SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said he heard plenty of people say that his team was a year or two years away from being ready to play for the BCS championship.
But the coach who guided the No. 1 Irish (12-0) to their first undefeated season since 1988 and a spot opposite No. 2 Alabama (12-1) in the title game Jan. 7 in Miami didn’t pay attention to what those outside the program were predicting.
“I have not done a good job my entire career of listening to other people’s expectations,” Kelly said during Notre Dame’s BCS championship game media day Monday. “I had set my own expectations for what we wanted to accomplish, and we went about it that way.
“I didn’t believe nor did I want to use this year as a bridge year, a transition year. I wanted to win this year. I wanted to win not only for Notre Dame but for the seniors and everybody associated with the program.”
One of the reasons Notre Dame was able to reach the championship game is because Kelly didn’t allow players to use development as a crutch even though the team had a first-year starting quarterback in Everett Golson and was searching for options in the passing game to replace the departed Michael Floyd.
“We wanted to win,” running back Theo Riddick said. “In doing so, Coach Kelly didn’t want to go that route in terms of developing all the younger guys for another year and things like that. He challenged us. I think we have risen to the challenge.”
There were some rough patches at the start of the year as Golson was pulled from two of his first four starts and the team struggled to score at times after opening the season with a 50-10 blowout of Navy.
But as the season continued, the players, especially on offense, improved.
“This whole year is amazing to me,” offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said. “We tried to sell the kids back in January that it is going to be a process and good teams continue to get better and a lot of teams don’t. A lot of teams fall off as the year goes on because there is not a belief in what you are doing. You can put the Purdue tape on and watch us against USC, it doesn’t even look like the same outfit with the same exact players on the field. It is almost mind-numbing pathetic how bad we were back then.”
Even though things didn’t always go smoothly at the start, players still believed there was something special about this year’s team. And like their coach, they blocked out predictions that the Irish would struggle this year.
“Of course with the schedule like we had this year, people looking in may not have thought we had a chance to win nine games. But we have a special group of guys here,” said left tackle Zack Martin, who along with nose guard Louis Nix III decided to return to the Irish next season instead of entering the NFL draft.
“Even in the beginning of the year, we knew we weren’t there yet and we had some struggles, but the way this team works and gets better each week, we knew we has something special.”