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Notre Dame still feeling its way under Brian Kelly

Coach Brian Kelly pulled Everett Golsafter he fumbled put Tommy Rees. | Michael Conroy~AP

Coach Brian Kelly pulled Everett Golson after he fumbled and put in Tommy Rees. | Michael Conroy~AP

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Updated: October 10, 2012 6:40AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — An optimist would note that Notre Dame is 2-0 for the first time in the Brian Kelly era after beating Purdue 20-17 Saturday on Kyle Brindza’s 27-yard field goal with seven seconds remaining in its home opener.

A realist would note that the Irish will have to play a lot better to negotiate a schedule that gets much tougher.

“I’m good to go,” Kelly insisted after his defense bailed out an offense that couldn’t run the ball while enduring several ineffective stretches. “Good for Notre Dame football.”

ND officials pumped in loud music, indecipherable roaring noises and some other high-decibel stimulants in a determined effort to rev up staid old Notre Dame Stadium. Before Brindza’s kick, the crowd’s most-animated contribution was to boo Kelly’s decision to switch quarterbacks for the final possession, replacing sophomore Everett Golson with displaced starter Tommy Rees.

Golson’s up-and-down day ended with a fumble at his 15-yard line that set up Purdue’s game-tying field goal late in the final period.

“Everett was having trouble gripping the ball, but he probably could have gone,” Kelly said. “We made the decision that with the flow of the game, Tommy would be better to manage our two-minute offense.”

Rees, the Irish starter in 16 games during Kelly’s first two years and a frequent target of his sideline rants, lost the job to Golson after an off-campus arrest in the spring resulted in a suspension for the season opener. Taking over at his own 35 with 2:12 remaining, he took the Irish 55 yards in 12 plays to set up Brindza.

“Tommy doesn’t have the elite skills, but he’s a gamer,” Kelly said. “In baseball terms, he’s a closer.” Back in April, at the Notre Dame Club of Chicago’s annual Knute Rockne dinner, Kelly didn’t exactly shake down the thunder when he reminded a roomful of true believers that an eight-win season would be the third in a row for the Irish, their first such sequence in 18 years.

Come again? There was a time when eight wins was considered a down year in South Bend, which is a telling indictment of where the Irish are today. They’ve been through late-stage Lou Holtz, Bob Davie, George O’Leary (sort of), Ty Willingham, Charlie Weis and now Kelly without enjoying the sustained success that 24 wins over three consecutive seasons represents.

Holtz, in fairness, fell below eight wins only twice in his 11 seasons, including his first one, when he was sorting out what overmatched nice guy Gerry Faust had left him. The contentious manner in which it ended does the Holtz era a disservice: at the top of his game — how about 65-9-1 from 1988-’93 — Lou was as good as anybody prowling a sideline.

Ara Parseghian also fell below eight wins only twice (all the way to seven) in his 11 seasons, when a 10-game schedule was the norm and bowl trips were still a novelty.

But that was your father’s Notre Dame, or, in the case of Frank Leahy (87-11-9 in 11 seasons) and Knute Rockne (105-12-5 in 13 seasons), your grandfather’s.

After two years and two games, Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame is still being defined. Eight wins, though will be an accomplishment against a schedule that includes Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma and Southern California.

Last week’s opener against Navy didn’t offer much to go on; Golson effectively managed a conservative game plan and the Irish relied on superior talent to swamp the Midshipmen.

Purdue, a mid-level Big Ten team, would offer a more substantial challenge, particularly at the skill positions, where Notre Dame’s lack of speed is a frequent drawback, exacerbated by a two-game disciplinary suspension levied against star tailback Cierre Wood.

The Wood-less running game got nothing — 52 net yards on 36 carries — against a defense dug in to stop it, which put a greater burden on Golson.

A nimble 19-year-old, Golson did some good things in passing for 289 yards, but he also took five sacks, lost that fumble and burned four timeouts as he struggled to interpret play-calls from the sideline.

“We’ve got to do a better job communicating,” Kelly conceded.

Golson is not as quick as Denard Robinson, Michigan’s Heisman hopeful quarterback, and not as strong a runner as Tony Rice, Notre Dame’s last national-championship QB. But he might be a better passer than either, and he is the Irish QB until further notice.

“There is no quarterback controversy,” Kelly insisted. “Everett Golson is our starter. He has work to do, but he’s a competitive guy. He wants to get better.”

He’d better.

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