NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There was really only so much Brandon Wimbush could do. Because when a 55-year old wants to get into the sideline juice before a kickoff, it’s not like the sophomore quarterback could instantly gift rhythm.
But there Brian Kelly was during the first half of Notre Dame’s 30-27 bizarre comeback against Miami, swaying with the backups and walk-ons. Wimbush put a hand on Kelly’s back to help him keep the beat. Instead, Kelly looked like a middle-aged guy who might need a chiropractor Sunday.
It was the kind of moment that felt endearing a few hours later because Notre Dame won. It would have been the kind of moment that felt desperate a few hours later if Notre Dame lost.
In other words, the difference between Kelly connecting with his roster and needing another vote of confidence was basically Miami’s inability to recover a Durham Smythe fumble.
This win was something. It wasn’t everything. But it wasn’t nothing either.
“It just meant that we’re not going to have to go through this again,” Kelly said. “We were all going to have to listen to, OK, the locker room is falling apart, a bunch of baloney, and we'd have to go through all this again. It wasn't going to change anything.
“We were still going to do the same thing. The attitude would have been great. Their preparation would have been great. But they were going to have to figure out how to win a football game late, and that meant they had to execute better, they had to play all phases better at the end, and they did.”
If Notre Dame playing better in all phases at the end means Miami’s fumble recovery skills were lacking, so be it. After the Hurricanes couldn’t smother Smythe’s fumble, somehow DeShone Kizer did. After three short Josh Adams runs, Justin Yoon chipped in a 23-yard field goal. A few minutes later Nyles Morgan obliterated Brad Kaaya to end it.
The final score was a departure from the rest of this season after the Irish found ways to lose against Texas, Michigan State, Duke, N.C. State and Stanford. But the performance against Miami was a continuation of all that, the fast start (Texas, Duke, Stanford), the mid-game collapse (Michigan State, Stanford) and the special teams disasters (Michigan State, Duke and N.C. State).
Of the five teams to beat Notre Dame more are winless in conference play (Duke, Michigan State) than have winning records (Stanford).
Kelly can talk about how the locker room would have stuck through a sixth loss, even if some of the student section had bailed before kickoff. But Notre Dame’s roster needed to get paid at some point. That that point was Saturday doesn’t matter as much as it just happening at all.
“A win like this is for sure gonna be a spark for us,” said offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “We’re finally going in the right direction.”
He’s right. But the Irish are going in the right direction today only because they stopped going in the wrong one. To say Kelly’s program shifted into drive by building a 20-0 lead, blowing it, then winning late is the most generous reading of Saturday. But to say the Irish finally got out of reverse is not.
Notre Dame didn’t learn to win yesterday. Yet it learned it doesn’t have to always lose.
“We’re not going to let the record determine how hard we fight for this game and how much work we put in,” said cornerback Cole Luke. “We’ve had a great mentality these past three weeks of just coming to work. We got a class, we go. We got to grind, we go grind hard. That’s how it’s been.”
At this point there’s little value in relitigating the mistakes baked into this season before it started. If hiring Brian VanGorder was a calculated risk three years ago, retaining him last off-season was a desperate gamble. Special teams have been a hand grenade the Irish sometimes forget to throw. Management of the quarterback position has been guesswork.
Those are off-season mistakes Kelly can’t fix now.
But like his program on Saturday, that doesn’t mean he needs to be a repeat offender.
“We'll go back to work with the same underpinnings, the same things that we've worked on over the last 10, 12 weeks, but now there's a lot more confidence in that room that they believe that they can do it, and if they just pay attention to the little things and are more decisive, they can win every game they play because they lost five games by one possession,” Kelly said. “So they know that.”
These are the basics of Notre Dame football today.
It took eight weeks for the Irish to beat a decent team, even if they nearly blew a 20-point lead in a loss for the first time since 1991. To put that in perspective, that came against Tennessee on Senior Day for players who were freshmen in the Catholics vs. Convicts game three years earlier.
Look, Notre Dame requires a serious overhaul this off-season. Kelly won’t lose sight of that even if he’s not focused on it today. For now, the issue is taking this victory over Miami and growing it into something bigger.
Maybe the Irish finally got a foothold on this season. Maybe they just won a coin flip.
But for the first time all season there’s at least an optimistic outlook to consider.
“It really boosts our attitude and our drive for the rest of the season,” Morgan said. “That’s a win that we had to have to keep pushing forward. This game can spark something great for us, a great run to finish out the season.”