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Football: Late-season surge highlights Kelly’s first year

Douglas Farmer | Friday, May 20, 2011

After opening his Notre Dame career with an 8-5 season and a bowl victory, all Irish coach Brian Kelly could talk about was year two.

“We still have more things that we have to get done, especially now that we’re going to have our players for a full year of weight training and conditioning,” Kelly said after Notre Dame topped Miami 33-17 in the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl to close the season. “You’re going to see a big jump from our football team, relative to their work volume and what they’re able to do for us. You’re going to see a huge difference in year two.”

Irish fans saw a “huge difference” in year one, though, as Kelly snapped an eight-year losing streak to Southern California, beat a ranked opponent for the first time in Notre Dame’s last 11 attempts and won a New Year’s Eve bowl game.

Kelly’s first “first” came in September with his first victory coaching Notre Dame, a 23-12 win over Purdue Sept. 4.

“[It was a] good way to start the season, obviously,” Kelly said following his debut. “There’s a lot of firsts here today: first walk from the Basilica, first pep rally. There’s a lot going on. At times I wasn’t certain if we were going to get lined up for stretching today the right way.”

The Irish not only lined up and stretched properly, but also executed both offensively and defensively, jumping to a 20-3 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Junior quarterback Dayne Crist completed 19 of 26 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown, and the Notre Dame running game tallied 153 yards.

Following the encouraging win, the Irish dipped into a bit of a tailspin, losing the next three games: 28-24 to Michigan, 34-31 in overtime at Michigan State and 37-14 to Stanford.

“What do you believe in after a loss like this?” Kelly said following the overtime defeat by the Spartans Sept. 18. “Do you believe in your teammates, do you believe in your coaches, do you believe in the preparation? If you do, you’ll come back and we’ll work harder and we’ll continue to work to get better.

“If you don’t believe, then these are times when you start to see teams pull apart. So, it’s all about belief at this point.”

The losses to Michigan and Michigan State certainly challenged Irish fans’ belief, both coming in last-minute, heart-wrenching form.

After Wolverines quarterback Denard Robinson tortured the Notre Dame defense all afternoon — finishing with 502 total yards — Crist and junior tight end Kyle Rudolph linked up for a dramatic 95-yard touchdown with less than four minutes remaining to give Notre Dame its first lead of the day. The scamper proved costly, as Rudolph injured his hamstring, effectively ending his season — and his college career. Rudolph later declared for the NFL draft, and the Minnesota Vikings selected him in the second round.

The biggest play of Rudolph’s college career was quickly forgotten, though, as Robinson unflinchingly put together a 72-yard drive in only 3:14 to retake the lead and the game, with only 27 seconds remaining.

A week later, Michigan State and Notre Dame traded touchdowns for four quarters before Irish senior kicker David Ruffer gave Notre Dame a three-point lead in overtime. A few minutes later, the Spartans lined up for a field goal of their own, only to instead fake it, running a play known as “Little Giants,” for a 29-yard touchdown.

During the slugfest, Crist threw 55 passes, completing 32 of them for 369 yards and four touchdowns, while Michigan State tallied 203 total rushing yards.

“I think [the offense took another step this week],” Crist said. “I think that when we watch it tomorrow, that will be one of the positives. But we’re always going to look back and think, ‘What if we made a play here or there, or executed a little better, what would have happened?'”

To close September, Notre Dame took a few steps backward, at one point trailing Stanford 34-6.

“Stanford deserved today’s win,” Kelly said. “That is a fine football team.”

After the thorough disappointment dropped the Irish to 1-3, the tide turned, to the tune of a three-game winning streak: 31-13 at Boston College, 23-17 over Pittsburgh and 44-20 against Western Michigan.

“Happy. Happy, happy, happy,” Kelly said following the Boston College victory. “Everybody’s happy in Notre Dame land. Our boys wanted to win badly. They worked hard at it, and I’m happy that they got a win … We’re not there yet, but we’re going to keep working every day and continue to work on those things to get better.”

The Irish defense held the Eagles to a total of five rushing yards, while forcing two turnovers and 12 Boston College penalties. Yet, Kelly wanted more out of his team.

“Mental and physical toughness, we have to do it,” he said. “That’s our weakness right now … It’s got to be tended to immediately, and our guys are understanding that, and we’ll continue to build it.”

Continue to build it they did, hardly struggling with the Panthers and rolling right by the Broncos.

“This team was 1-3,” Kelly said after raising the Irish record to 4-3. “When we talked about that at that time, you can go in one of two directions at 1-3. You can fall off the cliff and have a disastrous season or you can work toward 9-3.”

Working toward 9-3 became a dream rather than a reality one week later, as Navy gave Notre Dame a clinic on the triple option en route to a 35-17 victory at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Midshipmen ended the day with 373 rushing yards on 60 carries, led by fullback Alexander Teich with 210. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs added 90, and only attempted two passes, completing both for a total of 71 yards, including a 31 yard touchdown to Teich.

To close October, Notre Dame fell to Tulsa 28-27, and suffered perhaps an even tougher loss as Crist tore his ACL and joined Rudolph on the sideline for the rest of the season.

But that would be the last of the losses for Notre Dame in Kelly’s inaugural season, which closed with a four-game winning streak: 28-3 over No. 15 Utah, 27-3 over Army at Yankee Stadium in New York City, 20-16 at USC and 33-17 in the bowl game.

Each win seemed to exorcise another demon for the Irish, both for the fans and for the team.

“The senior students needed it as much as the senior student-athletes did,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said in May. “On the individual, personal level, I felt so good for the young men who had worked so hard.”

The victory over the Trojans flipped the script from early in the season, as Notre Dame scored late and held off a last-minute push, earning the win.

Senior running back Robert Hughes broke into the end zone with 2:23 left, and senior safety Harrison Smith sealed the win with an interception in the final seconds.

“I don’t think words do it justice. Everyone’s ecstatic,” freshman quarterback Tommy Rees said after throwing for two touchdowns in the win. “It’s great for the seniors to go out with a win over USC. Words can’t describe how everyone’s feeling right now.”

Rees carried his three-game starting streak and winning streak to El Paso, Texas, to face Miami in the Sun Bowl. When he left for New Year’s, he and the Irish had ended the season with a four-game winning streak for the first time since 1992.

“Clearly, we’re gaining a lot of confidence,” Kelly said. “Miami is a good football team. We’ve beaten some good football teams later on in the year as we’ve kind of come together and found our identity.”