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Kelly’s first year marked by highs and lows

Andrew Owens | Friday, April 15, 2011

In a tumultuous 2010 season that featured extreme highs, like a signature victory over archrival USC, and extreme lows, including two of the program’s worst losses in history, the Irish underwent a transition led by first-year coach Brian Kelly few could have imagined.

The excitement of a new coach led to one of the most highly anticipated season openers in recent memory as the Irish hosted in-state rival Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium to kickoff the Kelly era.

The result was a 23-12 Irish victory — by no means a perfect performance, but one that displayed a commitment to the fundamentals lacking in years past.

Kelly was not the only new face of the team — junior signal caller Dayne Crist started for the Irish for the first time after Jimmy Clausen headed to the NFL. Crist was efficient and managed the game well, completing 19-of-26 passes and throwing for 205 yards and a touchdown in his debut.

Kelly’s honeymoon period quickly evaporated during the final three games in September though — all losses, two of them in heartbreaking fashion.

In the second game of the year, Michigan sophomore quarterback Denard Robinson shredded the Notre Dame defense for 502 yards of total offense in a 28-24 Wolverines victory.

With 3:41 remaining and Notre Dame backed up against its own end zone, the sun poked out of the clouds and gave the Irish a glimmer of hope, albeit a short-lived one. Crist, who had reentered the game following an eye injury in the first half, connected with junior tight end Kyle Rudolph, who scampered down the field 96 yards to put the Irish on top.

Robinson, however, stole the last-minute heroics as he ran in for a two-yard score with 27 seconds left to finish a 12-play, 72-yard drive.

The Irish lost in similar fashion the next week at Michigan State. The team gave up a fourth-quarter lead, allowing the Spartans to force overtime. Following a converted field goal by senior kicker David Ruffer in the first half of overtime, the Irish defense did its job, forcing a loss of four yards in three plays. Spartans coach Mark Dantonio made the signature decision of his team’s 11-1 regular season by calling for a fake field goal rather than attempting a 46-yard kick. Punter Aaron Bates found tight end Charlie Gantt, who went in for the easy touchdown and Michigan State victory, dropping Notre Dame to 1-2.

The Irish came home to face eventual Orange Bowl qualifier Stanford, and were embarrassed in a 37-14 rout in front of the home crowd. The Cardinals gained 404 yards on the Irish, leading ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit to refer to the Notre Dame unit as a “high school defense.”

Notre Dame responded with a three-game winning streak to improve to 4-3 on the season, just past the midway point. The streak began with the team’s first win at Boston College since 1998, and concluded with home victories against Pittsburgh and Western Michigan.

No one could have expected what transpired next. The winning streak came to a screeching halt the next week when Notre Dame played Navy on the road. The Midshipmen only passed the ball twice the entire game, but they did not need to — they imposed their will on the Irish defense with 367 rushing yards. The 35-17 loss was the most lopsided defeat Notre Dame suffered in the series since 1963. It was also the program’s third loss to Navy in four games.

The Irish sunk even further the next weekend while hosting Tulsa.

The Golden Hurricane upset Notre Dame 28-27, dropping the Irish to 4-5 on the season and putting any hopes of earning a postseason berth in jeopardy. The Irish were dealt a devastating blow during the game when Crist suffered a season-ending knee injury for the second consecutive season, putting freshman Tommy Rees in the spotlight for the final three regular-season games.

Despite the adversity, the team pulled together to win the final four games of the season, finishing 8-5, including a 33-17 blowout of Miami in the Sun Bowl. The transformation occurred during the bye week following the Tulsa loss.

In the final three regular season games, the defense allowed only one touchdown — a one-yard run on fourth down to USC after the offense turned the ball over on the Notre Dame two-yard line.

On Nov. 13, the Irish earned their first victory over a ranked opponent since Sept. 9, 2006 when they defeated No. 15 Utah, 28-3. The students were ecstatic, rushing the field to celebrate the Senior Day victory.

The following week, the team played in an historic neutral-site game against Army at Yankee Stadium. Once again, the Irish defense held the opponent to only a field goal as Notre Dame won, 27-3.

The top moment of the 2010 season occurred in the regular season finale when the Irish traveled across the country for a battle with archrival USC. The Trojans had defeated Notre Dame eight consecutive times by an average of 24.5 points per game.

In weather that resembled South Bend, Ind., rather than Los Angeles, the Irish put together a seven-play, 77-yard game-winning drive capped off by a five-yard touchdown run by senior Robert Hughes.

With a 7-5 record, Notre Dame earned a berth in the Sun Bowl against former rival Miami. The Irish rolled to victory to conclude an 8-5 inaugural season for Kelly and provide momentum for the 2011 campaign.

After such a strong finish to 2010, Saturday’s Blue-Gold game will only whet fans’ appetites for Sept. 3 when Notre Dame hosts South Florida.