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  • Phil Houk

Three Games...now Five and Back to Elite

Updated: Dec 13, 2020

1. Sugar Bowl, ND v. LSU. 1-3-07

2. BCS Championship, ND v. Alabama 1-7-13

3. Cotton Bowl/CFP Semi, ND v. Clemson 12-29-18

4.ND at Georgia, 9-21-2019

5. Clemson at ND 11-7-20


By: Phil Houk of Fighting Irish Preview

After the ND v. Clemson game in the CFP semifinal in 2018 I wrote a story entitled Three Games. It chronicled three benchmark games over the years as the Irish have struggled to fight their way back to the elite levels of College football. After the victorious battle with Clemson, it's time for an update, because now there are five benchmark games.


In three of the "benchmark" games as Notre Dame has fought to get back to the National Championship promised land of 1988, the Irish lost …… by an average of 27.3 points.


The question after all of those losses: is Notre Dame been making progress towards the elusive goal of rejoining the college football elite?


When ND took on LSU in the 2007 Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, they came into the game at 10-2 and ranked #10, LSU was also 10-2 and was #4. The Charlie Weis led Irish had a chance to show that they were back as a program after the mostly dark post Lou Holtz years under Bob Davie and Ty Willingham.


I recall eating lunch in the French Quarter a few hours before the game with a media pal discussing how much a win would mean to the Irish. In contrast a nearby table full of Tiger fans were absolutely confident in an LSU victory, they had a different vibe to most Notre Dame fans. They seemed to know they belonged there, and would win. Notre Dame fans seemed to have doubts.


Later that day, LSU QB Jamarcus Russell, the “can’t miss” soon to be NFL number one overall pick (he later became such a bust that the Raiders took years to recover), sent the Irish home with their tails between their legs….. 41-14.


LSU in fact, thrashed the Irish. Charlie Weis’s “decided schematic advantage” was overcome with raw athleticism. The Irish finished with a pretty good season but they were not quite ready for prime time.



After that game as I flew home, I reflected on what it was going to take to get the Irish back to the pinnacle of college football. Notre Dame was good, but they needed more playmakers on both sides of the ball. Brady Quinn was a heck of a passer, but the Irish needed big tall receivers, and fast running backs and huge nasty lineman, and a pass rush.

They needed playmakers, not just at a few positions but all over the field and they needed depth.


Simply put they needed more and better players, on the field that day it had been obvious to my eyes that the Irish did not measure up.


But instead of improving, recruiting under Weis tailed off, so a few years later, Charlie was sent home to collect that well known golden severance.


In December 2009 the hottest coach in the Country came to South Bend. Brian Kelly was fresh off a 12-0 season at Cincinnati, had championships in his past and he was Irish. The optics of this hire, looked good.




2010 and 2011 were up and down years for the Irish, and no one was sure if Brian Kelly was turning things around or if the Irish were still stuck in the middle of the pack.


Then came 2012. Manti Teo and Tyler Eifert magic was in the air and the Irish made an improbable run to 12-0. Miami Beach and a showdown for the national championship with Alabama awaited.


But the Crimson Tide, led by Eddie Lacy and AJ McCarron sent the Irish home again, with their tails between their legs...… this time 42-14. I couldn’t wait to get out of Sun Life stadium that night. The feeling I had was a lot like I had in 2007. Notre Dame was pretty good but still not ready to play with the really big boys.





Still on the lookout for raw athleticism, and a lot of it.


Nonetheless, advancing to the 2012 championship game was progress.


That progress ebbed and flowed for a few years until the kick in the teeth 2016 season. A 4-8 record stimulated change, Brian Kelly initiated big change. Nutrition, psychology, technology, and facilities: no aspect of the program was left untouched. In all 17 new staff members were hired, including strength and conditioning Coach Matt Balis. And Kelly gave up play calling duties, took up yoga and resolved to connect more with his players.


It worked.


10-3 and a bowl win in 2017,and in 2018 another run to 12-0.


But alas another disappointment, this time in the CFP semifinal Cotton Bowl and this time it was the Clemson Tigers sending the Irish home, yes AGAIN…..with their tails between their legs, 30-3.


But it felt different after this benchmark game, than it had after the other two. I’m not into excuses, and of course history will forever show that the Tigers won 30-3: a flat out whuppin. But my eyes and my brain saw a closer game.


For the first quarter the Irish and Tigers went toe to toe. A 3-3 standoff. After kicking the field goal the Irish recovered a forced fumble deep in Clemson territory on their kickoff. The call was overturned when on review it was determined that the fumble had gone out of bounds. Hmmm…….okay I’m not typically a second guesser but let’s just say my standard of “indisputable visual evidence” apparently was different from the game referee’s. Had that call not been overturned there is a strong likelihood that the Irish would have taken a 10-3 lead or at the least a 6-3 lead into the second quarter.


