Kelly’s first season a mixed bag

Published 2:14 am Monday, November 22, 2010

The Associated Press

NEW YORK — There is little doubt Notre Dame will return to Yankee Stadium in the not-too-distant future. When exactly has yet to be decided, but the marriage between two of the country’s most famous sports brands is a match made in marketing heaven.

Maybe when the Fighting Irish do return to the Big Apple, the game itself will be as significant as the pageantry of the event.

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Brian Kelly’s first year as Notre Dame coach has been a mix of tragically sad moments off the field, frustrating losses on it and glimmers of hope for a better future for the Fighting Irish.

Maybe the high point of the season came Saturday night at Yankee Stadium. The 27-3 victory against Army was rather routine. Robert Hughes had a short touchdown run, freshman quarterback Tommy Rees threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tyler Eifert and Darrin Walls scored Notre Dame’s first defensive touchdown since Sept. 27, 2008, against Purdue.

The Black Knights have made great strides in two seasons under coach Rich Ellerson. They are bowl bound for the first time since 1996 and might even have a shot to snap their eight-game losing streak against Navy in a couple weeks.

But a well-prepared and pumped-to-play Notre Dame was too much for Army and many of the 54,251 fans at the Yankee Stadium spent the second half soaking in the atmosphere, taking pictures or getting a head start on the subway ride home.

The Fighting Irish are bowl eligible so no matter what happens in their regular-season finale against Southern California on Saturday, the season will go on. They might even find themselves heading west again, filling a bowl spot the Pac-10 cannot at least in part because of USC’s NCAA sanctions.

So what to make of season one of the Kelly era?

The coach has had to deal with some real-life issues in the death of recruit Matt James in the spring and the accident at practice that killed Declan Sullivan, a student who was taking videos of practice when the tower he was standing on was blown over by a powerful gust of wind.

Others better qualified can judge Kelly’s handling of those events.

On the football side, seven or eight victories seemed to be a reasonable goal for the Irish this season.

While Kelly came in talking about 5-minute plans, he has coached more like a man trying to lay a foundation for championship teams to come.

He could have played it safe at the end of the Tulsa game and set up for a potential game-winning field goal. Instead he let Rees throw it into the end zone. The pass was picked off and Notre Dame lost the game that followed Sullivan’s death.

After Kelly said people had better get used it to it because this was the way Notre Dame was going to play under his leadership. In the long term, coaching with bravado the borders on arrogance could pay off. It’s worked well for other successful coaches such as Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer.

That day, however, Notre Dame needed a victory and Kelly didn’t do what was best to get one there.

On the other hand, in just a few weeks Kelly has turned Rees into a capable big-time college quarterback.

Not to make excuses for Kelly, but his Irish haven’t had much luck this season. Losses to Michigan, Michigan State and Tulsa were a play away from being victories. Injuries ended the seasons of quarterback Dayne Crist, star tight end Kyle Rudolph, top running back Armando Allen and defensive tackle Ian Williams.

Then again, the Irish might have caught a break by playing Utah a week after the Utes were mauled by TCU. The Utes seemed deflated in South Bend and lost 28-3.

Still a defense that was porous early in the season has not allowed an offensive touchdown in 11 quarters.

Now comes USC and a chance for a season-changing victory.

“There hasn’t and will not be one singular game that defines (this season),” Kelly said Sunday.

Don’t believe him. The Trojans have won eight straight against the Irish. USC isn’t what it was under Carroll, but if Kelly can break that streak, his first season — at least on the field — becomes an unqualified success.

And the idea of Notre Dame playing a big game at Yankee Stadium four or five years from now won’t seem so farfetched.



—Stanford’s Andrew Luck has played his way into an invite to the Heisman Trophy ceremony at New York on Dec. 11 and it’s not just his passing that’s made him a worthy contender. He’s no Denard Robinson, but Luck has run for 445 yards and averaged 9.1 yards a carry.

—Quick, who leads the nation in touchdown passes? If you said Dominique Davis of East Carolina with 34, you have a Pirates flag flying from your car. The Boston College transfer is fourth in the nation in yards passing with 3,385.

—With two weeks left in the regular season there are 64 bowl-eligible teams and 70 slots to fill. There are 12 teams a victory away from bowl eligibility. Among the teams needing one more victory are Texas, Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Houston and Oregon State. If not enough teams reach .500 to fill all the bowl spots, the NCAA will have consider letting 5-7 teams play in the postseason.



Championship game: Auburn vs. Oregon.

Rose Bowl: Boise State vs. Wisconsin.

Sugar Bowl: LSU vs. TCU.

Fiesta Bowl: Nebraska vs. West Virginia.

Orange Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Ohio State.



The day after Thanksgiving might very well be the biggest day of the season.

No. 2 Auburn is at No. 9 Alabama in an Iron Bowl for the ages. Will Cam Newton be playing for the Tigers?

A bit later in the day, No. 1 Oregon takes on No. 20 Arizona at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks looked vulnerable last time out.

Then there’s the night cap from the Biggest Little City in the World. No. 3 Boise State visits No. 19 Nevada in Reno.


Ralph D. Russo covers college football for The Associated Press. Write to him at rrusso(ap)org.