After a dismal 4-8 finish two years ago, the Fighting Irish have a national championship opportunity ahead
LOS ANGELES — The Tony! Toni! Tone! single "It Never Rains (in Southern California)" reached No. 1 on the charts in 1990. A November day in 2016 proved it actually does, as an autumn downpour mirrored the murky outlook of Notre Dame football at the time.
Head coach Brian Kelly fielded repeated questions about his job status and the direction of the program while precipitation pounded the Southland. And the skies over Southern California were not the only thing producing moisture that Saturday.
"Two years ago, we were leaving here so sad. I think I cried for our seniors. They deserved more," said Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love.
In Kelly and the Fighting Irish's return to Los Angeles on Saturday, temperatures were in the low 70s much of the afternoon and a comfortable 65 for kickoff at the Coliseum. The questions posed to the coach and his players this time were also much sunnier — specifically, has Notre Dame played its way into the College Football Playoff field?
Kelly spent the better part of the past month deftly side-stepping the conversation in an effort to keep his team focused. With 12-0 in the books, however, he proved less evasive.
"There are so many things out there that can distract not just kids, but coaches," Kelly said, a reference to Playoff chatter. "The way we played consistently, to win all of our games, against four Top 25 teams, to win every week in the schedule that we play."
But in rewriting its song, Notre Dame concluded the regular season with a crescendo that didn't need Tony! Toni! Tone! A simple Tony sufficed.
Tony Jones Jr. scored on a 51-yard touchdown reception from Ian Book, putting a final note on the Fighting Irish's 12-0 campaign. Playoff selection may be out of Notre Dame's control, but no power program has ever been denied a berth with a perfect record.
Come selection Sunday on Dec. 2, the committee's likely to be singing Notre Dame's tune.
"Coach Kelly always preaches to us, 'Control the controllable,' and we did that: 12-0," said offensive lineman Sam Mustipher. "We put ourselves in the best position possible to [make the Playoff]."
The turnaround from a 4-8 finish in 2016 to 12-0 and in the national championship hunt in '18 came quickly, but wasn't without extensive effort behind it. A veteran roster returned in 2017 and saw immediate improvement, capping a 10-win campaign with a 21-17 Citrus Bowl win over LSU.
One of the quirks to college football, however, is that experience goes quickly. Such was the case for Notre Dame, which lost stars of the 10-win, 2017 team Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey to the NFL. The pros also came calling for their position coach, Harry Hiestand, now with the Chicago Bears.
To endure the turnover Notre Dame faced on what was arguably its best unit, and still maintain a high standard, might be as impressive an accomplishment as the six-win improvement a year ago. Either way, Mustipher was a part of both.
"A lot of work, a lot of man hours, a lot of time spent into making this happen," he said. "There are so many people to thank behind the scenes. For it to happen like this is awesome for everybody involved at Notre Dame."
That includes Jeff Quinn, promoted to the post Hiestand vacated. It also includes offensive coordinator Chip Long, who Kelly hired shortly after the 2016 campaign ended as part of a complete overhaul in the Irish coaching staff. Under Long's guidance, this Notre Dame team features a more explosive and multifaceted offense than any of Kelly's previous Fighting Irish squads, more reminiscent of the 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats.
Cincinnati completed the first of three perfect regular seasons now on Kelly's coaching resume having played two quarterbacks — Tony Pike and Zach Collaros — employing a Swiss Army knife talent in Mardy Gilyard to do a little of everything, and balancing the attack with a reliable running back in Isaiah Pead.
It's a formula similar to Notre Dame in 2018 with Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book both having played quarterback, and Wimbush finding a role after Book became entrenched as starter; Jabar Gaffney, Chris Finke and Jones have all contributed as multi-dimensional weapons; and Dexter Williams provides the dependability in the backfield.
And offensive coordinator for that Cincinnati team? Current Irish offensive line coach Quinn.
Of all the changes that turned a stormy 4-8 into a sunny 12-0, perhaps the most important also came from the expansive branches of the Notre Dame coaching tree: Matt Balis.
Balis had connections to the program through former Irish defensive coordinator and UConn head coach Bob Diaco, as well as former Notre Dame graduate assistant and current Florida head coach Dan Mullen. Love cited Balis' work as strength coach as central to the Fighting Irish's transformation, and the team expressed its gratitude on Saturday by giving Balis the game ball.
Southern California could not have provided a more perfect backdrop to such an important milestone in the Notre Dame resurgence.
"You don't get second chances often. This was essentially our second chance," Love said.