Kelly banking on culture transcending Notre Dame's latest setbacks

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Somewhere amidst the statistical wreckage and another affronting injury report, Brian Kelly stumbled upon the blueprint he rolled out six years ago coming to life before his eyes.

CFP No. 4 Notre Dame’s Fenway Park fiasco of a victory, 19-16 over Boston College Saturday night in Boston, made the Irish (10-1) look more like tourists than a team making a case for inclusion in the second-ever College Football Playoff.

Their already difficult-to-interpret résumé — given their independent status, a dominating early-season win over Texas, the nation’s best loss (to No. 1 Clemson) and the weirdest warts — took another leap toward the enigmatic. At least from the outside looking in.

And with cornerback KeiVarae Russell now out six to eight weeks with a broken right tibia, that will require surgery, and a high sprain to the left ankle of 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Prosise that makes him doubtful for Saturday night’s regular-season finale at AP 13th-ranked and Pac-12 North champ Stanford (9-2), the guts and guile theme that once seemed so inspirational now played like an epitaph.

It might have too for Kelly, ND’s head coach, until he saw Saturday’s aftermath unfold.

Culture beats scheme?

It was the catchphrase Kelly concocted this preseason that didn’t quite capture the T-shirt/potholder/collectible plate market. But in Kelly’s mind it was the embodiment of the resilience he hoped to infuse into the program when he succeeded ousted coach Charlie Weis and his overly publicized buyout in December of 2009.

There are layers to it — the toughness Kelly wanted to replicate from a Stanford team that bullied his first Irish squad, 37-14 in South Bend back in 2010.

There’s the program/personnel depth to absorb seemingly crippling injuries, with Russell’s and Prosise’s Saturday afflictions bringing to 10 the number of projected starters lost in preseason and/or those who started at least one game during this season who will not be available for this showdown with the Cardinal.

That includes outside linebacker James Onwualu (knee), who missed the BC game as well.

And there’s that hard-to-define, but easy-to-spot chemistry that fueled a 2012 Irish team that had fewer NFL-trajectory individual parts but teemed with intangibles.

Kelly saw large doses of all of it at Fenway Saturday night, on the plane ride home afterward, and on Sunday in the vibe around the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

“Look, we had five turnovers, plus the one (long) kickoff return — six sudden changes, and our defense gave up three points in (all) those sudden changes,” Kelly said. “That's a great mentality to have defensively.

“And then from an offensive mentality, five turnovers and three in the red zone, and I never saw one guy point a finger. I never saw any bickering. All they were doing was we were moving to the next play. They were pulling for each other. It's just a pleasure to be able to coach this group of guys that just persevere.

“Look, it wasn't our cleanest game. We can't play this way against Stanford and expect to win the game. But as a coach, the satisfying moments are when your team is united, when your team plays together, when there's no pointing fingers and they just keep playing together.”

The question now is can that culture become something transcendent?

Can it catalyze the remaining healthy pieces into a performance that reflects the patchy stretches of potential and high-ceiling glimpses that were enough to convince both the coaches poll voters and those who concoct the AP poll electorate to nudge the Irish up one spot to No. 4, post-BC?

The College Football Playoff Selection committee casts the meaningful perception Tuesday night. And for the first time in the CFP’s sequence of 2015 rankings, it’s much less about what Iowa does or how the Big 12 heavyweights flex or whether people can get beyond the branding of ND’s wins over AP No. 16 Navy and No. 25 Temple.

It’s all about Notre Dame getting one last chance to clearly define itself.

And the Irish will have to do so against a team seemingly tailor-made to test its weaknesses.

Quarterback Kevin Hogan, with lineage to one of Notre Dame’s most famed “next men in” — QB Coley O”Brien — offers a mobile and extremely effective passing complement (7th nationally in pass efficiency) to the nation’s No. 15 rushing offense.

He’ll figure to pick on Russell’s replacement — junior Devin Butler, sophomore Nick Watkins, freshman Nick Coleman or some combination thereof.

Sophomore Christian McCaffrey leads that Stanford ground game, ranking fourth nationally in rushing (140.5) and first in all-purpose yards (255.2). And no one hogs the ball better and gives opposing offenses fewer opportunities to answer than the Cardinal, No. 1 in time of possession (35:18).

That plays against an Irish rushing defense, still languishing at 68th, despite having a run of underwhelming rushing offenses matched against it since Halloween.

But there are some reasons for optimism for Kelly.

He expects sophomore nose guard Daniel Cage to return to the starting lineup Saturday night in Palo Alto, Calif., after missing the past two games with a concussion. That allows the entire defensive line to realign to its strengths, most importantly returning Isaac Rochell to the end position.

Kelly also saw enough poise from his own quarterback, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer, around his three interceptions to believe a bounce-back is in the cards.

Kizer ranks 19th nationally in passing efficiency (152.5). That’s seven spots ahead of the man who was two rungs above him on the Irish depth chart last spring, recently demoted Florida State quarterback Everett Golson, and the best rating among true freshmen/redshirt freshmen nationally.

And Kelly knows ND has some history, recent history of dealing well with the Stanford offense. In a 17-14 Irish victory last October in South Bend, Notre Dame held the Cardinal to 205 total yards, well below its season overage of 388.6.

Coupled with four sacks and two picks, it’s the paradigm of what the Brian VanGorder defense is supposed to look like.

The most meaningful asset in Kelly’s eyes, though, is the one that’s the most camouflaged in just about everyone else’s.

A culture resurfacing in reality.

“We're close to doing some great things,” he said Sunday afternoon. “We just have to put it together for four quarters, and we're going to have to do that against Stanford. If we do, this is a playoff team.

“That culture exists. It's strong. These guys love to battle. That's why I have no hesitations about what they're going to do against Stanford. They're going to fight for four quarters and lay it on the field.”

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly claps after a fighting Irish touchdown against Temple, Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. EST

Where: Stanford Stadium; Palo Alto, Calif,

TV: FOX

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Stanford by 3