NOTRE DAME, Ind. – One down, two to go.
Notre Dame’s first month of football offered a mixed bag of 60-minute performances, each culminating in the desired end result. Four games, four wins, playoff poll position considering what lies ahead.
In the most recent rearview is the 2015 schedule’s only tomato can, a UMass squad from which the Irish took longer than expected to separate, but a name-your-score affair finally presented as planned, and visiting coach Mark Whipple cordially thanked his gracious hosts for a hefty check and necessary public flogging to that end.
“They’re better than we are. We’ll take the money and run,” Whipple quipped.
Playoff money awaits Brian Kelly’s Irish if they can do just that, run – not to mention continue to stop it. And to date, those are the constants through four disparate victories.
The Irish can run the football, and they’ll likely continue to do so because hostile surroundings and game pressure have minimal impact on 1,556 pounds of angry offensive line ready to grade road in front of the 2015 football season’s revelation known as C.J. Prosise.
“They’ve got a chance to be really good because when you’ve got an offensive line like they have ,and you’ve got Prosise back there and you’ve got a guy (Will Fuller) on the outside (that) you’ve got to double – they’ve got what it takes to be a really good offense.”
Quarterback remains a promising work in progress in the form of DeShone Kizer, but Prosise, Fuller, and the aforementioned brutes up front give Kelly & Co. a fighting chance in each of its remaining eight outings.
What the defense – specifically the defensive front – does hereafter will paint the season’s final picture. That reality will be shaped by the same elusive quality that defined each of Kelly’s previous five seasons at the helm in South Bend:
THE DECIDING FACTOR
“We’ve watched four games and we’re still not sure how good they are.”
Pete Sampson’s words were echoed (independently) by a colleague as we walked through the Joyce parking lot late Saturday night.
“But we’ll find out next week,” he said. “Because even if they lose a close, well-played game, they can still be a Top 10 team.”
That’s for the Playoff Selection Committee to decide, but it’s hard to argue against the Irish chances due to the following tandem of time tested truths: they can run, and as currently constructed, they can stop it as well.
But check back with me in November on the latter, especially considering the following season-by-season attrition rate for Notre Dame’s defensive linemen in the Kelly era:
-- 2010: Ian Williams out final 5.5 games to conclude the season
-- 2011: Kapron Lewis-Moore (out final 6), Ethan Johnson (out or limited final 7 regular season), Stephon Tuitt (out final 3 reg. season)
-- 2012: No defensive line injuries of note
-- 2013: Louis Nix (out final 5), Kona Schwenke (out/limited final 3 reg. season), Sheldon Day (out/limited 5 total)
-- 2014: Jarron Jones (out final 3.5), Day (out final 2 reg. season), Daniel Cage (Out final 3)
-- 2015: Jones (out for season, August Camp injury)
Save for the 2012 campaign, if the Irish didn’t have bad injury luck, they wouldn’t have any at all.
Bad timing struck again Saturday afternoon, between the lines, but before any whistle was blown.
“He tweaked his knee in the pre-game. Unbelievable.”
Kelly was referring to wide receiver Corey Robinson, a player at a position of depth and strength for his Irish squad. Irrespective of Robinson’s talents, he’s a player the team can afford to lose and win games despite his absence.
The same holds true for Tarean Folston, and for other wide receivers not named Will Fuller. And any tight end. And any runner not named Prosise. And probably with either its third-string (Kizer) or fourth-string (Brandon Wimbush) quarterback.
(And to be sure, it’s imperative that the cohesive, road-grading offensive front stays intact.)
In other words, the offense will march (or run) on without the services of many, just as the defense has and will survive after the loss of its shiny nickel (Shaun Crawford), and dime (Drue Tranquill) – key members of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s all-important sub pacakages.
But up front? Notre Dame won’t rank among the sport’s Final Four in December if any member of its indispensable quartet – Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Jaylon Smith, or Joe Schmidt – falls by the wayside. Not after the August loss of Jarron Jones, or quarterback Malik Zaire from the other side of scrimmage.
At some point, continually top tier attrition would be too much to overcome But as for the inevitable, garden-variety injuries that await every team? Notre Dame’s depth and Kelly’s philosophy should render those moot.
“I think I’ve got a pretty good feel for the pulse of the team and its leadership core, and then how these younger players fit into that group. They really like each other and they enjoy playing,” said Kelly.
“I do agree that we’re still kind of sorting out the certain roles for the (unexpected) players on this football team.”
Rookies Quenton Nelson, Jerry Tillery, Josh Adams, Aliz’e Jones, Tyler Newsome, C.J. Sanders, and of course Kizer are on the rise. Others such as Nick Coleman, Nic Weishar, and perhaps Wimbush will highlight chapters in the season’s still-developing story.
But it’s the core from which the Irish cannot lose any more.
“I feel terrible for those guys, but it’s part of football. You have to move on,” said captain Nick Martin of his injured teammates.
The Irish will move on if they continue to run, to stop the run, and of course, change their injury luck along the way.