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Adams: 12 thoughts to preview the Rose Bowl and bookend a crazy 2020

| Friday, January 1, 2021

Consider this column an attempt at catharsis, a medium for venting about my Notre Dame football angst. Inspired by Pete Sampson and other writers for The Athletic who do “Final Thoughts” pieces, I present an assortment of my own thoughts — 12 of them, both for 12 days of Christmas during the holiday season and for the possible 12th national championship that could be claimed by Notre Dame this season — ahead of a Rose Bowl showdown with Alabama.

1. Isn’t it funny how things tend to come full circle? Notre Dame opened their season against Duke on Sept. 12 — although it feels like a lifetime ago — and in that matchup 12 of 19 completions went to running backs and tight ends (10 if you want to retroactively count Jafar Armstrong as a receiver since he changed positions mid-season), and it felt like the official wide receivers were on the field to be blockers rather than pass-catching threats.

After that, Ben Skowronek, Avery Davis and Javon McKinley showed some impressive playmaking abilities, with the latter two doing so even against Clemson on Nov. 7. Then, in the rematch with the Tigers on Dec. 19, 11 of 20 completed passes were to tight ends and running backs, the leader in receptions was a freshman tight end and the longest completion of the game went to a different tight end.

It would seem that the apparent solution Notre Dame found at wide receiver midseason was just fool’s gold, and we all played the fools thanks to a weak ACC schedule and a Clemson defense missing three starters in the first matchup.

2. Going to the lack of an explosive passing game from this Irish team, why not break out some other stuff that’s worked for them in the past in this matchup against the Crimson Tide? The previous prevalence of non-wide receivers in the passing game was more of a necessity based on how the games played out, but the Irish could choose to make it a fluid part of the game plan if they wanted to.

It’s a tough balance to strike between throwing off your opponent with exotic looks but also staying true to what has gotten you to this stage, but at this point more of the same just isn’t going to cut it. Being the biggest underdogs in College Football Playoff history means Notre Dame has nothing to lose.

What happened to the Kyren Williams screen pass that went for 75 yards against Duke? What about last year’s 70-yard touchdown bomb to Braden Lenzy against Navy, or a Lenzy (or Chris Tyree) jet sweep like we saw against USC and Boston College? How about the Tommy Tremble fullback carry against USF this year? A bubble screen that went for a touchdown with Tony Jones Jr. against Stanford last season? A tight end seam route like Cole Kmet ran against Georgia in 2019?

I don’t know how I would feel seeing another Kyren Williams pass attempt or even letting Avery Davis (high school QB) run the wildcat formation, but I would love it if either worked out.

Hayden Adams | The Observer
Irish sophomore running back Kyren Williams breaks away for a 75-yard catch-and-run on a screen pass during Notre Dame’s 27-13 season-opening win over Duke at Notre Dame Stadium. Despite the actual pass occurring behind the line of scrimmage, that remains the longest passing play of the season for the Irish.

3. I said Notre Dame had nothing to lose, but that’s not entirely true. Next year, Notre Dame will be rebuilding, and they’ve got a decently easy schedule to do it against. They’ll change quarterbacks and most of their offensive line, plus they’ll indoctrinate new starters at wide receiver. They’ll also need new starters at defensive end and a new starting rover, and some new faces will be appearing in the secondary.

All that to say that this is kind of the year for Brian Kelly to win a championship. In 2022 and 2023 the roster will have developed more, but the Irish will be playing both Ohio State and Clemson in each of those seasons. Considering the probably slim odds of the Irish beating both the Buckeyes and the Tigers, it’s gonna be tough for even a one-loss Notre Dame team — one that, by that point, won’t have a conference championship game to lean on — to make the CFP.

Not to add any pressure to a team facing the daunting task of knocking off Alabama, but this is kind of what Eminem was talking about in “Lose Yourself”: one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted.

4. While this is arguably the best chance Kelly has left with the Irish, I still wouldn’t go so far as to say that everything hinges on this game. Again, they’re the biggest underdogs in the history of the CFP. A loss here wouldn’t be much of a hit to a very real reputation (regardless of how much Kelly pushes back on it, but more on that momentarily) that the Irish don’t perform in big games.

