For Notre Dame, something to feel good about

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Forget a miserable November, the Notre Dame football program finally has something to feel good about.

It’s a feeling that can sustain the next nine months or so.

Tuesday’s 31-28 Music City Bowl win over LSU was a matter of precise execution that had a foundation in trust. It was a great way to stop the bleeding caused by four straight losses.

It was the product of a plan with a purpose. It was a sign that the Irish can compete with a Southeastern Conference team — albeit, a middle-of-the-road SEC team — in every phase of the game.

“(The victory) allows us to continue to recruit in (the South) without having to apologize for who we are,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

Kelly took the impact of the effort beyond the field, with a lesson for his players about life.

“We talked about this being a life lesson toward handling adversity,” Kelly said. “We had some adversity. Everybody was down on Notre Dame. We can’t do this; we can’t do that. That’s going to happen in life.

“Believe in yourself. Believe in what you’re doing. Trust what you’re doing. If you do that, you’re going to be OK. We trust in our players and they continue to work hard for us. It was going to work out for them.”

Kelly made a promise to his players: “We’re going to get you to the fourth quarter; trust the plan. I’m going to get you to the fourth quarter, then you’ve gotta go make some plays.”

The Irish made plays. Lots of them.

Notre Dame withstood a Leonard Fournette’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown; an 89-yard touchdown run by Fournette; and a 75-yard TD pass from Anthony Jennings to John Diarse and stayed on course.

Those three scores came in an elapsed time of 38 seconds.

The Irish never flinched or flustered. The plan stayed the same without reservation.

The quarterback tag team of Malik Zaire and Everett Golson was seamless, despite Golson taking a punishing blow to his ribs mid-game.

That pain appeared to hurt more than the blow to his ego after losing his starting job.

The numbers were exactly how Kelly drew them up pre-game:

• Notre Dame controlled the clock for 37 minutes. LSU’s big-time run game hardly had a chance to punish the Irish defense.

• The Irish offense was 12 of 19 on third and fourth down.

• Notre Dame avoided turning the ball over for the fourth time this season, but the first time since Purdue.

• The Irish offense, which had had five double digit-play drives in the last four losses, put together four against the Tigers.

• The LSU offense, significantly run-centric, had 113 of its 285 rushing yards come on two plays. The other 172 yards were distributed over 36 rushes.

But, most of all, the Irish finished — unlike Florida State, Northwestern and Louisville, when they had an opportunity to win at crunch time, but folded.

Tuesday, the offense responded with a 14-play, 71-yard drive that chewed up the last 5:41 before Kyle Brindza drilled the game-winning field goal from 32 yards. Golson and Zaire both played key roles in that march.

“This year, we got to the fourth quarter and we didn’t make some plays,” Kelly said. “We lost some football games. We got the game in hand in the fourth quarter today, and we handled it.

“We’re going to make that a habit. We didn’t do that this year.”

Habits are hard to form. Finding a way for Zaire and Golson to co-exist within the parameters of the Irish offense isn’t going to be easy. Kelly had a month to prepare for the quarterback shuffle. How he handles it on a week-to-week basis next season will be interesting.

But that’s next year. All week, Kelly has been adamant that the bowl game was an entity unto itself. Worry about 2015 in January.

Kelly’s plan and the Irish effort got the job done Tuesday. How that carries over into the season opener against Texas Sept. 5 is quite uncertain.

But at least it’s something to feel good about.

After four straight losses to end the regular season, Brian Kelly's Irish finished the season with a big win. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)