When Brian Kelly got the Notre Dame job in December of 2009, he was leaving a well-oiled machine at Cincinnati. A well-oiled, offensive machine, that is.
His Bearcats were fourth nationally in scoring, and 11th overall in total offense. Throw in the Dan LeFevour redshirt freshman MAC Championship, and it was pretty clear that Brian Kelly could work an offense, get the most out of a quarterback and put points on the board.
Yet, as the Irish sit as the third-ranked team in the nation, they are anything but similar to Kelly's Chippewas or Bearcats teams.
In fact, they are the polar opposite.
The Irish are not some high-flying offensive act. There is no Mardy Gilyard catching deep balls from Tony Pike. There is no Dan LeFevour making defenses look silly through the air and on the ground to put up big numbers.
Instead, what you get is Manti Te'o and his defense punching teams in the face and playing lockdown defense. You have Cierre Wood, aided by Theo Riddick and George Atkinson III, running the ball tough behind an aggressive offensive line.
You can thank Notre Dame in so many ways for this shift. The school itself and the situation that Kelly walked into are the reasons for this coach's renaissance as a smash-mouth tough guy.
The University of Notre Dame opened doors that Brian Kelly, in his 26-year coaching career, had never had opened to him before. In fact, it opened doors that ordinarily would have been slammed in his face. Notre Dame allows you into the living rooms of 4- and 5-star ball players.
Cincinnati and Central Michigan? Not so much.
So, while Kelly recruits like Isaiah Pead, Armon Binns and Zach Collaros turned out to be quality college football players, they did not come into the next level with the high ceilings of the kids Kelly's got his eyes on now.
As the quality of the recruiting improves, the ability of a team to play more pro-styled football does too. Instead of pinning the spread, up-tempo, more unique-styled approach to out-scheme people, Kelly has a team full of players that he can just beat you with.
Instead of looking for a way around talent or athletic shortcomings, Kelly likes his roster's chances against your roster.
No need to get cute when you can just line up and beat the other teams' brains in. As we saw against Oklahoma, playing big-boy football works when you've got the horses. The guys who Kelly recruited are integral in the success of this team, and because Notre Dame sits as one of college football's premier programs, Kelly was able to have a shot at building with them.
While Kelly is building with recruits that being head coach of Notre Dame affords him access to, it also helps that he walked into a unique situation—a situation that gave him a solid foundation on which to build. It's not just Manti Te'o or Tyler Eifert to thank; it's the entire gang that Charlie Weis left behind.
Are you surprised by Brian Kelly's transition from spread, high flying offensive guy to a smash-mouth coach?
The offensive line is a group of young men who were brought in to compete by the old regime. Yet, it is Kelly who is reaping the reward by way of the running game. We've talked about the defense as a product of the Weis regime, but the offense is no different. It's littered with names from the Weis era who Kelly is getting plenty of production out of.
The turn for Kelly has been a smooth one. He's gone from having to force things because of a roster that was limited physically, to being able to just go out and beat teams. That transition is due, by and large, to Notre Dame in more ways than one.
He walked into the job with a foundation for this type of football. He's added to it by grabbing players who'd likely never give him the serious consideration at Cincinnati.
All in all, it's worked.
Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are playing a brand of football that you can't out-scheme. You can't out-think the Fighting Irish's attack. No, he's playing smash-mouth, big-boy football, and the only way to beat that is to line up and out-punch them.
As we've seen this year, there aren't a lot of teams that are comfortable playing that brand of football for 60 minutes.