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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame's Kelly has pushed all the right buttons

December 7, 2020

It had been another dominant, thorough triumph as Brian Kelly closed out his Notre Dame squad's 11-win 2019 season on the heels of its throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl in the obligatory post-game press conference.

Already Kelly had openly discussed that, yes, while the '19 squad had done great things and strung together a trio of double-digit victory seasons not seen since circa 1990s, he encouraged and welcomed greater expectations in 2020.

They returned so much on offense, including one of the nation's best offensive lines and one of the program's all-time winningest quarterbacks.

They boasted a pair of future NFL first-rounders on defense in linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety Kyle Hamilton.

Turned out, Kelly wasn't bluffing; he went all-in on his Irish, and the reward has been a remarkable season amidst a preponderance of difficulties in a pandemic-filled, COVID-19 world.

He did so prior to the Clemson clash, when Kelly's comments generated headlines because he acknowledged the obvious and showed confidence in his approach: Yes, his Notre Dame squad had set its target on then-No. 1 Clemson.

And again when he banged the proverbial table for his quarterback Ian Book, after Book's 29th win and on the heels of Book's puzzling exclusion on a media list of college football's top quarterbacks.

Not, like, ever, man. Just college football's best signal-callers this season.

Both Book and Robert Hainsey entered the autumn as two-time team captains; the other trio, Shaun Crawford, Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji carried plenty of locker room clout.

So how did Kelly know it all would work?

"If I knew 100% that I had the answers, I probably would have done it sooner,” Kelly said Monday during a Zoom with reporters, 12 days before his No. 2 Irish battle No. 3 Clemson in a winner-takes-the-ACC-title rematch. “You never really know. You're probably 80% certain you know the pulse of your team, but there's always 20 % that is in the back of your head that if it's the right time to say this and will it have the appropriate impact you're looking for.

"I felt they were built different with the group we had and the senior leadership. They understood what's important now and what's important next are linked together. I just felt like it was the right time to take that angle with this group. It resonated with them."

Veteran players and young players alike responded to the challenge.

“We're all trying to contribute,” said linebacker Shayne Simon, “and raise our games to that point to help our team win games."

No Irish team ever has had a chance to win a conference championship. In a recent Notre Dame-video discussion, athletics director Jack Swarbrick made clear the Irish remain focused on football independence when, presumably, college athletics and society writ large regain some semblance of normalcy in 2021.

Yet in the here and now, this unprecedented present, Kelly has watched his squad go all-in with its ACC aspirations.

“I know they're really excited about playing for a championship,” Kelly said. “This is what they've wanted. This has been the impetus for them to make all the sacrifices that they have made to get to this point.

“Living through this pandemic has been very difficult for them. This is really what they've been chasing. The opportunity to win an ACC Championship and to win a national championship. Exciting? Yes. Absolutely. This is what they've been shooting for, from the very first time that the university decided to open up campus, this has been their goal.”

Notre Dame's cards are on the table. They've shoved everything they've got the middle. They've gone all-in.

Just like their coach did a year ago.

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