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Debut imperfect, but Kelly's changing Notre Dame culture


SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- They came for a sign, these Domers. At a place that puts religious significance in such things, they wanted a reason to look up to the heavens and see something more than a blue-gray September sky.

'We have some work to do, we're not there yet, but we took a step,' Brian Kelly says. (AP)  
'We have some work to do, we're not there yet, but we took a step,' Brian Kelly says. (AP)  
It kind of meant a lot, then, if Notre Dame won big in Brian Kelly's first game. A shutout would have been nice, too. If the goalposts came down, all the better.

Instead, they got Ian Williams, a pudgy senior defensive lineman who spent his first three years here making a mockery of the word "stamina."

They got quarterback Dayne Crist and his 20 career passes, rebounding from an ACL surgery, and backed up by a Montana.

They got a game from Purdue.

This place does put a lot of stock in miracles but those will have to wait. Saturday was spent winning the opener -- 23-12 over Boilermakers -- and then officially making Kelly a part of the family. In a raucous postgame locker room, the players made Kelly stand on a folding chair and lead the team in the Notre Dame fight song.

The new coach balked but eventually gave in, knowing what AD Jack Swarbrick had sensed.

"They've been through a lot," Swarbrick said of those players. "They invested in this. Change is never easy. They've done everything we ever asked of them. Their joy for me is the memory of this game."

Nice scene. Nice touch. There was hope, but there has been hope in coaching debuts everywhere. Lou Holtz lost his opener. Tyrone Willingham won his first game in a shutout by 22 points on one of the biggest football stages there is, Giants Stadium. Charlie Weis blew out Pittsburgh by three touchdowns on the road.

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Brian Kelly knows this, or at least knows of the foolishness of putting too much into an opener against an unranked middle-of-the-road Big Ten team.

"What is a 'white knight' anyway?" Brian Kelly asked a questioner who threw out the label for the coach's arrival.

It's a good start. Self-deprecation beats the hell out of "decided schematic advantage" any day. Salvation, though, is something that Notre Dame hasn't experienced in a while.

And it isn't here yet. We were here to write reviews on Brian Kelly's opening day. We came to get breathless anecdotes, maybe some tears. We had to be quick about it considering recent history. The last four Notre Dame coaches have averaged less than 40 games on the job. That includes George O'Leary which you have to because that's part of the reason the program is in this predicament.

Part of that predicament being, if the Irish don't go to a BCS bowl this year, it's a long way down the bowl ladder. The Champs Sports Bowl will come calling.

"I took on the challenge at Notre because I want to see this program back to where it should be," Kelly said. "We have some work to do, we're not there yet, but we took a step."

A step that featured Williams, a 313-pound senior nose guard, on the field most of the time. Williams made two of the biggest plays of the game, getting half a sack on Purdue's mobile Robert Marve and intercepting him at the Notre Dame 3.

"I feel I could have been much better than I was the past three years," Williams said.

Kelly has confirmed that with this first-impression look at Williams: "He had a chance to be an unblockable player but we needed to keep him on the field. He had only averaged less than 40 plays a game, because he couldn't stay in the game because of his work volume."

Notre Dame has been notoriously weak in the defensive line these past few years. If the Irish can get more out of Williams and defensive ends Ethan Johnson (two sacks) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (one) that's where the turnaround starts. They all worked hard in the offseason. Williams went from squatting 485 pounds to 600. Johnson went from 395 to 500.

"What's the applicability?" Kelly asked. "They're not on the ground. They won't be on the ground."

If this is starting to sound way too clinical, you might be right. For all of his Irish-Catholic Kennedy-loving Notre Dameness, Saturday was a no-joke picture of him getting down to work.

"I know one thing for certain about this team," Swarbrick said. "It will be better in November than September, and it will be better in 2011, than in 2010. As a program we're headed in the right direction. [But] there will be games you can't close out, there will be bumps in the road."

Charlie Weis' teams notoriously didn't close out games -- and seasons. Since 2007, the Irish are 3-10 in November. Connecticut won here in overtime in 2009's last home game. Stanford scored 45 the next week.

Who knew we'd be talking about defense so soon? A romp was on when Crist threw his first career touchdown pass as a starter to make it 20-3 early in the third quarter. The hard-partying tailgaters looked like they were going to get their keg's worth.

Then Purdue shut off the tap. The Boilers ran 16 plays and 6:40 off the clock in getting down to the Notre Dame 5. That's when cornerback Gary Gray tipped Marve's pass that was taken in by Williams. But on the next possession ND's Armando Allen was tackled in the end zone for a safety.

Things were looking shaky when Marve ran 23 yards with 11:55 left in the game to make it 20-12. At that point it was on the defense. Kelly's no-huddle offense was able to run only 27 plays in the second half.

It was time to close this sucker out and something close to a nervous shudder ran through the crowd. Crist stepped into the huddle and led a 10-play drive for a field goal to put it out of reach.

It wasn't flashy. It was Crist taking his first steps toward becoming a star. That much is assured in the Brian Kelly era. The man is a quarterback maker. Kelly won the Big East and went to the Orange Bowl using four quarterbacks. So what's a little thing like a junior coming off knee surgery who had thrown only those 20 career passes?

Nothing for Kelly. Crist was efficient, not great (19 of 26, 205 yards, one touchdown). On that last drive, he threw twice, completed one and was sacked. It was not a miracle. There were no signs except the ones in the parking lot proclaiming love for "Kelly's Heroes".

"It was a beginning," Kelly said. "I would characterize it as good, all-around football. Nothing great."

Not yet.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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