TOM COYNE, Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame has a knack for winning close games under coach Brian Kelly.
Kelly attributes the ability of the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish (3-1) to finish games to tough-minded players.
“I just think it happens over a period of time. When we first got here, I don’t believe that we were able to win some of those games. I think it’s just a matter of time,” Kelly said. “We’re four years into our program. Our kids believe that if they prepare the right way and they take care of the things that they’re supposed to do, that they have a belief.”
After starting 2-5 under Kelly in games decided by a touchdown or less, the Irish are 10-1 in such games dating back to a 15-12 victory over Pittsburgh a fourth of the way through Kelly’s second season in 2011. The lone loss was 18-14 to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl in 2011.
The Irish, who face No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0) on Saturday, were in a close game with the Sooners a year ago. The Sooners tied the game at 13-13 when Blake Bell scored on a 1-yard run with 9:10 left in the game. But the Irish finished with a 17-0 spurt in the final 5:05 to improve to 8-0.
“Last year, they made all the plays down the stretch and that’s what changed the game,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “It’s a 13-13 game with six minutes to go and they make all the plays in the end.”
Offensive tackle Zack Martin said it’s a mindset Kelly brought to Notre Dame, saying the 17-13 victory over Michigan State last week was the kind of game the Irish likely would have lost before last season.
“We find ways to win football games,” Martin said. “We’re always striving for that perfect game, but perfection is not possible. We strive for that, but at the end of the day we’re winning football games.”
Kelly had similar success at Cincinnati, where he went 8-0 in his final two seasons there in one-score or less games after starting 2-2.
Even with the slow start at Notre Dame, Kelly’s winning percentage in games decided by a touchdown or less is .667. That is the best of any Irish coach since Ara Parseghian went 13-6-4 in such games from 1964-74. Knute Rockne was an impressive 19-3-5 in such games, going 15-0-2 in such games in the final seven years of his 13 years as coach from 1918-1930.
The Irish have won seven straight games decided by a touchdown or less, tying Kelly with Parseghian for third on Notre Dame’s all-time list. Rockne is second with 10 straight such wins before dying in a plane crash in 1931. Elmer Layden, who coached the Irish from 1934-40, had a 22-7-5 record overall in games decided by a score, and holds the record with 12 straight one-score victories from 1937-39.
Kelly believes confidence is a key factor.
“We’ve won a lot of football games, 15 out of the last 16 (regular season) games, 10 in a row at home,” Kelly said. “Those things all go toward that belief that they can win. They believe that they can win no matter what the circumstances.
“But again, I would caution you to say that it’s still about you’ve got to make plays. We made a couple more plays at the end, and we’ll have to make a couple more this weekend.”
(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)