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Strong finish a positive for Irish

Sam Werner | Monday, November 22, 2010

There were many positives to take away from Notre Dame’s 27-3 win over Army on Saturday night. The Irish are bowl-eligible with their sixth win, the defense didn’t allow a touchdown for the second straight game, and freshman quarterback Tommy Rees continued his solid play in place of injured Dayne Crist. Perhaps the most important encouraging sign from this weekend’s victory, though, is the fact that the Irish look like a noticeably improved football team from the one that took the field at the beginning of the season.

The tackling has improved, the offense seems to have found a sense of balance, and the team is playing with an overall confidence that was lacking in September.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Brian Kelly was hired.

“I’ve always felt that the teams that I’ve coached, we want to be better in November,” Kelly said after the game. “And we’re getting better in November.”

Irish fans have become all too accustomed to late season failure, with just two wins after the month of October in the past two seasons. Losses to Syracuse and Connecticut on Senior Day in 2008 and 2009, respectively, provided lowlights for the Irish in cold weather. Those winter doldrums are a big part of why Charlie Weis is no longer coaching the Irish.

Now that Kelly has put an emphasis on late-season performance — and two thoroughly dominating victories — it looks like the days of stumbling to the finish are behind the Irish.

The biggest change has been the improvement on defense. It’s not just the solid tackling or sound positioning, but the players actually seem confident in their responsibilities on the field. Previously, the Irish seemed tentative and too afraid to make a mistake. Now, they know what they need to do and make plays almost instinctively, especially in the secondary.

On the offensive side of the ball, Notre Dame has placed a renewed emphasis on its running game. Partially to compensate for Rees’ inexperience, the Irish rushed the ball 29 and 38 times against Utah and Army, respectively. Just because Kelly runs a spread offense doesn’t mean Notre Dame can’t run the football when they need to. Particularly when protecting leads — a sore spot for the Irish over the past few seasons — a running game is absolutely essential. Even with senior Armando Allen sidelined for the season, sophomore Cierre Wood has stepped in admirably and taken the bulk of the carries.

This season has been far from perfect for Notre Dame — the embarrassing blowout loss to Navy and Kelly’s indefensible decision to throw the ball at the end of the game against Tulsa come to mind — but the team is clearly trending upward. After two wins that could only be described as dominating, it’s hard to say the Irish aren’t a team on the rise.

Now, it’s Kelly’s job to make sure this improvement holds. Many thought the Irish were “back” after blowout wins against Hawaii and Nevada to close 2008 and begin the 2009. Those wins, though, were more based on transcendent performances by flashy offensive players. Notre Dame’s victories over Utah and Army were the result of solid fundamentals and belief in the gameplan — themes that have a lot more staying power.

It also says a great deal that Notre Dame was able to bounce back from a downright dismal performance against one triple-option team in Navy to completely shut down the Black Knights’ attack Saturday. It would have been easy for the team to doubt itself after giving up 367 rushing yards to the Midshipmen. Instead, the team and coaching staff went back to the drawing board and drew up a defensive scheme that Army was unable to solve.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but the Irish are now presented with a fantastic opportunity. If they can pull off their first win against USC since 2001 and follow up with a victory in the bowl game, that’s a whole lot of momentum heading into 2011. If recent results are any indication, there’s no reason to think the Irish won’t continue to improve.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu