ND Football 2010: A Year in Review

It’s been a while since I’ve have taken the time to sit down and write about ND Football.  My life has been a whirlwind with work and my free time has been spent doing other things not blog related.  When I sit down to write here, I like things to be well thought out and not horribly rushed just for the sake of getting something out there (besides, that’s what my Twitter feed is for).  So, if you are wondering why this space has been stagnant for so long, there you have it.

Anyways, now that I actually have the some free time and plenty of thoughts together for a post, it’s time to take a look at the 2010 Notre Dame football season (a will do an in-depth statistical analysis in the future).  Obviously, Brian Kelly’s first season with the Irish will be considered a success with a winning record, defeating USC, and taking down Miami in the Sun Bowl.  This of course happening in a season in which Kelly saw his starting quarterback, running back, and tight end go down, but was also faced with off-the-field issues: the tragic death of Declan Sullivan and a media blitzkrieg concerning the Lizzy Seeburg case (and talking about that would be another post in itself).

This season had every opportunity to be a complete disaster and yet it wasn’t.  Coach Kelly kept the Irish focused, and most importantly, improving throughout the season.

To me, 2010 is the story of two separate seasons with the Navy game splitting the two apart.  Prior to Navy, the Irish, for the most part, beat the teams that they should have beaten.  Losing to Stanford wasn’t too big of a shock, but losing to Michigan and Michigan State in the fashion that we did was simply gut wrenching (giving up a last minute TD drive and giving up a TD to a fake field goal).  However, losing to Navy seemed to be an example of how bad we were, especially on defense.

Navy was by no means an awful team, but that game looked like a scout team attempting to hang with the first stringers.  As Herbstreit put it, ND had a “high school defense” and after that kind of performance, it was hard to argue.  It was a sickening loss.  Hell, it’s still sickening to think about how soundly we were beaten on every side of the ball during that game.

I was wondering how ND would respond against Tulsa, especially with the death of Declan still very fresh on everyone’s mind.  Then Dayne Crist went down and my stomach turned.  I remembered how poorly our backup QBs fared against Michigan and considering how quickly Rees was yanked, I was positive that our season would quickly fall apart under a QB with no confidence.

Rees, thankfully, proved me wrong and not only kept the Irish in the game, but placed them in a spot to win.  Unfortunately, Kelly made the call to go for the jugular instead of playing safe for a game winning field goal and it completely backfired.  Kelly was unphased and I wondered how he wasn’t in complete panic mode like I was and the rest of the ND fanbase.  With #5 ranked Utah about to come in, I was expecting the worse.

Instead, the Irish came out and soundly destroyed Utah 28-3.  Our “high school” defense completely shut down one of the best offenses in the nation and Rees looked like a QB in total control.  ND continued the momentum against Army, holding them to only 3 points as well.  I actually felt like we had a slight chance to beat USC if we could keep playing this well, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

Against USC though, the Irish finally surrendered a TD…a 3 yard, 4 down drive.  It couldn’t have happened at a worse time too as it allowed USC to tie the game up 13-13 late in the third quarter.  The Irish offense continued to struggle and USC took the lead with a 4th quarter field goal.  With 6:18 left to play, the Irish put together a 7 play 77 yard drive, primarily through the legs of Cierre Wood and Robert Hughes to put the Irish ahead 20-16.  However, there was still 2:16 left, and I had seen this movie before.  After an unreal drop by USC that would have easily been the winning TD, Harrison Smith intercepted Mitch Mustain to finally thrust the dagger into USC, sending ND Nation into pure bliss.

Then of course you have the Sun Bowl in which Notre Dame made Miami look absolutely ridiculous as they cruised to a 33-17 in a game that was basically over in the first half.

This ending run was unlike any recent Irish “return(s) to glory”, which were all capped off with either a late November meltdown or bowl ass-kicking at the hands of a much better opponent.  This time around, Notre Dame ended on a high note, winning their last 4 games, taking down a ranked team and a hated rival in the process. Even better, the Irish closed out football games as they should.  Previous Irish teams would’ve folded against USC (much like this 2010 squad did against Michigan), would have let the slow (and scary) start to the Army game last for an entire half, and would’ve let the late Miami resurgence become a serious issue.  None of those happened this time around.

Not only that, but players on the defensive side of the ball started to step up in big ways.  In particular, Brian Smith and Harrison Smith stand out to me.  We’ve been waiting years for these guys to step up and late this season they did.  Harrison Smith has even done so to the point in which several Irish fans, myself included, would love to see him come back for a fifth year.  Whatever defensive adjustments Diaco made post-Navy paid off.  Clearly something has clicked with this coaching staff, our team, and our previously underachieving upperclassmen.  You can’t help but be thrilled by that.

Brain Kelly’s reputation of being able to switch QBs at will also held true to form.  Although the Michigan game scared everyone to death, with a little bit more time, Kelly was able to get true freshmen Tommy Rees ready to fill in for the Irish if needed.  After having his extremely short leash yanked during the Michigan game, I was fully expecting that to be a major blow to Rees’ confidence.  How do you come back from something like that?  Well, ending the year 4-0 as a starter is one hell of a way to do that.

Let that sit in your head for a bit.  4-0 as a starter.  As a true freshmen.  As a backup.  Against ranked Utah.  Against USC.  Against Miami in a bowl game.  Try to find that in ND’s history.

And of course, you had a myriad of other injuries that hit the Irish.  Allen and Rudolph were lost for the season.  T.J. Jones and Theo Riddick spent time sidelined with injuries just to name a few.  Yet the offense still managed to prosper for the most part.  This tells me two things: first, Kelly’s system can definitely work with what we already have in place, and, second, this system is something that the entire roster is able to grasp with relative ease thanks to this coaching staff.

And talk about some serious recruiting power that Kelly now has a hold of.  Rees is now the obvious example, but from just this season alone, Kelly will be able to point to a load of examples of players stepping in and doing so successfully under his system and coaching.

Unlike the start of the Weis era, there are signature wins to build off of instead of disappointing losses.  And unlike Weis, Kelly immediately came under some major fire for his calls on the field as well as issues surrounding the program off the field and handled it all as well as anyone could expect.  There is little doubt in my mind that Kelly is the right man to (re-re-re-re-re-)return this program to glory and I cannot wait to see what next season has in store.