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Owens: Irish move on from loss as Orlando awaits them (Oct. 28)

Andrew Owens | Thursday, October 27, 2011

To the weathered and longtime Notre Dame fan, it may seem like the thundercloud that has seemingly hovered above the program for the past 18 years has reappeared. With the Irish primed to take a significant step toward reviving a program rich with tradition, Notre Dame lost a 31-17 debacle to archrival USC last Saturday.

Everything was set for the Irish to succeed and it appeared Notre Dame had the edge in the rivalry for the first time in a decade.

The Trojans simply outplayed Notre Dame as any Irish hopes for a BCS bid vanished as quickly as USC junior safety Jawanza Starling picked up a botched snap and scampered 80 yards into the end zone.

What does this mean for the state of the program, now more than halfway through Irish coach Brian Kelly’s second season and with a mediocre 4-3 record?

It’s not nearly as bad as you might think.

Changing the culture at a program that has struggled for quite a while is no easy task. Because of smoke-and-mirror starts by former Irish coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis that produced 8-0 and 19-3 records, respectively, many are under the assumption not only that it is easy, but also that such early success should be expected.

In the current here-today-gone-tomorrow climate of college football and the pressure to win (and quickly) at an all-time high, no one wants to hear the W-word at a big-time college football program like Notre Dame, but I’m going to use it anyway: Wait.

Kelly is building a winner and stocking depth throughout the roster. While recruiting success is necessary but not sufficient to game success, the second-year Irish coach is taking the right steps as the program’s CEO.

He knows how to win and has proven it at three previous stops, albeit none with the day-to-day pressure that comes at Notre Dame.

The way the team responds to the USC loss this weekend and down the stretch will show a lot about its character and motivation, especially now that “their gift bag won’t be as big,” as Kelly said.

With the goal of a BCS bowl berth now out of reach, the Irish have as strong an idea of where they will be over the holidays as they have had in a while. If they finish 7-5, 8-4 or 9-3, the result is almost assuredly the same — the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 29.

Kelly said the approach will remain the same even with the BCS bid off the table.

“So the moment for us, it never gets too big,” he said after the loss Saturday. “In other words, we didn’t think in big picture terms. I’ll talk to [the media] in big picture terms.”

While in no way should the team scrap the remainder of the 2011 season to improve its chances in 2012, the final five games will provide the Irish coach the opportunity to evaluate much of his young talent.

With senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore out for the season, freshmen Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Chase Hounshell have to mature even quicker and will play a larger role on Saturdays.

Sophomore quarterback Andrew Hendrix should get an extended look in the last five games, experience that could prove invaluable in 2012. With next year’s schedule about as daunting as it comes, Hendrix will need all the game repetitions he can get before being thrown into the fire, regardless of what his role proves to be.

It’s time for the online message boards to settle down and trust the plan that Kelly and his staff have put in place. As former Irish coach Lou Holtz once said, “You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose.”

And, right now, Notre Dame is in between good and bad. Time will tell if the thundercloud is ready to move along.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu

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