Necessary Step Remains

In a schedule full of capable, if not unbeatable foes, Notre Dame accomplished its first step in a three-month process: a 4-0 September finish.

At some point, I just figured the tide would turn.

There was no inside information that led to an August Prediction Series that included a 4-0 start for Brian Kelly's Irish. No sense of absolute belief in the process that Kelly preaches, no head-in-the-clouds "buy-in" that this group was any more tight-knit than season's past. No delusions of grandeur.

Simply put, in watching Kelly and his staff go about their business for the last 34 months, at some point it seemed Notre Dame would finally beat some odds other than those that are small.

The Irish are 4-0, they're defense is excellent by any measure. Their special teams has been clutch if not top notch, and both entities make up for an offense that's pedestrian at best, at least when not pitted against Midshipmen for whom football decidedly does not come first.

Notre Dame's offense has scored five touchdowns in its last three games, winning them all. It scored three meaningful offensive touchdowns (four total) in its last three games last season. In between, it ran through Navy.

That's the current state of the ever-evolving side of scrimmage under Kelly. Fast-paced? Not at present, and not often in recent memory sans an up-and-down affair vs. Maryland in mid-November 2011. (Maryland beat one FBS football team last year.)

The dual-threat expected to coincide with the Everett Golson era has been timely (two clutch rushing scores over the previous two games) but nowhere near potent, as Golson has gained 45 rushing yards this season not including the 56 he's lost on sacks.

As for the power game that seemed to be developing late in 2010, midway through 2011, and in the opener this year, well the current Irish average 3.8 yards per carry, or 2.5 yards per pop when not facing Navy -- and they don't face Navy again until next season.

But there's one stat that trumps all those struggles, and its not the defense's astounding 14 sacks through four games, not the fact that consecutive ranked foes have been held out of the end zone, and not the team's No. 4 national ranking in scoring defense.

It's 4-0. The Irish haven't lost because they're a better football team than last year, or than in 2010, or from 2006 through 2009, the final four years of the Charlie Weis era. They're better than last year's offensive wrecking machine of September and October that ripped off five 500-plus yard efforts.

They're a better team than the group that last season treated Michigan's defense like a speed bump rather than with reverence as it did last night.

They're better, because Notre Dame fans no longer wake up Sunday morning wondering "what if?"

What if we didn't turn the ball over 10 times in the first two games? What if someone didn't fumble away the football at the goal line for a 14-point swing? Last season's "what ifs?" hit such a nauseating level it seemed Irish fans didn't realize that mediocre football teams turn the ball over when it matters. That its not all about luck all the time, but occasionally concentration, athletic will, and physical and mental toughness.

The 2012 Irish possess the latter in spades. In the last two games, both against ranked foes that played lights out defense for the bulk of their contests vs. the Irish, Notre Dame's offensive line and running backs found a way late. Against Michigan State, a 12-play, 84-yard drive that took 6:40 off the game clock provided points and a bit of extra cushion for the team's defense.

Last night, an 11-play 53-yard march took another 6:24 off the scoreboard and gave the home team a 10-point edge. Michigan couldn't have scored 10 playing through Sunday dinner.

"I think its another step in the process of consistency that I've talked about," said Kelly post-game Saturday when asked what this win meant. "Before you can go from being a good team to a great team, you have to exhibit some type of consistency in performance. Our kids have had three tough opponents early in the season as we're trying to find our self offensively, and it definitely goes towards that consistent performance that we're looking for and this is another step toward that."

In 2012, when Notre Dame needs a play, whether it be from its backup quarterback, its starting quarterback, its sometimes leaky offensive front, or one of two senior running backs, it gets that play. It finds a way. In 2011, all of the above contributed to a weekly gaper's delay from chuckling fans who've long-since written off the Irish program. They were the train wreck team that couldn't be seriously considered at a national level.

Now, because of a wrecking crew defense that's failed on just one damaging series (vs. Purdue late in the contest), the program that put forth a Keystone Kops effort in five 2011 defeats has opponents on lock down through four games this fall.

Notre Dame commits just one turnover per game because quality teams don't turn the ball over, regardless of how many meaningless yards are accrued along the way. The Irish have created 14 turnovers vs. four foes because good defenses create turnovers due to the play of their fronts -- and Notre Dame has a nationally relevant front line wreaking havoc on the other side of scrimmage.

I don't think Notre Dame will prove to be great in 2012. At some point, be it vs. Stanford, Oklahoma, USC, or all of the above, the Irish offense will have to take off the training wheels and pull its weight for 60 minutes rather than one or two drives. At some point, there's going to be an ill-timed turnover by the team's quarterback pair that the defense can't erase, and touchdowns rather than field goals will be the required answer.

Notre Dame is 4-0 because its a quality, focused, tough-minded football team with well-developed talent playing lights out football on one side of scrimmage. The other side needs an identity over the next two months, or 4-0 will become 9-4 as forecasted, and with a raised set of expectations (finally!) that again won't be good enough. Top Stories