New Irish starting to look much like the old
There are few things Notre Dame fans enjoy more than reveling in their history.
This is not what they had in mind.
After two straight losses, each by less than a touchdown, each thanks to a late score, this year's version of the Fighting Irish is starting to look an awful lot like last season's. That team limped to a 6-6 finish and got Charlie Weis fired, and the Irish were confident that kind of ugliness was a thing of the past when Brian Kelly was hired to resuscitate the once-proud program.
But Kelly insists Notre Dame is not on the verge of another tailspin. Take away one play here and there, and the Irish record looks much different.
''We're in the first quarter of our season, first chapter of the book. I think it's a little frustrating to read right now, but I'd stick with the book. I think it's going to be a good read,'' he said. ''This team is getting better each week. They're frustrated right now that they haven't got it over the finish line, so to speak, but I like our kids and the way they're competing.''
Dating back to last Nov. 1, Notre Dame (1-2) has lost six of seven games. That kind of losing percentage would be enough to set off a panic around these parts - Knute Rockne needed eight years to lose six games - but even more disturbing was the way the Irish lost.
All six losses were by a touchdown or less, and all but one were decided late in the fourth quarter. Two, including Saturday's loss at Michigan State, were in overtime.
Now comes No. 16 Stanford on Saturday. The Irish are 0-for-10 against ranked teams dating back to 2006, with four of those losses at home.
''I've had teams that didn't know how to win. You could just tell. That's not this group,'' Kelly said. ''They need to play cleaner. They've got to do some things during the game that obviously puts them in a position to close out games.''
Just look at the stats. Take away those two fumbles in the red zone at Michigan State, and the game doesn't even go to overtime. Maybe if Dayne Crist didn't have to sit out most of the first half against Michigan after getting a shot to the head, it might be Notre Dame, not the Wolverines, back in the Top 25.
Oh, and consider that the Irish were without starting safety Jamoris Slaughter (sprained ankle) against Michigan and for part of the Michigan State game.
''When you play evenly matched football teams and they play well, then it comes down to a couple of plays,'' Kelly said. ''That's what we have to get to.''
But perhaps most reassuring is the Irish themselves. Unlike the last few years, when players often appeared dazed and beaten down as the losses began to pile up, Kelly said his team is as fired up as it was when it started training camp.
Maybe even more so.
''It's the same team, the same players from last year, but coach Kelly and his staff have brought in a new mentality,'' nose guard Ian Williams said. ''We're going to play hard for four quarters and we're not going to let down.''
There's not much of a choice. Stanford might be the toughest team Notre Dame faces this year. The Cardinal have won their first three games handily, scoring a whopping 154 points along the way. Andrew Luck is on the short list of best quarterbacks in the country. He tossed four touchdown passes and ran for another last weekend against Wake Forest.
Still, lose again, even if it is to a ranked team, and patience will be scarce in South Bend.
But Kelly was well aware of the often unrealistic expectations that come with being head coach at Notre Dame, talking about a ''five-minute plan.'' And he and his staff see no reason to alter that, no matter what the record says.
''Maybe it's not what everybody wants to hear, but that's too bad,'' defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. ''We're focused on correcting our mistakes, keeping the energy very high and positive, working to improve the fundamentals ... and constantly, constantly, constantly forcing our players to play like we believe they need to play.''
Besides, for everyone so worried history is repeating itself, there's another bit of history worth remembering: Lou Holtz lost four of his first five games at Notre Dame.
Two years later, the Irish were national champions.