PHILADELPHIA, Pa. – In a sport in which the big picture overwhelms the narrowed focus of the tussle that is four quarters of college football on the road, No. 9 Notre Dame zeroed in on its immediate objective – staying alive in the playoff race – and came away with a 24-20 victory over No. 21 Temple.
With the College Football Playoff Selection Committee about to make its first decree of the season, the Irish maintained their flair for the dramatic Saturday night at Lincoln Financial Field.
Temple is legit; Notre Dame remains worthy of playoff consideration entering November, just as they were last year before a collapse of epic proportions.
“Collectively, there’s a demeanor on this football team of they’re not going to give in,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, whose team won on the road at an opposing team’s venue for just the second time in the last eight trips.
“They just keep playing. They play hard for four quarters. Temple has that too.”
One of college football’s pastimes is to project what might happen down the line as the race for a spot in the four-team playoff heats up. The reality: there is no big picture in the narrowed confines of a college football locker room, particularly when you embark on four road trips in the final five games of the season.
To speculate as to whether Notre Dame will make the playoffs if they win the remainder of their football games is the fodder that drives college football’s interest but clogs the short-term vision of those actually involved. The Irish were in a similar position a year ago when, after losing to Florida State in tragic fashion, they slipped by a pesky Navy team and entered the final four games with a chance for post-season glory.
That came to a crashing halt at Arizona State and escalated with each remaining weekend.
This time, Notre Dame avoided disaster on a Halloween night in which Temple head coach Matt Rhule and his determined troops added validity to the Owls’ No. 21 ranking as its emergence as one of the non-Power 5 upstarts trying to usurp a playoff spot from the grasp of the big boys hit the skids.
“I think we proved that we’re a really good football team, one of the better teams in the country,” said Rhule, whose choice of jobs among Power 5 conference openings will be plentiful when the Owls’ magical run comes to a conclusion.
“Notre Dame is a great team,” Rhule said. “I have a lot of respect for them. They made one more play than we did tonight.”
PITCH AND CATCH
That one play was one more added to the lore of red-shirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer and junior wide receiver Will Fuller, who hooked up for a 17-yard touchdown with 2:09 remaining to lift the Irish to their sixth end-of-the-half scoring drive in seven games.
“Great poise, great leadership, deserving of the game ball,” said Kelly of Kizer. “He’s a resilient kid and he doesn’t’ carry anything with him.”
Actually, the one thing that Kizer keeps in his front pocket is the option of throwing the football to Fuller, who now has 24 touchdown receptions in the 21 games he’s been a full-time starter for the Irish, including at least one score in 17 of those 21 games.
“I really don’t see a coverage – I don’t care if you make up coverages – that can stop him,” said Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt of Fuller.
“He’s incredible. You can contain him, maybe, but to completely stop Will is something that I don’t know exactly how you do it. He’s so talented.”
Kizer’s touchdown pass to Fuller had the looks of a potential interception by strong safety Will Hayes when it was released. But a combination of Kizer’s quick decision to get the football to Fuller and Fuller’s ability to consistently win such battles with the game on the line simply added to the reputation that has developed between the pitch-and-catch combination.
“When you have guys around you that don’t flinch in that situation, no matter how bad you think you’ve played, it makes it a lot easier to flush things (out of your mind),” said Kizer, referring to his two interceptions in the red zone in the first half.
On both occasions, the Irish had a chance to take a two-score lead. In a tug-of-war game like this, such an advantage would have looked and felt like a runaway.
Neither team ever achieved that goal, and when the Irish did fall behind midway through the second quarter and again with 4:45 left in the game, Notre Dame’s offense responded with touchdowns less than two minutes later.
“A great way to cap off the trip and a great W,” said Fuller, who added to his flair for the dramatic with the game-winning score in front of more than 100 hometown family/friends from Philadelphia.
“I just got past the corner and into the hole. I never saw the safety. He didn’t bat it down, so I guess he wasn’t there.”
Kizer knew when he released the football that his margin for error was tightening.
“We ran so many double verticals into Cover Two all game and that safety was really playing the No. 2 receiver really strong all game,” Kizer said. “I knew if I put the ball in at the right time and kept the ball outside, there would be no way for him to make it over there.
“I probably should have thrown the ball higher so that Will could go up and stay away from the safety. But as fast as he is and as good as he is, it didn’t really affect anything.”
SURVIVE AND ADVANCE
If you have Notre Dame in the survivor pool, you’re still alive following an interesting last-weekend-of-November turn of events.
Every AP top 25 team in action won with the exception of No. 21 Temple, No. 23 Pittsburgh – Notre Dame’s next opponent – and No. 22 Duke, which fell victim to the razzle-dazzle of Miami’s lateral-filled kick return that ultimately should/could have been nullified by a Hurricane player -- one of eight who lateraled the football – who was down.
Conceivably, Notre Dame may not budge from the No. 9 spot in the AP poll and may even find itself behind a couple of undefeated teams (Iowa and Oklahoma State) in the selection committee’s first ranking. Both were slotted behind the Irish in the most recent AP poll, as was one-loss Florida before knocking off Georgia.
It would not be a surprise if the Irish were slated lower than this week’s No. 9 AP ranking.
“I told our (coaches that) we’ve got to coach our kids better,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to put them in better position. They just need to keep bringing to practice the resolve and the want-to to get better every single day.
“That special trait that they have -- believing that they’re going to win football games -- obviously you can’t duplicate that.”
While the next three football games look winnable before taking on Stanford – itself a winner in the survival pool with a 30-28 victory at Washington State – Notre Dame has the look of a team with great resilience but also living on borrowed time.
How long can a team remain in the playoff race without the ability to hand the football to a running back and expect him to pick up a 3rd-and-1? How long can Notre Dame avoid the critical error at the safety position that costs the Irish a game? How long can Notre Dame withstand the missed plays/tackles at the Mike linebacker position?
If you think Pittsburgh is a cakewalk based upon its sleepwalk against North Carolina, you’re underestimating the motivation of Pat Narduzzi – the Panthers’ bonkers head coach who yelled at every breathing body on the field against the Tar Heels – and the difficulty of winning in Heinz Field, where the Irish have lost two of their last three.
Wake Forest will fall to the Irish, and Boston College – despite a great defense – almost undoubtedly doesn’t have enough offense to defeat Notre Dame. But there are no guarantees in college football, and Pittsburgh will be motivated out of its mind to bounce back from a bad home loss.
Notre Dame is a talented but flawed football team, like most others. We saw examples of both in the four-point victory over Temple.
Style points would be nice, but perhaps unrealistic on the road where the Irish are a shaky yet resilient top 10 team, much as they were a year ago at this stage of the season.