Notre Dame Still Sucks

30 Sep 2010

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Like every other Notre Dame player asked about a cringe-worthy stretch of play for years, Harrison Smith insisted this time is different.

The senior safety sounded like more of the mind-numbing same, until he said something Wednesday to suggest otherwise.

Recalling a room of beaten, solemn faces last weekend, and heeding the burr in his stomach, Smith flatly said it has to be “kind of like life or death when it comes to winning” for the 1-3 Irish.

He said what many have been aching for any Notre Dame player to say for, oh, four coaches or so. He said enough to insinuate that, in the so-far uninspiring Year 1 of the Brian Kelly era, there is a microbe of a fresh mentality taking hold.

“I don’t want to say it’s new, but maybe there’s just a lot more of it right now,” Smith said. “After some of the losses, you can see it in everyone’s face — not that we’re actually dying, but that’s what it’s like.

“So the next week, instead of giving up and backing off and just taking it easy, everyone has ramped it up. It has gotten more intense every week because we’re sick of it and we have to start winning.”

They haven’t, but an examination of Kelly’s previous Year 1s indicates a crawl space for hope entering Saturday night’s game at Boston College (2-1). His first teams at Central Michigan and Cincinnati enjoyed wildly different levels of success but did not succumb to adversity, and those 2007 Bearcats easily handled the more manageable portion of their schedule — a stretch soon approaching for Notre Dame.

Smith’s statement and corroborating testimony from teammates — “Losing is the closest thing to dying; it does not feel good,” linebacker Manti Te’o said — signify reprogramming that might lead the Irish down a similar path. And Kelly is happy to push them along.

“You have to operate with a sense of urgency, or it takes too long to build a house,” he said. “I just don’t like waiting that long. Our guys understand this isn’t a transition year, this isn’t a rebuilding year, this isn’t ‘Let’s feel good about everybody before we start to click.’ No, we have to do it right now.”

By Oct. 23 of Kelly’s first year at Central Michigan, the Chippewas had lost three straight to plunge to 2-5. But only one of their last five games was decided by more than five points, and the offense jumped from averaging 15 points in its first five games against Division I-A opponents to 30.2 in its last five.

In Kelly’s debut season at Cincinnati, the Bearcats averaged 46.4 points in nonconference play and 29.9 in Big East play, allowing 10.6 points per game in their first five games and 24.3 in their last seven.

So Cincinnati drubbed competition at or below its own talent level — which is precisely what the Irish will face the rest of the way, Utah and USC excepted.

The takeaway: Even Kelly’s first teams, working to grasp a new philosophy, stayed the course. If semi-relevant history holds, that might give the Irish a chance to rebound in coming weeks.

“The process is the same, it’s just the expectations are different,” Kelly said. “You take over a new company as the CEO, and you’re having a rough quarter. You’re going, ‘OK, I’m not sure what’s coming up here, but I’m going to stick with what I’ve been doing and know that it has worked in the past and it’s just a matter of time.’ That’s kind of what we’re going through right now.”

Numbers and history don’t guarantee a turnaround. They just guarantee the approach, and on the couple of occasions he has started over, that has been bedrock Kelly builds upon.

“He’s not going to change,” guard Chris Stewart said. “The program is not going to change. Our program is tough-minded and it’s going to continue to be that way and it’ll pay off in the long run.”

Extra point: Touted freshman quarterback Chase Rettig will make his college debut for Boston College on Saturday, according to the Boston Globe. Coach Frank Spaziani had hoped to redshirt Rettig but made the switch when Dave Shinskie and Mike Marscovetra struggled.