GLENDALE, Ariz. — Three years ago, as Notre Dame picked up the pieces of its shattered championship bid, Louis Nix sat in front of his locker and steadfastly denied that his team was dominated by Alabama.
It was a bit of postgame hard-headedness that came with the wounds inflicted by the best program in college football still open. No matter what Nix said, there was a clear difference between the level of skill and size possessed by Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide and Brian Kelly’s Irish. Alabama rolled big, fast and talented players across its roster; Notre Dame, despite its 12-0 regular season, did not.
Notre Dame was again challenged by a defending champion on Friday in the Fiesta Bowl at University of Phoenix Stadium, with Ohio State and its reams of future NFL players winning, 44-28. Yes, it’s another loss in a big bowl game, which Notre Dame hasn’t won in 22 years. But it also showed how far Kelly’s program has come, and was a glimpse into how far it has to go to establish itself as one of college football’s elite.
“(It’s) completely different,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick said when asked to compare the Fiesta Bowl to the BCS Championship. “There was a physical difference that we had to deal with. I’m so comfortable with what we have. … At no point did I think, gosh, we can’t physically play with them. We could. We needed to execute a little better, we needed to play a little better, but yeah, I didn’t have any sense of that.”
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Notre Dame won 10 games in the 2015 regular season, a testament to the kind of depth built by Kelly over the last few seasons. When Malik Zaire went down against Virginia, DeShone Kizer stepped up and became a star — he set a Notre Dame quarterback record with his 10th rushing touchdown of the season on Friday. When Tarean Folston went down a week prior, C.J. Prosise exploded for 1,000 yards. And when Prosise was banged up in November, Josh Adams emerged as an explosive threat who broke a program record for most rushing yards by a true freshman.
This team’s weak link was its defense, specifically a secondary that lost five players to injury (Shaun Crawford, Avery Sebastian, Drue Tranquill, KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler) and was the culprit behind far too many explosive plays. Against Ohio State, it was Brian VanGorder’s unit that again struggled; the Buckeyes racked up 496 yards and were met with little resistance throughout the afternoon. Ohio State converted 10 of 18 third down tries, putting extra strain on a defense that lost its best player (Jaylon Smith) and his backup (Te’Von Coney) to injuries.
But this one didn’t have the same feel of Eddie Lacy and C.J. Mosley pummeling Manti Te’o & Co. into the Sun Life Stadium turf. We saw flashes of competitiveness — defensive end Andrew Trumbetti and cornerback Nick Watkins held their own, for one — and this defense forced a punt and three field goals late in the game to keep Notre Dame within striking distance.
“I hope people realize that physically we can play with anybody,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “I’m confident in that. I didn’t feel like our guys were physically overmatched. I thought it was a very competitive game and we needed to execute better. That’s as simple as I can put it. We needed to win third down and get off the field.
“I think it’s a very different time for Notre Dame football. We’re an ascending football program right now.”
Notre Dame will have to re-load better than it did following the 2012 season. The depth issues of that team, which never really rose to the surface, were exposed in 2013 without guys like Te’o, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta, Tyler Eifert, Theo Riddick and Everett Golson. Notre Dame will have to replace Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin, Sheldon Day and Schmidt; Smith, despite his injury, seems likely to declare for the NFL Draft while Prosise and Will Fuller are on the stay-or-go clock as well.
But there’s a feeling inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex that all the pieces are in place for Notre Dame to sustain its success for 2016 and beyond. Swarbrick said he sees strengths in player development, recruiting, nutrition, conditioning and scheme.
“I don’t see any holes right now,” Swarbrick said. “We gotta do better. That’s the only way you’re going to win a national championship.”
There’s a sense, too, that the program is set up to not only sustain its success, but build on it. Notre Dame competed for a College Football Playoff spot this year and fell a pair of two-point losses to top-five teams short of making it. Whatever hurdle there is to clear, it’s not necessarily a big one.
“We understand that we’re right there,” Kizer said. “We’re right there in every game we’re playing, as long as we execute we’re fine. But also, (we) understand that there’s always going to be great guys coming in to push us and there’s always going to be a sense of elite football every time we play.”
Even though it’s lost to every elite team it’s played recently — Florida State in 2014 and Clemson, Stanford and Ohio State in 2015 — Notre Dame needs to keep playing these kind of upper-echelon opponents. Because eventually, Kelly is confident these narrow and/or competitive losses won’t be a common occurrence.
“I like where we are,” Kelly said. “We're going to keep banging at the door. Keep playing Ohio State, keep playing Florida State, keep playing Alabama, keep playing these teams in these kinds of venues, in these kinds of games. We don't want to be playing directional teams with no profile to them.
“… We've made significant progress since where we were in 2012. We'll get there. Hopefully we won't have as many injuries. We'll get back here again. We'll win 'em.”