That was the perception based on his teams at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. And then there is the reality of today with the Fighting Irish.
Yes, Notre Dame has found a path to success under Kelly, just as he always has over his 22-plus seasons as a head coach, and it did again on Saturday, as the Irish (5-2) beat USC 14-10. As well, offensive would be an accurate term to describe the Notre Dame performance, but not in the manner that Fighting Irish fans find appealing.
Notre Dame did on Saturday what it has quite often under Kelly; found a way to win by riding a stifling defense in order to make up for an anemic offense. But four years into Kelly’s time in South Bend, he still hasn’t managed to develop a decent offense.
“Our defense was outstanding in the second half and gave us a chance to win,” Kelly said. “They found a way to win the game.”
As they usually do under Kelly.
The numbers don’t lie. When the Irish hold an opponent under 20 points, Kelly’s teams have won 27 of 28 times.
USC (4-3) scored on two of its initial three offensive series, but following that, the Trojans punted six times, threw an interception (hauled in by former Bishop Luers High School star Jaylon Smith), missed a field goal (for the second time), and failed to convert on fourth down twice.
“Our defense just kept battling,” Kelly said. “That’s just the way our guys compete here at Notre Dame.”
The numbers are also telling when it comes to the other side of the ball. The Irish defense better be great, in fact, it has to be outstanding, for if it isn’t, with this offense, Notre Dame is in for many long Saturdays.
The Irish offense actually was fairly good through the first 36 minutes of the game. However, when quarterback Tommy Rees went down at the 9:31 mark of the third quarter after getting sacked and straining his neck, the responsibility heaped onto the Irish defense got elevated exponentially.
Back-up quarterback Andrew Hendrix replaced Rees for the final 24-plus minutes of the game and if USC would’ve had some level of discipline (the Trojans committed 11 penalties, including several critical ones in the final quarter to stymie drives), the Trojans could’ve won this game going away.
Notre Dame’s offense under Hendrix had series of three, three, four, six, three and two plays. It scored no points, generated 25 yards of offense, and never seriously threatened to mount any type of threat.
“We’ve got to play better,” Kelly said. “Flat out, you guys watched it. I watched it. Andrew has to play better.”
The Notre Dame defense has beautified its pig of an offense with a lot of lipstick over the years, but even it, as well as their coach, can only cover that up for so long.