Irish turnaround rooted in Kelly's decision to change his gameplan
Shouldn’t we have seen this coming?
After Notre Dame struggled for the better part of a decade, shouldn’t we have forecast the Irish's rise back to the dizzying heights occupied by only a smattering of programs? Shouldn’t we have assumed that the Golden Dome, which had begun to grow dim and dull, would shine again?
We should have. They hired Brian Kelly, after all.
Kelly took the job before the culmination of the 2009 season, leaving his undefeated No. 3 Cincinnati Bearcats coachless before they clashed against defending national champion Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Without its coach, Cincinnati couldn’t put the finishing touch on the perfect season, falling 51-24. Several of Kelly’s former players, feeling abandoned, publicly chided him. The hire, like the Dome itself, seemed to lose some luster.
In an instant, many outside of South Bend seemed to forget that Kelly needed only three years to turn a five-loss Cincinnati team into a national title contender; that he did so from a position on college football’s fringes, at the helm of a team that hadn’t won 10 games since 1951; that he led it to a pair of conference championships. They forgot that, before he pulled Cincinnati from mediocrity, he shepherded Central Michigan to its first bowl game and conference title in more than a decade.
Kelly left Cincinnati with a record of 34-6. In his first two years in South Bend, the Irish went 16-10. The iffy performance on one of college football’s biggest stages effectively wiped out those 34 Bearcat wins from the nation’s collective consciousness. Kelly is just another coach who had failed to push Notre Dame back to the top, some thought.
But he needed time. He needed his recruits. He needed to let his plan, his philosophy, marinate, slowly soaking into the storied program. They gave him time. And now, three years in, the Irish stand 5-0. They’re the No. 7 team in the country and may have the best defense outside of the Southeast.
That defense will be put to its toughest test yet this weekend when Stanford comes to South Bend with a three-game win streak against the Irish in tow. Despite dominant wins against Michigan State, Michigan and Miami (Fla.), Kelly’s job is far from over. Slipping up against the Cardinal this weekend will push the Irish back to the realm of, "They’re good, but…" and stifle the program’s mounting momentum.
At Cincinnati, Kelly won games because the Bearcats scored points -- lots of them. In 2009, the Bearcats won their first 12 games because they possessed the nation’s fourth-best scoring offense (38.6 PPG) and 11th-most proficient offense overall (447.5 YPG). His defenses there were never ranked higher than 31st nationally. The 2009 team ranked only 67th in total defense, allowing nearly 400 yards-per-game. At Notre Dame, Kelly found a dearth of the weapons needed to implement such a proficient attack. So the coach looked at the pieces he had, slowed the pace of play and leaned on a defense that now ranks second nationally in points against (7.8).
Good coaches adapt. They don’t stay wedded to a system that doesn’t fit the pieces they’ve been handed. Brian Kelly adapted. Brian Kelly is a good coach. Notre Dame is winning again.
We should’ve seen this coming.
Speaking of good coaches, the guy in the visor with the single-digit golf handicap roaming the sidelines in Columbia ain’t half-bad. Steve Spurrier only won seven SEC titles, nine SEC Coach of the Year awards and a national championship while at the helm in Florida. After finding the NFL an inhospitable environment for his golf clubs, he landed at South Carolina, where he’s found it tough to emulate the success he had in the Swamp. But after an 11-win season last year and an undefeated start this season, the Head Ball Coach is back in form. Last week’s 28-point win against Georgia was a loud statement from the No. 3 Gamecocks, but it will fall on deaf ears if they can’t emerge from Baton Rouge with a win on Saturday night. And that’s a tall order. LSU fell to Florida last week -- good news for Spurrier, right? Maybe not. Under Les Miles, LSU is 6-0 in home in games that follow a road loss and 17-1 overall after losses. Also troubling, South Carolina hasn’t beaten LSU since 1994 and is 1-10 against the Tigers in Death Valley. (An aside: Les Miles and DA-BO Swinney need to arm-wrestle -- or have a crocodile-eating contest -- over the “Death Valley” stadium-naming rights.) History favors LSU, though momentum is leaning South Carolina’s way. If you’re not watching this one, it’d better be because you’re having an emergency appendectomy -- even then, I recommend local anesthetic and an iPad.
I can already hear Brent Musburger’s voice echoing down the Red River, spinning yarns about rivalry games-past and dragging four extra syllables out of “first-doooowwwnnn.” His presence always adds a sense of importance to these games, and he always seems to show up when a pair of storied programs collide. ... Wait, Brad Nessler is calling this game? Musburger will be at the aforementioned LSU-South Carolina tilt? The SEC’s power apparently knows no bounds. I thought Musburger had called the past 127 -- give or take a few -- Red River Rivalry games. That must mean it’s a down year (or that the SEC has an Illuminati-like reign over the world) for these pair of Big 12 powers. Well, it is and it isn’t. Both Texas and Oklahoma find themselves in the top 15 and both are still in contention for a Big 12 crown. But both already have a conference loss in the ledger. (Does anyone even own a ledger anymore?) Texas, though, is improving after a pair of disappointing seasons, while Oklahoma has slid from its preseason No. 4 ranking. While this game won’t upend the rankings like it has in years past, count on an entertaining contest nonetheless; both offenses are in the top 30 nationally and Brad Nessler’s soothing tones make him a fantastic play-by-play man.