I haven’t seen it personally, but I’ve heard others talking about how they see so-called Notre Dame fans wishing their team wouldn’t even play this game for fear of the embarrassment that will probably ensue. To them, I say that Alabama and Clemson destroy everyone. Heck, pundits believe that even Ohio State is overmatched (albeit not as much as Notre Dame) as they prepare to face Clemson in their own CFP semifinal.

This is more a referendum on why college football should have stuck with the BCS format — because it’s clear two teams are on a different level — than more evidence of why Notre Dame is a poser on a national scale. Also, for what it’s worth, Oklahoma has been “blown out” in three of four CFP appearances and has yet to register a win; things seem to still be going pretty well down in Norman.

5. Like I said, there is a very real, and accurate, narrative about Notre Dame falling short when it matters most. Brian Kelly remains unbelievably obtuse when it comes to addressing the Irish and their recent losses on the big stage.

Does Kelly probably acknowledge that reality in private? I would like to think so. He probably downplays it to avoid placing an undue burden on his players and staff. But it’s still frustrating to see the head coach of Notre Dame acting as if everything is OK with where the program is nationally and that nothing needs changing.

Kelly refused to call the Nov. 7 game against Clemson a “measuring-stick” game. It was. When talking to the media ahead of the Rose Bowl vs. Alabama, he said, “I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the [big] games.” Well, Brian, allow me to explain why it keeps popping up.

Since 1998, Notre Dame is 0-6 in New Year’s Six and BCS Bowl games. They have lost those six games by a combined 144 points, the worst margin by far of any team in the last 22 years. Oklahoma is second with a minus-78 margin, but they’ve actually won some of their games, going 6-10. For crying out loud, even Michigan is 2-5 with a minus-52 differential.

It doesn’t help that Brian Kelly has been a part of three of those six losses. In those games the average margin of defeat has been 23.7 points and the offense has averaged just 15 points per contest. Throw in the ACC Championship game two weeks ago and the margin become minus-23.8 while the offense puts up just 13.8 points.

That’s why the narrative persists.

6. All that said, Notre Dame is in a good place as a program. This has already been said by Brian Kelly apologists everywhere, but since going 4-8 four years ago, the Irish are 43-7 with double-digit wins every year. Per ESPN, in that span the Irish are 33-0 against opponents when favored by at least a touchdown; only Alabama is better in that scenario with a record of 46-0. They’re also second only to the Crimson Tide for the longest win streak over unranked teams, and the Irish currently hold the second-longest home winning streak in school history.

Additionally, Notre Dame now has a top-10 recruiting class in 2021 and top-15 showings in three of the last four seasons per 247Sports and Rivals. They didn’t meet the top-15 threshold in 2020 — a class boasting Michael Mayer, Chris Tyree, Clarence Lewis, Drew Pyne, Jordan Johnson, Rylie Mills and Jordan Botelho — because they took just 17 players overall. That’s not up to snuff with the likes of Alabama and Georgia (top-5 every year) or even Clemson (at least top-10), but it’s probably the best the Irish can hope for the way they’re running their program.

Allison Thornton | The Observer
Irish head coach Brian Kelly squats on the sideline during Notre Dame’s 33-9 win over Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl on Dec. 28, 2019. Since Kelly’s first seven seasons in South Bend — during which the Irish averaged just over 8.4 wins per year — they have recorded double digit wins each of the last four campaigns, including this season.

7. To the aforementioned individuals who think Notre Dame is better off not taking part in this game to avoid getting boat-raced by Alabama, I will also say that you need to take a chill pill.

The Irish are one of just five teams to make multiple appearances in the College Football Playoff and one of just 11 teams to make it, period. Georgia, LSU, Michigan State, Washington, Florida State and Oregon all have just one appearance to their names; Notre Dame joins Bama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma as the only ones with at least two showings.

Whether Notre Dame is a “peer” of those programs is up for discussion, but it helps your own program mightily to sell recruits and boosters on the fact that you are consistently competing for the national championship, even if you need a loose interpretation of the word “compete…”

8. … Because let’s be real, Alabama will probably win this game handily. Maybe Notre Dame gets a backdoor cover or otherwise gets a late score to make the final margin look more palatable, but I doubt any logical Notre Dame fan expects an Irish win. Then again, when are fans ever logical?

