Analysis: Brian Kelly likes potential for current Notre Dame team to make history
SOUTH BEND — The more Brian Kelly gets nudged toward revisiting history, the more the Notre Dame head football coach is determined that this Irish team is capable of making its own.
That the next step toward a possible College Football Playoff berth for AP No. 3 ND (8-1) happens to be against a storied rival enjoying a parallel renaissance season — AP No. 7 Miami (8-0) — is simply a beguiling coincidence.
So, apparently to him, is Saturday night’s venue, Hard Rock Stadium, rebranded from its Sun Life Stadium incarnation the last time Kelly walked out of it almost five years ago, and walked out not knowing if he was even going to be coming back to ND for his fourth season.
Once Kelly recommitted and the Philadelphia Eagles flirtation was behind him, he decided the model that got him and ND to Miami Gardens — for the 2012 BCS National Championship Game — was too flawed to simply tweak.
The ensuing brainstorming, following the 42-14 dressing down from Alabama, led to some well-intentioned evolution, not all of it necessarily well-calculated. The Brian VanGorder hiring in January of 2014, for instance, had its roots in the post-title game hangover.
So more soul-searching, more change.
And suddenly the two most contentious program models of the late 1980s and two of the most successful as well have arrived on Saturday’s big stage, ESPN’s College GameDay included, decades later wearing a similar three-piece suit.
Kickoff is 8 p.m. EST, and ABC-TV has the national telecast, sure to be saturated in nostalgia.
“Most of our guys, they know the history of the rivalry, certainly,” Kelly said Sunday. “It really doesn't impact what they do in terms of their preparation.
“Two programs that have great traditions, that have won national championships — you would think sooner or later they're going to meet again with something that's on the line. We're excited that we're back in that position for our university.
“Other than that, we don't spend much time thinking about the past.”
Statistically dissimilar for the most part, it’s the vibe and the players of the current Notre Dame and Miami teams that seem to sync up.
Ten Irish starters had Miami scholarship offers coming out of high school, two more than the number pursued by Stanford and, in fact, more than any other school on the 2017 ND schedule.
Five starters — offensive guard Quenton Nelson, center Sam Mustipher, tight end Durham Smythe, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and quarterback Brandon Wimbush — were targeted by both the 'Canes and the Cardinal.
But Hurricanes coach Mark Richt has molded his talent into a team that passes better than it runs and defends the pass much better than it stops the run.
Kelly’s Irish maul you with the running game on offense — moving up to No. 5 in the country in rushing offense (324.8 ypg) and No. 1 in team yards per carry (7.04) after getting minimal contribution (22 yards on five carries) from an ailing Josh Adams in a 48-37 scorefest with Wake Forest this past Saturday. Kelly said Sunday that the nation’s No. 9 rusher is expected to be back for the Miami game.
The Irish are much improved in stopping the run, even with a 14-spot regression to No. 30 nationally this weekend (130.2 ypg).
“I like the way this team is built for big games in terms of our physicality and our ability to take the ball away defensively,” Kelly said. “Kind of feel better about going into this game than maybe the national championship game.”
Buoying Kelly’s confidence is that he believes there’s not only growth potential out there for the Irish, but that they’re up to the task.
The Irish are seventh in the nation in scoring (41.3) and on a school-record pace, but Kelly keeps watching quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s passing numbers improve — and in the face of some unusually strong competition.
When the junior makes his eighth collegiate start Saturday night (he missed the North Carolina game on Oct. 7), it will be the sixth top 40 pass-efficiency defense he’ll have been tasked with facing and third in the national’s top seven (the Hurricanes are third).
By comparison, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield will see his first top 50 pass defense this Saturday, when he and the Sooners take on TCU (24th), though Mayfield, as the No. 1 QB in pass-efficiency, has something to do with the lower rankings of his opponents.
Some positives for Wimbush, beyond a season pass-efficiency rating (121.7) that has climbed each of his past five games, is that he is among the national leaders (regardless of position) in rushing TDs, tied for eighth with 13. And he is tied for 11th in points responsible for per game (18.0).
As far as his passing, only two QBs among the 112 with enough attempts to qualify for the national pass-efficiency stats have fewer interceptions this season than Wimbush’s two. That’s Fresno State’s Marcus Maryion and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts.
“I think the narrative of him being able to throw the football should change dramatically,” Kelly said.
And the narrative about an Irish defense that was putting up some historic numbers until Saturday shouldn’t change, per Kelly.
The Irish players Saturday night admitted a mental letdown for Wake, really the first time that’s happened this season. Kelly added another layer for those who were pondering if first-year Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s old team had cracked the code.
“From a coaching standpoint, if we had to do some things differently, we definitely would have done them differently,” Kelly said. “Maybe got too cute in terms of what we were trying to accomplish.
“Maybe trying to cover up some things that we thought they knew about us. Didn't do what we normally do. We'll take some of the blame for that in terms of coaching. I think that's part of it.
“Then we got up 41-16. We didn't handle ourselves in a manner to close out the game the way we have all year. So a little bit of coaching there, a little bit of having a killer instinct on defense, and Wake Forest executing extremely well.”
One recent historical marker with some relevance. Notre Dame is the last team to beat Miami, 30-27, on Oct. 29, 2016 in South Bend. Since then the Hurricanes have cobbled together the nation’s longest active winning streak at 13.
“I think when you're here longer, you get a better sense of your place, your place in history as it relates to the tradition of Notre Dame football,” Kelly said. “Obviously not living up to the standards of Notre Dame last year, you focused a lot more on wanting to make sure that you do so.”
Notre Dame woke up Sunday with a national statistical individual leader, and it’s sophomore cornerback Julian Love.
With his third interception of the season Saturday and a return of 25 yards, Love moved up to No. 1 in interception return yardage (153).
He is third nationally in passes defended — a combination of interceptions and pass breakups — with 17, and fourth in pass breakups with 14.
• Former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer was among five current NFL players with Irish ties who came back to campus Saturday to take in the Wake Forest game.
The Cleveland Browns rookie was joined by linebacker James Onwualu (Chargers), defensive lineman Isaac Rochell (Chargers), tight end Kyle Rudolph (Vikings) and safety Harrison Smith (Vikings).
“I don't know if (Kizer) and Brandon (Wimbush) got a chance to talk at all,” Kelly said. “I know there's been some well wishes, texting back and forth. They are certainly friends. Any time you sit in that room together, there's a close bond between players, in particular quarterbacks.
“I love having our former players come back.”