minutes into the game and trailing 21-3 less than a minute into the second half, Notre Dame scored 19 points in the second half. They needed two more on a two-point conversion and came up short.
• 2016: 50-47 (2 OT) at Texas -- The Irish trailed by 17 points in the third quarter, and then scored the next 21 points to take the lead. Notre Dame couldn’t close it out, but did well to make it a close game when it looked like they might be blown out. (Note: The wrong defensive approach, obviously, makes the end result particularly galling.)
• 2016: 36-28 vs. Michigan State – The game was moving along nicely for the Irish with a seven-point lead and the Spartans punting for what should have been good field position for Notre Dame. A fumble and 36 straight points by the Spartans later, the Irish were chasing 29. Notre Dame scored 21 straight points in the second half, but never came close on their final possession.
POSITIVE RESPONSE IN CLOSE WIN (13)
This represents 35.8 percent of the close games and 63.6 percent of the close victories.
• 2010: 20-16 at USC – Up 13-3 at halftime, the Irish would be tied by the end of the third quarter. But Robert Hughes’ touchdown run with 2:23 remaining capped a 77-yard drive and assured a winning record in Kelly’s first season.
• 2011: 15-12 at Pittsburgh – Down 12-7 after three quarters, with the only score coming on a 79-yard touchdown run by Jonas Gray, Rees led an 11-play, 85-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, capped by a five-yard toss to Tyler Eifert.
• 2011: 24-17 at Wake Forest – A respectable 6-7 Wake Forest squad led 17-10 at halftime, but the Irish defense pitched a shutout in the second half with Jonas Gray and Michael Floyd scoring touchdowns in the third period. Wake Forest was held scoreless over the final 30:28.
• 2012: 13-6 vs. Michigan – Five interceptions of Denard Robinson proved critical as the Irish managed just 239 yards total offense and one touchdown – a two-yard run by Rees late in the second quarter to give the Irish a 10-0 halftime lead.
• 2012: 20-13 OT vs. Stanford – Down 10-3 at halftime and after three quarters, Notre Dame scored 17 of the final 20 points, including TJ Jones’ seven-yard touchdown reception from Rees. Then came the famous goal-line stand against Stepfan Taylor to keep the national title hopes alive.
• 2012: 17-14 vs. BYU – The Irish scored late in the first quarter, but trailed 14-7 at halftime and 14-10 after three quarters. George Atkinson III capped an eight-play, 72-yard drive with a hard-fought two-yard touchdown run. The defense came up big down the stretch. Theo Riddick led a 270-yard rushing attack.
• 2012: 29-26 (3 OT) vs. Pittsburgh – Certainly, the Irish caught a break when a missed 33-yard field goal by Kevin Harper stood despite the fact Notre Dame had two players on the field wearing the same number. But the Irish overcame a 20-6 third-quarter deficit by scoring a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
• 2013: 31-24 at Purdue – Greg Hudson’s Boilermaker defense was giving the Irish fits as the Irish trailed 10-3 at halftime and 17-10 through three quarters. Notre Dame exploded for three third-quarter touchdowns – two by DaVaris Daniels, including an 82-yarder -- and a 34-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Bennett Jackson.
• 2013: 17-13 vs. Michigan State – Notre Dame rushed for 82 yards and netted a mere 224 yards total offense. But the Irish played turnover-free and used pass interference as a weapon in scoring two touchdowns, including Cam McDaniel’s game-winning run early in the fourth quarter.
• 2013: 14-10 vs. USC – Notre Dame took the only lead that it needed on an 11-yard TJ Jones touchdown reception with 31:13 left in the game. The defense remained stout to compensate for an injured Rees and an ineffective Andrew Hendrix.
• 2014: 17-14 vs. Stanford – The Cardinal took a 14-10 lead with 3:01 remaining, but Everett Golson’s 23-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Ben Koyack with 1:01 left raised Notre Dame’s record to 5-0. The Irish defense limited the Stanford rushing attack to 47 yards on 32 carries.
• 2014: 50-43 vs. North Carolina – The first chink in the armor of a Brian VanGorder-led defense surfaced in this game and never abated until his tenure was terminated 25 games later. The Irish were down by a point after three quarters, but scored 15 points in the fourth to raise the unbeaten mark to 6-0.
• 2014: 31-28 vs. LSU (Music City Bowl) – The Irish were reeling after dropping four in a row to close the regular season. Kelly incorporated Malik Zaire into the equation at quarterback with turnover-prone Everett Golson, which proved to be enough offense – with 265 yards on the ground – to overcome the Leonard Fournette-led ground game. Kyle Brindza kicked the game winning field goal from 32 yards as time expired.