NEW YORK – Football coaches like to speak of the absence of “style points” in their games. There is only winning and losing according to those who work inside the sport.
That may be nice talk for a press conference, it may carry weight in the locker room, but it doesn't work with the fan base of a team. Fans – and in the case of college football – recruits know an average performance when they see it. And after watching Notre Dame struggle to put away a less than average Rutgers squad in Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly can spin this performance, and the season that it closed out, anyway that he wants, but the whole package was less than acceptable.
Notre Dame (9-4) used five field goals to get by the Scarlet Knights (6-7) 29-16 in front of the largest crowd (47,122) to ever attend this game.
“I wanted to thank our seniors for what they have given to our program both on and off of the field,” Kelly said afterward. “They have been great examples of what student-athletes are at Notre Dame.”
That absolutely is not debatable.
“And they have certainly set a high bar,” Kelly continued. “Four consecutive bowl games. Played for a National Championship. 21 wins over the last two years.”
Facts that are also not debatable, that is, unless you take a much closer look.
Notre Dame has won 21 games over the past two seasons. They did play for the national title. But it did so in ways that don't really exude confidence among the Irish Nation. Saturday's game was not the only example of that this season specifically, just the latest.
Rutgers entered Saturday's bowl game with the reputation of being porous defensively. It had given up 52 points three different times this season, and allowed at least 41 points on two other occasions. Less than a month ago, it let UConn, a program playing under an interim coach, score 28. So pardon me for being less than enthusiastic about this Irish performance, which needed a score in the final 3:38 just to break the 20-point barrier.
This being year four of the Kelly-era, I'm still waiting for those prolific offenses that this coach oversaw at Cincinnati, Central Michigan, and Grand Valley State.
Notre Dame was quick to point out following the win that Kelly has now tied Lou Holtz and Dan Devine for most wins (37) in their first four seasons in South Bend. You can't argue that, because the numbers don't lie. But they don't exactly tell the whole story either.
Kelly guided this program to wins over Purdue (31-24), Michigan State (17-13), Navy (38-34), and now Rutgers this season. But does any Notre Dame fan really feel positive in their post-season analysis when looking back on those games?
Purdue was putrid all season; Michigan State couldn't throw the ball until November, while Navy and Rutgers were both .500 when the Irish played them. And Notre Dame barely survived each of them.
You can point to the loss of quarterback Everett Golson and the inordinate amount of injuries as reasons (or excuses, depending on your perspective) for these results. But four years into hiring the former national coach of the year, is this where Notre Dame lies? It's a program that is a couple of player injuries/suspensions from barely surviving the likes of Purdue and Rutgers?
To his credit, Kelly senses that more is wanted from this program – and from himself.
“It was a good year that could've been a great year,” Kelly said. “There were some really good victories: at home against USC (which was a program in turmoil at the time under an interim coach). There were a couple of missed opportunities where we very easily could've been a team with double-digit wins and that is where we want to be every year.
“It was a good year, but we want more. This is not enough for us. 9-4 is a good year for Notre Dame. It's not what we sign up for every year. We wanted a little bit more out of this year.”
Notre Dame fans should expect “a little bit more” out of every year than what this program has shown thus far.