SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This much we know: Brian Kelly didn’t come to Notre Dame to be part of 7-5 seasons. But in this instance, in his first eventful and emotional year as head coach of the Irish, he’ll gladly take it.
And the bowl appearance that will follow.
After a 1-3 start, the Irish finished strong, running off three straight wins. And 7-5 sure sounds better than 6-6. Notre Dame may land in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., on Dec. 28.
That would be Notre Dame’s 30th overall bowl appearance, but this one is not so much about the trip and the exposure that comes with it as it is about getting the allotted 15 extra practice days for Kelly and his players to work together.
“You look back at the 1-3 start. How’d we play after that?” Kelly told reporters following Saturday’s victory. “We stubbed twice (Navy and Tulsa) where maybe we shouldn’t have, but our kids never blinked. They kept playing hard. They kept competing. That’s why we are where we are.”
This year’s defense, much maligned after Navy ran over them for 367 yards, responded over the final four games, not allowing a TD for one stretch of 13 quarters. A year ago, the Irish defense yielded yards in bunches during a four-game, season-ending losing streak that ended the season at 6-6, costing Charlie Weis his job.
Kelly’s first Irish team endured more than spotty football.
In April, Notre Dame recruit Matt James was killed when he fell from a Florida balcony during spring break.
Less than seven months later, student videographer Declan Sullivan died after the tower from which he was filming practice fell over in high winds. Kelly acknowledged that it was his decision to practice outdoors on a day when wind gusts reached 51 mph.
Reports from investigations on the incident from the state and the school have not yet been released.
Three days later, still reeling, the Irish lost 28-27 at home to Tulsa. They were in range for David Ruffer, who has never missed a field goal in his career, but instead freshman quarterback Tommy Rees tried to throw to Michael Floyd in the end zone and Tulsa picked it off in the closing seconds to seal the win. Kelly’s decision making came under fire.
The deflating loss left Notre Dame at 4-5, but instead of staggering to the finish, the Irish responded.
With Rees, who replaced the injured Dayne Crist as the starter, learning on the job and showing promise, the Irish went on a three-game streak to ensure a winning season.
They beat nationally ranked Utah at home — the school’s first win over a ranked team since 2006 — routed Army and its triple option in Yankee Stadium and then survived Rees’ four turnovers to outlast Southern California and its rusty backup quarterback during a rainy finale at the Coliseum.
There was another off-field incident late in the season that shook up the campus: A former student at St. Mary’s College accused a Notre Dame football player of sexual battery, according to the Chicago Tribune. St. Joseph County prosecutors are reviewing the case.
The opening win at home against Purdue seems long ago in this roller coaster of a season. Back then, optimism for the Kelly regime was overflowing. But the Irish lost in the closing seconds at home to Michigan, were defeated in overtime by Michigan State on a fake field goal and then were beaten soundly at home by Stanford.
They answered with wins over Boston College, Pitt and Western Michigan before the Navy and Tulsa setbacks and, finally, the strong finish.
Now Kelly will try to bring in some top-notch recruits for his spread offense with questions looming before spring practice — many related to injuries.
Crist needed season-ending surgery for a second straight year, this time on a patella tendon he hurt in the Tulsa loss. Armando Allen, who led the Irish in rushing the previous two seasons, went down with hip injuries, and didn’t play the final four games. NFL prospect tight end Kyle Rudolph had hamstring surgery and missed the final six games. The Irish were also without speedy slot receiver Theo Riddick for four of the final games because of an ankle injury.
Crist is expected to return and compete for the starter’s job, Allen has exhausted his eligibility and the futures of Rudolph and Floyd — both of whom could leave for the NFL — are still to be determined.
The defense, led by star linebacker Manti Te’o, safety Harrison Smith and linebacker Brian Smith, played well down the stretch despite losing senior nose guard Ian Williams the final four games with a knee injury.
Numerous reports say the Irish have lost four recruits who earlier gave verbal nonbinding commitments to Notre Dame. The national signing day is in February.
Without commenting specifically on any recruits, Kelly earlier had this to say about the type of player he is looking for as he builds the program his way:
“There are plenty of great players out there. We are not going to lose sight of the fact that we’re going to develop our players, and we want guys here who want to be here,” Kelly said. “We are not going to beg anybody to come play at Notre Dame.”
The Irish are 14-15 in bowl games, beginning with a victory over Stanford in the 1924 Rose Bowl. Their last appearance was a 49-21 win over Hawaii in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl, their third postseason trip in Weis’ five seasons. Before that victory, the Irish had lost nine straight bowl games.