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Mulvena: ND’s football program is hiding behind its name

| Friday, November 1, 2019

I’ve been uncharacteristically confident in Notre Dame football this year. Having gone through the horrific 2016 season in my freshman year and the devastating Miami blowout in 2017, I expected a regular season collapse for the Irish even last year. This year, in my predictions and comments, I thought it’d be different. But I didn’t really think it’d be different, did I?

I think a big part of me simply wanted a playoff run during my senior year. I sat for hours playing with FiveThirtyEight’s College Football Playoff predictor, going through countless ridiculous scenarios that would put the Irish in the playoff just so I could have a moment of peace. Today, writing this column, I feel like a fool blinded by desire. 

Anna Mason | The Observer
Irish senior wide receiver Javon McKinley gets wrapped up by a defender during Notre Dame’s 14-45 loss to Michigan on Oct. 26 at Michigan Stadium.

The worst thing Irish fans can do right now is talk about the weather, injuries or any excuse that masks what Saturday’s loss actually was. You can’t go on about Notre Dame’s historical greatness and elite status and at the same time justify that loss. That’s precisely why people like to hate Notre Dame football fans — it’s understandably annoying. And clearly I’m not exempt from such a categorization, because I tried to justify Notre Dame as a top five football team several times this season.

Notre Dame was exposed last Saturday. That game said virtually nothing about a Michigan program who has struggled mightily as of late and everything about a Notre Dame football program that is hiding behind its name.

The Irish defense, which we’ve loved to tout all year long, was humiliated. Jim Harbaugh ran the ball 57 times. FIFTY SEVEN. The Wolverines posted 437 yards on the Irish in a rainstorm. That doesn’t happen to Alabama or Clemson. It doesn’t happen to Ohio State or LSU. It doesn’t happen to any genuine top 10 team.

The Irish offense was anemic. It was predictable and weak. Junior running back Tony Jones Jr. may be a solid power back and a go-to force on third down. But he is not the back that can take you to a playoff. Ian Book is not the guy. The senior quarterback may have been sufficient to lead the Irish to a playoff last year, but it’s reasonable now to say that Notre Dame probably didn’t deserve to be there in the first place.

During last Saturday night’s loss, it became painfully clear that the Irish lack what virtually every elite team has: playmakers. When Notre Dame was down 17, there was no feeling that one guy, or a few guys, could make some of those big plays any team would need to get back in a prime-time game like that. It felt like the only way Notre Dame could get back was for Michigan to make mistakes, and that is the mark of a football team that doesn’t belong in the top 10.

I say all of this because we have to be brutally honest with ourselves before Notre Dame can ever be “back,” and right now, it’s certainly closer than it was five years ago, but it has a ways to go. And where does that process begin?

I hate to agree with ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum, but I think it has to start with the firing of Brian Kelly.

Kelly has done a fantastic job lifting this program out of that 2016 rut, but his time to elevate that rebuild to an elite championship level has come and gone. It’s time to part ways.

Next, we have to move on from Book. All things point to him being a great guy and a good captain, but it’s time to part ways there as well. A lot of people said it took too long for the Irish to do so with Wimbush, so let’s not let that happen again. And in the larger picture, you’d have to think that if Notre Dame wants to reach that elite level of being in the College Football Playoff picture every year, you have to think recruiting needs to improve.

Admittedly, I don’t know where that begins, and I’m not in touch with the process enough to comment on how you can begin to steal recruits from elite programs, but I’d imagine that Notre Dame is in a position which would allow them to do as such if it made some changes. 

I realize these suggestions aren’t anything novel or groundbreaking, but I just think it’s important that the Irish team, fanbase and staff move on from this game with brutal honesty. At some point, the name and history of Notre Dame football loses its weight, and you can no longer hang on to titles without beating the elite. So let’s recognize that, have some self-awareness and urge changes in the right direction.

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

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