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Monaco: Home victory another move away from losing ways

Mike Monaco | Sunday, November 24, 2013

It wouldn’t have been unexpected for Notre Dame to lose.

In fact, it was really a game Notre Dame has lost before.

Tommy Rees threw a fourth-quarter interception. In the red zone. In a one-score game.

Snowy conditions made for a second-half slugfest.

Arguably Notre Dame’s best player, senior nose guard Louis Nix was ruled out for the season with a knee injury just two days before the game. His backup, senior Kona Schwenke, left in the first half with an injury.

The opposing team – BYU, in this case – totaled more than 400 yards of offense, 269 of which were racked up by its dynamic, dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill.

But Saturday was different.

Rees’ interception didn’t come back to haunt the Irish, and the game ended with some Notre Dame students chanting the much-maligned quarterback’s name.

The snow didn’t hold back the Irish, and senior students were making snow angels on the field afterward instead of pelting players with snowballs as they did during the 2008 Syracuse game.

Nix – somehow – wasn’t glaringly missed in the middle of the defensive line. Neither was Schwenke, who left because of his high-ankle sprain. Sophomore Jarron Jones, who was relegated to the scout team mere weeks ago, got plugged in at nose guard and responded with seven tackles, matching – in one afternoon – his career total entering Saturday’s game.

Hill’s ability and BYU’s offense couldn’t convert yards to points, as the Cougars posted just 13, tied for a season-low.
No, Notre Dame didn’t lose Saturday.

“We went back to saying, look, you can’t start winning until you stop losing,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

And, by and large, Notre Dame has stopped losing. Sure, there was the struggle at Pittsburgh just two weeks ago, but this Irish program has turned a corner.

With the win over BYU, Notre Dame has won a combined 20 games in the past two seasons, something that hadn’t been done before Kelly arrived since the 1992-93 seasons, when Lou Holtz led the Irish to a combined 21-2-1 mark.

With the win over BYU, Kelly becomes the first coach to win at least eight games in each of his first four seasons at Notre Dame since Dan Devine.

With the win over BYU, Notre Dame’s seniors became the first group to win four straight Senior Day games since the 2003 seniors.

Even just over the past few years, the Irish have started winning more because they are losing less. The 29 turnovers from the 2011 season? Gone. Notre Dame has only turned it over 29 times since 2011 – 14 times in 2013 and 15 in 2012.

There are still hiccups, still games where the Irish lose rather than the opponent wins.

Rees’ three interceptions against Oklahoma put Notre Dame in an insurmountable hole. So did the two picks against Michigan and the two against Pittsburgh.

Missed tackles and blown coverage hampered the Irish in their three losses as well.

But stepping back and looking at this program from a broader perspective, the growth is palpable, not just from the Charlie Weis era, but also from the early years of the Kelly regime.

While the turnovers decrease, the depth increases. Jones was tied for third on the team in tackles, and the sophomore also blocked a BYU fourth-quarter field goal that would have made it a one-score game with more than four minutes remaining. Junior reserve safety Eilar Hardy finished second on the squad with eight tackles.

A loss to Pittsburgh makes it easy to lose sight of the process, just as a trip to the national championship seemingly and misleadingly sped up the process.

But on Senior Day, the process proved itself with perspective and progress. Notre Dame didn’t lose. For the most part, Notre Dame has been losing less.

Rees made just one mistake.

The Irish overcame brutal weather and field conditions.

A third-stringer made you forget an All-American.

“Doesn’t matter how you win games as long as you get that ‘W,'” Rees said.

Something the Irish are doing more and more of.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.