Brian Kelly’s tenure in South Bend began with a year that saw a slow start and strong finish on the football field, but was ultimately overshadowed by a tragedy in between. It was an emotional roller coaster for the 2010 Notre Dame football team as they began a new era.
The defense was the key to the team and the key to the D was held by sophomore linebacker Manti Te’o, the team’s leading tackler. Darius Fleming provided some big-play capability at linebacker, with both sacks and tackles for loss. Harrison Smith led the way in the secondary with seven interceptions.
Kelly had produced potent offenses in his tenure at the University of Cincinnati, one that culminated with back-to-back major bowl bids and an undefeated regular season in 2009. That success didn’t translate immediately to Notre Dame. Dayne Crist played quarterback most of the season and had pedestrian numbers of a 59% completion rate and 6.9 yards-per-attempt.
Tommy Rees stepped in as the season wore on and provided a marginally better completion rate, but also threw eight interceptions—compared to Crist’s seven—in fewer starts. The lack of production in the passing game looks worse when you consider the quality of the receivers.
There was a stack of future NFL talent, starting Michael Floyd, who caught 79 balls for over 1,000 yards. Senior Kyle Rudolph and freshman Tyler Eifert, both future pros, were steady at tight end. But there just wasn’t enough consistency in getting them the ball.
Nor could the running game pick up the slack. The tandem of Cierre Wood and Armando Allen was decent, but nothing special, combining for 1,117 yards. Robert Hughes mixed in as a third running back.
It all added up to a team that was improved, but not good enough to stay with the best teams on the schedule.
The season started with a ho-hum 23-12 win over a bad Purdue team. Then Michigan came to town. The Wolverines were going through the struggles of the Rich Rodriguez era and finished 7-5, but this game was a classic. Each team rolled up over 500 yards of offense. Notre Dame rallied from 21-7 down in the third quarter to take the lead on Crist’s 95-yard touchdown pass to Rudolph. But Michigan got the last word, when shifty quarterback Denard Robinson ran for the winning touchdown with 27 seconds left in a 28-24 final.
A visit to a better team in Michigan State followed. The Spartans were on their way to an 11-1 season and a piece of the Big Ten title, led by future Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins. Crist was actually the more prolific quarterback in this game, going 32/55 for 369 yards and four touchdowns. But the Irish defense couldn’t contain another future NFL starter, Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell, who rolled for 114 yards. The Irish lost 34-31 in overtime.
Stanford was up next. The Cardinal were ranked #16 in the country and would finish even stronger, with just one loss and an Orange Bowl win. They had a quarterback whom NFL scouts were already drooling over in Andrew Luck. For the second straight week, Crist put up more passing yards than a future pro. And for the second straight week it was because the ND opponent was making too much hay on the ground. Stanford’s Stephan Taylor went for 108 yards and the Irish were crushed in the second half, losing 37-14.
This wasn’t the opening Kelly had anticipated as he stared at 1-3 record and a road trip to face a pretty Boston College team that could run the football. But after being pounded by Bell and Taylor, the Notre Dame rush defense played its game of the year, holding the Eagles to five yards rushing in a 31-13 rout. A 23-17 home win over Pitt put the Irish back into the bowl conversation.
Notre Dame hosted Western Michigan, a mediocre MAC team and an 80-yard strike from Crist to Floyd right out of the gate set the tone. Crist later hit Eifert on a 39-yard TD pass and connected again with Floyd, this time on a short scoring pass, in a 44-20 win.
But with the record above .500, the Irish again wilted against a good team. They went to the Meadowlands to play Navy, who would end up with nine wins and couldn’t get a passing game opened up. Crist threw two interceptions and was pulled for Rees in a 35-17 loss.
It was must-win time at 4-5 and Tulsa, a good Conference USA opponent with a potent offense was coming into South Bend. But it didn’t take long for the focus to shift to something drastically more important than football.
Heavy winds were going through the Midwest this week. Some teams moved practice indoors. Kelly did not. The head coach, with the athletic director present, also allowed the filming of practice to go forward. That meant student videographer Declan Sullivan was up in the scissors lift. The wind blew the lift over and Sullivan was killed in the fall.
The media outrage poured forth and to this day I find it hard to grasp that Kelly and the school were not culpably negligent. There was nothing wrong with practicing outdoors, but putting a student up in the scissors lift was something a reasonable and prudent person would have known not to do. Notre Dame could undoubtedly have been liable…but the Sullivan family said they would not file suit, they did not negotiate a settlement and they continued to cheer for Notre Dame.
For that reason, I won’t go crazy in this space assigning blame when the people most directly affected by the tragedy chose to move on. I will say that if Kelly can get off the hook then it’s time for people to also show some mercy for Joe Paterno, whom no one has even proven did anything wrong. But we need more people like the Sullivan family and if they’re at peace with Notre Dame, then the rest of us should be as well.
On the field, the Notre Dame players had to be affected by the turmoil of this game week. They made key special teams mistake against Tulsa, allowing a punt return for a touchdown and not only getting an extra point blocked, but having it returned for two points. It was the difference in a 28-27 loss.
This was now looking like a lost season with 15th-ranked Utah coming in next. Notre Dame had shown no ability to compete with ranked teams and they spotted the Utes an early field goal. Then Rees awoke and threw a pair of third-quarter touchdown passes to Duval Kamara. The defense found another big-time performance in them and the result was a surprising 28-3 rout
Notre Dame went to Yankee Stadium to play Army, and this was the best Cadet team since 1996—in fact, the only winning team to come out of West Point since that ’96 year when they won 10 games. Trent Steelman was a capable quarterback running the triple-option attack that the Irish hadn’t handled against Navy.
This time was different. They kept Steelman under control and won 27-3 and got themselves bowl-eligible. A visit to Southern Cal, coming in with an 8-4 record would end the regular season.
USC was in its first year post-Pete Carroll and that meant Lane Kiffin was in charge and the program was on probation. This wasn’t the fearsome Trojan team that had dominated college football from 2002-08, but they still had plenty of talent.
Rees was at quarterback and threw a pair of 1-yard touchdown passes in the second quarter. But a missed extra point kept the score at 13-3 and nearly cost the Irish. The Trojans took a 16-13 in the fourth quarter, aided by three interceptions from Rees. The missed extra point meant a field goal couldn’t win it as ND started its final drive. Fortunately, it didn’t matter. The running game was solid tonight, with Wood getting 89 yards and Hughes going for 69. It was Hughes who ran in from five yards out to win the game 20-16.
The Sun Bowl put together as highly anticipated a game as a bowl of its stature could hope for. They got Notre Dame and Miami together for the first time since the schools staged their famed “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry from 1987-90, a rivalry that defined not only college football, but all of sports. It might have been a low-level bowl and Hurricane head coach Randy Shannon might have been fired prior to the game, but the very matchup of schools got this Sun Bowl attention from everyone who followed college football.
This New Year’s Eve afternoon bowl game didn’t measure up, but not in a way that made anyone in South Bend unhappy. Rees threw a short touchdown pass to Floyd and then hit his top receiver on a 34-yard TD pass before the first quarter was out. Wood bolted 34 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. Two more field goals made it 27-0. Notre Dame led 30-3 after three quarters before a couple cosmetic Miami touchdowns made the final a marginally respectable 33-17.
Brian Kelly’s first year in South Bend was both trying and tragic. But it ended on an up note. One year later they improved from a 7-5 regular season record to 8-4. And in 2012, Kelly would take Notre Dame back to college football’s biggest stage when they reached the national championship game before losing to Alabama.