As soon as the final whistle sounded on that fateful Oct. 26 night in Ann Arbor, Mich., the doubt over the 2019 Notre Dame football team crept in.
The Fighting Irish had just been embarrassed, 45-14, on national television against one of their rivals, Michigan. It wasn’t just the fact they lost by 31 but how they looked doing so.
The Wolverines outclassed Notre Dame in all three phases, and the Irish players and coaching staff looked like they didn’t want to be there on a wet, cold night.
Questions about everything — quarterback Ian Book, play calling, the team’s mental psyche — were raised in the ensuing week. Notre Dame was a 5-2 football team. Any shot of making the College Football Playoff was gone. What was this team’s motivation for the rest of the year?
The answer? To create their own legacy at Notre Dame.
The Fighting Irish went 6-0 the rest of the 2019 season, including a 33-9 rout of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl on Saturday in Orlando. Notre Dame’s motivation level for the bowl game was questioned all week, and it answered by thumping the Cyclones.
A lesser Notre Dame team may have folded after the Michigan game. There was reason to believe that was eminent, as the Irish have struggled to rebound after tough losses under head coach Brian Kelly.
Most notably, the 2014 season saw a No. 5 Notre Dame lose to No. 2 Florida State on the road — albeit in controversial fashion — to fall to 6-1. After a win against Navy, though, the Irish lost four straight to end the regular season. A bowl victory over LSU salvaged an 8-5 season that was full of CFP hope heading into Tallahassee in mid-October.
There was also the infamous 2016 season, when most of the current seniors were freshmen. A 4-8 year had Kelly firmly on the hot seat, with many questioning if he was the right man to lead Notre Dame into the future.
Seasons of 10-3, 12-1 and 11-2 since have silenced those critics. It’s the first time the program has won 10-plus games in three straight seasons since 1991-93.
And that’s what the current Notre Dame team was playing for after the Michigan loss. They knew a playoff berth wasn’t going to happen, but they also knew they could help change the narrative around the Irish program.
Not only did Notre Dame go 6-0 down the stretch, but it did so in dominating fashion. After a one-point victory over Virginia Tech, it had a 31-point win over Duke, 32-point victory over Navy, 33-point rout of Boston College and a 21-point win over Stanford before Saturday’s 24-point domination of Iowa State.
The manner in which they won showed that the Irish weren’t going to let their season be defined by what happened against Michigan.
It’s what also inspired Kelly to give an 82-second opening statement about his team following the bowl victory.
“I’m just so proud of our football team, my staff, coaches,” Kelly said. “2019 will be one I’ll always remember for a group of guys that just loved to play the game. They had such a strong brotherhood. They did not listen to what the naysayers had to say about them — the negative tone, the negative people out there.
“All they cared about was playing the game. It was clean. It was about competing, always looking to better themselves. Even this week, ‘Notre Dame’s not ready to play’ — they used that as another form of motivation to show people wrong. You just read this team wrong, and it’s just so satisfying that this group has been rewarded with 11 wins because they have thought only about their teammates and how they can work to get better each and every day.
“They overcame adversity, lived the life lessons of it. They’re not perfect. They never pretended to be perfect and never wanted to be. But (they) always strived for excellence. I’ll always remember this group as a special group.”
While the 2019 season may become forgettable for fans as the years pass, that’s almost a good thing. Because if it had become memorable after the Michigan loss, it would’ve been remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Instead, seniors like Book, Chase Claypool, Tony Jones and Alohi Gilman had big-time performances against Iowa State. Younger players like freshman Kyle Hamilton and sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah took big strides in their developments.
Notre Dame played like a top-10 team in November and December and deserves to be ranked as such once the final polls come out Jan. 14.
There are some key decisions to be made on who will be back next year, most notably Book, Gilman and tight end Cole Kmet. Regardless of how many of those players come back, the Irish will most likely be ranked in the 2020 preseason top 10.
They can thank a legacy-defining November and December for that.