It's a much-discussed fact that the third season has historically been the defining season for Notre Dame football coaches.
Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz won national titles in their third year. Gerry Faust went 7-5, Bob Davie went 5-7, Tyrone Willingham went 6-6 and Charlie Weis went 3-9 in year three.
That's been the boom-and-bust nature of the Notre Dame job over the last 50 years. Mostly bust of late.
Now comes third-year coach Brian Kelly, who, so far this autumn, is tracking more along the Ara-Devine-Holtz path than his three immediate predecessors, all of whom were fired. (Some faster than others, as Willingham could attest.) But to stay on the trail blazed by the Notre Dame legends, Kelly must do a couple of things.
He must win a breakthrough game in October. Then he must back it up with another clutch performance on the road in November.
First things first: Saturday in Norman, Kelly's undefeated, fifth-ranked Fighting Irish need to beat No. 8 Oklahoma. That would be the breakthrough October victory.
Parseghian's 1966 national champions did that very thing, walloping the No. 10 Sooners 38-0 in Norman on Oct. 22. Devine's '77 champions broke out the green jerseys for their upset of USC, dismantling the No. 5 Trojans 49-19 on Oct. 22. And Holtz's '88 champs had the unforgettable dethroning of No. 1 Miami 31-30 on Oct. 15.
Those victories all set the stage for a major road test in November.
The '66 Irish had the memorable 10-10 tie with No. 2 Michigan State in East Lansing – a controversial game in which Notre Dame played not to lose, securing the national title but not much admiration because of it. The '77 team rallied to win at No. 15 Clemson 21-17, one of many Joe Montana-led comebacks. And the '88 team whipped No. 2 USC 27-10 in the L.A. Coliseum.
This Notre Dame team will get that opportunity against the Trojans to end the regular season next month. But for that game to mean all it can, the Irish first must stage their own Norman conquest Saturday.
If Kelly can win this game – and right now his team is a major underdog – the last remaining skeptics about whether he's the right guy for the job should disappear. The questions about whether Notre Dame is "back" will be at least partially answered – pending that trip to Los Angeles. The drone of doubt regarding the ability of football to thrive in the context of the school's academic mission will have its strongest rebuttal in years.
So, yeah. It's a big game.
"Three years is pushing it in today's society," Kelly said at his news conference this week, when asked about Notre Dame's three-year barometer. "So I would say that today you better get the thing moving in three years, because there's not a lot of patience out there. But we're on schedule for everything that we need to do and our program to continue to win."
The good news for Kelly is that, barring an embarrassing blowout that triggers a late-season collapse, a loss Saturday is far less damaging than a victory is rewarding. Losing to Oklahoma as an 11½-point underdog does not demote him to the Faust-Davie-Willingham-Weis side of the aisle. It simply would mean that he's slightly behind the schedule set by some of the most successful coaches in the history of America's most famous football program.
(Truth be told, Kelly's third-year schedule wouldn't be any worse than Devine's '77 title season. Notre Dame was stunned early that year by Mississippi, then fought its way back into title contention by winning nine straight games to reach 10-1. But the Irish still were ranked only fifth going into the Cotton Bowl and routing No. 1 Texas – an opportunity that simply doesn't exist in today's BCS structure.)
But to win in Norman, Notre Dame will need a quarterback to play like a champion Saturday. And it doesn't look like Terry Hanratty ('66 QB), Montana ('77) or Tony Rice ('88) are on the Irish travel squad.
Starter Everett Golson, back after missing last week recovering from a concussion, is an uninspiring 76th nationally in pass efficiency. Backup Tommy Rees, who has saved the Irish bacon a couple of times off the bench, would be 50th if he had enough attempts to be eligible. They have combined to be no better than adequate, and adequate isn't going to be enough Saturday.
"If you go back and look at each win, there's a lot of yardage there and a lot of time of possession where we're not throwing the football," Kelly said. "But having said that, we have to be better on third down throwing the football, and we have to be better in the red zone. And those are areas of emphasis, and if we're better in those two areas, then our efficiency is going to jump up. I'm interested in being more efficient in terms of our passing game."
A passing attack averaging fewer than 200 yards and fewer than one touchdown per game won't scare Oklahoma's defense straight. The Sooners will tilt heavily toward stopping Irish running backs Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III, all but daring Golson to make winning throws against an experienced secondary. He'll have to do it for Notre Dame to win.
The Irish have scored 20 or fewer points in five of seven games, though it should be noted that it has faced some rugged defenses in BYU, Stanford, Michigan State and Michigan. But in terms of point production, the program hasn't had an offense this low-voltage since '07, when Schematic Advantage Weis oversaw an attack that went the first eight games without scoring more than 20.
That team was 1-7 through that stretch. This one is somehow 7-0.
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Credit defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, linebacker Manti Te'o and a sensational front seven for that. This unit was supposed to badly miss sophomore end Aaron Lynch when he took his 14 quarterback hurries and 5.5 sacks and unexpectedly transferred last spring, but that hasn't happened. Notre Dame has still been adept at pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Getting in the face of Oklahoma QB Landry Jones has been a proven method for throwing him off his game. If the Irish can do that and get an elevated performance from their own quarterbacks, they'll have their biggest victory in years. Ask Ara how much it meant 46 years ago to win in Norman.
"This is why you coach at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "This is why you coach at those programs that get the opportunity to play in marquee games."
If Brian Kelly can win a marquee game Saturday and another one next month, he'll be a big step closer to joining the club of elite Notre Dame coaches of the last 50 years.
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