I am not sure what was more disappointing, Notre Dame’s lackluster offensive game plan, the fact Notre Dame once again lost in convincing fashion on the big stage, or head coach Brian Kelly’s post-game rant.
Kelly isn't happy, it would seem, about the earned narrative that Notre Dame, when the lights are brightest, are rarely even competitive, much less victorious.
Kelly was upset about a number of things following the game. The list included the local media not praising him for a great season (not our job), questions about why his team has lost yet another big game by double digits (apparently margins don’t matter), and he's not happy that he keeps getting asked that why, after 11 seasons, Notre Dame still isn't a championship level program.
His annoyance, sometimes anger, was reserved mostly for questions about how the Alabama game played out, and for questions about why his program isn't winning the "big games."
Kelly’s push back on the Alabama loss was puzzling on a number of levels. If you did not watch the game and simply read his comments you would have thought Notre Dame was a play or two away from winning.
“We had the opportunity,” Kelly said after the game. “You watched the game, I watched the game. We did not score in the red zone when we had opportunities. We moved the ball into the red zone, we missed a field goal, we had two opportunities in the red zone to score where this would be a competitive football game, and we didn't make enough plays.”
I did, in fact, watch the game, and how Kelly described how things went is not how the game went.
Kelly talked about scoring in the red zone, and that being the difference, but Notre Dame reached the red zone just once in its first seven possessions, once, and the offense scored a touchdown on that drive. After that touchdown, Notre Dame did not get back into the red zone until the fourth quarter when the score was 31-7 and Alabama had already taken its foot off the gas.
Is he really talking about fourth quarter missed opportunities when his team was down 24 points as a shot to make this a more competitive game? Was his idea of success making the game look closer than it actually was, and not actually winning?
I don’t see how any reasonable or objective person can watch that game and come away thinking, “Well, you know what, Notre Dame was just a couple of plays away from making this a ball game.”
No, they weren’t. Is Kelly arguing that only losing by 10 points after putting a garbage touchdown on the board is actually successful when playing Alabama?
Kelly has become a master manipulator of the narrative surrounding his program, and he tries to drive two narratives home at once, and he’ll grab onto the one that best suits him at the time of whatever point he’s trying to make.
Kelly constantly talks about how the program’s goals are to graduate all of his players and to win national championships. Then, when his team falls short of that second goal and Kelly is asked about it he gets upset and acts confused as to where this narrative comes from.
After the Alabama game, Kelly got upset that people keep asking him about his program coming up short on the big stage, which means failing to win national championships. So in one instance you want to constantly talk about how your goal is to win a championship, but then get upset when anyone in the media wants to ask why your team isn’t winning championships. Not only that, when you get on this stage the team isn’t competitive, no matter how Kelly tries to spin the decisive loss.
Kelly talked about Alabama’s playmakers making more plays, and his players didn’t make those plays. So obviously the problem isn’t the roster that he and his staff recruited, or the play calls, or the game plan, or anything else … the problem is clearly the players aren’t getting the job done.
What else can I infer from his comments after the Alabama loss?
Then, after comment after comment from Kelly about how good Alabama is or about their playmakers, a reporter had the audacity to ask the head coach at the University of Notre Dame, a head coach who says all the time that national championships are the goal, what is the next step to get those kinds of playmakers into his program.
This was Kelly’s response.
“You guys are killing me, big games, big games, you mean when we play Alabama and Clemson,” Kelly said after the game. “Those are elite talented teams that have elite players … Everybody’s got the same problem that I do … I don’t have a unique problem at Notre Dame.”
Well, yeah, Kelly does have a unique problem at Notre Dame.
The problem is that he is, in fact, at Notre Dame, a place where championships should be demanded. Kelly has done a tremendous job getting Notre Dame to the level where 10-2 isn’t good enough, but when he was hired back in December of 2009 he knew that the was the standard. Not being as bad as Charlie Weis or Ty Willingham or Bob Davie isn’t the standard, the standard is championships, and he knew that when he took the job.
Then when he’s held to that standard, he gets upset and wonders why people who aren’t paid to be his cheerleaders, whose job is not to be his cheerleaders, don’t act like his cheerleaders.
Kelly has done a masterful job of talking about the goal of winning championships while also making excuses for why it is so hard, and why his program is forced to “shop down a different aisle.” It would seem based on his reaction that the only person that is allowed to mention national championships at Notre Dame is Kelly, and it can only be done on his terms.
But the problem goes beyond that. If Kelly’s only issue was losing to Clemson or Alabama the narrative would be different, or should be. But that’s not his only problem, this is a constant problem.
Kelly likes to point to the team’s record since the post-2016 makeover, which is now an impressive 43-8. The problem is only three of those eight losses are to Alabama or Clemson. He’s 0-2 against Georgia, there’s the embarrassing 45-14 loss to Michigan last year, the 41-8 destruction at the hands of Miami back in 2017, which kept the Irish from playing for a title, there’s the 38-20 loss to Stanford that season, which also marked the last year in which Stanford finished a season ranked.
It’s also not just that he loses to Alabama or Clemson, its the manner in which you lose. There was no shame in Clemson losing 45-40 in Alabama in 2015, because you could see the Tigers were a play here or a play there away from winning. That’s the kind of game a coach can point to and say, “We were close.” Kelly pointing to the Rose Bowl beat down as evidence of his team almost being competitive is nothing but spin.
The best/worst part was how he concluded the answer about big games.
“We’re going to keep winning games, we’re going to keep getting back here, and we’re going to break through,” continued Kelly. “And then I’m going to be terrible to be at a press conference with. Terrible.”
So wait, you get mad when you’re asked why you don’t win championships, and then if you do, you’re going to be “terrible” to those covering your program? So you’re going to taunt the media for accomplishing what they’ve been saying you should be accomplishing?
Perhaps Kelly needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror and make a choice. Either stop talking about national championships being the goal and embrace being a tier two program, or embrace that those who analyze and cover the program take him at his word that the standard is championships, and be willing to be accountable for the areas where the program continues to fall short …. and fix it.
The players who put every ounce of energy, effort and passion into trying to win deserve that. Yesterday was not about a lack of talent on the field, it was more about what happened on the sideline.
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