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Mazurek: Signature win continues to elude Kelly

| Sunday, September 10, 2017

The first rule of being a successful football coach is to win.

The second rule is to win recently.

In his seven seasons at Notre Dame, head coach Brian Kelly has shown he can win. He took over a team that finished 6-6 in 2009 and turned it into an undefeated season and an appearance in the national title game just three years later.

But since then, the wins have been harder to come by. A season with a playoff appearance written all over it fell apart due to injuries and a devastating loss to Florida State in 2014. The Irish did make the Fiesta Bowl in 2015, but consecutive losses to Stanford and Ohio State left a sour taste in the mouths of Irish fans. And last year was … well, we don’t need to get into that.

The point is this: It’s been a while since Kelly has had a signature win.

Irish senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner celebrates after a sack during Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Irish senior defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner celebrates after a sack during Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

And that’s why Saturday’s matchup with Georgia was so important.

With all the thousands of Bulldogs fans who made the trip up to South Bend, buying up nearly half of Notre Dame Stadium, Kelly had a chance to come up huge.

But Kelly’s Irish squad came up short, just as it had in 10 of the previous 14 times it had faced a top-15 opponent.

This time it was a 20-19 loss to No. 15 Georgia, with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush getting sacked and fumbling the ball on Notre Dame’s final drive of the game.

To be fair to Kelly, Georgia (2-0) is a really good team — if not a great one — and the Bulldogs’ front seven could very well be the most talented one the Irish have faced since the 2012 Alabama squad.

But that’s the point of top-15 teams — they’re good.

Now, if Jack Swarbrick, Brian Kelly and the seven new coaches he hired since the end of last season want to get Notre Dame (1-1) where its fanbase expects, these are the games they have to win.

Notre Dame looked like it was “back” in 2015, but then came a nail-biting defeat to Clemson in Death Valley in a deluge of rain.

And about two months later with the Irish on the verge of being “back” for good and having a shot at making the College Football Playoff, they fell to Stanford, in Palo Alto, California, on a last-second field goal.

Were both those games against great teams and extremely close? Yes, they were. Could either of those games have easily gone the other way? Absolutely. And could you say the same thing of the Georgia game? Undoubtedly, yes.

But in reality, the Irish lost all three games, and until Kelly finds a way to flip that script and win the close games against the good teams, mediocrity will be the order of the day.

But despair not.

Though the Irish lost by just one score, they don’t have to go back to square one as they were compelled to do after every loss last year. Notre Dame’s defense — which was the main source of last year’s problems — played well enough to win the game. And a solid backfield and deep stable of skill-position players should keep the Irish in every game they play.

There is virtue to believing without seeing, but Irish fans shouldn’t expect a win when Notre Dame goes up against USC, Miami, Stanford or any other ranked team.

But at the same time, Kelly’s squad does look like a team that can take care of business against inferior teams, and that’s something that couldn’t be said of last year’s group.

The Georgia loss shows the Irish aren’t “back,” but they’re not far from it.

Now, Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long have to find that something extra — that X-factor, that “je ne sais quoi” — to push Notre Dame over the edge. To push it to something better than 8-4 or 9-3.

Remember that second rule of a successful football coach? Fans have short memories, and if enough fans in high places talk, athletic directors have to listen.

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

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

Contact Marek
  • Concerned

    Well written. Thank you.

    Of particular note tonight was how Kelly concluded his post game press conference. His true persona again was in full view.

    If consistently poor coaching is not a concern to the AD or President, I would have thought that unprofessional arrogance along with academic violations, vacated victories sanctions, the death of a student manager and multiple player sexual assault charges would be enough to be a catalyst for change.

    Apparently, all the AD and President care about is revenue, even if more than half of it comes from ticket sales to visiting fans.

    This is definitely not Father Sorin’s or Father Hesburgh’s Notre Dame any longer.

    • killshot

      Eloquent and the situation precisely as described. Any resemblance between Mr. Kelly and an individual possessing those intangibles that create great leadership qualities is pure coincidence. Facial expressions, body language, the laconic intonations, etc., all bespeak someone who really does not any longer want to be there. He wants the money, of course, but he is, again, basically a no-show. Watching the Georgia coach – who is arguably below room temperature IQ in both his general capacity as well as his overall decorum – outcoached and out lead Mr. Kelly is discouraging.

      On the other hand, by and large, the Georgia fans were friendly, courteous, and conducted themselves accordingly. This is likely one of the only times that there will be a majority of Trump voters in the stadium as well. In Georgia, results are what matters. Here, it’s all about the “brand”. Well, it’s really getting tarnished.

  • O’Brother

    Good article. In my opinion that “je ne sais quoi” is run blocking. Until the Irish offensive line is coached to blow people off the line of scrimmage in a coordinated fashion, then Kelly teams will continue to struggle in close games. The ability to run the football in difficult situations is critical to championship football. It helps tire out weaker defenses. It helps control the clock and close out games, it helps in the red-zone and it helps on nights (or full seasons) when you don’t have an elite quarterback. There are many types of offense, but it is critical to run when you need to run. Kelly fails to realize that defenses with elite speed can’t be “spread out” far enough to make an inside running game easy peasy. Football requires force. We lack the ability to force The running game when we need it.