It may or may not go down as a monumental turning point moment, but Notre Dame’s 30-27 win over Miami Saturday was an important moment nonetheless.
The Fighting Irish have five losses this season, and they had a chance to at least tie if not win in their last possession in each of those five defeats. They found different ways – from bad snaps to interceptions and sacks – to lose each of those games, but on Saturday the Irish finally found a way to yank a victory from the hands of what was looking like another narrow defeat.
“There was a belief when I looked in the eyes of every one of those players that they were going to figure out and find a way to win,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said afterward.
That’s saying something, considering they looked more like a team that was trying to find new ways to lose at times.
Miami’s first lead of the game came with 6:49 to play in the fourth quarter when punt returner C.J. Sanders inexplicably tried to field a punt at his own 4-yard line. Sanders first waved his teammates away from the ball and then saw it carom off his blue and gold-clad body and into the end zone, where a pack of Hurricanes pounced for an improbable touchdown.
It was the second fumbled punt of the day for Notre Dame, and the third special teams mistake that helped the Miami chalk up 14 points after the Irish led 20-0 early in the second quarter.
“Indecisiveness” is how Kelly described the head-scratching kind of mistakes that have typified a head-scratchingly disappointing season.
Maybe it was the new team mosh pit on the Irish sideline that made the difference, or maybe it was just good old fashioned on-field fortitude which enabled the Irish to repel Miami’s efforts to protect its short-lived lead. Notre Dame scored 10 points in the last six minutes of the game.
Notre Dame’s defense, maligned all season, has climbed 49 spots in total defense to No. 54 since defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was fired five weeks ago. The new-look defense held the Hurricanes to just 18 rushing yards – their best effort in three years.
Nose guard Jarron Jones is the spearhead of the revamped defense. He looked like Forest Whitaker’s “Charles Jefferson” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High while tossing Hurricane offensive linemen aside en route to six tackles for loss — the most by any FBS player this season — and seven solo tackles.
The Irish also recorded 5 sacks, nearly matching the 6 sacks they had through the first seven games of the season.
Jones has benefited from one-on-one matchups with opposing centers since the move from a four-man to three-man front. The defense has also benefited from ditching VanGorder’s think-heavy defensive playbook in favor of playing more freely.
There’s still plenty of football to be played – four games to be exact – against Navy, Army, Virginia Tech, and USC. Kelly’s teams have been historically strong in November, going 16-7 in the final month of the regular season in his first six years at Notre Dame.
November’s four games will determine whether the taste of the season is sweet or sour… and just how monumental Saturday’s win was.