The 2018 season was nothing short of memorable, cementing its place as one to remember amid Notre Dame’s storied and iconic history. The Fighting Irish marched into December with an unblemished 12-record, with head coach Brian Kelly completing his second undefeated (no losses or ties) regular season in his nine-year tenure. He’s just the third coach to accomplish two such seasons — joining Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy — and the first to do so in nearly 70 years.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The season started with a bang when No. 14 Michigan entered for a primetime showdown with the Irish. The winner would vault into immediate contention for a national championship, while the loser would be forced to climb an uphill battle the rest of the way. Notre Dame thrust itself into the former category with a 24-17 win, and the Irish were off and running.
The Irish tallied win after win as the weeks passed, including over ranked opponents in Stanford, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. Having only one home game in the final five weeks of the season meant four road trips to three different states, with California the site of Notre Dame’s matchups with Navy and USC. That gauntlet hardly fazed the Irish, and the end result was five wins by an average of 20.2 points per game.
The quarterback tandem that piloted the Irish to an undefeated regular season was one of the team’s brightest spots in 2018. Senior Brandon Wimbush started each of the first three games and against Florida State in mid-November, but, in week four, Kelly transitioned to junior Ian Book, injecting new life into a sputtering offense. Under Wimbush, the Irish averaged 183 yards passing and 28 points per game. Under Book, those averages grew to 306.9 yards passing and 36.6 points per game.
WHAT WENT WRONG
A successful season often depends on a team’s response in the face of adversity. This season, the Irish effectively controlled the damage dealt its way and relied on their depth of talent at various positions to keep its championship aspirations alive. One critical example surfaced when Book sustained a rib injury against Northwestern; Wimbush started the following week against Florida State, and Notre Dame hung 42 points on the reeling Seminoles. This depth led to few issues with regards to injuries. The only major injury on the season was graduate student lineman and captain Alex Bars, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Stanford. Kelly and offensive line coach Jeff Quinn were forced to shuffle the pieces up front, but once again the talent proved worthy of handling the challenge.
For the first season in recent history, Kelly’s group opened the regular season with no suspensions due to off-the-field conduct prior to the start of the season. Dexter Williams missed the first four games due to an unspecified violation of team rules, but the Irish still pulled through with four wins. In his return against No. 7 Stanford, Williams rushed for 161 yards and a touchdown, the first of many impressive games. Overall, Kelly’s team did well to avoid injury and suspension. This kept them from beating themselves and forced other teams to challenge them at full strength as the season progressed.
For the biggest — and only — stain on the season, look no further than the College Football Playoff semifinal game against Clemson. In every way, the Irish couldn’t catch a break. The offense could not find a rhythm, the defense allowed Clemson’s passing game to soar and the critical bounces always tipped Clemson’s way. This can be attributed in part to the difference in talent and recruits between the teams. Over the last five years, Kelly’s recruiting classes have landed just outside the top 10: good, but not at Clemson’s level. The Tigers simply displayed more speed, strength and skill than any other Notre Dame opponent all year. This disparity showed itself most notably in the talent that was not on the field. Clemson lost All-ACC defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence to a suspension, and the Tigers didn’t miss a beat; Notre Dame lost All-American cornerback Julian Love to an injury, and the Irish could not recover.
A loss in the College Football Playoff semifinal, even by a 27-point margin on the sport’s biggest stage, certainly cannot overshadow the tremendous success this team enjoyed in 2018. The loss to Clemson unearthed remaining questions as to whether this team can compete with the nation’s best, but an undefeated season against one of the nation’s toughest schedules cannot be taken lightly. Now, after consecutive seasons with 10 and 12 wins, expectations remain high for the Irish, and the foundation for sustained success is certainly intact.
The views of these authors are not necessarily the views of Scholastic magazine.