A Season Considered: Talking the NCG, Coach Kelly and Manti Te’o with Kevin McDougal and Oscar McBride

I am an unabashed Class of 1994 homer. For us, our senior season came out of nowhere. The Golden Boy 2.0 felled by injury. Untried and untested Kevin McDougal (’94) stepping under center and into the limelight. A daunting schedule. If it weren’t for an unimaginable loss to Boston College, we, too, would have been undefeated.

To compare Kevin McDougal to Everett Golson is perhaps too facile and superficial, but here goes: mobile quarterbacks from the South, consistently good enough in their bright-lights debuts to put the Irish in contention for a national championship. Sure, Kevin never had to look over his shoulder at a Tommy Rees, but both brought similar styles to a program trying to get back to the top. They are, in a way, the perfect bookends to our twenty years of “irrelevance.” You can imagine, then, my excitement when both Kevin and Oscar McBride (’94, www.oscarmcbride.com), agreed to sit down with me on January 17 and discuss the past season, Coach Kelly, the program’s direction and, of course, Manti Te’o.

“I Threw Up In My Mouth.”

When asked for his thoughts on the Alabama game, Oscar came out firing. “I threw up in my mouth.” I played tight end during the Holtz years. Back then, tight end didn’t mean being spread out in four wide. It meant being an extra lineman and opening up lanes for Jerome Bettis and Lee Becton and making sure that K-Mac stayed clean. So, [the NCG] was troubling. We were ‘out-physical-ed’ [and it looked like] we flinched. We looked like we were just happy to be there.”

Kevin agreed. “It’s hard to see a team get beat that way. It felt like from an offensive standpoint [that] we were not doing enough. We didn’t use the quarterback’s talents the way we had. You can still strike fast with a QB like that. We were behind to [Boston College] by 21, but we never went to five wide. [Coach] Holtz let me check to what I felt best doing. I’ve never been on [Coach] Kelly’s sideline, so I don’t know what he let Everett Golson do, but I know that when you coach against a cutting-edge coach like [Nick] Saban, you have to let your quarterback loose.”

Both former ND standouts were perplexed by what appeared to be a limited, and confounding, playbook in the big game. “[It was] disturbing,” said Oscar. “We didn’t run any draws or any screens.” “No post routes or underneath stuff,” added McDougal. Clearly frustrated, Oscar asked to no one in particular, “why go at the All American corner?” Pausing for either effect or in frustration, he continued, “football is a simple game. At the end of the day, it’s simple. You go where they are not. We seemed to go at [Alabama's] strengths.” Later in the interview, Kevin returned to the topic to say, “that’s what was so disturbing. We didn’t try a trick play or anything.”

“If I’m getting beat to death, I’m going to blitz more.”

That my two interviewees played offense was not going to stop me from trying to get answers about the poor showing by our defense in the NCG. Kevin was quick to express his bewilderment about an anemic display that never changed throughout the game. “If I’m getting beat to death, I’m going to blitz more. I’m going to cause chaos and not let a QB like that have time. Any blitzes we did run came way too late and weren’t disguised enough. They played [the game] on grass and Landry looked pretty clean!” Oscar emphasized that on defense we seemed to play into ‘Bama’s strengths as well. “We didn’t take anything away from them. We didn’t put eight in the box and make McCarron beat us.”

Then, Kevin turned the tables and asked, “where do you draw the line in being a good athlete? How do you stack our athletes against theirs?” But these were questions to which Kevin knew the answers. “At some point, you throw the book away and just make plays. Against Boston College, we didn’t make plays all game. We didn’t play well. But at a certain point, we said ‘that’s it.’” Both former players cited specific plays in the NCG where the Irish just didn’t make the play. “Manti,” for one said Oscar, “came free in the A-gap and just missed Lacey.”

Oscar picked that theme up and ran with it. “As freshman, we were put in a room with Zorich and [the senior leadership]. They said, ‘you’re going to play our way, or this is not the team for you.’ Coach Kelly has done a great job changing the culture, but we still don’t have that bottom-line belief that somehow, some way, someone is going to make that play and we’re going to win.”

