1. Sugar Bowl, ND v. LSU. 1-3-07

2. BCS Championship, ND v. Alabama 1-7-13

3. Cotton Bowl/CFP Semi, ND v. Clemson 12-29-18

There have been 3 “benchmark” games along the way as Notre Dame has fought to get back to the National Championship promised land of 1988, and the Irish have lost all of them…… by an average of 27.3 points.
But is it possible that Notre Dame is making progress towards that elusive goal?

When ND took on LSU in the 2007 Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, the Irish came into the game at 10-2 and ranked #10, LSU was also 10-2 and was #4. The Charlie Weis led Irish had a chance to show that they were back as a program after the mostly dark post Lou Holtz years under Bob Davie and Ty Willingham.

I recall eating lunch in the French Quarter a few hours before the game with a media pal discussing how much a win would mean to the Irish. In contrast a nearby table full of Tiger fans were absolutely confident in an LSU victory.

later that day, LSU QB Jamarcus Russell, the “can’t miss” soon to be NFL number one overall pick (he later became such a bust that the Raiders still haven’t recovered), sent the Irish home with their tails between their legs….. 41-14.

LSU in fact, thrashed the Irish. Charlie Weis’s “decided schematic advantage” was overcome with raw athleticism. The Irish finished with a pretty good season but they were not quite ready for prime time.

After that game as I flew home, I reflected on what it was going to take to get the Irish back to the pinnacle of college football. Notre Dame was good, but they needed more playmakers on both sides of the ball. Brady Quinn was a heck of a passer, but the Irish needed big tall receivers, and fast running backs and huge nasty lineman, and a pass rush. They needed playmakers, not just at a few positions but all over the field and they needed depth.

Simply put they needed more and better players, on the field that day it had been obvious to my eyes that the Irish did not measure up.

But instead of improving, recruiting under Weis tailed off, so a few years later, Charlie was sent home to collect that well known golden severance.

In December 2009 the hottest coach in the Country came to South Bend. Brian Kelly was fresh off a 12-0 season at Cincinnati, had championships in his past and he was Irish. The optics of this hire, looked good.

December 11 2009: Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly during introductory press conference at the University of Notre Dame. (Icon/Sportswire)

2010 and 2011 were up and down years for the Irish, and no one was sure if Brian Kelly was turning things around or if the Irish were still stuck in the middle of the pack.

Then came 2012. Manti Teo and Tyler Eifert magic was in the air and the Irish made an improbable run to 12-0. Miami Beach and a showdown for the national championship with Alabama awaited.

But the Crimson Tide, led by Eddie Lacy and AJ McCarron sent the Irish home with their tails between their legs….again this time 42-14. I couldn’t wait to get out of Sun Life stadium that night. The feeling I had was a lot like I had in 2007. Notre Dame was pretty good but still not ready to play with the really big boys.

Still on the lookout for raw athleticism, and a lot of it.

Nonetheless, advancing to the 2012 championship game was progress.

That progress ebbed and flowed for a few years until the kick in the teeth 2016 season. A 4-8 record stimulated change, big change. Nutrition, psychology, technology, and facilities: no aspect of the program was left untouched. In all 17 new staff members were hired, including strength and conditioning Coach Matt Balis. And Brian Kelly gave up play calling duties, took up yoga and resolved to connect more with his players.

It worked.

10-3 and a bowl win in 2017,and in 2018 another run to 12-0.

But alas another disappointment, this time in the Cotton Bowl and this time it was the Clemson Tigers sending the Irish home, yes AGAIN…..with their tails between their legs, 30-3.

But I felt differently after this benchmark game than I had after the other two. I’m not into excuses, and of course history will forever show that the Tigers won 30-3: a flat out whuppin. But my eyes and my brain saw a closer game.
For the first quarter the Irish and Tigers went toe to toe. A 3-3 standoff. After kicking the field goal the Irish recovered a forced fumble deep in Clemson territory on their kickoff. The call was overturned when on review it was determined that the fumble had gone out of bounds. Hmmm…….okay I’m not typically a second guesser but let’s just say my standard of “indisputable visual evidence” apparently is different from the game referee’s. Had that call not been overturned there is a strong likelihood that the Irish would have taken a 10-3 lead or at the least a 6-3 lead into the second quarter.

But then, the football god’s tossed another curveball at the Irish. Notre Dame’s all-American cornerback, Julian Love missed the 2nd quarter with an injury. So Clemson did what any good team would. They cranked up all- world QB Trevor Lawrence and attacked the now “Loveless” side of the field. Corner substitute Donte Vaughn was not up to the task, and neither was a, forced into man coverage in the slot by the loss of Love, Alohi Gilman.

Clemson scored 3 big play touchdowns on the strength of Lawrence’s arm in the second quarter, including 2 in the last 2 minutes of the half.

Oh, and Jerry Tillery, shame on you, for an egregious roughing the passer violation that made the last TD with :02 left on the clock, possible. Another benchmark beat down.

On my flight home I contemplated the following, what would have happened if 3 things had changed? Fumble call not overturned, Julian Love not injured, and Jerry Tillery does not experience a moment of temporary insanity.

The Tiger defense still would have sacked Ian Book a boatload of times, and undoubtedly Trevor Lawrence was going to eventually find guys open but think a 17-6 or 17-10 final, not 30-3.

After the game Brian Kelly was asked to compare his feelings after this game to what he felt in 2012. Safe to say he agrees with MY assessment that in 2018 the Irish were and are closer than you might think. When describing the 2012 game, Kelly said, “When I left that game it was, ‘boy we have a lot of work to do’”. But of 2018 Kelly said, “We’re on the brink. We’re close. We’re going to work our tails off to get back here.”

Do the Irish still need more big strong and fast players? Yep, but they have closed the gap with solid recruiting and Matt Balis magic in the weight room.

Regardless of some NFL decisions to be made by Miles Boykin and Julian Love in the next few weeks, in 2019 the Irish will return a lot of experienced players and young talent. I can’t help but be confident in a squad that will return playmaking defensive ends, great safeties, at least one and maybe two great corners, an outstanding quarterback, 4 out of 5 offensive linemen, athletic WRs and tight ends and a deep backfield.

Time to get back to work.

The Blue Gold Game is April 13th.

ByPhil Houk

For over 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

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