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Football

Notre Dame records 10-win season, bowl victory

| Friday, May 18, 2018

After a disappointing campaign in 2016 that saw Notre Dame suffer its first losing season under Brian Kelly, the Irish came out in the fall with a lot to prove.

Brian Kelly made a host of changes over the offseason with the additions of eight new coaches, including offensive coordinator Chip Long and defensive coordinator Mike Elko. There was also a new signal caller under center, as junior Brandon Wimbush was set to take the reins of the Irish offense after two seasons of waiting in the wings.

And with all the upheaval were the added expectations that Notre Dame (10-3) would once again be competing for a national championship.

“It’s God, country and Notre Dame. That’s a pretty high bar. You should live up to that bar,” Brian Kelly said in a press conference before the season opener against Temple. “I didn’t live up to that bar, so I think as the head coach at Notre Dame, every year is the same way: You’ve got to live up to that high bar, and this year is no different.

“ … We come into this year, our mission is to win the national championship. That’s a pretty high bar. I think you feel that every single year.”

Chris Collins | The Observer

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book drops back to pass during Notre Dame’s 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan 1. at Camping World Stadium.

In the end, the Irish failed to accomplish their mission. But with all its ups and downs, the season proved that Notre Dame football was back and primed for future success.
In the season opener against Temple, Notre Dame steamrolled to a 49-16 win behind what became a staple of the Irish offense — the run game. The Irish recorded three 100-yard rushers in a single game for the first time since 1954, as Wimbush, junior running back Josh Adams and junior running back Dexter Williams combined for almost 400 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

“The offensive line is pretty special and I don’t know how many offensive lines have been like this one at this University,” Wimbush said postgame. “There have been some great ones and great guys. But this unit is really special, they have worked their tails off. And then you have three of the best backs in the country to me. If Josh goes down and he is hurting, you bring Dexter, you bring in [sophomore] Tony [Jones, Jr.] and he will have the same production; there’s no falling back. All those guys have been great up front.”

But next up for the Irish was No. 15 — and eventual national runner up — Georgia, as Notre Dame hosted the Bulldogs (13-2, 7-1 SEC) for the first time ever. For 58 minutes, it seemed like Notre Dame was up to the task. The new-look Irish defense was stellar, holding the Bulldogs to a mere 185 rushing yards and 20 points. And after forcing Georgia to punt with 1:57 left in a one-point game, the Irish held destiny in their own hands. But on the ensuing Irish drive, Wimbush was sacked off the edge and fumbled, coughing up both the football and a chance to win.

“Well, they are a team that battles,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said postgame. “I thought that, first of all, our defense, other than a couple of missed hits on plays, was, you know, the type of defense that can continue to go out there week-after-week and give you the kind of effort necessary to win football games. I think that we were able to, from an offensive standpoint — 19 points wasn’t enough tonight. We put ourselves in some tough situations, but I just liked their grit and resolve and going out there and competing for four quarters and having the chance to win a football game against a quality opponent in the University of Georgia.”

After such a crushing loss, Notre Dame answered its critics by rattling off four-straight blowout wins, as the Irish beat Boston College, Michigan State and North Carolina on the road all by at least 20 points, along with a 52-17 dismantling of Miami (OH) in South Bend. At 5-1 and No. 13 in the polls, the Irish then welcomed No. 11 USC to town with a chance to prove that Notre Dame football was back.

In a dominant 49-14 win, the Irish made a statement in front of the 1977 national championship team, the only other Notre Dame team to put up 49 points against the Trojans (11-3, 8-1 Pac-12). The Irish ground game was once again a focal point, as the Irish rushed for 377 yards, led by Adams with 191 yards on 19 carries and three touchdowns.

“Josh isn’t going to do the talking for himself, but Josh Adams is one of the best — if not the best — running back in the country, and he’s the engine that’s been making our team go,” Irish captain and graduate student offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said postgame. “There’s no doubt about it that he should be talked about for the best player in the country.”

“I’m really proud of all the young players who impacted the game,” Kelly said postgame. “I’m really proud of them, because they were part of the challenge that we had last year after the USC game when we challenged our players to come back and get our program back to where it needed to be.”