“Saban Can Do This With His Eyes Closed.”

Seeing that we were in the diminishing wake of the Coach Kelly-Eagles flirtation, I wanted their thoughts on whether they thought BK was the man to bring ND back, or whether he already had. To Oscar, the proof would be in the pudding and play of the upcoming season. “We’ll see next season. This will be [Coach Kelly's] first senior class. They know his offense, his defense and his system. But, [winning and losing] is squarely on the men in the locker room.” “I agree,” said Kevin. “Kelly has a chance to build on what happened. I the game was a learning experience for Kelly, too. Saban can do this with his eyes closed.”

“Love Makes You Do Crazy Things. He’s Got To Know That the Moment Will Pass.”

When asked if he thought Manti Te’o had likely been affected in the NCG by the (then) secret hoax, Kevin was not sure. “Athletes handle adversity differently. We don’t know what happened. It could well have affected him But this is all one player, and the University is standing behind him, helping him get through and that’s what [recruits] want to see.” Oscar, though, was more certain that something wasn’t right with Manti. “We all watched the game and asked, ‘What the Hell is wrong with Manti?’ He was using his girlfriend’s death as fuel. He used it to get in the zone. And you put him on the banquet circuit and the trophies and I can’t imagine the guilt he must have felt. He was probably thinking about all the people he let down. I believe firmly that sport is life and how he handles this is the way he would respond to a different kind of loss.”

Kevin struck an almost fatherly note, adding “love makes you do crazy things. He [Manti]‘s got know that the moment will pass.” That comment was Proustian madeleine for Oscar. “Remember our sophomore year (1991)? Tennessee calls it ‘The Miracle in South Bend.’ I remember how painful that was. And I remember Demetrius [DuBose] saying ‘if this doesn’t kill us, it will make us stronger.’ Manti can do that.”

“I’m on the Record: I’m Glad I’m Old.”

The Manti situation fomented more questions, mostly because I was fascinated to learn about the interaction between college stars and the world around them. Oscar started us off. “We had a class on how to handle the media and the expectations of being an ND player on the field, in the classroom and in the community. Of course, we didn’t have cell phones. I thought Tony Smith was the man because he had a beeper. We could go to our rooms and hang out. [To escape] all we had to do was not answer the phone.” Kevin carried on the theme by saying, “social media takes away your privacy. Everyone has access to you and can pretend to be your friend or your lost cousin.”

“Manti,” Oscar added, “shows that you can be a super human athlete and a celebrity and still be naïve enough to gall in love with a woman who doesn’t exist. These kids are babies and they’re thrust into constant media attention. It was hard enough for us.” Kevin quickly interjected, “now they can take a picture of you on a cell phone and doctor it. It’s scary. Back in the day, you could take a picture with anyone. Now…”

Oscar jumped in, laughing, “I’m on the record: I’m glad I’m old.”

“This is Going to Help the Program Big Time. Recruits Want to Play for a Winner.”

Since I had the opportunity, I asked Kevin about the looming battle royale shaping up at QB. He said that it’s “[a] nice problem. It shows to the recruiting classes that Kelly has great respect for them. He kept Golson in the whole game and I think that’s going to have Golson coming back with fire in his eyes. We’re going to be fine because at QB, if you’re set, you’re ahead of the game.” Oscar, too, was upbeat about the QB position. “[It's a] great problem to have great backups. Make reservations now for the spring game. That competition will be insane.”

“For People to Give Him Grief for Looking at the NFL is Completely Unfair.”

I wrapped up the interview by asking for Oscar’s and Kevin’s thoughts on us, ND Fan, and the Eagles situation. Oscar started us off. “[Notre Dame] fans have always been consistent. They are by far the classiest group of fans I’ve seen. But that creates an expectation that you will be as loyal to ND as they are. You look at Coach Kelly. He’s always been fiery, he’s always been a hell of a coach and I think that gets NFL interest. He took over a team that was beat down and demoralized. For people to give him grief for looking at the NFL is completely unfair. There’s no loyalty in sport anymore. That he stayed is incredible. The fact that he [Coach Kelly] knew what was going on [with Te'o]. I’m not a big Pete Carroll fan. He just happens to leave right before the sanctions come down? Come on.”

