SOUTH BEND - He swayed to the alma mater as if it truly was an occasion to celebrate, then jogged up the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel and eventually publicly labeled what he had just witnessed as progress.
Privately, it’s hard to imagine Irish first-year head football coach Brian Kelly wasn’t pining for his team’s first truly complete game. What he got instead Saturday was a strong finish wrapped around a fresh batch of imperfections in a 44-20 pull-away from Western Michigan.
“This team was 1-3,” Kelly offered of his now 4-3 Irish. “I think when we talked about that at the time, ‘You can go in one of two directions at 1-3. You can fall off the cliff and have a disastrous season or you can work toward 9-3.’ I think this is another step. Our players are learning, learning how to play football games, regardless of who the competition is.”
It took until the third quarter, though, for the learning to really kick in, just after Kelly delivered a blistering halftime critique to his team with the only thing separating the Irish from scoreboard shock being three Western Michigan first-half turnovers.
Leading, 27-17 at that point and amassing all of minus-4 rushing yards against the nation’s No. 82 rushing defense, Notre Dame responded with a flurry of knockout punches.
A sellout crowd of 80,795, that included former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen and four Orange Bowl scouts on the sideline, looked on as the Irish defense, gouged for 212 total yards in the first half, gave up 26 in the third quarter and only 32 in the second before Kelly scraped the end of the bench for reserves. Even then, the Irish second- and third-team defense held the Broncos (2-4) to a field goal in the red zone late in the game.
Offensively Cierre Wood jump-started the Irish running game, scoring his first collegiate touchdown on a 39-yard run, the longest rush by ND’s offense since the tail end of the 2007 season. The sophomore, who started in place of gimpy senior Armando Allen (3 carries, 0 yards in a cameo), finished with 94 yards on 11 carries.
And then there was Michael Floyd, ND’s latest hamstring injury victim. The junior tweaked it in practice Wednesday and was a double-secret game-time decision as to whether he was even going to play.
Not only did he play, he softened the blow of the first chapter of life after Kyle Rudolph with nine catches for 157 yards and three TDs, including a two-yarder late in the third quarter that gave the Irish a 41-17 command and seemed to coax the ND Stadium crowd to do the first Wave of the Kelly Era. Rudolph, ND’s junior All-America tight end, had season-ending surgery Friday for his hamstring injury.
“When we got into the third quarter, the physicalness of certain teams …” Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit offered of the game’s tipping point without finishing the thought and not really needing to. “You look out there and 44 (Irish linebacker Carlo Calabrese) comes over, and golly, I thought I was going to lose a leg, (the way) he hit this kid so hard.”
It was all’s well that ended well in three critical categories that seem central to ND’s growth as a team:
And style points? Well, the Irish with an 11:39-3:21 edge in the fourth quarter won the time of possession battle for the first time this season. And ND did convert its first two fourth downs of the season. In fact, both were touchdowns - Floyd’s third-quarter TD pass from Crist and a 32-yarder in the second quarter from fellow wide receiver John Goodman.
It was the junior’s first TD throw since tossing 16 as a senior at Fort Wayne Dwenger High School three years ago. And this pass, which came off a reverse, was supposed to go to former Dwenger teammate, Irish tight end Tyler Eifert.
“I just looked up field and the first person I see is Mike (Floyd),” Goodman said.” I saw him break off his guy right away. Later I heard that Tyler was wide open, I should have hit him, but I told him 100 times, ‘I’m sorry about that, and I owe you and your family and apology.’ ”
Crist spent the first part of his postgame meeting with the press apologizing for his own play, after finishing 18-of-28 for 255 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also ran for a score, a nine-yarder on a option keeper that gave the Irish a 21-7 lead and the illusion of pulling away.
But Western Michigan, the first MAC team to visit ND Stadium during the existence of the league, kept coming up with answers, and threatened to ruin any future invitations its conference members.
“One of the things you hope is that it’s a good game,” Cubit said of the first meeting between the two teams since the Rockne Era. “And No. 2, you hope the check doesn’t bounce.”
At least Kelly doesn’t have that worry, but he does have enough others to keep him busy in the coming week. The halftime screech by Kelly, now 4-1 against Western Michigan in his career, dominated the players’ thoughts after the game.
“We took it for what he said and we performed a lot better in the second half,” ND junior defensive end Darius Fleming said. “But we shouldn’t have to be challenged. We should perform well the whole game.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6470