Brian Kelly said what no head coach ever admits.
And Notre Dame's veteran skipper deserves a ton of credit for his willingness to speak truth.
In the post-game candor following his third-ranked Irish's 45-3 surgical demolition of host Pittsburgh, Kelly flatly stated it's about much more than winning games – especially against overmatched, outmanned foes – for a Notre Dame program seeking its first national championship since 1988.
“You know, a lot of times you kind of get caught up in the grind of just trying to win football games,” Kelly said, “and we kind of said, 'Look, we're past this you, know? We're not interested in just winning football games. We're interested in being a championship football team and just playing to win games is not good enough anymore; we need to elevate our compete-level, we need to coach better.
“We need to play better. We need to play at an elite level and it starts with playing at a level that allows you to not all of a sudden play your best when you have to but have that ready to go, because you are playing at a high level. And that hasn't been the case.”
If it wasn't the case a week ago as the Irish slumbered past Louisville, 12-7, inside Notre Dame Stadium, it was never a doubt Saturday inside Heinz Field. The Irish got long-distance scoring strikes twice from Ian Book to Ben Skowronek and led 28-3 at the half.
Notre Dame's defense continued its almost season-long suffocating of opponents; foes have scored just 49 total points through five games. The Irish defense has 12 shutout-quarters through the 20 it has played; no team has scored on Notre Dame's defense this season in the fourth quarter.
Kelly admitted he knows his players likely aren't oblivious to the fact that the Irish host top-ranked Clemson in two weeks inside Notre Dame Stadium.
The two teams are the only remaining squads without a loss in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where Notre Dame this year is a member due to the ramifications of COVID-19 on this college football season.
“So that was the challenge,” Kelly said of urging his team to up its level of play. “And that's, you know, it's risky, right? Because you're in some instances, people would say, 'Well, you're looking ahead.' Well, we are looking ahead a little bit. We needed to get this football team to understand that they are really good and we needed to up our compete-level in all three phases. We did that today.”
Notre Dame in the past has struggled with Pitt, and Kelly personally has a long history with the Panthers from his time as head coach at Cincinnati, when both the Bearcats and Panthers were Big East Conference members.
Even two years ago, en route to a College Football Playoff berth, the Irish barely eked out a come-from-behind win at home against Pitt, 19-14.
Kelly admitted that, on the surface, a game against the Panthers might have seemed an odd spot to challenge his team, but he stressed the Irish must advance their play at this moment.
“Yeah, you wouldn't say that Pitt, going on the road for the first time and picking Pitt for your team,” Kelly said. “That's the No. 1 defense, rush defense, that 'Hey, let's pick Pitt to look ahead.' No, that really wasn't the mindset. Here the mindset was to say, 'Look, what's important now is that you've got to continue to apply your process and continue to think about, you know, Pitt is going to be ready to play you; they always have played us tough, but that's not really the point here. The point is that we have to elevate our play if we want to have any chance of getting to our goal, and that is to win a championship.'”