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Top recruits, easy schedule still no help to Notre Dame


It was a throwaway line by Notre Dame radio color analyst Allen Pinkett at the end of another loss to Navy.

"Sometimes a team just has your number," Pinkett said Saturday following an embarrassing 35-17 rout by the Midshipmen.

Let the irony sink in. For 43 consecutive years, the changing of the seasons was less expected in South Bend than a win over Navy. Through lean times and prosperity, Notre Dame could count on trampling over the men who were there to be future military leaders. There were obvious reasons: For more than four decades, Notre Dame was bigger, stronger and faster than Navy. In three out of the last four years, though, Navy has been better.

Reason for panic? Well, no. There are millions who have become numb to Notre Dame's general downturn in recent years. In this season of upsets, multiple No. 1s and outlandish finishes, Notre Dame is ... the same. There is a new coach but a lot of the same consternation after a Navy loss. Even play-by-play guy Don Criqui, about as colorful as a blue-gray October sky, used words like "embarrassing" during the game, reminding listeners that their team was being outplayed.

"After the Navy game," coach Brian Kelly said, "we knew what the repercussions would be."

A 4-4 record has Kelly seeking answers, and two wins for bowl eligibility. (Getty Images)  
A 4-4 record has Kelly seeking answers, and two wins for bowl eligibility. (Getty Images)  
Navy had earned the moment. Multiple generations of Midshipmen had lost to Notre Dame. This year's senior class has beaten the Irish three times. Let them enjoy it and then realize the obvious. Kelly is just realizing the size of the job ahead of him. Those five minutes he mentioned upon taking the job, are up. You could see it on his face when Michigan State won in overtime on a fake field goal. You could see it during a three-game losing streak that concluded with a 23-point loss at home to Stanford. It was the realization that the precious franchise was fractured maybe more than even he knew, and that there was precious little pity for ND around the nation.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of how we got, in large part, to this latest predicament -- Notre Dame is 4-4 and needs two victories in its last four games to be bowl eligible. Five years ago this week Charlie Weis was given a new 10-year contract after a 5-2 start to his Notre Dame career. Domers still hear taunts about the extension coming after the best "win" of the Weis era, a 34-31 loss to Southern California. The main characters are gone -- Weis and former AD Kevin White -- but not their influence.

Notre Dame still can't play effective defense -- a common Weis-era problem. That doesn't explain why Navy has changed coaches as well (from Paul Johnson to Ken Niumatalolo) and has been able to turn around the most one-sided series in the country. Navy might be smaller, weaker and slower, but it is getting smarter. Coming off a great three-game stretch of rush defense (152 total yards vs. Boston College, Pittsburgh and Western Michigan), the Irish gave up to 367 rushing yards to Navy. Fullback Alexander Teich rushed for 210 of those yards.

First rule of stopping the option? Stop the fullback.

"If we had a national caliber defense last year, I think we would be a little more concerned right now," said Kelly in a thinly-veiled dig at Weis' leftovers, then added. "I think we have made great strides defensively."

There have been injuries, most notably to tight end Kyle Rudolph, receiver Michael Floyd and nose guard Ian Williams. But everyone has injuries. Plus, that doesn't have anything to do with a softened schedule left over from White. With few BCS-conference teams willing to play one-and-done games at Notre Dame Stadium, White scheduled the likes of San Diego State, Nevada, Western Michigan and Tulsa in recent years. While those games all resulted in victories -- prior to the Golden Hurricane coming to town Saturday -- the perception was desperation. Desperation for victories of any kind.

"We struggled as the BCS [bowl] situation got tighter," said senior associate AD John Heisler, who assists in scheduling. "Jack's gone the other direction."

AD Jack Swarbrick has gotten ND back to its old barnstorming roots playing one neutral-site game per year. He has signed future contracts with Texas, Oklahoma and Miami. The Irish may not win, but the hype and excitement will be back. Two years from now try to find softies on a schedule that will include USC, Michigan, Oklahoma and Miami.

In the old days ND's second team would be able to whip Navy by a couple of touchdowns. The problem is, we haven't seen the best of times in South Bend for more than two decades. There is a disturbing disconnect that is not exactly new. Highly-rated recruiting classes enter full of promise, but that talent hasn't fully transferred to the field.

I called NFL personnel guru Gil Brandt to get his evaluation of current Notre Dame pro prospects. There are three senior prospects, he said, maybe five underclassmen. Wisconsin has 12 such underclassmen and Oklahoma 11, according to Brandt. Let's look at the 2007 (current four-year seniors) and 2008 (current juniors) Notre Dame recruiting classes. The 2007 class was ranked No. 8 nationally by The 2008 class was second nationally to Alabama. Nick Saban won a national championship in 2009 with some of the players from '08. Since 2007, Notre Dame is 20-25, including a Hawaii Bowl victory.

I ran that Notre Dame disconnect -- good recruiting classes in, mediocre records out -- past national recruiting analyst Jeremy Crabtree. Can Notre Dame recruits be overrated at times? Crabtree defended the recruiting service's rating system saying, "A lot of people could probably read into that [saying], 'Sure, just because they're going to Notre Dame, they might get this star or that star.' I know how we do our evaluations. You just have to look at what past classes there are. They struggled under Tyrone Willingham. It wasn't a situation where they were top five every year. For all of Weis' offensive successes, they had issues on the defensive side of the ball."

Weis went to consecutive BCS bowls in his first two seasons with some of Willingham's recruits. There has been one bowl since. Crabtree says Kelly is getting it. The bulk of the 2011 recruiting class is defenders. Anyone who saw Navy coming knew that the Irish struggled at times against conventional offenses. Throw in the mind game that is the option and, well, let's just say Kelly is on the right track.

"They do have some higher profile kids," Crabtree said of the '11 class, "but there are a lot of Brian Kelly-type of kids in there, three-star guys that have the potential to be great. Guys that will not make mental errors, who are coachable. That's something that's kind of overlooked."

Wait, three stars? That 2007 class had 13 (out of 18 signees) four- or five-star guys. The 2011 class has 10 (out of 19 commitments) rated with three stars or less.

"Three-star guys also means we project NFL potential and for them to be a multi-year starter," Crabtree explained. "There's a lot of three-star guys that end up doing quite well ... If they are half an inch short, get them in the right system, get them with the right coach, they end up being great football players."

It's best to stop there before wading too deep into recruiting minutiae. Kelly wants -- no, needs -- a bowl in his first season and time is getting short. Navy was a bummer and 43 in a row is distant memory. Start with Saturday. Maybe Notre Dame has Tulsa's number.

"We need those 15 practices," Kelly said. "Going to a bowl is important. I need more time with my players."

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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