SOUTH BEND – The numbers don't lie. They don't tell the whole story, either. But they don't actually lie.
Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly opened his tenure with the Fighting Irish losing five of the first seven games that were decided by a touchdown or less. However, in the past 11 of those tight contests, Kelly's kids have won 10 of them. So what exactly has been the difference between early failures and now achieving success with regularity?
“I just think it happens over a period of time,” Kelly said. “You know, when we first got here I don't believe that we were able to win some of those games, and I think it's just a matter of time.
“We're four years into our program. Our kids believe that if they prepare the right way and they take care of the things that they're supposed to do that they have a belief. Look, it's the will to prepare and it's the belief that they can win. You carry those with you.”
The aforementioned figures are indisputable. But are they indicative of having an impact in Saturday's game with 14th-ranked Oklahoma (3-0) in South Bend (3:30 p.m., NBC)?
Not to be cynical, but just trying to be realistic, the answer is not really.
During Notre Dame's run of victories through those 11 games, only two were achieved by this season's group. So what was achieved by the 2011 and 2012 squads may carry a bit of relevance, but not a lot.
Each year a program returns many of the same parts (players, coaches, skill sets, etc.) But collectively, every team is different and their abilities in many aspects are not relative.
“Well, there's definitely a positive reinforcement in the belief that they can win,” Kelly said of the past influencing the present. “Look, we've won a lot of football games, 15 out of the last 16 games, 10 in a row at home. Those things all go towards that belief that they can win. They believe that they can win no matter what the circumstances are.”
Taking a look at what this particular team has achieved is an act of hypocrisy in delivering any criticism, but I'll do so anyway.
It is true that the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish (3-1) rallied on the road against Purdue to win a close game (31-24), thus proving Kelly's point in some regards. It is also true that the Boilermakers are a pretty bad football team.
Purdue has been blown out twice (at Cincinnati and Wisconsin) and had to survive a close game with FCS program Indiana State in West Lafayette. So just how impressive was the fortitude of the Irish in hanging on against that team?
In last Saturday's 17-13 win against Michigan State, Kelly and his players said all of the right things about perseverance, effort, etc. All true statements to a degree.
Michigan State did have the nation's top-ranked defense, technically, but had racked up those statistics against a bad Western Michigan squad, a rebuilding South Florida program and an FCS team (Youngstown State). So beating a Spartan squad that will probably finish in the middle of an average BCS conference (Big Ten), and has issues offensively – in South Bend – isn't showing me that this Notre Dame squad has some magical power to overcome adversity in the end.
In the one game that Notre Dame has lost, what was considered at the time a valiant effort (losing at Michigan in a close game) really has been diminished as an achievement after both Akron and UConn played the Wolverines better than the Irish did.
But credit does have to be given to this year's Notre Dame squad for doing what it was supposed to do in two of its past three games, which is to find a way to win.
“(We're) Just tough minded group,” Kelly said after beating the Spartans. “We've got that instilled within our kids. The way we coach them, the way we go to practice, the way we work day in, day out. That's the way we want them to play the game.”
However, Kelly also needs to be realistic about this squad, which has a quarterback coming off a mediocre performance, little threat of a run game, concerns with special teams and a defense that has shown inconsistency in pass coverage and struggles to pressure the opposing quarterback.
All of those things will be much more pertinent in beating the Sooners on Saturday than what Manti Te'o and Everett Golson were able to do a year ago for this program.