SOUTH BEND — Every football program needs a turning point now and again; a moment or a game that changes or sets a course to better fortunes.
Brian Kelly already has one of these get-well wins to his credit during his six-plus seasons as the Notre Dame head coach. We’ll see if the 30-27 win Saturday over Miami becomes another one.
Kelly’s first season-saving win came in 2010 during his first year here when the Irish were left for dead after consecutive losses to Navy and Tulsa dropped them to 4-5 on the season. Notre Dame responded with a 28-3 blowout of No. 15 Utah, a win that sparked 31 victories in the next 39 games between the end of the 2010 season and through most of 2013.
Heading into Saturday’s matchup with Miami as losers in seven of the last nine games, Kelly and his Irish were again in desperate need of a momentum-changing and perhaps even job-saving victory.
Only time will tell if the thrilling yet troubling three-point victory over the Hurricanes will someday qualify as a transformational win in the same way the victory over Utah did six seasons ago. But at least for now, the win over Miami helped to stabilize a season, boosted hopes for a bowl appearance for the 3-5 Irish, and stopped the vultures from circling Kelly and his program, at least for this week.
“(The victory) just meant that we’re not going to have to go through this again,” a defiant Coach Kelly said after the game. “We were all going to have to listen to, ‘Okay, the locker room is falling apart,’ a bunch of baloney, and we’d have to go through all this again.”
The win over Miami didn’t cure all ills – far from it – but it did keep Notre Dame from collecting its fourth straight loss at home this season.
Similar to the Stanford script from two weeks ago, Notre Dame jumped to a fast start against Miami and built a quick 20-0 lead. But in what has become an all too familiar pattern of misbehavior, sketchy play-calling and inexcusable fundamental blunders allowed a weaker opponent to score 27 straight points and take a 27-20 lead.
To Notre Dame’s credit, this time the Irish didn’t panic or wilt, scored the game’s final 10 points and finally found way to win a close one. Before Saturday, Notre Dame was 0-5 this season in one-possession games.
“Now they know how to do that,” Kelly said of finally winning a nail-biter. “So we’ll go back to work with the same underpinnings, the same things we’ve worked on over the last 10, 12 weeks, but now there’s a lot more confidence in that room that they believe they can do it.”
Indeed, the narrow escape provided Kelly something to celebrate and build upon. Yet, even in victory, Irish fans must still feel somewhat squeamish.
In almost every game this season, the Notre Dame offense has suffered through extended scoring droughts of 15 minutes or longer, typically at the same time their opponent is scoring at will.
Following is a list of the unanswered scoring runs Irish opponents have put together this season, keeping in mind, these five opponents have a combined record of 18-22 through last weekend.
• Texas 17-0
• Michigan State 36-0
• Duke 17-0
• Stanford 17-0 (the last 17)
• Miami 27-0
Unlike its first four games on this list that all ended in losses, Notre Dame survived the scoring run by Miami, and avoided one of the biggest blown leads and colossal collapses at home in program history.
“They were just happy as heck that it’s finally over, that they got through it in a close game, that they found a way to win,” Kelly said. “That was the feeling more than anything else. It was exhilaration that they finally got through and finished a close game.”
The next exhilarating step would be to clean up the mistakes, finally protect a lead, and do away with big comebacks and close games from inferior opponents.
Todd Burlage is a freelance writer who covers University of Notre Dame sports.