Hoonhout: There’s a lot to like about Notre Dame’s new ‘process’
Tobias Hoonhout | Sunday, November 4, 2018
There were moments on Saturday night that brought back some good ole-fashioned deja vu.
After all, there’s some history involving a ranked Notre Dame, on the road, in November.
And it’s not all that good.
For all the early-season success in the Kelly era, it’s undeniable that there’s been a disturbing trend in how the Irish have handled the challenge of finishing out a season with a chance at football’s biggest prize.
With challenging situations and the added pressure to deliver, late-season road games under Kelly have often been marked by more Notre Dame mistakes than successes.
In 2017, Notre Dame climbed as high as No. 3 in the College Football Playoff rankings, before finishing the year 0-2 on the road.
In 2015, it was a last-second loss to Stanford in Palo Alto that cost the Irish a chance at the playoff.
In 2014, Brian Kelly’s team finished the year 1-5 after a 6-0 start, including losing every game on the road that year — two of which came in November.
It’s been so consistently damaging in recent years that it’s almost become the norm. For every season-opening Michigan win, there’s a season-ending Stanford loss. Every early high has its counterpart crushing low.
Enter 2018. All offseason, the Irish made it clear they were focused on one thing — finishing the season when it mattered. The pieces were there: experience on both sides of the ball, depth at key positions and a front-loaded home schedule that offered the opportunity for a strong start — but a schedule that also required winning four of the final five games away from Notre Dame Stadium.
While Ryan Field isn’t exactly the most imposing place to come and play — especially with the amount of Irish fans in the stadium Saturday — Northwestern and coach Pat Fitzgerald prefer for teams to take it as harmless as possible. Their 5-1 conference record isn’t just a lucky blip in the Big Ten. Just ask Michigan State, Wisconsin or even Michigan, who found itself down 17-0 before rallying and escaping in the final minutes.
When senior kicker Justin Yoon put the Irish up 24-7 with 13 minutes to go, however, it seemed like Notre Dame had handled the pesky Wildcats.
Until Northwestern answered with a touchdown drive of its own, and then blocked an Irish punt on the ensuing drive to set up another score. Just like that, it was a three point game, and Notre Dame fans were staring November blues in the face once again.
It’s not clear that Brian Kelly’s past teams would have been able to handle the mental check needed to go from a game being done and dusted to having to score to avoid an epic catastrophe.
It certainly wasn’t the case last year, when the Irish went up 20-17 over the Cardinal heading into the fourth quarter, only to surrender 21 unanswered points off of two straight turnovers.
But there’s something different this year.
Not only did Notre Dame answer with a touchdown drive of its own to push the lead back to two scores, it did so in a manner that ate up the clock and sealed the win. When the Irish were struggling to run the ball all game, suddenly Chip Long’s unit flipped a switch and started to dominate at the line of scrimmage. On third down with 2:45 left, the Irish executed a flawless read option and pulled the Wildcats’ defense to its knees, as Ian Book waltzed 23 yards into the end zone.
Over 10 plays and 4:14, Notre Dame put its foot down; and Northwestern could only stand and watch.
Two things were made very clear on Saturday night.
Not only is Notre Dame willing to be forced to deliver late in the game — and the season — it has the mental toughness to do it. Kelly’s team has enough seniors who have felt the crushing realization that defeats in November do to a program’s aspirations, and they’re tired of feeling that way.
Even postgame, the Irish made it very clear that the mentality hasn’t changed one bit. Kelly and his players know that over the final stretch, teams are going to throw their best punch to knock Notre Dame off of its feet. Northwestern won’t be the last time the Irish are forced to deliver in the fourth quarter; No. 22 Syracuse in Yankee Stadium and arch-rival USC will certainly want to make a statement.
But for Kelly’s team, it’s one game, one quarter and one play at a time. Junior cornerback and defensive stalwart Julian Love called it “the process,” although this doesn’t feel much like a 76ers rebuild.
It feels like Notre Dame wants to play for a national championship.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.