Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 3, 2016

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

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Page 19 of 55

20 OCT. 3, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED Conversely, Notre Dame (with a six- year average class ranking of 11.3) gen- erally has the same recruiting gap and advantage consistently over Michigan State (with an average recruiting rank- ing of 30.6 of its last six classes) and Stanford (average class ranking of 23.7 during that period), yet it's the Spar- tans and Cardinal who have averaged 11 wins per year the past six seasons. Last year was supposed to be "the year" for Notre Dame because of the combination of experience and star power (especially wide receiver Will Fuller and linebacker Jaylon Smith, never mind offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and defensive lineman Sheldon Day), a mostly favorable schedule and some fresh blood in the coaching staff. The Irish posted a 10-3 record and a No. 11 finish in the AP poll, which is nothing to downplay or disparage. Notre Dame also overcame numer- ous injuries, making it teeter on the brink of becoming a program. Ultimately, Notre Dame won the games it was "supposed to win," with Navy, at No. 18, ranked the highest in the final AP poll among its victims. However, the Irish fell short in the three brightest lights outings, falling at eventual No. 2 Clemson (24-22), at No. 3 Stanford (38-36) and to No. 4 Ohio State (44-28) in the Fiesta Bowl. That can then evoke a general reac- tion of "if not now, when?" or "is this as good as it gets in today's college foot- ball landscape for the Fighting Irish?" ON THE DEFENSIVE Repeatedly throughout Kelly's postgame session with the media after the Michigan State loss, he stressed the need that first and fore- most the coaching has to improve. It is painfully clear the job has not been accomplished on defense under third-year coordinator Brian Van- Gorder. Kelly said last year's Notre Dame run defense was "unacceptable" after allowing 175.6 yards per game. So where it is after surrendering 237 yards on the ground at Texas and 260 versus Michigan State? How can Notre Dame be one of two teams (joining Nevada) in the 128- team Football Bowl Subdivision not to record a sack through three games? This has become a flawed and failed system under VanGorder, both the front end and the back. This is no longer about a crisis of confidence, but a crisis in performance. The sample size has be- come too abundant through three years. Offensively, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer is in the same boat where Steve Beuerlein was in 1986, Jarious Jackson in 1999 and Jimmy Clausen in 2009 were: he will play at the next level and produce nice-look- ing numbers at the end of the game. While the efforts of Beuerlein, Clausen and Jackson went mostly for naught during 5-6, 5-7 or 6-6-type finishes in which defeat was often snatched from the jaws of victory, this year's Irish team probably won't be in that 6-6 range and is still ca- pable of having its first back-to-back 10-win seasons since the three con- secutive from 1991-93. Sooner or later, that drought has to end, along with not winning a major bowl in 23 years. NO-MAN'S LAND Kelly appears to be in no-man's land to at Notre Dame, kind of a modern- day version of Elmer Layden, whose term lasted seven years from 1934-40. Layden actually had an impressive .770 winning percentage — better than Irish national title coaches Lou Holtz (.765) and Dan Devine (.764) — but his teams were never going to be like Rockne's, and he knew it. Like Kelly in 2012, he was one win from a national title in 1938, but that only set up more frustration in his com- ing years, resulting in his quiet depar- ture after seven seasons for a much eas- ier lifestyle as commissioner of the NFL. Like Layden was not seen as a Rockne in his time, today Kelly might not be perceived to be an Ara Par- seghian or Holtz, which is hardly a disgrace. The good news is Kelly's tenure is an appreciable improvement from deposed predecessors Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, each of whom averaged seven wins per year compared to Kelly's nine. And that's what no-man's land entails: good enough where it's not an easy call to make a change like it was in the aforementioned trio's final seasons, but inconsistent enough that it generates enough angst to wonder whether Notre Dame can do better. Furthermore, at no place is a failure to meet expectations more magnified than Notre Dame, which can have an adverse effect on overall performance. Right now, college football is owned by Saban and Meyer, and Kelly and Co. are on the outside looking in with everyone else — sort of the way the NBA was in the 1990s. There were a lot of fantastic players who didn't win championship rings (Charles Bark- ley, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, John Stockton, Reggie Miller, etc.), because it was Michael Jordan's world. Some, such as Michigan's Jim Har- baugh, will definitely challenge. Oth- ers like a Bobby Petrino at Louisville are on the rise, and some are like a Mark Dantonio at Michigan State who maintains the consistency that makes one exclaim, "How does he still do it year after year?" Then there are others like Hous- ton's rising superstar and Meyer dis- ciple Tom Herman — which is where Kelly was about seven years ago at Cincinnati. Much has changed since then. Unfortunately, Notre Dame finally becoming a "program" again hasn't been one of them. ✦ Tougher Roads To Hoe In The Future This year, Notre Dame's schedule often was described as "favorable." That's because Texas was still considered down with back-to-back 6-7 and 5-7 records, USC is a mess internally, there were only three true on-campus road games, and rebuilding Michigan State, Stanford and Miami all were at home. The Irish also were "supposed to be" the favorite in at least 11 of the 12 regular-season games (at USC the exception), but began 1-2. Guess what? The future schedules only look like they will be getting tougher. Next year, the Irish travel to Michigan State, Stanford and Miami, plus future road encounters are coming up with Georgia, Michigan and Louisville … In 2019 alone, Notre Dame has road games alone at Louisville (Labor Day), Georgia, Michigan and Stanford. Think of it this way: From 1987-90, Notre Dame signed four straight No. 1 classes and had one of the great coaches and motivators in the game in Lou Holtz — yet still didn't win it all from 1990 on, and even lost three games in 1990 and 1991 with the residual effect of onerous schedules. In 2021, Notre Dame hosts Toledo — five days after opening on Labor Day weekend at Florida State. The Irish won't get home until Tuesday morning, and then have to prepare against a pretty doggone good Mid- American Conference program that in 2015 won at No. 18 Arkansas, and even won at Michigan in 2008. Who knows, maybe 2018 might be most "favorable" while opening with Michigan at home, closing at USC and having Florida State two weeks before the Trojans. — Lou Somogyi

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