Evaluating the Irish: Act II
The wise Rocky Balboa said, “It ain’t about how hard you can hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” After Notre Dame’s stunning loss to Tulsa, it would have been easy for the Irish, who stood at a record of four wins and five losses heading into their bye week, to throw in the towel on the season.
The 2010 season contained many distractions and obstacles for first-year head coach Brian Kelly and his team. Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, Theo Riddick, Kyle Rudolph, Carlo Calabrese, and Ian Williams all had injuries that would keep them out of action for quite some time, some for the remainder of the season. Declan Sullivan’s death at a windy Irish practice and Elizabeth Seeberg’s suicide, in connection with an unnamed fooball player, while tragic, garnered some unwanted criticism and attention for Brian Kelly, Jack Swarbrick, and the University.
However, while it may have been easy for the team, and Irish fans alike, to chalk this season up to the growing pains that typically come with a new head coach, the team persevered to finish the season with four straight wins, including a victory over the University of Miami in the Sun Bowl. Win two out of the last three and make a bowl game—this was the goal of Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish after their last-minute loss to Tulsa in late October. It was a tall order, but the Irish did one better, winning all three remaining regular season games and besting the Hurricanes.
The biggest question as we take one final look at the 2010 season is, “What if?” The Irish were a handful of plays from finishing the season with three more wins, a 10-2 overall record, and an invitation to a higher-profile bowl game that they may or may not have won.
What if Tommy Rees, Cierre Wood, and Tyler Eifert had not filled in for Dayne Crist, Armando Allen, and Kyle Rudolph as well as they did? What if the Bob Diaco-led defense had continued their mediocre performance of the first half of the season and continued to give up an absurd amount of yards to opposing offenses? The 2010 season could have turned out to look a lot more like 2007, which could have had the most extreme Irish fans questioning the Kelly hire all together.
Thankfully, the season didn’t end that way and Irish fans generally have pleasant things to say about the 2010 campaign. Tommy Rees took over for Dayne Crist midway through the first half of the Tulsa game, leaving most Irish with flashbacks of the game against Michigan where he and Nate Montana both struggled against a subpar defense. And while he certainly played like a freshman in that game, his next four starts all ended up as victories for the Irish. His numbers over the final four games certainly weren’t staggering, throwing for an average of 173.25 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception in each game, but his ability to pick up the baton that Crist dropped when he was injured against Tulsa certainly made Notre Dame’s prolific late-season surge possible.
Arguably a bigger surprise, the Notre Dame defense, which allowed an average of 393.1 yards per game through the first 9 games of the season, finished the regular season in spectacular fashion, only allowing an average of 233 yards per game. Additionally, during the last 3 games of the regular season, the Irish defense gave up one lone touchdown. And while the statistics for the bowl game against Miami are a bit misleading, the Irish still dominated the Hurricanes in every facet of the game. The Notre Dame defense gave up two more touchdowns in the Sun Bowl, but their dominating performance, and Harrison Smith and Manti Te’o in particular, did very much to quiet, at least temporarily, the reservations that most Irish fans had about the effectiveness of Bob Diaco as a defensive coordinator.
As the team now turns to the off-season, Kelly hits the recruiting trail, and strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo begins to take over the team for off-season workouts, several story lines will be scrutinized by the fans and media alike. Who will be behind center for the Irish against South Florida on September 3rd? Can Dayne Crist recover this off-season in time to reclaim his starting spot from Tommy Rees who, at the very least, has earned the right to compete for the position next year? Can Cierre Wood continue to improve and be an impact player next season as the starting running back? Will Jonas Gray or Cameron Roberson progress enough to challenge Wood for the starting position, or will they provide depth? Will Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph declare for the NFL draft? If so, who steps up into the void left by their absence? How will Brian Kelly’s push for defensive recruits affect the team on signing day? What is a reasonable expectation for wins and losses for this team next season?
In his second season at Cincinnati, Brian Kelly led the Bearcats, who had finished the 2007 season with 10 wins, to the Big East title, an 11-3 record, and a spot in the FedEx Orange Bowl. It remains to be seen what the Irish will accomplish in 2011. But the success that Kelly has had as his previous schools, along with the talent and experience that Notre Dame will have next year, and a 2011 schedule that, at face value, doesn’t seem as difficult as this year’s schedule, is the perfect setup for a successful season.
There are still a lot of questions that face this team next year, but if the way that Kelly, his staff, the players, and University overcame several obstacles this season are any indicator of the toughness and resolve in Brian Kelly and this team, the outlook on 2011 seems very bright. Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati are not Notre Dame and that could mean that success in 2011 might be more diffcult than anticipated, but the fact that those schools aren’t Notre Dame could give this team the advantage they need to be even more successful next year.