Texas A&M was scheduled to sweep through Louisiana in August, but Hurricane Isaac rudely cut in line. So, this weekend, the Aggies head to Shreveport with a No. 22 ranking and a pair of SEC wins in tow. Texas A&M has outperformed expectations thus far -- remember, it almost beat Florida -- but so has its less-heralded opponent. Louisiana Tech is 5-0 and ranked only one spot behind the Aggies in the AP poll. The Bulldogs have averaged an impressive 17.4-point winning margin through those five contests and are third nationally in points-per-game (53.2). While it hasn’t played any cupcakes, A&M will be, by far, Tech's toughest test this season. What was supposed to be an early season warmup for the Aggies -- A&M beat Louisiana Tech 48-16 two years ago -- has now transformed to a tough nonconference game sandwiched in the midst of a brutal SEC schedule. A&M has LSU next week, but can’t afford to overlook the talented Bulldogs' offense crafted by former Mike Leach assistant Sonny Dykes. (Dykes was co-offensive coordinator at Texas Tech with Dana Holgorsen, who, as you may know, has been immolating scoreboards in the Big 12 this season at the helm of West Virginia.)
Oregon State has long been overshadowed by the speed and sneaker factory an hour south. But, this year, the Beavers have managed to crack the top 10 after surviving one of the tougher early season schedules in the nation. Nevertheless, many prognosticators are picking BYU to topple Oregon State this weekend. The Cougars have beaten Oregon State in their past two contests -- 38-28 last season and 44-20 in 2009’s MAACO Bowl -- and boast the nation’s 12th-ranked passing defense. Oregon State relies on its aerial attack, so leaning on its 106th-ranked running game to move the chains will make this a tough road test. Still, it’s one the Beavers have to pass before they hit the meat of their conference schedule and if they hope to step out of Oregon’s vibrantly-colored shadow.
Duke and Virginia Tech play this week. Same old story, right? One is 5-1 and undefeated in the ACC. The other is 3-3 and already has a conference loss. No need to tune in -- we know what to expect here. ... Wait, what? Duke is the five-win team? Its star receiver, Conner Vernon, just set the ACC record for career receptions? The Hokies have dropped two in a row? Yes, yes, and yes. Virginia Tech has won 11 consecutive games against the Blue Devils, but given how these two teams have started the season, that streak could end on Saturday. Remember, Duke ended a similar losing streak against Wake Forest earlier this season. Duke head man David Cutcliffe has done a remarkable job turning around the program, though I still think we’re still a few years away from seeing kids camping out with calculus books in “Cutcliffeville” outside of Wallace Wade Stadium.
So it has come to this. My beloved Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets gave defensive coordinator Al Groh his walking papers this week after surrendering 111 points in the past three games. In that stretch, Georgia Tech coughed up a 17-point second-half lead to Miami (Fla.), allowed a Sun Belt team to put up 49 points on them at home and then yielded 17 in the fourth quarter to Clemson. If Groh’s name sounds familiar, you likely know him from his nine-year stint as the head man for Virginia or his one year leading the New York Jets. Former secondary coach-turned-interim defensive coordinator Charles Kelly has two weeks to implement a new scheme before the Jackets face Boston College on Oct. 20. The Jackets stand 92nd in total defense and 91st in scoring defense, so there’s nowhere to go but up for Kelly, right? With four losses already in the books and a conference title out of reach this early in the season for the first time since Paul Johnson took over, Tech fans have to simply cling to the hope that Kelly can have his boys ready for the showdown with Georgia at season’s end.
Just like knowing that the sun will rise in the east or the next Adam Sandler movie will be an abomination, we all simply accept SEC defensive dominance as a universal law. But do that facts back up those assumptions? I wish I could tell you they didn’t, fans from everywhere else, but I can’t. The SEC has four teams ranked in the AP top 10. Those squads aren’t merely cruising by on reputation alone. All four -- Alabama, South Carolina, Florida, and LSU -- rank among the top eight in scoring defense. And all four can be found in the top 12 in total defense. (No other conference has more than two teams in either category.) Just in case you have trouble interpreting statistics, let me help you -- given that those rankings are comprised of 124 total FBS teams, the rankings I just mentioned are just utterly, completely ridiculous. So, fret not. The sun will rise tomorrow. You’ll writhe in agony if you go see Grown Ups 2 next year. And SEC defenses remain steadfastly anchored to the turf.
When South Carolina’s Ace Sanders fried my surge protector with his punt return against Georgia last weekend, it got me curious about return stats. After seeing that and his equally ankle-popping return against Missouri, I erroneously assumed that the numbers would prove him to be the nation’s best return man. His 15.5 average-per-return is impressive, but it turns out that Missouri has a returner of its own who has surpassed him. Sophomore Marcus Murphy leads the nation with three punt return touchdowns, with all three coming from more than sixty yards out. He leads the nation in return average -- 20.07 yards -- among players with 10 or more punt returns. Missouri has the unenviable task of squaring off with Alabama on Saturday. Given that the Crimson Tide owns the nation’s best defense, much of the offensive burden will fall on Murphy to give the Tigers positive field position. If he can regularly push them to midfield, Missouri might have a shot at scoring a few points – Alabama stands only 62nd nationally in punt return coverage. If he’s stifled repeatedly, good luck trying to go on long marches against Bama’s defense -- it’s about as easy as marching on Moscow in the dead of winter.
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