Irish buy in and turnaround follows

A month ago, the odds of Notre Dame winning its final three football games were marginally better than Nick Nolte -- the mug shot version -- winning the Breeders' Cup atop a pack mule.

Of course, that was before the Fighting Irish defense went from Vienna Boys Choir to thrash metal overnight. Before players with rising-turned-tepid careers on both sides of the ball made a significant impact. Before coach Brian Kelly truly proved he had the intestinal fortitude for this job after all.

Notre Dame fought off self-doubt before it became a chronic condition. All things considered, a 7-5 season and a likely appearance in the Champs Sports Bowl is a triumph.

After a 1-3 start, Kelly's self-confidence was currency no longer accepted by Irish fans, who had been bilked before. After losses to Navy and Tulsa, one expected to see Touchdown Jesus climb down from Hesburgh Library and move to Eugene, Ore.

At that point there were few bodies left capable of scoring touchdowns. Kyle Rudolph, arguably the top tight end in the country, was on crutches. Quarterback Dayne Crist was in a hospital bed. Running back Armando Allen left South Bend for Tennessee to have season-ending surgery.

Notre Dame's offense was reeling. Until freshman QB Tommy Rees, with plenty of moxie, made things look easy. And sophomore tailback Cierre Wood, with limitless potential, speed-sanded all his rough edges. Passed-over senior WR Duval Kamara made up for lost time. And senior fullback Robert Hughes took out years of frustration.

"Like I've been saying my whole career here, when I got my opportunity, I made the most of it," Hughes said following last week's victory at USC.

Hughes has only carried the ball 10 or more times in 10 career games. But over the past three games, he's more than made his presence known. The 5-foot-11, 245-pounder rushed for a 1-yard touchdown early against Army to break a 3-3 stalemate and had 11 carries for 69 yards versus the Trojans, highlighted by a 5-yard, go-ahead score with less than two and a half minutes remaining.

"It's a difficult situation to adjust to," he said. "But at the end of the day, you're still a football player. You still have fun seeing your buddies on the team. You're still there between the lines battling with them."

And at times crossing your fingers collectively. Safety Harrison Smith slipped in coverage late in the fourth quarter, but USC star wideout Ronald Johnson let a sure TD pass from Mitch Mustain slip through his hands. If not for that blunder, the Irish continue on with a Godzilla-size monkey on their back.

"It was about time we caught a break," said Kelly, who, for a while, went from national coach of the year and the Big East's brightest star while at Cincinnati to a trampled soul wondering what catastrophe might happen next in South Bend. "We brought the fight back in the Fighting Irish."

Kelly restored the spirit of optimism that permeated campus nearly a year ago when he was hired. He helped the inexperienced players and the veterans on their way out the door realize they all had to be on board.

Senior linebacker Brian Smith has shared Hughes' sentiment in recent weeks after rekindling the internal fire for which he was previously known. Smith, equally responsible for Notre Dame's three straight wins, which began by thumping No. 15-ranked Utah, is tied for fifth on the team with 46 tackles after playing mostly a reserve role through the first eight games.

He figured out the team was bigger than him. A lot of guys have this season. A 7-5 season, the Irish believe they are better than that. The important thing is that they believe.