Kevin, too, was nonplussed, if not impressed, by the whole thing. “I’m definitely glad he stayed. Like Oscar said, you definitely want to check. We all do that. If you have a great price on a microwave, you’re going to go check the other store just in case. I respect that he looked.”

As you can see, loyal readers, we covered a lot of ground. I cannot thank Oscar and Kevin enough for their time and their candor. These are special, special guys.

About Bayou Irish

Featured Columnist: Notre Dame Football & Other Notre Dame Sports
Hating Hurricanes Since 1990.

Bayou Irish is a Jersey boy and Double Domer who fell under New Orleans' spell in 1995. He's been through Katrina and fourteen years in the Coast Guard, so we cut him some slack, mostly in the form of HLS-subsidized sazeracs. But, when he's not face down on the bar and communing with the ghosts of Faulkner and Capote at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, he's our man in SEC-land, doing his best to convince everyone around him that Graduation Success Rate is a better indicator of success than the number of MNC's won in the last five years.

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  • GB

    Bayou Irish,

    Nice interview and interesting perspective.
    On another note, I think the sentence should be written as:
    “Kelly has a chance to build on what happened. 1, the game was a learning experience for Kelly. 2,Saban can do this with his eyes closed.”

    • Bayou Irish

      GB: thanks for reading and for commenting. And for pointing out my mistake. The sentence is my fault alone.

  • Terry

    Good piece. Next season it’s all Kelly’s recruits.

    • Bayou Irish

      Terry: thanks for reading and for commenting. I’m a fan of Coach Kelly and I think (I hope) that the team’s performance this season turns down the volume on any “Kelly Must Go” chatter for at least two seasons. But this coming season is, in fact, very important because EVERY player (mostly) will be his. I don’t know that we get back to the Big Game, but surely another major bowl appearance (I don’t want to use BCS in case that’s gone somehow). I want to see another Top Five finish. Heck, I’d like another shot at the title.

  • jmichael

    Such a great idea to interview those two and get the opinion of guys who have been in the trench. Enough Manti.Let’s see if BK can improve special team and defensive secondary performance..if not..I believe next season could be very long.
    I would like to read more about Gunner Kiel.
    Thanks!

    • Bayou Irish

      JMichael: Thanks for reading and for commenting. I could talk to them forever — incredible guys. I speak with OMac often enough, but what really struck me is how easy it was to speak with Kevin after more than a few years — and how ready he was to talk. They were both very open. Substantively, I think the secondary is going to be a strength — and how great would a #FreeSlaughter sixth year be in that regard? I think you’ll be hearing a lot about Kiel in the run up to the Spring Game. But I think it’s Golson’s position to lose.

  • stogiesnbeer

    Thanks Bayou, nice interview with a really cool perspective.

    • Bayou Irish

      MMMM beer. And stogies. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • IrishGuy23

    ” but we still don’t have that bottom-line belief that somehow, some way, someone is going to make that play and we’re going to win.””

    …I laughed at this. After the games Notre Dame won and pulled out this season…..this was really an analysis they had?

    ..

    • Bayou Irish

      Hey IrishGuy23: thanks for reading and for commenting. You raise a very fair point. I’m not trying to explain the quote away other than to say that it was certainly in the context of the NCG — Kevin’s question was how do you stack our athletes against [Alabama's]? If that wasn’t clear, the fault’s on me. I don’t know that the quote can be limited to the NCG, but it arose well inside that context and I don’t know that it goes beyond it.

  • jmichael

    HeyIrish,
    If you are ever in Pensacola for some beach time,look me up.
    NDMD’62

  • KMac151993

    Great article – McDougal is my favorite Irish player ever…check that, favorite football player ever. Always glad to still hear stuff from him. Keep up the good work!