Ten games into the season, Notre Dame finally finds 'an edge'

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — This Notre Dame football season has spiraled beyond wins and losses.

With two games left and the Irish already saddled with six setbacks, more important evaluation criteria exists than simply who scores more points.

Starting with Saturday’s game against Virginia Tech, the Irish will be judged by how they play, as much as how they finish. Of course, the rationalization is that if they play well, they’re going to finish on top.

It took nine games, but in last week’s win over Army, Irish coach Brian Kelly said he finally saw glimpses of “an edge” he’s been hoping to see from his team all season.

Now, that’s progress.

‘Bout time

By halftime in last week’s “name that score” against Army, Notre Dame had scored 38 points and rolled up 287 yards, while limiting the Black Knights to six points and 111 yards.

It was an Irish effort weighted heavily on the side of impressive.

For Kelly, it was the kind of performance that was a long time coming.

“We understand (how) we want to play the game,” said Kelly. “How we play the game is more important than really anything else because we're playing it. Right now, we're playing for next year. We're starting to figure out how to play.

“Some people might say, ‘Well, you know, it wasn't Alabama that you played, it was Army.’ But that really doesn't matter to me. It's really in how we played the game that I look at. And we played that game differently than any other game that we played all year.

“We played with ‘an edge’ in that game that we hadn't played with all year. If we continue to play with that kind of edge, we can be a really good team.

“I'm more interested, and I think I've had this question posed in a couple different ways, I'm more interested … Going to a ballgame is important, how we're perceived is important, I'm more interested in playing the game the right way. And if we do that, that's Job One for me.”

Just that whole scenario, that thought process, opens up so many questions.

What really goes into “an edge?” Why wait until the 10th game of the season to show it? What kept it — mental or physical — from manifesting before? Why would a team be so fragile that it was unable to reach that competitive level before?

Kinda strange

This, certainly, has been the most difficult team of the Kelly era on which to get a handle.

Early in the season, Kelly had to go out of his way to plead for this group to play with passion. Football, by its very nature, is a passionate sport. It’s a game. It’s not supposed to be a chore.

Not getting a high level of emotion out of a collection of elite athlete can be troublesome. In most cases, it would be taken for granted. With these Irish, it was almost to the point of needing to be contrived.

Along with that passion comes the confidence that seems to be a necessary ingredient in finding “an edge.”

Kelly has sensed that his players have gotten to the point where they’re being bogged down by the baggage that comes along with being 4-6. The rallying cry is, “Two more wins for a bad bowl game.”

Problem is, the final two teams on the Notre Dame schedule — Virginia Tech and Southern Cal — are probably the best of the dozen the Irish have been slated for this season.

That’s why Kelly has gone out of his way to distance himself from the “Win two or else…” mentality, while embracing the mantra of judging success by the way the game is played.

“If I had to give the priorities, it's more important how we play,” Kelly said, deflecting the pressure. “I want to win, too. But if you look at what our options are, we're going to practice for about 12 days (before a bowl game), you know, and then that's it. Then we're going to play one game. So they're not going to be inactive very long, one way or the other.

“I'd like to practice. I want to go to a bowl game. I want to win our last two games. But I'm not losing sleep over it. What I'm concerned about the most is how we play. And that's the most important thing because those are the most important elements on what we've had to go through this year. I want to make sure that how we play is going to be reflective of where we finish and how we build that for next year.”

Following his lead

Irish players, especially on defense, are embracing Kelly’s philosophy. They recognize the different game they played against Army, but have no explanation why it suddenly appeared, or any idea where it was before.

“Coach Kelly has a bar that he has for energy, execution … a lot of categories that he has for us,” said Notre Dame outside linebacker James Onwaulu. “Putting that all together is what he’s really talking about. We’d be lacking in one area and have the others.

“We kind of pulled it all together in the past game and played all the way around.”

Why now?

“I don’t really have an answer for that,” Onwaulu said. “He knew that we were working toward something, working toward being the best team we could be. It’s starting to come around. We’re figuring out how talented we can be.”

“The guys were just excited to play,” defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said of the game in San Antonio. “When you’re not doing so well, you get to the point, ‘OK, whatever, let’s just go play and have a great time and love what we do.’ While that was happening, it kinda clicked, ‘We’re a pretty good ballclub.’

“It was exciting, playing well. The energy … People were just feeding off each other. It was just the idea of, ‘Let’s play.’

“I’m sure it was fun for fans to watch. It was fun for us to play in. The plane ride back was much more enjoyable than it’s been in the past. All around, it’s a really good feeling.”

Middle linebacker Nyles Morgan noticed the uptick in intensity — and liked what he experienced.

“To me, ‘an edge’ means 11 hats to the ball,” said Morgan. “Not just five or six or seven. Everybody was flying around. Everyone did their job. After they did their job, they ran to the football.”

Morgan’s explanation for the new concept was pretty simple.

“Everyone got tired (of not doing it),” he said. “Everyone finally figured it out.

“We’re not looking at (win-loss) records anymore. We’re just looking at the next game and elevating our play beyond the last game.”

Bottling that energy and unleashing it again Saturday against the Hokies would be a convenient approach for finding “an edge” again. Problem is, it’s a quite unscientific formula that’s being handled by a very fragile team.

So many scenarios exist for something to go wrong.

Good thing wins and losses aren’t important anymore.

Notre Dame’s Donte Vaughn (35) and Drue Tranquill (23) tackle Malik McGue(16) during the Shamrock Series game, Saturday, November 12, 2016 in San Antonio. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