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Wednesday, June 19, 2024
The Observer

Hefferon: Defeat spotlights Kelly tenure and unreached ceiling (Sept. 30)


Saturday's loss to Oklahoma was a lot of things. It was a brutal start, then some resilience with flashes of brilliance. It was inconsistent. It was a quarterback carousel, and a bend-but-don't-break defense. It was promising, it was better, but it wasn't quite there yet.

In short, it was a perfect representation of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.

Kelly's start at Notre Dame had its fair share of growing pains, although plenty of fans would have described losing three of his first four games as something harsher, if not as a fireable offense. The lowest point came a month later, after back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa to fall to 4-5. But the team rallied behind an unlikely freshman, this Tommy Rees kid, to finish 8-5 and right the ship.

Kelly's sophomore season followed with an equally appalling 0-2 start, and his starting quarterback made it through the season's first 30 minutes before being replaced. But Kelly settled into the spotlight that comes with coaching under the dome, and, after a few bumps in the road, gained the trust of his players. Over the next two years the screws tightened, and an immaculate season of good luck and great defense brought Notre Dame back to the top of college football last season. That is until Alabama came and showed just how far this program was from the summit.

Now flashback to the start of all this, to Brian Kelly's introductory press conference in 2009. It was then that Kelly declared that his game plan for success wasn't "a five-year plan, it's a five-minute plan." In year four, it seems that the former is more likely. 

Make no mistake, this team is much better than the one Kelly inherited back in 2009. After losses to Connecticuts, Syracuses, Navies and Tulsas, Notre Dame hasn't been truly upset since that rain-soaked loss to South Florida in the 2011 opener. It is deeper, more explosive, and has reached heights unseen since Lou Holtz

It has also shown brilliance in every stage of the game this year - just never at the same time. Early on this year, it was Rees covering for a struggling running game. The secondary bailed out the defense to secure a win at Purdue but has struggled throughout. The front seven has shut down the opposition's running game - except when it hasn't. And Saturday was a banner day for the run game, but it couldn't make up for the hole dug by miscues through the air.

In the context of the five-year plan, Kelly has done a bang-up job. But every step up the mountain gets steeper, and this current step - from one-year wonder to perennial Top-15 program- is the toughest yet. This team has all the pieces, but now success depends on getting all of them put together, every single week.

That consistency has evaded the Irish in every game this season and is Brian Kelly's last big challenge. If Notre Dame continues to misfire, then the frustrations will pile up to a forgettable season and some silly-sponsored bowl. 

But if this team plays its best football for 60 minutes, it can give a game to anyone in the country. And then maybe we can stop having the conversation of how good this team can be, and see how good they actually are.

Contact Jack Hefferon at
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.