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From the Archives: False starts — Deceptively disappointing openings in Notre Dame football

The fanfare that characterized the beginning of the Freeman Era has all but silenced at this point. Even after capturing his first win against the California Golden Bears on Saturday, another shaky Irish performance has skeptics of Marcus Freeman continuing to question his faculty as a head coach.

But as some reporters have pointed out, subpar starts can be deceptive. This week, From the Archives looked back at coaching careers and individual seasons that started slow but ended in success. Ultimately, history shows that Irish fans should maintain hope that the loss-filled opening of the Freeman Era will be nothing more than a misleading moment en route to a triumphant future.

Lou Holtz: Overcoming early missteps

Sept. 22, 1986 | Marty Strasen | Researched by Thomas Dobbs

In Lou Holtz’s first year as coach, the Fighting Irish fell short in the first two games in heartbreaking fashion.

After a narrow 24-23 loss to No. 3 Michigan, Holtz and his squad traveled the quick 160-mile journey to East Lansing to face Michigan State.

With a chance to claim victory on a potential game-winning drive, “Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein dropped back with just more than a minute remaining in the game, and promptly fired an interception to seal the win for Michigan State.”

Sound familiar? Late in the fourth quarter against Marshall, Notre Dame’s quarterback Tyler Buchner also launched a devastating pick six that ultimately sealed the game.

Although it may have been tempting to attribute the early defeats of the ‘86 Irish squad to a few unfavorable plays, assistant sports editor Marty Strasen wrote that this accusation “would be like convicting a mass murderer for jay-walking.”

Future Heisman-winner Tim Brown is tackled by a Michigan State defender in Notre Dame’s second straight loss to open Lou Holtz’s career. / Observer Archives, Sept. 22, 1986

Stressing the team-wide failure, future Heisman-winning receiver Tim Brown shared after the loss that “Everything we did, we did to ourselves. They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect. We just couldn’t execute like we wanted to.”

The embrace of accountability spread to Holtz himself, who identified the need to emphasize proper execution: “Our football team played hard, but each time we went to the brink, we came away empty-handed.”

Notre Dame tight end Joel Williams articulated his team’s motivation moving forward: “We’re not going to give up. It’s only two games and two games don’t make a season.”

It was promising for an Irish player to respond to adversity with such maturity and focus, and this attitude was emblematic of a larger shift within the program. The Irish soon bounced back with a 41-9 thrashing of in-state rival Purdue the following week. Just two years later, Holtz and the Irish captured a national championship.

Both the strengths and challenges of Holtz’s rocky start can provide a lesson for current Notre Dame football staff and players. Within two years at the helm, Holtz won the Irish a national championship.

A Stanford defeat starts a new era of hope

Sept. 27, 2010 | Sam Stryker | Chris Allen | Matt Gamber | Researched by Cade Czarnecki

The start of the 2010 football season felt like a breath of fresh air. While the previous three seasons had been forgettable, finishing 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6 in ’07, ’08 and ’09 respectively, the hiring of new head coach Brian Kelly rejuvenated hope in both fans and players.

Yet after winning the season opener at home against Purdue, the luck of the Irish ran out. The following two weeks saw Notre Dame lose in dramatic fashion to Michigan and Michigan State. While fans were largely encouraged by the competitiveness of the games — losing the first by a margin of four and the second by three points in overtime — they were desperate for the Kelly era to get back in the win column. Then came the game against Stanford.

The battle for the Legends Trophy was sure to be a good test of the Irish, with Stanford entering the game ranked No. 16 in the nation and touting future first overall NFL draft pick Andrew Luck as quarterback.

Notre Dame struggled to score throughout the game, and their first touchdown did not come until late in the fourth quarter. It ended in a disappointing score of 37-14, dropping Notre Dame to a 1-3 record on the season and further delaying the promised rise to prominence that the Kelly era seemed to ensure. As Observer sports writer Matt Gamber put it, “The Irish just need to learn how to win.”

Coach Brian Kelly on the sideline during Notre Dame’s defeat to Stanford in 2010. / Observer Archives, Sept. 27, 2010

But Catherine Flatley shared a more patient sentiment in response to the season’s slow start.

“Obviously the loss was really disappointing, but everyone seemed to hope it would go a lot better than it did,” Flatley said. “People just do not seem thrilled relative to our expectations this year. However, I don’t know if you can judge everything Coach Kelly has done in just a few games.”

Flatley’s hesitancy to judge the new coach proved astute, as Kelly rallied the Irish to a 7-2 record over the final nine games of the season, finishing 8-5.

A slow start to his career did not indicate future misfortune, either. While many fans thought the Stanford loss would prove fatal for Kelly’s career, others remained supportive. Alex Sajben was one such hopeful fan: “I’ve lived through all the disappointment, but I stayed there [at the Stanford game] the whole game because that is what you do as fans.” Sajben would be rewarded by the rest of Kelly’s career, only seeing one losing season over the head coach’s 12-year tenure.

From a shocking loss to a chicken soup victory

Sept. 11, 1978 | Ray O’Brien | Sept. 25, 1978 | Ray O’Brien | Jan. 18, 1979 | Paul Mullaney | Researched by Avery Polking

Perhaps an appropriate parallel to the less-than-optimal start to this Notre Dame football season would be the 1978-79 team. As we’ve seen time and time again, what can be described as the “beginning of a nightmare” for Notre Dame is no indication of concluding results, especially when there’s chicken soup involved.

That haunting phrase was used to describe the early phases of the 1978 bout between Notre Dame and Missouri. With five turnovers to Missouri’s two, the Irish cited clumsiness and anxious plays as two large contributors to their 3-0 defeat to the unranked Tigers. 

