They're no longer searching for an identity: it's defense. And with that, an offense that has contributed to wins in five football games through a variety of means:
- Dominant offensive line play leading the way for a bevy of 'backs (Navy and Miami)
- Timely offensive line play leading the way for a bevy of backs (Michigan State and Michigan)
- Intermittent outstanding play from its quarterback and undervalued receiving corps (Michigan State)
- Timely big plays from its two-headed quarterback crew (Purdue)
- Steady, error-free play from its veteran backup and leader (Michigan)
- And finally, an outstanding dual-threat effort from a player who absolutely must continue on his current path (Miami and Everett Golson)
Said head coach Brian Kelly of the final point, "He doesn't have to run every down, but when we're trying to block effectively and we're leaving a guy not blocked, he has to be able to make the right reads and take it or (hand it off) given what he sees.
"I personally thought that once we got into running (Golson) a little bit he seemed a whole lot more comfortable in the game and I think we'll continue that route moving forward."
All of the above are buoyed by the constant: a dominant defense.
Notre Dame has stopped allowing "touchdowns" to its opponents. Until that ends, I like their chances going forward.
And that forward progression includes a new set of expectations. Fair or not, nine wins is no longer part of the fan base's pre-season "I'll take it!" scenario. Nor is a bowl win in December. Now the Irish are on the precipice of what once seemed implausible, but before Irish fans begin to search January flights to warm weather destinations, I've taken the liberty of promoting adjusted, still-reasonable expectations. (The Irish need to play one game at a time, we have no such restrictions):
1. Notre Dame needs to go undefeated at home - It hasn't happened since 1998, and in present-day parlance, would all but assure a BCS bowl berth. They'll be favored in each of the remaining four (Stanford, BYU, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest) and by increasing odds along the way. None is a guaranteed walk in the park, but save for Stanford, none of the remaining home foes should be able to score beyond the teens against the Irish defense.
2. Notre Dame needs to take out one of the big guns - And I don't mean Stanford. A win at Oklahoma or USC would resonate on a national level, affecting the program's modern image, its status with recruits, both for 2013 and beyond, and would further solidify the current crew's burgeoning confidence in themselves, Brian Kelly's process, and their ability to handle, not just compete against the nation's best.
3. Beware the bread of the sandwich - The Irish will be favored vs. Stanford. Win or lose, the Cardinal remain a peer team, one that's beaten Notre Dame in three straight seasons and USC in four straight. But games vs. BYU (before Oklahoma) and Pittsburgh (after), both at home, will provide mental tests. Both can beat Notre Dame -- neither should.
4. Improve - Notre Dame can lose to Stanford if it plays like it did vs. Michigan. The Irish can lose to BYU and PIttsburgh if not focused. They could be bundled by Oklahoma and/or USC if they don't continue to tackle well and protect the football. But only Oklahoma and USC present 60 minute challenges if the Irish play their best.
Therein lies perhaps the biggest on field change in the program over the last six seasons.
There are but a handful of national matchups likely to trouble the Irish defensively for 60 minutes. There's the obvious other heavyweight defense out there -- one that's helped its program claim two national titles in the last three seasons -- that would greatly inhibit the Irish offense while also possessing an offensive front of its own that could tussle with Notre Dame's fearsome defensive front.
Outside of those select squads, Kelly, Diaco, and the ever-improving Irish have few certain foils.
With that said, they first have to beat one that's taken them down in three straight.
Back to reality -- one that has yet to include defeat.