Blue and Gold Illustrated

February 2018

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

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46 FEBRUARY 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED F or the fourth time since 2002, Notre Dame finished a foot‑ ball season with a 10‑3 led‑ ger. And the one in 2017 easily felt the most uplifting after the 21‑17 victory versus LSU in the Citrus Bowl. • The 10‑3 Fighting Irish of 2002 lost their last two games while getting outscored 72‑19. • The 2006 edition that was 10‑3 lost the final two contests while getting outscored 85‑38. • Finally, in 2015, with maybe the most all‑around talent of the four 10‑3 outfits, Notre Dame again sputtered with a 0‑2 fin‑ ish and immense frustration on defense. Shakespeare had it correct on the part about "all's well that ends well," or at least when it comes to the 2017 Fighting Irish campaign. Prior to the game, Brian Kelly understandably downplayed the overall ramifications of a win or loss, comprehending full well how a 9‑4 outcome — with three setbacks in the final four games — would signifi‑ cantly undermine the progress made the first two months of this season following last year's 4‑8 debacle. The tune changed dramatically af‑ ter the Irish rallied versus the Tigers from 14‑6 and 17‑14 deficits in the fourth quarter. "I prefer to totally overplay it right now as one of the biggest wins in the history of Notre Dame," Kelly said jokingly afterwards. I could name at least 50 bigger ones — but maybe none more so for Kelly in his eight completed years, specifically when it comes to the perception of the program and where it currently stands. The victory over LSU was the fourth this season against a foe that likely will finish in the top 25 (along with Michigan State, USC and North Carolina State), and that would be a first at the school since Tyrone Will‑ ingham's debut season in 2002 (No. 9 Michigan, No. 13 Maryland, No. 19 Pitt and No. 21 Florida State). Kelly desperately needed a qual‑ ity bounce‑back outcome in 2017 to restore some credibility, and the bowl conquest validated it as such. No, it wasn't a major/Big Six Bowl triumph versus a top‑10 outfit (that still hasn't occurred since 1993), but it is a posi‑ tive impetus to what might be the final quarter mile of the Kelly era. Eleven years is unofficially the limit for coaching tenures at Notre Dame, and the next two to four years — Kelly's current contract doesn't expire until 2021 — represent his last‑ chance kick to finally make the Irish a bona fide program rather than just another team. What do I mean by program? Well, for starters, look at the last three times Notre Dame finished 10‑3. The ensuing years the Irish had a losing record — 5‑7 in 2003, 3‑9 in 2007 and 4‑8 in 2016. Notre Dame has not put to‑ gether back‑to‑back 10‑win sea‑ sons — which has become the benchmark of a good but not great year — since three in a row from 1991‑93. The caveat is back then it was mainly 11‑game regular seasons as opposed to 12. Ten wins today means a minimum of three losses as well, which has been the case in 23 of the last 24 seasons at Notre Dame. The legacy of the Kelly era will be most defined by these next few seasons and whether the Irish can achieve "the next level" as a consistent top‑10 program and one that can qualify for the College Football Playoff. The recruiting remains top‑10 caliber, the "traits" have been crystallized and the edifying co‑ ordinator team of Mike Elko on defense and Chip Long on offense reportedly signed up for three years last January. Three seasons for coordinators at Notre Dame are like 11 years for the head coach. In those three years you either prove yourself enough to be‑ come a head coach or are jettisoned if the job does not get done. There are no more "rebuilds" or "new coats of paint" for Kelly. Those chits have been well exhausted. The challenges in 2018 include dealing with another "who will be the quarterback?" debate. Junior Bran‑ don Wimbush is going to be needed, and his 30‑touchdown production in 2017 can't be ignored, but in the final months he had the body language of Dayne Crist in September 2011 and Malik Zaire in September 2016. Other topics will include main‑ stays departing early for the NFL, handling success, and navigating a schedule that includes another oner‑ ous November, where the Irish are 9‑12 since 2013. The 2017 season finished posi‑ tively. It's up to Kelly to take it to a higher tier in the coming seasons. ✦ Building On 2017 Is Imperative For Brian Kelly THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Kelly's squad registered four wins against teams likely to finish in the top 25 — Michigan State, USC, North Carolina State and LSU — which last happened at Notre Dame in 2002. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL 2018 Notre Dame Football Schedule Date Opponent Sept. 1 Michigan Sept. 8 Ball State Sept. 15 Vanderbilt Sept. 22 at Wake Forest Sept. 29 Stanford Oct. 6 at Virginia Tech Oct. 13 Pittsburgh Oct. 27 vs. Navy* Nov. 3 at Northwestern Nov. 10 Florida State Nov. 17 vs. Syracuse^ Nov. 24 at USC * at San Diego; ^ at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, N.Y.

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