The worst thing that happened Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville wasn’t that Brian Kelly’s still-Fighting Irish failed to win a second consecutive contest for the first time in 2016.
It wasn’t that the squad fell to 3-6 on the season, and it wasn’t even that they maddeningly didn’t go for the win when the opportunity presented.
It was that Notre Dame didn’t play poorly – and lost to Navy anyway.
That’s the current state of affairs for a program that last year threatened playoff contention. A program that four seasons ago (it feels longer, doesn’t it?) played for all the marbles.
There were no visible post-game tears to track on the cheeks of Irish players. No feelings of an opportunity lost shared among the faithful in attendance. No press conference fits of anger from an embattled head coach.
Just resignation. (No pun intended.)
Resignation to the reality that this is what Notre Dame has become: a 3-and-6 football team that is likely to lose any contest in which both teams are fighting to the end.
It’s become acceptable because it is the norm.
WAIT FOR IT…WAIT FOR IT…
“After a while, they're going to get you.”
Kelly’s words above uttered four days prior to Saturday’s defeat were in reference to Navy’s triple-option attack. But he could easily have been talking about Notre Dame’s special teams instead.
To their credit, the Irish special teams didn’t directly contribute to defeat vs. Stanford two games ago – just against everyone else.
Saturday’s head-shaker among the remaining quintet of losses was a penalty for having 12 men on the field. (You’re allowed 11, but it appears the Irish could indeed have used an illegal 12th to stop Navy’s option, so there’s that.)
The penalty flag moved Navy from 4th-and-6 at its own 40-yard line to 4th-and-1. From a punt, to an opportunity to go for it. They did, and they got it, and thereafter Navy predictably executed nine more snaps to cover the requisite 54 yards and finish with the game-winning touchdown.
That’s Navy football. Actually, that’s just football. Taking it to the opponent. Going for the win.
Does anyone reading this believe Notre Dame football operates similarly? And shouldn’t that matter?
This was no upset, Irish fans. This was one decent football team taking it to another and coming out on top because it was mentally tougher, physically tougher, and better coached.
A little less than three hours prior to Saturday’s kickoff, the meandering Irish Illustrated crew encountered a familiar phrase, albeit one preached by the opponent rather than Notre Dame as in a season past.
“Tradition Never Graduates” adorned the Navy equipment bus backed up to the EverBank Field media entrance. That sight elicited memories of another phrase from a bygone era, one defined by its mediocrity preceding the current regime.
“You are what you are.”
Former head coach Charlie Weis’ opening salvo to Irish fans and players in the winter of 2005 again rings true because Notre Dame Football 2016 isn’t a cursed team a few plays away from being ranked (or at least above .500) as many opined last week following the mirage that was a victory over Miami.
Instead, they’ve lost six games and won just three because they lack the ingredients winning teams possess.
I don’t doubt that Brian Kelly is a good football coach. I’ve seen and chronicled his best work. And I don’t doubt that Kelly will take his next program to a Top 25 level – perhaps beyond, pending the fit and recruiting base coupled with what is allowed off the field along the all-important fringes of said program.
But when the 2016 season ends, it’s time for a fresh start, both for Kelly and his Fighting Irish.
He, his loyal assistants, and his frustrated but still game student-athletes will fight to the bitter end. Certainly against beatable Army and on Senior Day as underdogs vs. Top 25 foe Virginia Tech.
Thereafter? We don’t know exactly what will happen at USC.
We just know what won’t.