Notre Dame 2014: What We've Learned

Ten games down, three to go. Below are a handful of relevant thoughts -- past, present, and future -- regarding the 2014 Irish.

1.) There are no upsets with Notre Dame: Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald was presented with a post-game question that include the phrase, "come in here and shock Notre Dame."

Fitzgerald's reply was telling: "Well, I don't know if today was a shock. Maybe to you. Wasn't to me."

It shouldn't have been, not to anyone following the Irish during a successful three-year run in which Brian Kelly's crew invariably keeps both teams in the game. As Kelly noted this week, "I think college football is such that it comes down to a couple of plays and a fine line. And that's why it's so critical that when you turn the ball over like we do..."

Notre Dame hasn't fielded a dominant team since before its current crop of players were conceived. They're not alone. Save for Florida State 2013, Alabama 2009, USC 2004, Miami 2001, Florida State 1999, and Nebraska 1995, most champions over the last two decades haven't rolled through their competition toward a title.

Parity reigns, and when you play a challenging schedule each season (Notre Dame has faced just one very good team this fall, but it rarely encounters a tomato can, either), and when you're injury- and suspension-depleted, and far too young, and far too turnover prone, nothing can be assumed.

Not even Northwestern.( Just ask Anna Hickey, who called Saturday's trap nearly two months ago.)

Of note: The final betting line Saturday was in favor of the Irish by 17 points. The defeat marks the biggest "shock" on the Vegas line for Notre Dame since Senior Day 2008 when Charlie Weis' impotent squad lost to 2-8 Syracuse, 24-23.)

2.) A Very Bad Day: The historical blemish of a mid-November loss to Northwestern will never be erased, though the impact could likely be assuaged by a Notre Dame playoff appearance from a 2015 squad that will feature nearly an identical collection of players.

But Saturday's biggest loss for 2014 might not have been the game, and it might prove worse than the previous personnel hit Notre Dame's defense took this month when it lost the services of the unit's rudder, Joe Schmidt.

Sheldon Day is out. Likely for USC as well. During all the hand-wringing over and praise bestowed upon Everett Golson, and for all the (apparently well-deserved) praise heaped upon Schmidt, and the wonder that accompanies the athleticism of sophomore Jaylon Smith, one reality has been lost among most Irish fans.

Day was the team's best football player.

3.) Mike Mayock was half-right: The (demoted?) play-by-play analyst noted pre-game that the best way to calm down a turnover-ridden attack, one that struggled to protect its quarterback, was to bring a healthy dose of the running game," and that "Tarean Folston would be the beneficiary."

I don't disagree, except I believe Everett Golson would be the beneficiary.

"Well, you know, we ran the ball for 200 yards and ran it 40 times Saturday, and that didn't seem to help much, because we fumbled it three times," said a frustrated Kelly Tuesday. "We're looking for answers. You've got some good ones, I'm all ears. You guys want to write something down on a piece of paper, I'll take it. We're searching, you know what I mean?"

I do, and while I don't have an answer, I have an idea.

Quit relying on Everett Golson. Stop featuring his handiwork as part of the running game. Snap, turn, hand-off, run. That would have beaten Northwestern. A Jet Sweep to a 190-pound receiver that had never carried the football in a college game was unnecessary. So too is asking Golson to run a read-option attack he clearly struggles with. Golson has good feet and a great arm. Why include the apparently vexing read-option decision and mechanics as a featured aspect of the attack?

Pretend he's Tommy Rees rather than Russell Wilson. Snap, turn, handoff. Snap, play-action, let it rip. Snap, drop-back, find room to run when necessary.

It's enough to beat Louisville and USC if the defense can keep both under 40.

4.) Glass Half-Full: Looking for a silver lining -- at least as it applies to football logic -- regarding the 2014 Notre Dame Fighting Irish? Next time someone asks you why a 5-star freshmen isn't starting because he's "more talented," refer them to Joe Schmidt.

My chief professional pet peeve has been eradicated, albeit through unfortunate means.

There's more to football than fans can see on a combine video, 7-on-7 camp, and mythical star system. Besides, Scout.com and other services aren't ranking five and four and three-star players according to each's hit-the-ground-running status as true freshman. It's a future projection.

And for freshmen, the future should rarely be now.

5.) Right, but not exactly: No pre-season prediction I've offered in six seasons covering Notre Dame for Irish Eyes drew more ire than this June's offering that the Irish would start 4-0, but tumble to a 4-4 finish. (That was prior to suspensions.)

It wasn't that I lacked faith in Kelly, the staff, or any other aspect of what is a winning operation. It was merely logic. Teams that lack developed depth, and that will rely on sophomores to do the bulk of their work -- aided by as many freshmen as seniors, no less! -- probably won't win 'em all over an arduous three-month slate.

But to be frank, Kelly's '14 Irish were better than I thought they'd be, regardless of the fact that they've hit the wall since that magical evening in Tallahassee. It's unfortunately sullied what has otherwise been an enjoyable ride after last year's snooze-fest that began with a defined ceiling (due to Golson's suspension) and a team that barely reached it. Fat Cat Syndrome -- albeit undeserved -- ran rampant in 2013.

This team has no such issue, and the season's recent skid suggests it won't be present next fall, either.

But for now, it's 10 down, three to go, and the 2014 Irish likely have a little fight left.


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