Is Notre Dame's football program in a good place?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Gloom and doom didn’t smother the Notre Dame football team’s locker room like it did after the 2012 season finale.

Friday’s 44-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to seventh-ranked Ohio State didn’t come with the “Eddie Lacy’s crunching of Manti Te’o’s head” kind of devastation that Alabama pinned on the Irish in a 42-14 title game rout.

Given the circumstances — linebacker Jaylon Smith’s injury, a depleted Irish defensive front and secondary, and a 14-0 hole five minutes into the game — closing within seven points of the defending national champs with 8:58 left in the third quarter was more encouraging than an indictment of the program.

After that awful start, when the eighth-ranked Irish (10-3) seemed ill-prepared for Ohio State’s speed and physicality, it never seemed like they were going to storm ahead of the Buckeyes (12-1). But, then again, Notre Dame was stubborn enough to never let the roof cave in.

Looking beyond what actually happened on the field, the Irish program seems to be in a better place now than it was three years ago, a season in which he spent some time at No. 1 in the polls and played for the national title.

One dubious stat that won’t go away for Notre Dame is that it’s been since the Cotton Bowl after the 1993 season that the Irish have won a bowl game that mattered.

“I feel pretty good about where we're going,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We certainly needed to execute better (against the Buckeyes), but (I) didn't feel like we were out-manned. We were shorthanded today, but we weren't out-manned.

“I like where we are. We're going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don't want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them.

“Big names, great traditions, New Year's Six games. Keep playing them, get in them. Keep building your program, keep recruiting, keep doing it the way you're doing it, and we're going to win these games.

“We've made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We'll get there. Hopefully, we won't have as many injuries. We'll get back here again. We'll win 'em.

Kelly said he went through a similar process when he was building Grand Valley State into a Division II power more than a decade ago.

"It took us about six years to win a playoff game," he said. "Then we won three national championships.

“Look, I'm not saying we're ready to win three national championships. But stay the course, keep doing what we're doing, keep recruiting, keep bringing in great guys like this, and we'll get there.”

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick staunchly defended Kelly’s program, and scoffed at the notion that the Irish are having trouble getting over the hump when it comes to bowl games in the spotlight.

“I reject that notion," he said. "(We) played in the national championship game. How many teams played in the national championship game in this decade?”

Yeah, but… What have you done for me lately?

“We’re coming in here No. 8 in the country, facing an injury onslaught and loss of players that’s unbelievable, and we’re down a touchdown in the third quarter,” Swarbrick said. “I don’t see anything about the program that makes me think we have something to overcome. I feel great about where we are.

“I was really worried about depth issues; rotational issues today. The one thing you never thought: Are they going to stop fighting? They didn’t.”

Maybe the state of the big-picture had something to do with the lack of despair in the losing locker room, though the stakes were much higher against Alabama. The difference was, the Irish didn’t belong in that game. Against Ohio State, Notre Dame just didn’t show up for the first five minutes.

“(After the Alabama loss) there was a physical difference that we had to deal with,” Swarbrick said. “I’m so comfortable in what we have. … We still have to build depth, but it’s hard to evaluate depth when you have to use so much of it. That’s the next step.

“It’s not about this game or that game. It’s: 'Where’s your program? Have you got all the elements in place to build a great program? Player development, recruiting, nutrition, strength and conditioning, scheme.'

“I don’t see any holes right now. We’ve gotta do better. That’s the only way we’re going to win a national championship, but I don’t see any holes that existed before.”

Two guys who just ended their Notre Dame careers were upbeat about the future.

“I’m leaving (the program) in good hands,” said linebacker Jarrett Grace, pressed into duty Friday at weakside linebacker when Smith, then backup Te'von Coney, went down.

“I can say I’m definitely proud of that," he continued. "The impact we’ve had on these underclassmen is going to be a lasting one. Moving forward, I want them to exceed anything we’ve ever done.

“Today was a perfect example (of what it takes to get over the hump). The physicality, that piece is there. The guys are confident in their abilities. Just a little more execution, and that’s going to come. The more we get into these big games, the guys are going to settle in and not let the nerves get to them.”

“I don’t think there’s a team in the country this team couldn’t have played with this year,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “We took Clemson to the very end. We took Stanford to the very end. We were in this game to the very end, even after giving them 14 points to start it off.

“I don’t think physically there’s an issue. Coach Kelly has brought in some incredible players, and they’re doing great things. I’m very confident in this football program and where it’s at. Anyone that says we’re not ready to compete in big games isn’t watching the tape.”

If everything is a hunky-dory as everyone says, it’s about time the Irish end that drought of more than two decades.

Pressure’s on Team 128.