NOTRE DAME, Ind. – For the fourth time in four games, reality forced Brian Kelly to audible.
Already down five starters for the season, Notre Dame’s head coach lost tight end Tyler Luatua to a concussion at some point last week, then watched Corey Robinson sprain his knee in warmups. This program’s medical drama has hit Kelly hard enough that he resorted to comedy in the aftermath of Saturday’s 62-27 blowout of Massachusetts.
“Unbelievable,” Kelly said. “He was going for some popcorn … no, I made that up. He was not going for popcorn. Don't write that down.”
In terms of a concession speech, that’s as far as anyone around Notre Dame will go after this record-setting afternoon against hapless UMass. The Irish still believe they’re bona fide College Football Playoff contenders, even as Notre Dame creates as many questions as it answers each Saturday.
Everyone knows how good Notre Dame can be at 4-0 for the third time in four seasons. Yet no one, including Kelly, seems to know how good the Irish actually are right now. Is Notre Dame a true Top 10 team? Or did Notre Dame just survive a sneaky bad September schedule? Did the Irish slay dragons or avoid slip-and-fall accidents?
When Notre Dame knocked off Georgia Tech last weekend it felt like a seminal moment of the Kelly era. Then the Yellow Jackets went thud at Duke while Virginia revealed itself to be a polite Purdue.
Notre Dame doesn’t need to apologize for its four wins. It also can’t deny those opponents have only beaten William & Mary, Alcorn State, Tulane and Rice. And yeah, if the Irish win at Clemson that list will add Louisville, Wofford and Appalachian State.
Notre Dame is good. That’s not up for debate.
How good, that’s the more interesting question.
“We’re definitely still figuring that out,” said running back CJ Prosise. “We definitely know that we still have a lot to work on, but we know that we have a high ceiling.”
Cover Notre Dame long enough and you’ll run the gamut of reactions to a win like UMass, a game where the Irish were tested more than expected. Some teams get defensive about these performances. Others celebrate without context. This one got mature about it.
For everything learned about the Irish this weekend, that’s the most important lesson. Taking Brandon Wimbush out of the box and working Equanimeous St. Brown, Dexter Williams and Alize Jones into the offense was great. That C.J. Sanders punt return will be highly clickable all week. How Notre Dame’s veterans handled their business mattered more.
“I think we understand how good we can be, but we understand we haven’t arrived and have a long ways to go. We know that. The coaches know that,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “Before you solve the problem it’s about identifying it. It’s something we really have done.”
Notre Dame has plenty of small stuff to clean up, from a defense that doesn’t always see what’s coming to a quarterback who’d leave divots if the stadium still had grass. All that is fine considering the roster turnover forced on Kelly.
Where Notre Dame’s head coach is most underrated is solving those kinds of problems in-season. Regardless of the cards he’s dealt, Kelly seems to have winning hands.
“I know the football team and its heartbeat very well,” Kelly said. “I think we're still learning about certain players and what their strengths are.
“It wasn't a flat team today. It was an excited team that played with a lot of energy, but I do agree that we're still kind of sorting out the certain roles for the players on this football team.”
Notre Dame can’t change the injury realities of Jarron Jones, Malik Zaire, Shaun Crawford, Drue Tranquill and Durham Smythe. It couldn’t do anything about Luatua and Robinson on Saturday. It can’t speed heal the broken thumbs of Max Redfield and Joe Schmidt. It can’t work a medial miracle on Prosise’s hip or Ronnie Stanley’s knee.
All Notre Dame can do is make the best of a situation that’s still pretty good.
“I think that we all know that we can definitely get somewhere higher than where we’re at right now, for sure, without a doubt,” said cornerback Cole Luke. “It’s just a matter of breaking down another door, each day, each week, each hour. It doesn’t matter. Not being satisfied with being where we’re at right now.”
When Notre Dame returns from Clemson next week maybe we’ll have a grip on this team. Or maybe we’ll just have a fresh batch of questions. All that matters is the Irish keep winning. Figuring out how good this team can be might not happen until New Year’s Eve.
“Good is not always good enough,” Luke said. “We need to play at our best.”