Blue and Gold Illustrated

December 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 30 of 47 DECEMBER 2021 31 N otre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had no control over where his vi- sor landed once he sent it airborne into the Stanford Stadium stands. Kelly strolled off the field following the Irish's 45-14 win over the Cardi- nal and tossed his headwear toward the seats, as he does every week. He did not, though, get enough oomph in this heave to propel the visor into the crowd. In- stead, it fell just short, landing at the base of the wall before someone else picked it up and finished the job. Kelly didn't appear to notice. Not that it really matters to him. One wonders if this is a second-nature gesture at this point. Throw it, hope it makes some- one's day and keep walking. That's the same amount of control he has over where the No. 6 Irish go next after ending their regular season 11-1 with seven straight wins. He and Notre Dame tossed this final disposal of an overmatched opponent to the College Football Playoff selection commit- tee and are hoping for some help. He's happy to do some campaigning. "It's a really good football team. I think it's one of the best four teams in the country," Kelly said. "We controlled what we needed to control. That was the theme over the past six, seven weeks, and we've done that." It's safe to say he's a lot more invested in where that pitch lands than his visor. Whether Notre Dame earns a CFP bid or not, what's clear is this: its mere contention after game No. 12 of this quasi-rebuilding season cements 2021 as arguably the best coaching job of his 12-year tenure. Kelly has coached more talented teams. He has had teams with more upside. Some of his prior teams have reached greater heights than this one might. And yet, despite starting a graduate transfer quarterback, a rebuilt offensive line, a defensive coordinator shift, more youth involvement than normal and a bumpy first month, the Irish are within arm's reach of their third CFP appear- ance in four years. Kelly, even now, can appreciate the accomplishment. Notre Dame in Week 13 isn't the same as Notre Dame in Week 1. The transitional nature of this year required appreciable in-season growth for the Irish to be a success, but this amount of it may be even more than Kelly expected. "This football team has grown and developed and matured in all the areas that you want to see your team ma- ture," Kelly said, "from an offensive standpoint, a consistency standpoint, defensively. "We were a sieve at times as a tack- ling team, so it's really easy to evaluate this football team and see the growth. I have officials come up to me that had us earlier in the season and go, 'I've never seen a team get to this level later in the season.'" The tackling growth was on display in this takedown of 3-9 Stanford. Notre Dame missed 14 tackles in the opener at Florida State, per Pro Football Fo- cus. It felt like the Irish missed five, at most, against the Cardinal. They made open-field stops and limited yards after the catch. They wrapped up sacks. They even forced three fumbles. In all, the defense has allowed two touchdowns in its last 16 quarters. No, the offenses have not been particularly potent of late, but there's still some- thing impressive about making bad teams seem entirely helpless. Until a stat-padding fourth quarter, that's what Stanford was. This is the defense Notre Dame envi- sioned when it lured defensive coordi- nator Marcus Freeman to campus over a reported $2 million per year offer from LSU. The acclimation process lasted into the season, but once it wrapped up Free- man could turn his full attention else- where. To areas like literally wrapping up. "We've just been harping tackling in practice," senior defensive end Justin Ademilola said. On offense, graduate student quar- terback Jack Coan has completed 70 percent of his passes in five of the last six games. Sacks have dwindled as chunk runs have increased. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and junior running back Kyren Williams are stars, but the offense is more than just them. Senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. shook off a roller coaster of an open- ing month and has caught at least 75 percent of his targets in six of the last seven games. On both sides, Notre Dame has plugged in plentiful freshmen and sophomores as contributors or injury replacements and stayed afloat. Imag- ine being told in August Notre Dame would lose All-American safety Kyle Hamilton for nearly six full games and start four different left tackles. You'd picture a five-alarm fire. Instead, con- tributions from freshmen (Joe Alt at left tackle) and sophomores (Ramon Hen- derson and Xavier Watts at safety) have staved off problems. This is what a top-tier coaching job looks like, from the top down. The Irish must wait until Dec. 5 to see if it's enough to put them in the top four. Whatever happens, Kelly won't lose sight of Notre Dame's journey to get to this point. "It really wouldn't change anything," he said. Notre Dame's own change from Sep- tember to now says plenty. ✦ ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame have won 11 games for the third time in the past four seasons. PHOTO BY CHUCK ARAGON Kelly's Finest Job Has Irish Knocking On CFP Door

Articles in this issue

Links on this page

Archives of this issue

view archives of Blue and Gold Illustrated - December 2021