SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly couldn’t complete an Academy Award-worthy acting job. He couldn’t quite finish the con.
After his Notre Dame team found yet another way to lose a close game – the 10th one-possession defeat in the last 12 Fighting Irish losses – Kelly was the embodiment of sweetness and light. He lavished praise on visiting Georgia, which pulled off a 20-19 victory in front of a stadium half full of Bulldogs fans. He pumped up his own team, pouring sunshine in their ears.
“I love the spirit of this team,” Kelly said.
“They battled, played hard,” he said. “I’m proud of their effort. They continue to try to do exactly what I asked them to do.”
“I like my football team,” he said.
This was the guy who has been billed as the New Brian, promoting a new culture: more calm, less of a purple-faced sideline rager; more positive, less caustic; more at peace, less at war.
He was as blandly upbeat as Mr. Rogers. And then, on the last question of the press conference, the old jerk came out of hiding.
Here was the Notre Dame transcript of an exchange between Laken Litman of the Indianapolis Star and Kelly.
Litman: Obviously you made a ton of changes, changed the culture, everything. But obviously, you lost and at the very end, kind of like last year, seven of eight losses, how do you –
Kelly: What’s the question?
Litman: I’m getting to it.
Kelly: Well, get to the question.
Litman: How do you keep this from snowballing?
Kelly: It’s not going to snowball. Next question.
Litman: Well, what exactly will be different, I guess?
Kelly: There’s nothing different. I go to work every day, and I coach my football team.
Kelly: Is that – is that good enough for you?
Litman: Yeah, I was just asking about how it was different from last year’s losing by one possession.
Litman: Tonight was also like that, so I was just wondering.
Kelly: Losing by one possession?
Kelly: No, it was one point.
One point is, of course, one possession. But by this time Kelly wasn’t there to go along to get along anymore. He glared at Litman, snapping his answers. A snide edge replaced the feigned serenity, and then he walked off.
The New Brian charade was over. It took one loss to end it.
The old questions will return now – less about Kelly’s comportment than about his ability to win games. Especially close games. Stack this one alongside one-possession losses last year to Virginia Tech, Navy, Stanford, North Carolina State, Duke, Michigan State and Texas.
Like so many of those, this is one Notre Dame should have won.
A true freshman quarterback was making his first college start on the road – and while Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush was making just his second career start, he’d at least spent all spring and preseason camp as his team’s No. 1 QB. Georgia’s Jake Fromm was thrust into the starting role Saturday after an injury to Jacob Eason last week.
Fromm did what freshmen do: He flubbed a mesh point in a handoff with Nick Chubb, resulting in an unforced fumble that Notre Dame recovered. Later, he badly forced a pass that was easily intercepted. He made some good plays, too, but was hardly heroic.
And the ‘Dogs committed 12 penalties for 127 yards, piling up personal fouls that enabled Notre Dame drives and other flags that stalled their own drives.
Georgia gave the Irish all the chances they should have needed to win. And they couldn’t do it.
A Notre Dame offense built around an offensive line that has been billed by some as the best in the nation was completely overmatched. The Irish didn’t have a run longer than eight yards all night, and managed just 55 rushing yards on 37 carries a week after smashing Temple for 422 on the ground and 10 yards per carry.
Make no mistake, Georgia’s defense is good – physical and fast and well-coached. But an ND offensive line expected to have two high NFL draft picks should not have been dominated like that.
Part of the responsibility for that falls on Wimbush, who did not have a good game. He was shaky when it came to recognizing defenses and shifting blocking schemes or making checks. He was 20 of 40 throwing the ball, at times missing receivers badly; he was only able to connect with top wideout Equanimeous St. Brown twice for 16 yards. And Wimbush was hardly a dual threat, running 16 times for one yard and frequently appearing to make the wrong reads on where to run.
(None of those misreads were more costly than a two-yard east-west run on a key third-and-3 in the fourth quarter with the Irish leading by a point, when Wimbush seemingly could easily have gotten the first down. The Irish punted and Georgia promptly drove for what would be the winning field goal.)
“The quarterback is learning the tools of the trade,” Kelly said serenely, when the con was still going strong. “I think he learned a lot tonight. … I’m glad he’s on my team.”
If Wimbush and the rest of the Irish offense had been just a little better, Notre Dame would be 2-0 and could have been looking at a start to the season that erased all the negative vibes of 2016.
Next week the Irish visit a Boston College team that looks terrible so far, then travels to Michigan State – itself still a work in progress rebounding from last year’s 3-9 flop. Beyond that is a home game against Miami (Ohio) and a trip to play North Carolina (0-2, both losses at home).
Beat Georgia, and a 6-0 start would have been conceivable before the schedule gets harder in the second half of the season. Instead, the can’t-win-the-big-ones-or-the-close-ones narrative persists.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who worked closely with Kelly during the offseason to reshape the football staff and the direction of the program, does not want to make a coaching change. A winning record and demonstrable progress might well be enough to grant Kelly a ninth season.
But the more Notre Dame loses games like this, the more ammo it gives the Kelly critics in the fan base. And the more it chips away at the New Brian façade.
The old jerk is still there, beneath the surface. It only took one loss for him to reappear.
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