Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Crossing The Lines

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Now beyond the season’s halfway point, Notre Dame is nothing if not entertaining. It’s also not entirely clear how good this Irish team can be.

NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Notre Dame has a 24-hour rule after most games. Whatever happens – good, bad, indifferent – it shouldn’t have a shelf life longer than a day.

The University’s fall break paired with a bye week may extend that window of self-reflection. And that’s a good thing. Because KeiVarae Russell could absolutely talk about his game-changing interception all week. Maybe straight through.

“Is he still taking now?” said linebacker Joe Schmidt around midnight, although that quote probably holds up today and tomorrow. “It was an incredible play. If he wants to, he can talk for the next 24 hours because that was a great pick.”

Notre Dame did not look like a serious College Football Playoff contender for much of its 41-31 victory over USC. The Irish got gashed by the Trojans’ speed and schemes, giving up an absurd 590 yards. That was a single-game worst under Brian Kelly, which means even Alabama didn’t rock Notre Dame’s defense this badly.

The Irish have beaten just one opponent with a winning record. The four Power 5 teams Notre Dame topped are a combined 9-16. Road dates with Temple (6-0) and Pittsburgh (5-1) follow the bye week, with Stanford (5-1) in the distance. All represent Top 25 competition.

For all the pomp and circumstance, Saturday night was never going to play Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff. It could only remove the Irish from consideration. The moment didn’t do that, even in a game with breakneck momentum where Notre Dame somehow blew out USC and got blown out by USC in a 30-minute window.

For Notre Dame to keep hanging around – all one-loss teams can do, really – it needs Russell, no matter how long he talks about picking off Cody Kessler. It needs more from Corey Robinson, whose 10-yard score in the fourth quarter may revive his season. It needs Max Redfield to get a grip on Brian VanGorder’s defense.

Notre Dame is good. How good? Not even Brian Kelly knows.

Notre Dame is tough. How tough? Kelly has a much better handle on that.

“I just never sensed that our football team didn't believe that they were going to win today,” Kelly said. “I thought those were big things for me to see from our team today. It turned some question marks into exclamation points relative to their mental toughness today.”

Notre Dame’s biggest boost in beating USC was the fact quarterback DeShone Kizer didn’t have much to do with it. In the past few weeks the quarterback’s profile has risen to emerging star, even if Kelly would rather he just manage the game. That’s all USC let Kizer do, giving him little down the field other than Will Fuller.

Kizer finished 15-of-24 for 227 yards and two touchdowns, one-third of that yardage from his opening bomb to Fuller. Strip out those maximum percentage shovel passes and Kizer barely completed half his attempts. That’s actually OK. It means Kelly won’t put the outcome on the sophomore’s shoulder pads.

Kelly didn’t in the second half, giving Kizer room to grow and challenging his veterans to carry their quarterback over the goal line. On those two 90-yard drives that put Notre Dame ahead to stay, Kizer watched as much as he led. He completed 2-of-5 passes for 12 yards on those series.

That’s meant as a compliment.

Kelly is 19-2 at Notre Dame when starting a freshman or red-shirt freshman quarterback. He didn’t run up that record by overtaxing young quarterbacks.

“You don't want to throw it back on DeShone Kizer,” Kelly said. “It’s C.J., it's Chris Brown, it's Corey Robinson, it's Torii Hunter. It's that cast and it's that offensive line.

“So it’s going back to those cards and making sure that we use those assets instead of just dropping back and whipping it all over the place and say, ‘Hey, DeShone, win us the football game.’ We have to do something and call on some of those other playmakers that we have.”

Notre Dame has more now that Russell, Robinson and Redfield can be included in that group. Russell’s revival could be the most important of all after his first pick of a quarterback since Notre Dame clinched a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

“We need that on our team,” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “I’m very proud of him. He’s had a lot adversity, to have him back with us, it’s family here.”
 
The Irish still face an uphill climb to make the College Football Playoff, but adding production faster than injury can remove it increases their maximum altitude. There’s a real chance that even winning out won’t get Notre Dame in. There’s also a real chance that winning out and not making the playoffs must be considered a massive overachievement.

This season is somehow everything and nothing we expected. The offense has been dynamic, just with a different quarterback. The ground game has churned out yardage, just with a different running back. The defensive line was supposed to be young and got younger. Quality wins against Georgia Tech and USC weren’t. Potential wins at Temple and Pittsburgh might be.

Notre Dame has been nothing if not entertaining. Even down seven starters, there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue coming after USC.

“It was just a stage for us to show it,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “We had an opportunity to show that we’re a mentally tough team in the second half and we did a great job of talking advantage of that opportunity.

“You know it’s going to be a 15-round fight.”

Whatever your sports metaphor of choice, Notre Dame delivered on Saturday night. What that means today and what it means for the season’s final five games is worth talking about. And 24 hours just doesn’t seem like enough to cover it all.

“I think this is something that we’re getting known for now,” Schmidt said. “We’re gonna battle and we’re gonna battle and we’re gonna battle and we’re never gonna give up on something.”


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