Even so, all this talk has been kind of depressing, so allow me to entertain the possibility that Notre Dame wins, and it is possible as vulnerable as Alabama’s defense has been this year. Don’t be fooled by their recent defensive improvements against the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi State and Kentucky.

Take it from a Kentucky sports masochist, holding that “offense” to three points isn’t a Herculean task.

9. As I said, sports fanatics don’t usually appeal to reason. However, they do often appeal to history and how it can repeat itself in a given year or game. Odds are it’s just a coincidence more than a sign of fate/divine intervention, but it can give people a sense of hope or dread (whichever one they’re looking for). In this situation, you can take your pick of what to buy into.

Before 2020, the last year that the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Dodgers and Liverpool all won their respective league championships AND Notre Dame upset the No. 1 team in the country at home — snapping a 36-game regular season winning streak in the process — was 1988. Notre Dame claimed their most recent national championship that season. Also, the last (and only) time Notre Dame played in the Rose Bowl, they won, beating Stanford 27-10 in 1925. *

*Fun fact, actually really really sad fact: the funds from the 1925 Rose Bowl appearance allowed Notre Dame to pay for the construction of Dillon Hall. As a proud resident of Zahm House, I’m ambivalent about that considering the Big Red stole our stuffed moose head/mascot, Ignats.

On the other hand, the last time Notre Dame played Alabama, they lost 42-14 in the 2013 BCS National Championship. The last time Notre Dame visited AT&T Stadium in Dallas — that’s right, the Rose Bowl is in Dallas of all places; thanks, 2020 — they got run off the field by Clemson 30-3 in the 2018 Cotton Bowl.

And, of course, those last two losses are part of the aforementioned trend of Notre Dame losing in big games with some sort of trophy on the line. But as I said, enough with the negativity, so let’s keep the optimistic train rolling.

10. What would you do that’s legal if the Irish actually beat the Tide? I say “legal” because I’d like to have some plausible deniability of what I’m sure will be some debaucherous revelry following that upset. I’d probably be shedding literal tears with my dad and howling at the moon from my front lawn.

Courtesy of Notre Dame Athletics
Irish freshman running back Chris Tyree, left, and freshman tight end Michael Mayer celebrate after Tyree’s 94-yard touchdown run during Notre Dame’s 45-21 Senior Day win over Syracuse.

11. I would classify the first Clemson game as a rise-to-the-occasion moment, even without Trevor Lawrence involved and in spite of what people like Max Kellerman and Dan Rubenstein may purport, because it was a game against the No. 1 team in the country.  So let’s put that debate to rest about the Nov. 7 game not counting after the ACC Championship loss.

However, going back to my third thought, this might be Kelly’s best chance at a national title, which places even more weight on the Alabama matchup and, should the Irish actually win, a likely third game against Clemson. Add on the fact that Notre Dame is facing three offensive skill players who all finished in the top-five of this year’s Heisman finalist voting, and if the Irish could somehow topple a lineup featuring DeVonta Smith at receiver, Najee Harris at running back and Mac Jones at quarterback, it would be absolutely legendary.

And that’s not even mentioning what is, in my opinion, the best offensive line in college football, even when missing their starting center.

12. Finally, when the Irish and the Tide take the field, it’s going to be 2021, and that’s something everyone can take solace in regardless of what happens down in Jerry World.

So long 2020, and good riddance. You took Kobe Bryant from us, and that was before everything shut down and numerous people lost their lives because of COVID-19. Plus, you are forever associated with the most divisive presidential election of the modern era. Forget you.

In my final column of 2020, I offer my sincerest thanks to all our loyal Observer followers for sticking with us as we have made the best of an otherwise miserable situation. It hasn’t been easy, but it has had its fun moments. Thank you to you all and to my terrific sports department staff, our wonderful photo department and our extraordinary graphics department for making my life a whole lot easier.

Signing off on the weirdest year ever, please enjoy the game (responsibly), everyone.

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

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

Contact Hayden