SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No. 24 Notre Dame has shown a flair for winning close games of late.
Since the start of the 2012 season, the Fighting Irish (7-2) have won 10 straight games decided by a touchdown or less, tying coach Brian Kelly with Knute Rockne for the second-longest such streak in school history.
But Notre Dame was favored by two or more touchdowns for half of those close ones.
“So you’re saying I haven’t covered and you’re upset about that?” Kelly quipped Tuesday.
Kelly said he understands the perception that perhaps the Irish haven’t won some games by as large a margin as expected, but doesn’t agree with the premise.
“Winning in college football is hard to do each and every week,” he said. “Teams play us so hard. Guys from Navy in tears, grown men crying after a game they put so much effort and their soul into the game. It’s hard to win.”
But not all teams are having as much difficulty as Notre Dame has experienced with some of its lesser opponents. The Irish were favored by 20½ points at Purdue on Sept. 14, and then scored 21 points early in the fourth quarter to win 31-24.
The Boilermakers are 1-7 this season, with five of the losses by 31 points or more. The other loss was 14-0 to Michigan State.
So Notre Dame’s come-from-behind victory against Purdue doesn’t look particularly impressive.
Next up for the Irish is Pittsburgh (4-4) at 8 p.m. Saturday. The Panthers have lost two in a row.
Kelly said when he arrived at Notre Dame he had heard that one of the challenges for the iconic program was that opponents were usually more excited about playing the Irish than the Irish were about facing the opponent. He said he doesn’t believe that’s true, pointing to last week’s game when Notre Dame was fortunate to hang on for a 38-34 victory against Navy, a game where the Irish were favored by 15.5 points.
“There is a lot of pressure at Notre Dame, a lot of scrutiny, there were nine lead changes in that game against Navy, they were down in the fourth quarter, they had to come back in the fourth quarter, and they had to hold the lead,” he said. “Those kids can take that with them because that takes a lot to do those things. I’m proud of the way they competed and won that football game. More so than what they were supposed to do. What they did do was more important to me.”
The only time the Irish were underdogs in the winning streak in close games was against Arizona State in Arlington, Texas on Oct. 5. The Sun Devils were 5½-point favorites, but the Irish won 37-34, with linebacker Dan Fox clinching the win by returning an interception for a touchdown with 68 seconds left. Arizona State added a TD with 11 seconds left.
Notre Dame could be headed for another close one on Saturday. The last five games in the series against Pitt have been decided by a touchdown or less, with two of them going to overtime. Kelly had another three games against Pitt while he was at Cincinnati that were decided by a touchdown or less.
“I think it’s one of those games where you know you’re going to go in and it’s going to be a fight,” Kelly said.
For Notre Dame, they nearly all are.
NOTES: Kelly provided several injury updates. Nose guard Louis Nix III will eventually need knee surgery to relieve his tendinitis, but is expected to practice this week. Safety Austin Collinsworth is questionable with a neck injury. Linebacker Ben Councell will undergo knee surgery in the next several days. Kelly said with injuries leaving the defensive line depleted, offensive lineman Bruce Heggie is working out with the defense to be ready in an emergency.