It's about holding together a recruiting class teeming with answers to inherited problems. It's about standing up to perhaps the ugliest and scariest scrutiny of his life, both for the state of the program and for his decision to take his team outside Wednesday to practice on a blustery, and ultimately, fateful day.
It's about somehow dipping into the spirit of the place where he coaches and siphoning into a team that will play with the heart, the purpose and ultimately the precision that would have made Declan Sullivan smile.
"If we give up, it's going to make it worse," Irish sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o said. "We don't want to do that. We don't want to repeat what's happened in the past."
But there's every opportunity for this 4-5 Irish football team to unravel.
Starting quarterback Dayne Crist capped the longest run of his career — 29 yards — midway through the first quarter with an ache in his left knee that likely means his 2010 season is over.
NBC, during the game, seemed to have more definitive information than what Kelly had after it regarding that injury to Crist that comes 364 days after he blew out his right knee.
"The first report I got was a bruised knee," Kelly said, "and then it was something with his patellar tendon. I'll have to get more information before I confirm, deny what it is (reportedly a ruptured patellar tendon). But it's a severe injury, I can tell you that, just seeing Dayne briefly."
Leading rusher Armando Allen was added to the out-for-the-season list that already includes All-American tight end Kyle Rudolph and perhaps nose guard Ian Williams, the team's most consistent defender, and maybe even second-leading receiver Theo Riddick.
The partial scores coming from the Duke-Navy game couldn't have helped morale, though the Mids did rally late and almost beat what had been a 1-6 Blue Devils team.
And then there's the death of Declan Sullivan, who was so much more than simply a team videographer and who toppled to his death in high winds from a scissor lift apparatus while filming Wednesday's practice.
"I didn't know him personally, but he was a part of our team and it feels like you lost a brother," Irish junior receiver Michael Floyd said.
And so they dedicated Saturday's game to Sullivan's memory. The players wore white T-shirts in their initial pregame warm-ups, with an image of a helmet on the front with Sullivan's initials on it. They wore decals on their helmets and the coaches wore his initials on their caps.
"Obviously there's going to be a lot of speculation, there's going to be a lot of questions," Kelly said of the incident in his first public comments since it happened. "I'm not really adept at being able to handle some of the specifics. I can tell you that we're working hard to get all those answers."
There were tough questions about the end of the game itself — like why did Kelly have backup quarterback Tommy Rees throw into the end zone on second-and-8 from the Tulsa 19-yard line with 42 seconds when he could have won the game with a kicker, David Ruffer, who hasn't missed a field goal in 18 tries in his career?
Rees' 54th pass of the day — the fifth-most in Irish history — was supposed to go to Floyd. But Tulsa cornerback John Flanders had the angle and position on the underthrow and hung on to seal Tulsa's stunning finish.
The Golden Hurricane (5-3) becomes just the 19th first-time opponent out of the 139 teams the Irish have faced in their history to win in a debut game against ND.
"Why not try to get Michael Floyd one-on-one against a 5-9 corner?" Kelly responded when asked about the play.
Tulsa coach Todd Graham said the Golden Hurricane was actually in bracket coverage with two defenders. "We call it 'cloud coverage,'" he said.
"Second down, take a shot here," Kelly continued. "If we don't like it, let's throw that thing away. Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. You saw him competing out there. He knows the deal. He's a quarterback.