The win vaulted the Irish back into the national conversation, although the team had a tough stretch ahead of four ranked opponents over their final five games. Notre Dame next hosted No. 14 North Carolina State, and once again pulled away to a 35-14 win thanks to a complete team performance. The Irish defense continued to show its dominance, holding the Wolfpack (9-4, 6-2 ACC) to only 50 yards on the ground, while on the flip side Adams and the offense recorded over 300 rushing yards against the nation’s sixth-best rushing defense.

The win pushed Notre Dame up to third in the first CFP rankings, and the Irish maintained their position with a 48-37 win over Wake Forest that saw the Irish rake up over 700 yards on offense.

Next up for the Irish was a top-10 matchup in South Beach against undefeated Miami (FL) — a game that many were calling a return of “Catholics vs. Convicts.” But facing a hostile
environment and the infamous “Turnover Chain,” the Irish imploded in a 41-8 loss. Miami (10-3, 7-2 ACC) forced four Notre Dame turnovers which lead to 24 points.

“It started when we threw our first interception,” Kelly said postgame. “The makeup of Miami is built on turnovers, and one thing that we couldn’t do is turn the ball over, and what did we do is turn the football over. ‘Getting away from us’ and ‘turning it over’ can be characterized as the same thing — we just couldn’t turn the football over, and when we started turning the football over, we put ourselves in a tough spot.”

Notre Dame bounced back with a 24-17 win over Navy on Senior Day to set up a chance at an 11-win season and a New Year’s Six bowl game with a the season finale at Stanford, where the Irish hadn’t won since 2007.

“We’re very confident in our team’s football ability and have a great opportunity to go win our 10th game against a really, really good Stanford football team,” McGlinchey said in the week leading up to the game. “ … It starts with me as a two-time captain and a leader of this football team, and how do I help that mindset for the rest of the football team, and that’s something that high-character, high-quality guys in our locker room all responded to, and it’s just about being a man and taking responsibility and doing what’s necessary to get your job done. That’s all we’ve been preaching since we got back here in January last year.”

The Irish battled their way to take a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter, but in a span of 3:36 Stanford (9-5, 7-1 Pac-12) managed 21-straight points to go up 38-20 and put the game out of reach.

“We lost the football game,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said postgame. “Stanford made more plays than we did. We turned the football over late in the game. Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition, against good football teams. Stanford is clearly a good football team. Did that against Miami, did that against Georgia. You can’t turn the football over against really good football teams. Then, you got to make some plays. We got to coach better. Got to play better, got to coach better. Stanford made the plays when they needed to.

“ … We didn’t play bad football teams and turn it over, we played really good football teams and turned it over. If you’re going to do that, you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. There’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp, they didn’t come ready to play. They came ready to play. They were ready to win today. Got to hold onto the football. Can’t turn it over.”

After finishing the regular season 9-3, the Irish accepted an invite to the Citrus Bowl to face No. 14 LSU, which happened to be the last team the Irish beat in a bowl game when Notre Dame defeated the Tigers 31-28 in the 2014 Music City Bowl. The Irish started with Wimbush at quarterback, but the junior gave way to sophomore Ian Book as Notre Dame tried to spark the team to a win. The game was a tight affair the whole way, and the Irish faced a three-point deficit with 2:03 left after a LSU field goal made the score 17-14. With 1:28 left, Book threw a deep pass to junior wide receiver Miles Boykin, who corralled a circus catch and broke two tackles to take it 55 yards to the end zone and win the game for the Irish.

“It was really almost just a blur,” Boykin, who also won the game’s MVP, said postgame. “ … It was an extremely humbling moment for me just to be able to go out there and make a play to help my team win. We talk about — as a receiver, we’re playmakers and winning the 50-50 ball, we talk about that every day. During that moment, I had to make that play. … Ian gave me a great ball.”

“We had guys step up today that hadn’t had a gigantic role for us all year,” McGlinchey said postgame. “Like [freshman wide receiver Michael] Young coming up huge, Miles Boykin had an unreal game, Ian Book — it’s just cool to see those guys come in and step up in such a big way and send our team out with 10 wins and our senior class out the way they deserved to be.”

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

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