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Notre Dame “Senior Years”: Rockne

Today is the ninth part of our countdown from 11 to 1 of the best fourth seasons by a Notre Dame head coach, beginning with Knute Rockne’s tenure that started in 1918. Not included are Hunk Anderson (1931-33) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04), who were axed after their third seasons.

Knute Rockne had only two losses after his first four seasons, including 10-1 in his fourth year (1921).

No. 3: Knute Rockne (1921)
[b]Record: 10-1
Final AP Ranking: N/A

Knute Rockne and Brian Kelly had something in common entering their fourth season.

In Rockne’s second and third seasons — led by the legendary George Gipp — his Notre Dame teams averaged 26.6 points per game. In Kelly’s second and third seasons, the Fighting Irish averaged a point more at 27.5, with first-round picks Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert the focal points.

Then again, a little more might be expected of offenses 90 years later. Rockne did have unbeaten seasons in his second and third campaigns, while Kelly led a remarkable renaissance in his third season with a 12-0 start before a 42-14 pounding from Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. Regardless, if there has been a main sticking point about Kelly’s first three years at Notre Dame (other than punt returns), it’s that his offense has not been quite as productive as perhaps anticipated.

Even last year, the other five teams in the final Associated Press top six each averaged a minimum of 11 points more per game than the Irish. Now, as he enters his fourth year, Kelly almost seems to be starting from scratch again. The top two rushers, Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood, graduated after amassing 1,659 yards on the ground last year, and there is no clear-cut heir; four of the top six receivers from 2012, headlined by tight end Tyler Eifert, also have graduated; and quarterback Everett Golson is in academic purgatory for 2013 and will attempt to return in 2014.

Maybe some solace can be taken in the fact that even though Rockne’s fourth Notre Dame team had two new halfbacks, a new starting quarterback and three new linemen with the No. 1 unit, and the 375 points it recorded that season during a 10-1 season marked the only time in his 13 seasons the Fighting Irish (known as “Catholics” back then) eclipsed 300 points. It wasn’t until 1968 that a Notre Dame team tallied more points in a season.

Leading this surprising offensive onslaught was senior John Mohardt, Gipp’s backup the two previous seasons. He passed for 995 yards from his left halfback slot — a school record that would not be surpassed until two decades later — and added a team high 781 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns. His 18.7 yards per completion that season remains a Notre Dame record for players who completed at least 50 passes.

The lone loss occurred in the third week at Iowa (10-7), when Notre Dame failed to score on two different occasions after driving down to the Hawkeyes’ 5- and 7-yard lines. Iowa finished unbeaten and won its first Big Ten title in 20 years, led by head coach Howard Jones, who would go on to lead USC to glory while helping make the Notre Dame-USC series the nation’s top intersectional rivalry.

The Hawkeyes’ victory snapped Notre Dame’s 20-game winning streak, still tied for the third longest in school history. The Catholics then responded by winning their last eight games. Among the highlights was a 28-0 whitewash of Army after needing to rally in the second half for a win the previous year and a 7-0 conquest of Nebraska at home in front of 14,000 spectators at Cartier Field. From 1915-20, Notre Dame visited Nebraska every year because gate profits were more promising. The times were changing under Rockne.

In another unusual move, Notre Dame played 11 games for the first time in a season. Three days after defeating Army in New York state, it took on Rutgers in New York City’s Polo Grounds and rolled to a 48-0 victory, before hosting the Haskell Indian Nations University on Saturday (a 42-7 win). It closed with a 21-7 win at Marquette and then romped 48-0 over Michigan State — where Rockne almost became the head coach a few years earlier — five days later.

In a span of 20 days from Nov. 5 through Nov. 24, Notre Dame played five games — something you can count on not seeing today.

Can Notre Dame score 375 points in 13 games this season like in Rockne’s record-breaking senior year? That would be five points less than the 380 posted by Kelly’s 8-5 team in 2011.

Nevertheless, it’s not just about how many points you score, but when. The 2011 team averaged 44 points over one three-game span — but was only 2-1. That's because it piled up 59 and 56 points against Air Force and Navy, but managed only 17 in a loss to USC. Looks good on paper, but not in the overall result.

Last year the defense was equipped to win slugfests such as 13-6 (Michigan), 20-3 (Michigan State), 20-13 in overtime (Stanford), 17-14 (BYU), 21-6 (Boston College) and 22-13 (USC). It might have the personnel to repeat such triumphs in 2013. It might need to again.

Epilogue
Rockne had acquitted himself well as Notre Dame’s head coach well before his “senior” year, and Kelly certainly carved a more promising path for his regime last season. Breaking Rockne's school record 105 victories might seem more doable than passing his standard of 13 seasons as the head coach at Notre Dame.

Rockne had to replace quite a bit of firepower offensively his fourth season, as Kelly does this season. If Kelly has a surprise or two like Mohardt — who became a pro football teammate of Red Grange and a major league teammate of Ty Cobb — emerge in 2013, then a second consecutive double-digit win total could be in the cards.

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