Marching Onward

Notre Dame advances in to unofficial play-off game No. 2 of five with a 49-39 win over Navy.

LANDOVER, MD -- Brian Kelly walked into the sparse visitor's interview room and stepped onto the platform. With no podium, and notably, no seat available for his post-game discussion, he towered over a smaller-than-usual media gathering seated awkwardly below him, and began to speak.

Then he noticed his microphone stand resided at about waist level.

Fittingly, this wasn't going to be easy.

"It's hard to win," he began, picking up the microphone in a manner commensurate with a stand-up comic beginning his act. "I told our guys in our talk before the game that playing Navy is always going to be a challenge.

"We're happy with the win. We're going to be a better football team because of what transpired out there tonight. We played a lot of young guys that got a chance to compete and find out what it's really like to have eye discipline, to be a sure tackler, to know your assignment and to do all of the little things necessary to be a better football player.

"We'll be a better football team because of tonight's win, and as a coach, that is all you can really ask for."

They'll have to be, of course. Notre Dame usually loses after it faces Navy, 2-5 over the last seven seasons in the ensuing contest. And this week the squad travels west to face the highest-ranked remaining team on its schedule. Arizona State. The Sun Devils are likely the second-best team Notre Dame will face during the 2014 regular season and, along with top dog Florida State, the only two fellow contenders for the inaugural college football playoffs.

Four of the 17 unofficial contenders were unofficially eliminated Saturday. Ole Miss, Georgia, Arizona, and Utah each absorbed loss No. 2. Only No. 4 Ole Miss entered the week ranked ahead of No. 10 Notre Dame, but Georgia (No. 11) would have passed the Irish and nearly everyone else had they won out through the SEC Championship game. A Bulldogs loss was essential for Irish fans.

Now each falls into the role of spoiler: Georgia (Auburn in mid-November, perhaps the SEC Championship Game), Utah (Oregon next week), Arizona (ASU, Thanksgiving Friday), and Ole Miss (Mississippi State on Thanksgiving Weekend).

They'll play well in that role. Most decent teams do.

Notre Dame won't move up much, perhaps a spot, after a sub par defensive effort in a 49-39 win over Navy, but that's irrelevant in early November. Win next week and there'll be a two, three, perhaps four-spot boost. Win out and it will likely be enough for a Top Four ranking and shot at the big prize.

Winning though, is the hard part.

"I challenge anyone to put Navy on their schedule," said Kelly. "Everybody thinks that Navy is an easy team to play; they are a very, very difficult team."

So are the Sun Devils. And two weeks later Louisville, near conquerors of Florida State earlier this week. Thereafter, USC and the Coliseum -- the place Notre Dame seasons go to die -- looms.

(And before you chalk up a "W" against Northwestern on Nov. 15 in South Bend, consider the contest's location on the schedule: between the de facto playoff game in Tempe, and Senior Day vs. the dangerous, talented Cardiinals. Sandwich City.)

"Like I said, it's hard to win in college football," said Kelly.

He's right. And it's going to get harder, for everyone still in the running.


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