SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There’s a common theme about Brian Kelly’s two best seasons at Notre Dame: In the years following those 12- and 10-win campaigns, the Irish lost two games in September.
Notre Dame’s current seniors were freshmen in 2013, so their first introduction to college football was losses to Michigan and Oklahoma. As is the case with Notre Dame’s 2016 defeats to Texas and Michigan State, those losses knocked the Irish out of championship contention only a few weeks into the season.
But Notre Dame still rallied to beat a top-25 Arizona State team after those two defeats, and sandwiched between them was a 17-13 win over Michigan State that wound up being the Spartans’ only loss that season. A 8-4 season and Pinstripe Bowl win represented a step backward for Kelly’s program, but things certainly could’ve been worse.
Notre Dame’s seniors now are tasked with leading the charge to make sure things don’t get any worse in South Bend after this year’s 1-2 start. Linebacker and captain James Onwualu, who was a freshman wide receiver in 2013, is taking cues from the way then-captain T.J. Jones handled that slow start three years ago.
“After those losses, I can remember TJ Jones always being positive,” Onwualu said. “You get a lot of negativity from the outside and you feel the vibe a little bit change from fans and reporters and everything like that. But within the team, I just remember TJ being positive. I've tried to do the same and just be as positive as I can in the locker room, continuing to encourage guys and still give them the idea of how great a season can be, even starting out not exactly the way we wanted it to.”
Of course, that positivity can only go so far. Notre Dame suffered a lethargic, embarrassing loss at Pitt (which went 7-6 that in 2013) a few weeks after its Shamrock Series win over Arizona State. That’s a defeat that’s among the worst in the Kelly era, though it was quickly supplanted at the top of the list by 2014’s home loss to Trevor Siemian’s 5-7 Northwestern Wildcats.
So captain Isaac Rochell, another freshman on that 2013 team, has pushed a day-to-day message on his teammates. There’s 10 weeks left in the regular season, but looking at things from that larger viewpoint can be counterproductive.
“It’s the same thing that I’ve said, just keep grinding, don’t try to look at it too big picture,” Rochell said. “But it’s tough. It’s tough every year if this happens. The biggest thing in the message from (2013’s leaders) was keep grinding, don’t try to look too big picture, don’t start to get frustrated with guys or coaches, just keep grinding.”
That Pitt loss aside, Notre Dame did a decent enough job rebounding from its two-loss September in 2013. A depleted defense held its own in a seven-point loss at Stanford and an offense without a consistent running game quarterbacked by Tommy Rees (who, despite a brilliant football mind, wasn't the ideal Kelly quarterback) did enough to win nine games. There’s more talent on this year’s Irish side, though it’s a younger team and doesn’t have the kind of defensive identity on which Bob Diaco’s units could always rely.
But a 10-win regular season is still on the table this season. Getting there would mean Notre Dame would consistently improve every week and win home games against Duke, Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech, road games at North Carolina State and USC and neutral-site games against Syracuse, Navy and Army. That’s a tall task — especially the Stanford and Miami games — but one the 2013 team was almost up for after a similarly-disastrous start to its season.
“I think that's always the message when you're in times of trial is to put your head down and keep working,” offensive lineman and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “It's what coach Kelly is talking about each and every day now, is the sense of urgency to bring an attitude and a work ethic in terms of making us better and a more disciplined and highly-functioning football team.”