An Observer headline captures the shock of Notre Dame’s loss to unranked Missouri to open the 1978 season. / Observer Archives, Sept. 11, 1978

“Only a numb feeling persisted” in the silent Notre Dame locker room immediately after the game, even though the Irish prevailed in all statistics other than turnovers. But they would have to restore their senses in time for a home game against No. 5 Michigan the following week.

Notre Dame opened the first half strong, with quarterback Joe Montana leading the Irish to a 14-7 advantage at halftime. However, the Irish regressed in the second half. Marked by a Montana fumble and interception, this half ended in a 28-14 Notre Dame loss. 

As in 2022, Notre Dame’s record dropped to 0-2 for the first time since 1963, punctuated by The Observer’s simple remark: “Notre Dame has never been 0-3.” Irish fans carried this looming assertion into the next game — and perhaps for the entire 1978 season — but its final conclusion undoubtedly blew any record-related concern off the table.

In one of the best games in the worst weather in Notre Dame football history, the Irish closed out the 1978 season with a game oft-described with various uses of the word “greatest.” 

Chicken soup consumed, quarterback Joe Montana talks with coach Dan Devine moments before throwing the game-winning touchdown in the 1979 Cotton Bowl. / Observer Archives, Jan. 18, 1979

Most notable was Joe Montana’s second-half rescue after having been debilitated by the flu, which helped the Irish score 23 points in the final seven minutes after he famously ate a bowl of chicken soup at halftime. Notre Dame beat Houston in an unprecedented Dallas ice storm at the Cotton Bowl Classic, 35-34. 

Tailback Vagas Furguson summed up not just the game, but the turnaround from earlier in the season: “We got the momentum back, and everything started clicking.”

This momentum seems to be vital for Fighting Irish football to channel, especially when the start of a season doesn’t bode well. The Irish never did fall into that 0-3 deficit, and they kept true to that in 2022.

Contact Spencer Kelly at skelly25@nd.edu

Thomas Dobbs at tdobbs@nd.edu

Cade Czarnecki at cczarne3@nd.edu

Avery Polking at apolking@nd.edu

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Tunney: The Brian Kelly experience

On Sunday night, at about 11:15 PM, Brian Kelly held up a single finger. It proved to be a decision he may come to regret. Quarterback Jayden Daniels had just led the LSU Tigers on a miraculous 99-yard drive with just 80 seconds left in the game, culminating in what appeared to be the game-tying touchdown as time expired.

It had been a tough game for the Tigers. But they now stood an extra point away from taking a shell-shocked Florida State Seminoles team into overtime. Then, special teams reared their ugly head. A Florida State player burst through a hole in the left side of the line and blocked the extra point try, sending it careening off the bottom crossbar. Game over. Seminoles win.

A blocked extra point in itself is indicative of a terrible game for a special teams unit. But this was not the first mistake that the unit had made in the course of the game. Returner Malik Nabers fumbled two punts, twice setting the Seminoles up with amazing field position. Fortunately for LSU, the defense stiffened. On the first possession, the Tigers forced a turnover on down. On the second, they recovered a poorly executed pitch to kickstart the 99-yard drive.

However, the Tigers also could have won the game had they not let a previous field goal attempt also get blocked by Florida State. Kelly said a “switch in personnel” was made after the first block. But the issue was not corrected. If you compare the two blocked kicks, they look remarkably similar. Both tries resulted in the left side of the line caving in, allowing a defender to step in and get a hand on the football.

To add further insult, Florida State’s special teams unit was ranked 106th in the country last season. To put it simply, it could not have gone worse in the kicking game for special teams coordinator Brian Polian, who has seemed to be Kelly’s right-hand man. When Kelly left South Bend for the Bayou, Polin was the only assistant coach who followed.

For Irish fans, Kelly’s loss on Sunday had many familiar overtures. Special team woes seemed to strike the Irish at unfortunate times throughout Kelly’s tenure. One only has to look back to 2016 to see multiple similarities. In what Irish fans now call the hurricane game, Notre Dame lost 10-3 to NC State. The culprits? A blocked punt and (predictably) bad snaps. Or you could go back to Kelly’s first season in 2010. A blocked extra point returned for two points and punt return TD helped to doom the Irish against a markedly inferior Tulsa team.

Apparently, bad snaps also followed Kelly down to Baton Rouge. On LSU’s first possession they looked destined for the end zone until a bad snap at the Seminoles’ five-yard line eventually led to a field goal. LSU’s slow start versus the Seminoles allowed them to amass a 17-3 lead. Again, for Irish fans, it seemed eerily similar. Just look back to 2020, when the Irish amassed a total of seven yards in a win against Duke in the first quarter.

What was not similar (and even worse for LSU) was offensive line play. Throughout Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, the Irish prided themselves on quality offensive line play. Just look at the NFL, it’s littered with Notre Dame linemen. For the Tigers last night, their offensive line got handled at the line of scrimmage. LSU was able to run for 139 yards last night. But the vast majority of the yards were on scrambles from Daniels after the line had broken. Having your quarterback lodge 16 rushes a game is not going to be a healthy proposition.

Furthermore, the decision to go for the extra point requires close scrutiny. Perhaps Kelly had bad memories of the Irish playing Northwestern in 2014. Kelly decided to go for two up 11, a call that failed and eventually led to Northwestern winning in overtime. Could that have been the reason why he took the ball out of the hands of the player who had willed his team to that point? One can only speculate.

The old saying goes that a leopard can’t change its spots. Maybe that’s true for tigers, too. Welcome to the Brian Kelly Experience, LSU.

Joseph Tunney

Contact Joseph at jtunney@nd.edu

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