Notre Dame Football: Where Is the Fight in the Fighting Irish?

Matt MattareCorrespondent IIIOctober 26, 2010

It’s tough to digest what happened on the field of the New Meadowlands last Saturday. Looking at the final score and stat sheet provides only a vague understanding of the carnage. Unless you watched every painful and sobering moment of the Naval Academy’s complete destruction of the University of Notre Dame, you can’t quite grasp the full gravity of what occurred.

In an era filled with heartbreak, disappointment and failure, this Saturday’s loss represented the low-point of the last 15 years—which says an awful lot. This was worse than the ‘08 loss to Syracuse and their lame duck coach, more embarrassing than the previous two Navy losses in ’07 and ’09 and more painful than the string of historic beatings we’ve endured at the hands of Southern Cal, Michigan and other elite schools since 2002.

What made this game the nadir was not just the fact that the Irish lost to a service academy for the fourth time in four years and to a team filled top-to-bottom with players that recruiting “experts” would universally deem “unworthy” of even remote consideration for a roster spot at Notre Dame. It was the fact that Notre Dame was outhustled, out-schemed and outclassed from the opening whistle to the final gun.

When Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend he came up with “The Irish Creed.” This creed stated, “The pride and tradition of Notre Dame Football will not be left to the weak, timid, or non-committed.”

The players must have misinterpreted the message because the reality is that 10 months after that motto was posted in The Gug, those three adjectives best describe the players who donned Notre Dame jerseys who took the field Saturday. It was a listless team devoid of heart and fight, something the Midshipmen made painfully clear with the contrasting passion and effort they dedicated to every play. 

As the players slept-walked through the game, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff failed to adjust to a glorified high school offense they’d planned for months to face. In a brief sideline interview after halftime, Kelly said the Mids employed a version of the option (the veer) they hadn’t previously shown this season so Notre Dame hadn’t prepared for it.

Is that all it takes to beat Notre Dame’s defense, doing something that the coaching staff hasn’t seen on tape? How could Kelly and his assistants be so baffled by a slight variation to the triple option? It shouldn’t matter whether a team like Navy comes out with the speed option, the load, the veer, the steer, or the Lear—a well-coached team with the talent advantage Notre Dame had Saturday should be prepared to combat and smother it.  

While the complete befuddlement of the coaching staff was alarming, perhaps even more disturbing was how quickly Coach Kelly threw in the towel. With 13 minutes left in the game the Irish faced a 4th-and-3 in their own territory. Instead of going for it and attempting to keep their faint hopes alive, Kelly decided he’d seen enough. He raised the white flag, sent his punter in the game and conceded defeat.

He might as well have grabbed a camera, stared into it and stated: We are the Folding Irish.

It’s true that Notre Dame had not flashed any sign they were capable of erasing the four possession deficit, especially when you consider they essentially had four possessions the entire first half…but just two short years ago Irish fans watched in disbelief as a dead in the water Navy team—that had shown no sign they deserved to be on the same field as Notre Dame—stormed back from three touchdowns with six minutes left to nearly steal a victory.   

Wouldn't a coach trying to build up his program's toughness go down swinging to the bitter end? What message does it send to the team when the head coach completely packs it in with so much time left on the clock?

I’m not taking the Navy loss as a sign that Brian Kelly is doomed to fail by any stretch, and I’m still hopeful that he can be the one who restores Notre Dame Football to what it should be. But it’s time to call a spade a spade—the visible progress I expected to see at this point in the year is not present. Saturday’s travesty raised the eyebrows of even the most loyal and optimistic fans while setting off alarm bells across all of Notre Dame Nation.

Going into this season the rational fan understood the potential pitfalls. There would be bumps in the road as the team learned and became accustomed to new schemes on both sides of the ball. In terms of the big picture, it was going to be a process for Kelly to tear down the losing culture that had rotted the foundation of Notre Dame’s program since Holtz left and rebuild a winning one. How long it would take for Notre Dame to turn it around was debatable, but no one doubted there’d be growing pains.

However, there was one thing that even the most rational and patient fan expected right away. When Brian Kelly first addressed the fans at halftime of a Notre Dame basketball game this winter he said the following:

“We will play hard for four quarters, you will love the guys we put on the field because they’re going to give you everything.”

I believed him. I thought this season—if nothing else—there’d be clear indications of Kelly’s confidence and passion rubbing off, and it would manifest itself in the effort, heart, and toughness displayed each and every game. 

What Brian Kelly promised and what I expected him to deliver IMMEDIATELY—not in year two or year three, IMMEDIATELY—was a football team clearly and undeniably motivated every game to put Notre Dame back where it belonged.

So far that has not been the case and the blame for that shortcoming falls squarely on Kelly’s shoulders. It is his job to ensure his team is ready to play each Saturday and his responsibility to push whatever buttons necessary to ensure his players are properly prepared, motivated and focused. All three were lacking against Navy. Will that change going forward? If Kelly does not want to lose throngs of supporters in just one season it better.

The truth is it’s unrealistic to expect the Irish to beat Utah or even stay in the ballpark with a Lane Kiffin-led Southern Cal team that will be out for blood. This season is most likely unsalvageable, so what should be fan expectations over the final month of the year?

What I’m looking for over the last four games is a team with a pulse and a sense of pride, a team hell-bent on making sure that there will be no darker moment than the one that happened in the swamps of New Jersey last Saturday. I don’t just want to hear rhetoric and about progress made behind closed doors—I want to see tangible improvement with my own eyes and it starts with the effort put forth on the field.

Brian Kelly was hired and he arrived with a self-proclaimed "five-minute plan" to restore Notre Dame to its proper place among college football's elite. Well, five minutes was officially up at the end of the Navy game, and unfortunately the only thing we've learned thus far is that it's impossible to wake up any echoes if you're busy sleepwalking through Saturday afternoons.

Read more of Mattare's columns at WeNeverGraduate.