Earlier this week, one of those RT-bait Tweets designed to promote response turned up in our Slack discussion. It was right in our wheelhouse. Here it is:
Question of the day: Name your favorite game where your team won, but it didn’t involve a championship of any kind AND didn’t involve your biggest rival.
*Bama fans, none of this nonsense about Auburn not being your biggest rival. Pick another team/game.
— College Football Nerds (@CFBNerds) May 26, 2020
As a student of remembering random games that didn’t really matter in the grand scheme, I love discussions like this. However, to me, I don’t think this is a difficult one to answer at all. Not only do I have a clear answer for my favorite ‘random’ game, for lack of a briefer term, but I also think it doubles as the most important Notre Dame game of the Kelly decade: The Irish’s Senior Day win over Utah in 2010.
Hop in the Wayback Machine with me as we travel back to 2010:
I think there’s a real case to be made that Notre Dame football’s fan base was never in a worse mental state than it was at this moment in time.
Sure, ND had had worse teams, even sustained runs of bad play under Joe Kuharich and Gerry Faust. Having not been there, though, I suspect Irish fans had good reason to believe things would get better. And they were right: Those rough times were swiftly followed by the hirings of Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, respectively.
In 2010, here’s where ND stood: They had been just plain bad for a good portion of the 2000s. They’d started the decade with Bob Davie as the coach, navigated through Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, and ended it with Brian Kelly.
There had been a couple of bright moments in that time, but not many, and they’d all come and gone without lasting success. Any time ND appeared to have a good team in the 2000s, it fizzled out with a disappointing bowl loss, and the familiar refrain that ‘ND can’t compete with the big boys anymore’.
Then came Kelly. To steal a term from the short-lived George O’Leary era, Kelly appeared to be out of central casting. A turnaround specialist that had swiftly led Central Michigan and Cincinnati to unheard-of success after a lengthy run at Grand Valley State before that, Kelly was touted as a fundamentally sound but also offensively innovative coach. He seemed a natural pairing with a talented set of Weis recruits. Hell, his name was even Irish.
On top of that, the 2010 schedule was, at least on paper, one of the worst Notre Dame has ever assembled. It was year two (and, thankfully, the last) of previous athletic director Kevin White’s ridiculous “7-4-1” scheduling concept that essentially ruled out high-quality home-and-home series. A truly festering five-game segment of the schedule read like this (home in caps): WESTERN MICHIGAN, Navy (neutral), TULSA, UTAH, ARMY (Shamrock). Incredibly, the Irish faced only 7 BCS-AQ teams in 2010. This is what we stuck with independence for?
Anyway, I digress; the schedule seemed conducive to a quick turnaround, but that’s not what happened. For the second year in a row, ND suffered a frustrating loss to Michigan. MSU beat them with the famed “Little Giants” play. Andrew Luck and Stanford beat down Kelly’s bunch in South Bend. The Irish started 1-3. Even when the Irish won the next three — BC, Pitt and WMU — at no point did they look particularly good.
Then late October hit, and with it the worst seven-day stretch in program history, in my opinion.
First, ND got absolutely blitzed by Navy on Oct. 23, the 3rd Irish loss in 4 years in the series. Kelly inexplicably told a sideline reporter that Navy was running ‘the veer’ and had caught the Irish off guard, as if the Midshipmen haven’t been running essentially the same offense for 30 years or more.
Then, and you certainly don’t need to relive it, but ND student videographer Declan Sullivan died on Oct. 27 while filming practice from a scissor lift he should never have been allowed to be in. Justifiably, the university was raked over the coals for its response to the tragedy and for allowing it to occur in the first place. There was open media speculation that Kelly might be fired as a result, and while the idea of axing a first-year coach seemed insane, it also somehow seemed reasonable, given the situation.
With the pall of that catastrophe hanging over the campus, ND hosted Tulsa on Oct. 30. The Irish donned helmets with a memorial decal honoring Sullivan on the back. (Tulsa did, too, a nice footnote I’d forgotten about until searching for the photo below.) And then the weird stuff started.
