Sunday, November 25, 2012

Next Stop, South Beach

It really couldn't have happened any other way. Sure, Irish fans, and their collective nerves, hoped that the Irish could waltz into the Coliseum, blow away USC in a no contest victory, and finally put to rest the hate that the team has faced from the talking head pundits all year. But after watching this team all year, wouldn't the moment that a National Championship appearance was clinched have to come in something like a goal line stand? And not any ordinary goal line stand. No, this was one that withstood two defensive pass interference calls with potential National Championship hopes on the line. To me, it was a microcosm of the entire season, and the culmination of Brian Kelly's rebuilding project.

Last night's win was the fulfillment of an identity that Brian Kelly started to forge three years ago. Kelly, the offensive guru so well known for his high powered offenses, knew that the key to turning around Notre Dame was solidifying and establishing an elite defense, and on top of that, creating a culture of toughness, unity, intensity, and desire. It is illustrative of just how great of a coach he is not only because he has done it in three years, but even moreso that he's done it with a group of senior leaders that he did not recruit, well at least in the traditional sense. When Kelly arrived, though, he had to recruit these players to buy into his philosophy. And buy in they eventually did.

Watch that clip. The emotion, the togetherness, and the bond that these players have is emblematic of the coaching and culture that stems from Kelly. The moment at the end where Manti Te'o gives Kelly his own game ball is special. The Irish have sustained this season under an us-against-the-world mentality, and it has brought them together unlike any Irish team I've seen in at least two decades. They honestly believe, and their play has borne it out, that they can go into any matchup and win the game. At this point in the season, after big victory after big victory, how can anyone legitimately disagree? With Kelly's leadership, they've achieved an undefeated season by defeating 9 bowl eligible teams. The Irish, as if there was ever any doubt as the season progressed, are for real.

Riddick, like the other seniors, led the way all year
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the players. Theo Riddick more than deserved the gameball yesterday, as he carried the offense on nearly every series. The gameplanning became more conservative as the game wore on and Kelly wanted to rely on his defense to stay ahead and get the win, as he has done all year. I liked how he relied on Everett Golson to get the job done, and watching his progression this season has been nothing short of amazing.

But really, Riddick last night showed the strength of this senior class. He's well known for his versatility, and the fact that he's bounced back and forth from receiver to running back during his tenure at Notre Dame. But for me, and apparently Kelly, his most important attribute is reliability. Play in and play out, nearly every series, Riddick was there with his quick burst through the line, his ability to take contact and churn for a few more yards. Need three yards for a first down? Riddick has been the man for the job all season.

The same could be said for all of the other seniors. These players, holdovers from the previous regime, took some time but eventually banded together and bought into what Kelly was selling. It took awhile for the two sides, Kelly and his seniors, to feel each other out and determine how the relationship was going to exist. There were bumps in the road from both sides, but it seemed like this offseason was a key turning point. Kelly decided to take a more hands on role, but just as importantly, Manti Te'o returned for a senior season. Te'o and his fellow seniors' leadership on and off the field has played an integral role in ensuring that this National Championship identity was forged.

 This is a team for the ages. They're a team that has reignited one of the more passionate fan bases in the country (one that really, never went away) and will resonate in the hearts and minds of Notre Dame fans along the same lines of other classic Notre Dame teams. What separates this from many others is the way it has come about. We've just endured the worst 20 years, arguably, in the program's history. Fresh off the Holtz era, Irish fans suffered through Davie, Willingham, and Weis to the extent that some of those in the college football world thought the program couldn't compete in the modern era, and worse, was irrelevant; thoughts that only two decades ago would be laughed at.

Kelly has rejuvenated this program
Sometimes, though, it just takes time to find that right guy, and the Irish have found theirs in Kelly. With Kelly, they have a coach with a vision, someone who understood the challenges of winning big at Notre Dame and used them to his advantage instead of letting them get the best of him. He knew he had to create a new culture at the school without sacrificing any of the tradition or integrity that had made Notre Dame what it was. Kelly was able to do it with the perfect mix of players, guys who bought into the system and helped the new Notre Dame culture trickle throughout the program. He's done it by recruiting the right players who understand all that Notre Dame has to offer. He's done it by hiring outstanding assistant coaches, guys like Bob Diaco who inspire and motivate their players to maximize and even exceed their potential in every game. More than anything though, to me, Kelly has done it by overriding his ego. He's been willing to change his philosophy on offense to reflect the current roster, and he's shown that he can be a stern, tough coach while at the same time earn the utmost respect from all of his players. That scene in the clip, where the players start chanting for Kelly, and only seconds later, for Riddick, shows everything you need to know about this team. It's special, and something you just don't see in sports all the time.

We won't know until next week who the Irish will play, Alabama or Georgia, but it doesn't matter. It'll only be a matter of time until we're labeled as underdogs and told how superior the SEC is to the rest of the country. And that's fine. The Irish have dealt with that all season. They've been told by nearly everyone how they were pretenders, how they couldn't win without luck, how they would get trounced by a big time SEC opponent like Alabama. Yet there the Irish were, week after week, beating a good team and moving onto the next. That's the way Kelly and his band of Fighting Irish will treat this game as well.

At this point, I wouldn't put anything past this team. After watching the scene on the field and watching the scene in the locker room, this is a team that will do anything and everything for their teammates and their coaches. This is a team that doesn't care what the outside world says about them. To them, this has been a special season, but they'll keep their focus as it isn't over yet. They're not going to be satisfied just showing up to the National Championship game. On to South Beach. Bring on Bama. Time to once and for all silence all the critics. Go Irish, Beat SEC.