SAN ANTONIO – Jeff Monken, the Army head coach and disciple of Paul Johnson’s vaunted triple-option attack, arrived at the Alamodome dais a bit sheepish and uncertain as to what to offer as an explanation for the Black Knights’ 44-6 loss to Notre Dame.
He had no answers for the dominant way in which the Irish controlled the football game, literally from the opening kickoff through the final ticks, which ended with the Irish in possession of the football over the final 8:51.
“I really don’t know what to say after a tail-whipping like that,” said Monken, whose squad lost for the fifth time in seven games after opening with a 3-0 record. “We haven’t had our fannies kicked like that in over a year.
“It’s tough to watch it and it’s tough on our kids. I think they probably at times felt helpless. We couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t run the ball effectively enough to keep drives going. (Notre Dame) played like a championship football team today.”
Under normal circumstances, in a season that made a bit more sense than Notre Dame claiming its fourth victory of the season on Nov. 12, Monken’s words would and should be typical comments of an opposing coach. But this stopped being a normal football season a long, long time ago.
It took an immediate turn for the worse in the season-opening, double-overtime loss at Texas. It began a bizarre twist when Michigan State scored 36 straight points in Notre Dame Stadium. It became surreal when the Irish lost for the third time – on Sept. 24 to Duke – and the defensive coordinator was fired.
Complete despair took hold in October when Hurricane Matthew and N.C. State blew Notre Dame out of Raleigh and an average Stanford team out-scored the Irish 17-0 in the second half. Navy brought November in with its first victory over the Irish since 2009, dropping the Irish to 3-6.
Then along comes this 60-minute performance, what usually is considered the norm by Notre Dame standards – particularly in the eighth annual Shamrock Series game – that looked so unlike anything the Irish put together over four quarters all season.
“A complete performance by our guys,” said Brian Kelly, for once feeling good about the way his entire football team performed.
“Offensively, we’ve now come up with points 14 of our last 16 possessions. It’s a difficult chore when you’re going against option teams. Great job by our defensive staff and great execution by our football team. Starting off with special teams, the touchdown gave us great energy and momentum.”
For once this season, there was nothing to regret…except the way the first nine games transpired.
The one remaining obstacle, or so it seems, of securing Kelly’s eighth season at Notre Dame in 2017, is now behind him. A loss to Army – the unthinkable until this past week – is in the rearview mirror. The Irish may lose to Virginia Tech at home and to a suddenly powerful USC in Los Angeles to close the season at 4-8.
But a loss to Army just might have been catastrophic enough to cause the earth’s axis to shift and creating an untenable situation for Kelly and his staff moving forward. For better or for worse -- the Fire Kelly faction probably is lamenting the complete performance against the Black Knights -- Kelly should be back in the saddle again next year.
Why did it take 10 games to play a great 60 minutes? How could a coaching staff have such an unsteady grip on a football team that, admittedly, lost a ton of NFL talent from last year’s team? How could a Notre Dame team be so bereft of fundamental play?
There are no explanations, nor excuses, to justify the situation the Irish still find themselves in through 10 games.
Youth? Youth does not explain a sporadic offense, particularly one that’s led by a quarterback generally considered the best NFL prospect at the position in the country.
Although the Irish certainly are playing a bunch of youngsters on defense, it’s the defense that has continually played improved football since the firing of Brian VanGorder. This unit gets better every week, save for the typical struggles against Navy, and even then, it allowed just two touchdowns each half.
Injuries? Nope. The rash of November casualties that were a significant contributor to the ills from 2013-15 has yet to hit the Irish.
The post mortem of the 2016 season will produce an autopsy that to a large degree defies logic.
But a few things are clear and promising enough to write off a season turned sour. Clear successors to Kelly that would be a clear upgrade offers a skimpy list. He’s almost undoubtedly not going anywhere, which at least maintains the continuity that is so dear to the Irish head coach.
The best thing that can be said of the 2016 season, and this is no small feat considering where the Irish were at 2-5 and then 3-6, is that Kelly never lost the team. Six losses by a total of 29 points, although not justifiable, are a reflection of Kelly’s ability to keep this disastrous season from becoming a complete nightmare, like the 2007 season when Charlie Weis’ team could not compete on either side of the football.
That’s small consolation, but consolation nonetheless that validates that Kelly and his staff still have the finger on the pulse of a dedicated yet flawed group of football players.
With virtually an entire roster returning in 2017, there’s a glimmer of hope in the aftermath of a spanking of Army.
THE FINAL STRETCH
We’ve said it for several weeks now, and it remains true. Notre Dame’s final two opponents – Virginia Tech and USC – are the two best on the 2016 slate.
Virginia Tech’s start-to-finish loss to Georgia Tech probably doesn’t portend well for the Irish. Justin Fuente has done a quality job in Blacksburg this season. The Hokies will respond accordingly this week in preparation for their first-ever trip to Notre Dame Stadium.
There’s no doubting the Trojans now. They controlled Washington in Seattle with relative ease Saturday night. The offense is humming with quarterback Sam Darnold at the controls, and the defense completely disrupted the Huskies’ undefeated season and season-long offensive success.
At least there’s something to play for in the final two weekends of the season. Win both and you’re headed to a minor bowl, likely some cold-weather destination that rewards the players and penalizes the Irish faithful who count on a December/January respite.
The Irish likely will be underdogs against Virginia Tech and definitely USC. But if the players were committed to the cause in the 10th game of the season against Army, they’ll remain motivated to achieve the unexpected in the final two regular-season games.
It might be a stretch to call the final two games actual drama. College football drama circa 2016 is reserved for the suddenly scrambled upper echelon after Clemson, Michigan and Washington fell Saturday.
But on a small scale, in the isolated world the Irish find themselves in, Notre Dame has a chance to save face and provide a low-level springboard into Kelly’s eighth season in South Bend.
The spotlight won’t be on Notre Dame the last two weeks of the regular season. More like a flashlight. Let’s see if the Irish can turn up the glare a bit, beginning with the seniors’ final game in Notre Dame Stadium.