Thursday, December 20, 2012

How a Blocked Punt Helped Brian Kelly Win AP Coach Of the Year

Earlier this week, it came as no surprise that Brian Kelly was named AP Coach of the Year. Thinking about the great season he had this year with Notre Dame, you can't help but think about some of the growing pains his first two years.

The first season got off to a disastrous 1-3 start including heartbreaking losses to both Michigan rivals. It was due to the fact that players who were recruited by Charlie Weis were adjusting to the new system. The primary adjustment had to come from Dayne Crist who was more of a prototypical fit for a pro style offense that Weis had.

Crist struggled early but was able to lead the team to a 3 game win streak before getting embarrassed at Navy. He was lost the following week for the year in a loss against Tulsa.

With the team now at 4-5 and having to turn to unproven freshman Tommy Rees, things were looking bleak for Irish fans. A 4-8 season was looking like a reality and there was questions as to whether the stage at Notre Dame was too big for Kelly being that his prior success was at smaller schools (Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati). He also was blamed by some for the death of student camera man Declan  Sullivan.

It was a long two week bye before have to face a Utah team that was ranked in the top 15. The Irish hadn't beaten a ranked team in years. When the game started it looked as though the Utes would dominate in the first quarter and the stadium was very quiet.

That was until there was one play that changed Notre Dame's season and the perception of where the program was headed. Junior corner back Robert Blanton blocked a punt and took it in for a touchdown.

From that point on, the environment became much more alive. It was that play that sparked the team to a 28-3 victory. The momentum carried on for the rest of the season as the team won it's remaining games with young Rees. That included wins against USC and Miami in the Sun Bowl.

The future now looked bright for Notre Dame as they went into the off season with a renewed confidence. Year two under Coach Kelly looked to be promising. He just had to decide between Crist and Rees. Although Crist was his choice, he was pulled after one half of ineffectiveness. Ress came in and rallied the team to a near come back, but too many turnovers could not be overcome. The next week was more of the same against Michigan.

So there were the Irish who dominated two opponents but still were 0-2 because of turnovers. The team was still confident though and turned that around with an impressive four game winning streak. Then arch rival USC came into South Bend and dominated. Once again, questions about Kelly surfaced and he made a mistake that no coach should ever make.

He made a statement about how the players he recruited were still young. That offended some of the older players including Manti Te'o. The team did meet and work it out. They went on another four game winning streak before running into a Stanford team that outmatched them. More turnovers haunted them against Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.

After two 8-5 seasons, critics were questioning how much progress was being made but those who watched could see it despite the same record.

Next came an off season we would all like to forget. An arrest involving Rees was the lowlight and Cierre Wood was also suspended for off the field conduct. The suspension Rees got cost him a starting job.

That makes the job Kelly did even more impressive. To me, it all goes back to that blocked punt. That is really what got the players believing in the new system and gave them confidence. They kept that confidence through all the turmoil of turnovers, Kelly's slip of the tongue, and the off season discipline issues.

Congratulations to Coach Kelly and thanks to Robert Blanton for that fateful play. Blanton is now a rookie with the Minnesota Vikings. We wish him well there.

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