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Monday, May 27, 2024
The Observer

Horton: Brian Kelly wouldn't have won that one

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Irish head coach Marcus Freeman celebrates during Notre Dame's 48-20 win over USC on Oct. 14 at Notre Dame Stadium.


Following the disappointing loss to Louisville, I hopped on the phone with my dad to vent. Like many Notre Dame fans after the game, we expressed our frustrations with the lack of explosive plays and the offensive line struggles. By the end of the call, we fell back on the saddening truth: Brian Kelly wouldn’t have lost that game.

While he’s certainly not a popular name on the Notre Dame campus today, Brian Kelly stacked 92 official wins and 21 vacated wins during his time coaching the Irish. He built Notre Dame into a team of consistency that won between eight and 12 wins in every year except 2016.

His teams consistently defeated lower-ranked opponents but often lost primetime matchups in heartbreaking fashion. Just think about the offensive pass interference against No. 2 Florida State in 2014. The failed two-point attempt against No. 12 Clemson in 2015. And if they didn't lose close, they lost big, like in the 2012 BCS National Championship and the 2015 Fiesta Bowl. As many Notre Dame fans likely recognize, Kelly beat up on inferior opponents but failed to win the big games throughout his time in South Bend.

While Kelly struggled in high-ranked matchups, Marcus Freeman does not seem to have the same problem early in his head coaching career. After the dominant performance over USC, now is not the time to focus on the previous coach’s struggles. It’s time to examine the Freeman era with optimism. 

Dominant defensive gameplan

In both of his wins over top-10 teams, one word defines the Notre Dame defense: dominant. Against Clemson and USC, the defense created a bunch of turnovers that helped give the offense short fields and create an early lead. Notre Dame focused on keeping Caleb Williams in the pocket on Saturday, forcing the top draft prospect to make errant passes that senior safety Xavier Watts and sophomore cornerback Benjamin Morrison could pounce on. 

Even during the loss to Ohio State earlier in the year, the Notre Dame defense displayed its strength throughout much of the contest. Marcus Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their ability to recognize the holes in top-ranked offenses and how to exploit them for takeaways. 

Players' coach

Notre Dame players clearly love competing for Freeman. This was evident from the second he was named head coach when the players celebrated with him in the locker room. Because of this support, Freeman has staked his coaching reputation on his ability to recruit. He sells top recruits on the opportunity to reach the next level and the value of a Notre Dame education. Freeman has already landed highly touted quarterbacks CJ Carr and Deuce Knight during his short time as head coach.

Much of the winning in college football today is done before the season even starts. Look at the Georgia Bulldogs and Kirby Smart. People think of Smart as a great recruiter first and as a coach second. He is not viewed as an innovative mind or a superb in-game decision-maker. Because of his impact as a players' coach, Freeman can get recruits to buy into his culture. That gives the Irish an edge before these primetime games even start.  

Notre Dame may be out of playoff contention for this season. But the commanding performance over rival USC put the rest of the college football landscape on notice. As Freeman continues to gain in-game experience, the ceiling for the Irish under his watch will only go higher.