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Masoud: The Irish came together – but why? (Oct. 31)

Chris Masoud | Sunday, October 30, 2011

It was a perfect combination of elegance and power, finesse and utter dominance.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo called it a “full butt-whipping,” the worst outcome in his years facing the Irish.

Perhaps more than anything else, Notre Dame’s 56-14 victory over Navy, a team that has given the Irish fits in their previous four matchups, was a welcome reminder of the sheer talent brimming on Notre Dame’s roster.

The defense shined, as an underwhelming Midshipmen team was held to just 196 yards on the ground, well below its average of 325 yards coming into the contest. Give credit to the front seven, particularly defensive linemen Sean Cwynar and Stephon Tuitt, for blowing up the option before it could even develop.

And then there was Manti Te’o. The junior linebacker tallied 13 tackles, five unassisted, and played some of the most disciplined football of his career. He could not be blocked, misdirected or out-schemed, turning the Navy option on its head.

On the other side of the ball, the offense executed Brian Kelly’s game plan to near-perfection. A collected Tommy Rees threw for 237 yards and one touchdown, Michael Floyd caught two touchdowns and the Irish running attack continued its unprecedented success en route to 182 yards and seven touchdowns.

The running back combo of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood (I like “Smash and Dash,” but I’m open to suggestions) tallied 135 yards and five touchdowns alone. The duo have become one of the best one-two punches in Division I football, a la Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson of the 2010 Alabama squad.

In all facets of the game, Notre Dame played together as a unified unit. But the question remains: unified by what?

Kelly’s post-practice comments last Thursday quickly erupted into a mess of tweets, media speculation, accusations, general confusion, censorship and apology. His choice of words was interpreted by many as a general criticism of former head coach Charlie Weis’ recruits on the current Notre Dame roster.

Despite the removal of controversial tweets per the usual situation sterilization, we do know players were visibly upset and confused by Kelly’s comments.

We do know those same players contributed to an inspiring performance Saturday, leaving no doubt in anyone’s mind that Weis’ recruits can play Kelly’s brand of football.

We also know Kelly refers to his team as both a “family” and the football program as a “business,” per Saturday’s post-game comments. I’m not sure the two can coexist. If football is a business, are the players just employees? Are the fans shareholders?

If so, was leaving Cincinnati on the eve of the biggest moment in those student-athletes’ lives just a business decision by Dad?

But perhaps Kelly’s most revealing action Saturday was the one that went unnoticed — naming senior Chris Salvi a gameday captain. A walk-on and a non-scholarship athlete, Salvi cannot attribute his presence on the roster to the recruiting efforts of Weis or Kelly. Rather, his passion for Notre Dame and football earned him a place on the team and the 50-yard line Saturday. The decision, a move senior safety Harrison Smith called “awesome,” was well-received by the entire team.

Kelly never intended to stereotype the vast majority of the Irish roster, playmakers that start at nearly every position. Frustration flowing from a dismal performance against the Trojans can exasperate anyone, even a head coach.

Both players and coach have expressed they have moved past the issue as a family, and I believe them. The Irish played as a selfless, unified front against the Midshipmen in a dominating performance.

Notre Dame’s de facto elimination from BCS contention was a shot in the heart for many Irish fans. But with nothing but pride on the line, the remaining four contests of the season still hold tremendous value if they can answer one question: are the Irish playing unified under Kelly, Notre Dame or themselves?

Contact Chris Masoud at cmasoud@nd.edu

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