Crossing The Lines

PHILADELPHIA – Turns out Notre Dame doesn’t have a monopoly on mental toughness. But the Irish definitely have it, surviving this surprise gut check to stay in the playoff chase.

PHILADELPHIA – Brian Kelly just wanted to get off the field.

In the immediate aftermath of Notre Dame’s 24-20 win over Temple – a resume builder for both programs – the Irish head coach got held up by his mandatory radio interview. Technical difficulties delayed it, the station unable to get a clear line out of The Linc, which had just showcased one of college football’s best games no one saw coming.

The glitch left Kelly exasperated, holding a microphone but unable to speak. Eventually he checked off that media obligation, basically asked to make sound bite sense of a game both bizarre and predictable. There was no revelation or evolution here. There was still plenty to unpack.

“Obviously a tough, hard-fought football game against a very good football team in Temple,” Kelly said. “We expected that to be such. And that’s what we got.”

Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff life flickered at Temple. A team advertised as mentally tough not only got matched by the Owls in that department, the Irish got topped.

“I think they definitely fought hard right up until the end there,” said defensive end Romeo Okwara. “We just fought harder and came up with the win.”

Actually, Notre Dame just landed the final blows with its roster of NFL talent. Temple doesn’t have that luxury, even with a poor man’s Manti Te’o in linebacker Tyler Matakevich. Yet the Owls convinced themselves they not only could beat the Irish, but that they should. They made Temple football matter, which was more impressive than DeShone Kizer hitting Will Fuller for a 17-yard game-winner.

Temple never had the better roster, but for stretches it had the better team.

That stress tested and nearly failed the Irish when Elijah Shumate got ejected for targeting and left the secondary scrambling. Then Brian VanGorder turned to career reserve Nicky Baratti over Max Redfield at the goal line. Jahad Thomas had no trouble turning 4th-and-1 into a touchdown, cutting inside Baratti in the process.

That personnel shuffle followed Kelly’s sideline altercation with assistant strength coach David Grimes. Kelly grabbed Grimes’ shirt and walked him backward after the officials threatened to flag Grimes for misconduct.

Without Fuller’s game-winning touchdown that’s the story today, Kelly losing his cool in a game where parts of Notre Dame didn’t seem to take Temple seriously enough. Instead, the narrative remains Kizer’s fourth quarter comeback and Fuller’s heroics. Kelly’s blowup and Kizer’s owl flaps fade away.

That’s the all-or-nothing reality of sport. Put it another way, we’re not talking about two-point conversion charts if Corey Robinson catches that pass in the back of the end zone at Clemson. We’re talking about Notre Dame as perhaps college football’s best team.

“Collectively there’s a demeanor on this football team of they’re not gonna give in,” Kelly said. “They just keep playing they play hard for four quarters. The Temple team has that too. A no quit attitude where they just keep playing and this group is very similar.”

Credit Kelly for grasping the bigger picture here.

Yes, Notre Dame has the resolve of a legit playoff contender. So do about a dozen other teams. Mental toughness will keep the Irish hanging around. But it’s going to take a lot more than intangibles to win out.

This is still the same team that was down seven starters after Shumate’s ejection. It’s without a proven tight end, making Alize’ Jones’ 45-yard catch a potentially critical development. Notre Dame doesn’t have safety depth or even solid backend play. The quarterback is the short-yardage solution. The red zone offense is an outlier among playoff contenders.

“I told our guys, we’ve gotta coach our kids better,” Kelly said. “We’ve gotta put them in better position. They just need to keep bringing to practice the resolve and the want to get better every single day. And that special trait that they have, believing that they’re gonna win football games. Because obviously you can’t duplicate that.”

Self-belief isn’t unique. But it is essential.

When players talk postgame about how they knew Kizer would find Fuller for the game-winning score, it feels authentic. When KeiVarae Russell talks up his turnover skills in the fourth quarter, it seems genuine. The Irish have sweat for that mental edge, from pounding Texas to outlasting Virginia to even coming short at Clemson.

But that confidence will only take Notre Dame so far, maybe not beyond next Saturday afternoon at Pittsburgh, maybe not beyond Thanksgiving weekend at Stanford. But it has a chance to help the Irish all the way if Kelly can find a few more buttons to push during one of his more underrated coaching jobs.

Kelly has now completed 13 fourth-quarter comebacks at Notre Dame, the most in college football during that timespan. Maybe the Irish shouldn’t have been in so many of those positions in the first place. But they clearly know how to get out of them.

“We always have faith in our team because we know what we can do,” said Sheldon Day.

That’s a good spot for Notre Dame to be.

Because it means the Irish can still get to someplace better.


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