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Joseph: Kelly’s program has evolved (Oct. 26)

Allan Joseph | Friday, October 26, 2012

We said it for last year’s USC contest, this year’s Michigan game and just two weeks ago against Stanford. But this time, it’s really true – at least for a few weeks. It’s the biggest game of Irish coach Brian Kelly’s career at Notre Dame.

Stanford might have been a season-defining victory, for it all but guaranteed Notre Dame a BCS bowl berth and a return to national prominence.

Beating Oklahoma might be a career-defining victory for Kelly. His squad is simultaneously a top-five team and a 10-point underdog. A run at a crystal football awaits the winner of the contest. And he’s taking his team to Memorial Stadium, one of the toughest places to win in college football: Oklahoma is a staggering 79-4 in its friendly confines under coach Bob Stoops.

The stakes are high. The lights are bright. The pressure is crushing. And Kelly? He’s loving it.

“[Games like this] are why you coach at Notre Dame,” he said Tuesday in his weekly press conference.

My, how times have changed.

Almost exactly two years ago, the Irish faced a team from the Sooner State. Instead of a contest pivotal in national-championship dreams, this one seemed key to bowl-eligibility hopes. As every Irish fan knows, Notre Dame dropped to 4-5 after a stunning loss to, yes, Tulsa. Then-freshman quarterback Tommy Rees threw three interceptions, including the game-sealing pick when the Irish were in a position to play for a game-winning field goal.

Back then, Kelly was just getting his feet wet. He was trying to overhaul a roster stacked with unfulfilled potential at skill positions and mediocrity on the offensive line. This year, he’s winning with a dominant front seven on defense and a running game that comes through when it’s needed – fundamental football if there ever was such a thing.

The transformation is a testament to Kelly’s vision for the program, but it also speaks to the ways he’s changed since he took the job. After that same Tulsa contest, Kelly told Irish fans to “get used to” aggressive playcalling at the end of games. In the 2012 season (see: Purdue, Stanford and BYU), Kelly took the smarter, safer, more conservative route – he ran the ball and came out on top. Two-and-a-half years in, he’s learned that playing aggressive all the time doesn’t work, but that picking the right spots to take shots (Tyler Eifert’s touchdown catch against Stanford) does.

After spending two years being blunt about the talent levels on his roster – and alienating a lot of his players in the process – Kelly has lightened up this year. He’s found the balance between pushing his players hard and having some fun along the way, and the results are evident. The Irish are more focused and more cohesive now than at any time during the last four years, and it’s a big reason Notre Dame is 7-0 this year.

Yet at his core, Kelly is still the same coach who was hired in Dec. 2009. He’s the coach who emphasizes the “Right Kind of Guys,” strong line play and world-class assistant coaches. He’s the coach who will be blunt about his team’s shortcomings and its strengths. He’s the coach who thinks tradition is good, but winning is better. Most of all, he’s the coach who thinks he has the recipe to make Notre Dame a player in the national championship conversation again.

Saturday, we’ll find out if he’s right. We’ll find out if he’s going to extend the legacy of legendary third years by Notre Dame coaches (Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won national championships in their third years). We’ll find out if the Irish belong at the top of the polls once again.

And if they do? That would be the biggest sign that the times really have changed.


Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]

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