Senior College Football Columnist

Built to win, Fighting Irish's season of destiny arrives a year early


Brian Kelly not only heard it, maybe the Notre Dame coach was buying into it.

Next year. The Irish were built to win next year.

They weren't quite there yet in 2012. Freshman quarterback. Injuries in the secondary. Recruits needed to ripen. Half the roster was freshmen and sophomores. The '12 schedule was an absolute bear. Yup, sure looked like 2013 was going to be the Year of the Shamrock.

"That was brought up to me," Kelly said. "Those words were clearly in my ear. But I have not done a good job my entire career listening to other people's expectations. I had set my own expectations for what we wanted to accomplish."

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The temptation three days from the BCS championship game is to lyrically paint some sort of magical Irish bridge from there to there. It goes with the territory at Notre Dame that nothing is achieved without divine intervention. But this flat-out wasn't supposed to happen. Not this year, not for a while.

The Irish survived two overtimes, a bundle of goal-line stands and won six games by nine points or less. The first unranked team in the BCS era to get to the championship game still is in the process of pinching itself. But let's not ignore the 800-pound leprechaun in the room.

There have been a quarter century's worth of next years at Notre Dame. Why it finally came together in the last four months is equal parts surprise, planning, luck and that divine intervention.

"When it missed, that field goal against Pittsburgh," safety Zeke Motta said, "you knew something special was going to happen. God had a hand in that."

Two months ago, almost to the day, Pittsburgh's Kevin Harper gacked what could have been a 33-yard game-winning field goal in overtime. On the play, Notre Dame players Chris Brown and Bennett Jackson were both on the field wearing No. 2. Should have been a penalty. Should have been a loss.

But Jackson should have been a receiver. Instead he was one of three players recruited as wideouts converted to defensive back when injuries hit. Three converted receivers who played in the back end of the nation's No. 1 scoring defense. Brown should have been an anonymous true freshman receiver. Instead, he caught the biggest pass of the season –- the first of his career -- a 50-yard strike that set up the winning touchdown in the Oklahoma game.

"There's no way," Kelly said channeling Irish Nation's prevailing thought at the time, "that he's going to catch it."

Catch it? First they'd have to know Chris Brown existed. Going into the season, even Manti Te'o was considered a mere All-American. Not the player who would become the conscience of the program. Not the defensive force who would become (perhaps) the best Notre Dame player of all time. Without scoring a touchdown.

No, these Irish were built to win next year, in the future. Whenever.

"It's clear to me we were much better in Year Two," AD Jack Swarbrick said ND's second straight 8-5 season under Kelly. "I thought we'd make similar progress in Year Three, but the schedule was what it was. It was hard looking at this season -- even among the most optimistic among us -- to predict an outcome like this."

Te'o saw some sort of buy-in during summer conditioning in June.

"It wasn't a moment, but it was a sign that this team was different," he said.

After a workout Kelly made sure there was an optional weightlifting workout available. Perhaps he was weeding out his leaders or testing his team's mettle.

"But every single one of our players worked their way into the weight room and did their lift," Te'o said. "Nobody asked anyone. Nobody forced anyone. The leaders went and the rest followed. It was one of those moments where we said, 'OK, we have a chance here.' "

Why this year? Kelly played to his teams' strengths. The defense intercepted 16 passes. Only Alabama, Utah State and Penn State were better defensively in the red zone. Opponents scored only two rushing touchdowns. Those opponents frequently got dragged into grinding slugfests.

"When I look at their film," Alabama center Barrett Jones said, "they look like an SEC defense."

That daunting schedule flattened out. Michigan State and USC were down. Michigan was a turnover machine that Sept. 22 night. What would become the Pac-12 and Rose champion, Stanford, went down in overtime.

"I didn't believe, nor did I want to use this year as a bridge year, a transition year," Kelly said. "I wanted to win this year. I wanted to win not only for Notre Dame but for the seniors."

But it took an Irish village, players who either contributed quickly or matured just in time. Jackson, that converted receiver, made 61 tackles, tied for second behind Te'o. Defensive linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt are all considered future pros. Outside linebacker Prince Shembo contributed 10.5 tackles for loss from his outside linebacker position, two more than he had in his career to that point.

Brown caught two passes all season. That first one was for the ages for the 6-foot-2 prospect from Hanahan, S.C. A post pattern broke free against an Oklahoma franchise that had lost four times at home since Bob Stoops arrived 14 years ago.

"You practiced it enough," Kelly said. "It wasn't like, 'I'm going to call this and have no chance.' What were the percentages on that? They were better than 50-50. That's all you can ask for on the road."

Game tied 13-13, fourth quarter, it was a play hatched behind those practice field barriers meant to shield the Irish from the world. That night the Irish became legit. Call it Notre Dame's Boxing Day.

"When you're on the road against good competition you've got to be the one that throws the first punch," Kelly said. "I knew we had to throw the first punch."

It was in those moments that showed how Kelly had matured as a play caller. He got the job because he was a quarterback maker, an offensive mastermind. The man once won a Big East title playing five quarterbacks. In Year 3 at Notre Dame, he would have killed for one. Truth be told, Kelly probably still doesn't know what he has with Everett Golson.

The redshirt freshman was pulled from three games. ND won, at times, despite its quarterback. How's that for magic?

Kelly decided, "We're going to play a freshman quarterback and we're not going to say it's a transition year. We're going to give Everett experience. We're going to take our lumps. With those two things coming together you've got to find a way to win those games, manage those games, limit possessions, hold onto the football.

"That's the way we came up with the formula. Next year it might be different."

Not that anyone at Notre Dame is looking ahead.

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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