Now We Know

Five games and five wins into the 2014 football season, Notre Dame observers can officially announce with confidence they know what they're getting from Brian Kelly's Irish.

We don't know how it'll end. Probably with a loss on the ledger, maybe two. Maybe none.

We don't know how good they'll be, or when they'll first fail, or who they might rise up and maul along the way.

And we don't know if what we've seen is enough to make it into the inaugural tournament when the only vote that matters is ultimately collected.

But we do know one thing with dead solid certainty:

We were wrong about Notre Dame.

The team's accepted weak spot, the defensive front, is arguably it's strongest suit. It's been outstanding, and it will only get better, this fall, and next season.

The team that would be exposed by its toughest early test, Stanford, out-toughed the marauding west coast gang of toughs. 17-14 Saturday in South Bend. Out-rushed, equally hit, bruised, and battered.

And the team too young to compete with the top dogs is definitively ahead of schedule -- better than all but two teams on its remaining slate, both of those up for 60 minutes of plausible debate.

Notre Dame is one of the toughest outs in the country this fall, and that's not going to change.

And as with the last time they challenged for the top spot, they're doing it first with defense.

"We're getting great play from the front seven," said head coach Brian Kelly. "I think if you look at the front seven, I think that's where you start. And then we're getting aggressive cornerback play.

"We're doing it with guys that are just stepping up and being aggressive on the outside. We talked about the need to clamp down on the perimeter, if you're going to play great defense, you have to clamp down. I think that's where we've really made significant improvement over the course of the year."

Picking the top dog from coordinator Brian VanGorder's tenacious defense isn't easy. As Kelly offered presciently in April, Sheldon Day is the best defender on the ball; Jaylon Smith the best off of it.

Saturday against Stanford, Smith was all over it: 14 tackles, 9.5 ended in gains of three yards or less including 2.5 on the offense's side of scrimmage.

The sophomore sensation credited VanGorder and his teachings for the defense's continuous improvement and efforts.

"Our inventory is so large, but you can do that with smart student-athletes like we have at Notre Dame," Smith said. "We carry so many plays into the game. It's all about dialing in, executing. We rep it so many times and getting the opportunity to do it in front of 81,000 makes it even better."

Day, Smith, Joe Schmidt, Cody Riggs -- the list of defensive standouts and the impact of each continues to add to its catalogue. (Cole Luke joined its ranks today.)

Offensively, there's little doubt where it starts and ends.

"It's the maturity and the development and he's the guy that's gotta do it," said Kelly of quarterback Everett Golson. "We're not going to the bullpen. (Graduated quarterback) Tommy Rees is not coming in. He is our guy and he's got to come through. When he gets in this situation, I think he's going to be even better than he was today.

"This was really his first two-minute drive, if you really look at it. This was truly his first one. And I think he's going to be better for it."

Golson though appeared better in the season's opening trio of contest than in the latter pair. He turned it over twice today -- both no doubt his fault -- but he responded with a third, then a fourth-down conversion on the game's final drive. His 23-yard game-winning touchdown toss to classmate Ben Koyack traveled 37 yards on a line and hit the senior tight end in a pair hands that had formed a technically sound triangle in front of his chest.

"Don't drop it," said Koyack of his recollection of the season's most important play to date.

He didn't, but most pundits and prognosticators dropped the ball on Notre Dame on a weekly basis since the summer.

That might finally change after Saturday's conquest.

"We're not perfect. We've turned the ball over," said Kelly of recent outings. "We had a jump ball (against) two-man where we should be picking the ball off. That's ridiculous. But that's who we are. We're a little inexperienced in those things.

"But we have great belief in our kids, and they believe in us and we believe in them, and we're going to go play every game and with the thought that we can win every game we play."


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