But then, the football god’s tossed another curveball at the Irish. Notre Dame’s all-American cornerback, Julian Love missed the 2nd quarter with an injury. So Clemson did what any good team would. They cranked up all- world QB Trevor Lawrence and attacked the now “Loveless” side of the field. Corner substitute Donte Vaughn was not up to the task, and neither was a, forced into man coverage in the slot by the loss of Love, Alohi Gilman.


Clemson scored 3 big play touchdowns on the strength of Lawrence’s arm in the second quarter, including 2 in the last 2 minutes of the half.


Oh, and Jerry Tillery, shame on you, for an egregious roughing the passer violation that made the last TD with :02 left on the clock, possible.

Another benchmark beat down.




On my flight home I contemplated the following, what would have happened if 3 things had changed? Fumble call not overturned,? Julian Love not injured? and Jerry Tillery does not experience a moment of temporary insanity?


The Tiger defense still would have sacked Ian Book a boatload of times, and undoubtedly Trevor Lawrence was going to eventually find guys open but think a 17-6 or 17-10 final, not 30-3.


After the game Brian Kelly was asked to compare his feelings after this game to what he felt in 2012. Safe to say he agrees with MY assessment that in 2018 the Irish were and are closer than you might think. When describing the 2012 game, Kelly said, “When I left that game it was, ‘boy we have a lot of work to do’”. But of 2018 Kelly said, “We’re on the brink. We’re close. We’re going to work our tails off to get back here.”


Did the Irish still need more big strong and fast players? Yep, but they seemed to have closed the gap with solid recruiting and Matt Balis magic in the weight room.


I actually saw some promise in the losing performance.


Another year of recruiting raw athleticism, another year of Brian Kelly's post 2016 coaching style and another year of Matt Balis.


More progress was evident early in the 2019 season, albeit in ANOTHER benchmark loss. Week 3 at #3 Georgia and out of the gate the Irish made a strong statement that they belonged. The Irish played swarming and disruptive defense, and held a lead into the 3rd quarter. I remember receiving a text message during the second quarter from one of my sons (a former college football player and long time observer of the Irish) that simply read, "Wow, who are these guys?" Simply put the Irish were passing the eyeball test.



Ian Book and company that night got themselves into a position to tie or win the game in regulation in the last 2 minutes of the game.


Alas, it was a bridge too far. The last Irish drive died at the Georgia 38 and the clock ran out. Georgia 23 Notre Dame 17, final. Georgia finished the season as the Sugar Bowl champions and among the nations elite, the Irish 11-2 and winners of the Camping World Bowl, not quite part of the elite.


To the ND fans that were still firmly in the Brian Kelly camp, belief in him could only be an article of faith, without evidence of top 5 wins. But as the "pretty good" and "really good" season piled up, that faith in many was wearing thin.


Then along came 2020.


For weeks the Irish had stared at a date with destiny. Notre Dame fans circled it, Brian Kelly publicly talked about it. November 7, 2020 and a rematch with Clemson, at home where the ghosts of Rockne and Gipp stood ready to assist.


Game day arrived and a scant 33 seconds in, Kyren Williams took a pitch around the edge 65 yards to the end zone, can you say Eric Penick? For the remainder of the evening the Irish had the look of a team with raw athleticism and difference makers, and they proved over and over that they belonged... in the conversation.


With field goals traded like body blows, ND led most of the game, until all world running back Travis Etienne, who was all but shut down most of the night, sliced into the end zone from 3 yards out with 3:33 left on the clock. Extra point good, Clemson 33 ND 26.


2007, 2012, 2018, 2019.....here we go again?


With a minute and 48 seconds remaining Ian Book entered the field with one more chance to slay the memories of those four games that had fallen short. He was 91 yards away from a chance to do that, there was no margin for error. He was in a situation not unlike one he had found himself in at Georgia in 2019.



An unlikely co-star stepped up in the person of Avery Davis. Davis had been in the program since 2017, but instead of collecting playing time and accolades, he had mostly collected position changes, and near anonymity. With one minute to go from the Irish 43, Davis ran a near perfect double move post pattern and collected a 53 yard Book bomb to the 4 yard line. Two plays later it was Davis again catching another in the end zone, and becoming a star before our eyes.


Extra point good, tie game, overtime. Just like the elite teams do it.


In overtime Clemson struck suddenly, and the Irish were forced to answer. They did on a nifty pass and run to tight end Michael Mayer and a 3 yard Kyren Williams bull rush over the goal line.


On to overtime number two, just like the elite teams do it.


This time the Irish got to go first. A personal foul mistake by Clemson, a pass to Ben Skowronek and a Book scramble, put the Irish in position to take the lead. Kyren Williams collected the final 3 yards behind an offensive line surge.

Extra point good, ND 47-Clemson 40. Just like the elite teams do it.


The Notre Dame defense then slammed the door on Clemson. Sack, sack, incompletion, and a final desperation pass and lateral party that came up well short.


ND 47 Clemson 40, Final. Just like the elite teams do it.


And my series on the journey back , has a conclusion.









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