Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 3, 2016

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

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Page 18 of 55 OCT. 3, 2016 19 Dame is 5-10. It has zero wins over a top-10 team. Michigan State is what Notre Dame was about 25 years ago: blue-collar identity, physical on both sides of the line (not being on the wrong side of a 260-57 rushing stat) and supremely prepared mentally in the majority of its grand matchups. Michigan State repeatedly over- achieves by averaging 11 wins a sea- son the past six years, while Notre Dame consistently never seems to meet the expectations of it becoming a true program that can year after year put up 10 wins, never mind 11, 12 or 13. What is the difference between a "team" and a "program?" • Teams always talk about how good the next recruiting batch is and how "the arrow is pointing up." Programs have a system in place that allows players to flourish con- sistently in a "play and plug" opera- tion, be it Navy with the triple option that maximizes the resources at its disposal, or Michigan State finishing three straight years in the Associated Press top six despite never recruiting at Notre Dame's level on paper. • Teams constantly talk about "al- most" or "being a couple of plays away." Programs finish the job most of the time in what Kelly himself re- fers to as an intrinsic "unconscious competence." • Teams talk about being "resil- ient" and "battling." Programs consistently display men- tal toughness and physical execution on the bigger stages. The brighter the lights, the more they have the tendency to shine, and consistently over years, not just here and there in given weeks. • With programs, you expect to find a way to win against top-tier opposition. With teams, you usually expect to find a way to lose. Teams rebuild. Programs reload. A 9-4 PURGATORY? The setback to the Spartans meant the Irish had lost four of their last five games, with the sole win against vastly outmanned Nevada. It's not just the fact that it's sea- son seven for Kelly, because the year number is irrelevant. Even Knute Rockne was 5-4 in year 10 (1928) and Frank Leahy was 4-4-1 in year eight (1950). Off years over a five-year pe- riod can and will happen to anyone (even Meyer went 9-4 and 8-5 in two of his six seasons at Florida). That's part of excellent competition. Dynas- ties such as the one Nick Saban has at Alabama are unique. What was hoped for was that by year seven, the 9-4 or 8-5 record would be the anomaly. Instead, the 12-1 fin- ish in 2012 is the one regarded as such under Kelly, similar to Charlie Weis' No. 9 finish in 2005, Bob Davie's BCS season in 2000, and even Tyrone Will- ingham's 8-0 and 10-1 start in 2002. To many, Notre Dame has become the bully team that can't pick on some- one its own size. It was certainly ex- pected to trounce Duke (Sept. 24) and Syracuse (Oct. 1), both of which might be on their way to 3-9 type seasons the way Wake Forest and Boston College (the last two Irish victims in 2015) were in 2015. Such wins, though, are not going to move the needle nationally. Where "programs" are separated is in marquee settings, and doing so consis- tently over several years, and beyond. Unfortunately, Notre Dame football is basically a "nice team." Translation: It is in 9-4 purgatory. It can and will mostly defeat the inferior foes, and it is just good enough to break your heart when you start getting hopes up again. After six seasons, Kelly was 55-23, which pretty much averages out to 9-4. It could be on its way to another such finish in 2016. In year seven under Kelly, what is emerging is the "P" word: Plateau. Notre Dame is who it is, and the good ol' standby and obligatory, "Hey, some good recruits are coming to campus" rhetoric can be repeated only so often. Recruiting-wise, the gap is not clos- ing against the Alabamas (five No. 1 classes and a No. 2-rated haul over the last six years according to Rivals) or Ohio States (an average recruiting class ranking of 5.3 over the past six seasons). Over the past four seasons, the Irish do not own a victory over a top-10 team and are just 5-10 against ranked opponents. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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