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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.

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