Notre Dame Football: Brian Kelly's Top 10 Biggest Games Coached to Date
Recently, an article from yours truly declared that Brian Kelly's biggest challenge as the new head football coach at the University of Notre Dame will be the constant target that opponents put on the interlocking "ND", that Irish opponents treat every game against them as a big game.
Not all of those games will be big games for the Irish (despite what the fan base might think), but at Notre Dame, the big games Kelly will coach will be greater, both in the quantity and in the stakes of victory, than in his other coaching jobs combined.
At Notre Dame, the results of those games will likely determine the success and length of his tenure as coach.
The ability to win the most important games can turn the course of a season, salvaging what was lost, changing good into great, or on rare occasions, from great to legendary.
Past performance is no guarantee of future success, but since past performance is all there is to go on, these 10 games and their results may give ND fans an inkling of what to expect from Brian Kelly.
10. 2007 International Bowl - Cincinnati vs. Western Michigan
Result: Won 27-24
The 2007 International Bowl was Brian Kelly's first game with the University of Cincinnati. Three days after leading Central Michigan to a 9-4 regular season and the 2006 MAC championship, Kelly left the Chippewas to fill the Bearcats' position recently vacated by Mark Dantonio.
Just 37 days later, Kelly led his new team onto the field against a familiar foe, Western Michigan, also from the MAC.
The previous exposure to the Broncos (Kelly was 2-1 against WMU prior to the bowl game) likely gave Kelly's Bearcats the edge they needed to hold off a second-half surge and escape with a three-point victory.
9. 2008 Cincinnati at Oklahoma
Result: Lost 52-26
This game was not Kelly's first against a BCS Conference opponent that finished with a top 10 ranking, but it certainly has been his toughest to date.
The 2008 Sooners, led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford, averaged over 50 points per game of offense and went to the BCS title game finishing the season ranked No. 4.
In this nationally televised game, the Bearcats kept it close for the first half, going into the locker room trailing only 21-13.
However, Cincinnati simply did not have the athletic firepower to keep up in the second half, winding up as just another bump on the road of an (almost) unstoppable Oklahoma team.
8. 2006 MAC Championship - Central Michigan vs. Ohio
Result: Won 31-10
After just a two-year hiatus, Kelly again found himself playing for a conference championship.
His Chippewas were winners of seven of their last eight games and Central Michigan was tasting victory for the first time in several years.
Ohio simply could not keep up with Central Michigan's big plays. Freshman quarterback Dan LeFevour threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns, including a 71-yard TD pass.
Running back Ontario Sneed also added a 96-yard TD in the fourth quarter to close the door on Ohio and seal the MAC Championship for Central Michigan.
7. 2007 Cincinnati vs. West Virginia
Result: Lost 28-23
In the second-to-last game of the 2007 season, Cincinnati was still right in the thick of the chase for the Big East Championship.
Their rival for the title, No. 5-ranked West Virginia, came to town with its dynamic duo of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton.
White and Slaton backed up their reputations, each carrying the ball for over 100 yards on the day. Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk supported the Bearcats from the air, passing for 323 yards.
Despite two gift fumbles from West Virginia late in the fourth quarter, Kelly's team could not overcome the Mountaineers, losing the game and the chance at a Big East title.
6. 2008 Cincinnati at West Virginia
Result: Won 26-23 (OT)
This game had very similar context to the previous year's battle when West Virginia burst the bubble of Cincinnati's dream for a Big East title.
However, this time the Bearcats were in the hostile territory of Morgantown, W. Va.
Cincinnati set the tone early, with wide receiver Mardy Gilyard returning the opening kickoff kickoff for a touchdown.
And despite a broken left (non-throwing) arm, Bearcat quarterback Tony Pike led Cincinnati to a 20-7 lead.
The Mountaineers would not go quietly, capping their comeback with a game-tying 52-yard field goal as time expired.
Pike, however, would keep his cool, sealing the win with a 2-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
5. 2002 Division II National Championship - GVSU vs. Valdosta State
Result: Won 34-21
The Lakers of Grand Valley State advanced to their second title game in as many years following a second consecutive undefeated regular season.
After losing the championship the year before, Kelly's Lakers set out to put the final notch in their belts.
Grand Valley State showed their championship game experience by jumping out to an early lead and then surviving a late comeback attempt by Valdosta State to secure Kelly's first national championship.
4. 2001 Division II National Championship - GVSU vs. North Dakota
Result: Lost 17-14
After a perfect 10-0 regular season, Grand Valley State entered the Division II playoffs having never won a playoff game. That changed quickly as the Lakers advanced all the way to Kelly's first title game, this one against North Dakota.
However, the inexperience finally caught up with Grand Valley State as the Lakers could not prevent a late score by North Dakota to drop their only game of the season.
3. 2009 Orange Bowl - Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech
Result: Lost 20-7
Following a successful 11-2 regular season run and Big East championship, the Bearcats squared off against ACC champion Virginia Tech. This was a classic match-up of explosive offense against stingy defense.
Cincinnati landed the first punch jumping out to a 7-0 lead, but that was the last they would see of the scoreboard.
Virginia Tech buckled down and held the Bearcats to their lowest point total all season, only the fourth time in the 2008-2009 season that Cincinnati scored fewer than 24 points.
2. 2009 Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
Result: Won 45-44
Cincinnati entered the last game of its magical 2009 season with an unblemished record, and only a trip to No. 15-ranked Pittsburgh standing in the way of perfection.
The Panthers came out roaring, riding star running running back Dion Lewis to a 31-10 lead late in the first half.
But the momentum began to shift when Mardy Gilyard returned the subsequent kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown.
A furious final quarter saw five touchdowns scored, two by the Panthers and three by the Bearcats.
Cincinnati added to the drama when it missed an extra point, then completed a two-point conversion and finally, with under a minute remaining, tallied the winning score on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Tony Pike (and a successful PAT).
1. 2003 Division II National Championship - GVSU vs. North Dakota
Result: Won 10-3
A national championship is an incredibly difficult achievement in any sport at any level. A repeat championship is even harder, especially when it is against an old foe.
Kelly's bid for a second straight title with Grand Valley State pitted him against North Dakota, the same team that had denied him in the same game two years earlier.
Defense was the name of the game in this round, and this time, Kelly's Lakers were not to be denied.
North Dakota, once again attempting a late comeback, drove deep into Laker territory when a Grand Valley State defender intercepted a pass to clinch the Lakers' second consecutive national championship.