ND allowed a slew of odd scores. First came a blocked PAT return for two points. Then a pick-6. Then a punt return for a score. Yet even after all that, plus Dayne Crist going out with a season-ending knee injury (replacement Tommy Rees threw the pick-6), ND led 27-25.
But Tulsa drove for a go-ahead field goal with 3:23 to go, converting on a 3rd-and-26 on the drive to boot. Then, Kelly bet on his freshman QB Rees over his successful kicker David Ruffer in the final minute. At the Tulsa 19 and already well within Ruffer’s range, Rees launched a jump ball into the end zone that was intercepted, giving Tulsa the victory. Kelly memorably said in the postgame press conference that if any ND fan wondered why he would coach so aggressively, they should “get used to it”, a phrase that’s been used against him an awful lot since.
It felt like rock bottom. ND was 4-5, against a crappy schedule, with a coach whose hire had been universally applauded, and if that all wasn’t awful enough, the school had just prominently mishandled the death of a student. If this guy, this guy, crashed and burned, too, maybe all the people saying ND would never win on a meaningful level again were right.
Then came Utah.
ND had an open date before Utah, and thank God, because I remember thinking I needed an extra week just to bring myself to watch them play again.
Oddly enough, the Utes, the fourth of that seemingly pitiful five-game stretch I decried earlier in this article, ended up being one of the best teams ND played all year. The Utes started the season 8-0, crushing six of those eight opponents, and got as high as #5 in the BCS rankings. Then, the week before visiting South Bend, the Utes got stunningly bludgeoned by then-#3 and future Rose Bowl champ TCU, 47-7, in a battle of unbeatens. (It was a pretty weird year in college football as a whole, but that’s another article.)
‘Well, that’s just great’, I thought, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Surely a pissed-off Utah team was going to come in and deliver the final dagger to this pathetic ND season, with Rees forced to make his first start against what was considered an excellent defense. On offense, Utah averaged over 40 points per game. Part of me didn’t even want to watch, but ND is an addiction I can’t shake, so I dutifully sat down at 2:30 and turned it on.
While ND didn’t light the world on fire statistically, gaining only 256 yards, the Irish stunned me and many others by playing solid, focused football the likes of which I hadn’t seen all year. The Irish memorably blocked a punt for a touchdown late in the first quarter and recovered a fumble on the second-half kickoff, scoring again immediately thereafter to go up 21-3. The defense was terrific; only once did Utah even get into the red zone. Rees didn’t make mistakes, and the Irish ran the ball well enough to get the job done.
It was a 28-3 final, still to this day the most stunning at-the-time result I’ve ever seen from ND. Students rushed the field, which was debated somewhat. However, being close to college age myself at the time, I felt like I could feel the same cathartic release from the game as the ND senior class did — remember, these guys hadn’t even so much as seen a winning regular season during their time as students. Not to mention the emotional wringer I’m sure they’d been through given the Sullivan tragedy. Rushing the field made perfect sense to me.
ND went on to win three more games to end the season. None were over great opponents, but they were needed. Beating USC on the road for the first time in a decade, and clocking Miami in the Sun Bowl for the first bowl win over a power-conference team since 1993: Those were huge wins, and I don’t care who says differently.
The Kelly era has had stops and starts since then, of course. But there have been clear high points in ’12, ’15, ’17 (pre-November) and ’18. And I maintain to this day that not a single one of them could’ve happened without that Utah game.
This was a fan base at its nadir, ready to turn on its first-year coach, wondering why it should believe there was any path back into college football’s elite. I’m convinced a blowout loss to Utah — the outcome I fully expected — would’ve led to a similar performance at USC, a losing 2010 season, and nine months of negative vibes that Kelly would never have overcome.
But they won. And while the 2010s was not Notre Dame’s finest football decade, it was the one that at least signaled that rumors of the program’s death were greatly exaggerated. ND’s not where it wants to be, but it’s still here. And I think it all traces back to that Utah win.