PITTSBURGH – The object of Notre Dame’s desire swings tantalizingly close, providing just enough of a whiff to entice one into thinking that the end, and thus, the reward, is near.
It is, but it isn’t, which is about as sensible of a summation as possible following Notre Dame’s 42-30 victory at Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame’s surprising No. 5 placement in the first College Football Playoff rankings is the carrot before their eyes. Its victory over Pittsburgh bore the aroma of the stew in which those delights simmer, particularly with LSU’s loss to Alabama, logically (but not necessarily) lifting Notre Dame up a notch and into the four-team playoff that awaits the conclusion of the 2015 regular season.
“I know it sounds like coach-speak, but all we can do is take care of what’s in front of us, and that’s Wake Forest,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Here’s what I told the guys: you put yourselves in a position to be a contender; you just have to play one play at a time.
“The rest is out of our hands. We can’t control anything else but how we play against Wake Forest. They get that. We need to win three more games. That’s all we can do.”
The crown that sits atop the heads of the teams that jostle for position each week leading up to the final four selections rests uneasily, like a bowling ball balancing on the tip of a pyramid.
Notre Dame is a legitimate playoff candidate with an 8-1 record, including victories over once-beaten Temple and Navy (both losses to Notre Dame), a resurgent USC, sub-standard September competition, and a decent but undeveloped Pittsburgh team.
The come-from-behind two-point loss to No. 1 Clemson is perhaps Notre Dame’s greatest statement to date.
Is this a better Notre Dame team than the one that popped out of a crowd late in the 2012 season to land a national-championship berth against Alabama? Offensively, without a doubt; defensively, with numerous doubts.
But the flaws that so readily avail themselves are a shared shortcoming.
No. 1 Clemson has impressed on both sides of the football, although the Irish made the Tigers’ offense look rather pedestrian in its rain-soaked 24-22 victory a few weeks back. (The Tigers’ schedule hasn’t exactly been a gauntlet with its two biggest victories – over Notre Dame and Florida State – at home.)
No. 3 Ohio State has had difficulty looking impressive for more than a month against a batch of Big Ten mediocrity. No. 4 Alabama has responded affirmatively in its six games since a loss to Mississippi, including Saturday’s 30-16 victory over LSU.
Do the Tigers drop from the No. 2 spot in the rankings back to No. 4 considering its loss was at Alabama, thus keeping the Irish in the No. 5 spot? No. 6 Baylor has as many if not more holes defensively than the Irish while Nos. 7 and 8 – Michigan State and TCU – likely lost their opportunities to ascend to the top four with setbacks at Nebraska and Oklahoma State respectively.
Undefeated Oklahoma State, in light of its win over TCU, and still-undefeated Iowa, could creep ahead of once-beaten Florida, which struggled to defeat Vanderbilt.
It’s tough enough for grown adults to avoid looking ahead to the possibilities, let alone a bunch of excited young football players who see the brass ring within their grasp.
“It’s difficult for everybody,” said Irish captain Jaylon Smith of the temptation to look ahead, “because we understand our potential. It’s just about how fast we can overcome the adversity we’re facing and execute.
“It’s the little things, specifically with our defense, that is halting us from being great. The explosive plays…But a win is a win, and we’re very happy.”
For a good portion of those who observe the Irish with a rooting interest, finding joy in an 8-1 record and, at worst, a No. 5 spot in this week’s ranking, is difficult. A four-point win over Temple and a 12-point victory over Pittsburgh that should have been a three-touchdown differential conjure up as much anxiety as optimism.
Such is the nature of the discriminating eye with a vested interest.
And yet when you’re talking playoffs and a chance to play for the national title, rising expectations are a natural byproduct.
“We went 1-0 this week, and we know that as long as we go 1-0, (a playoff berth) could end up happening,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer, whose five touchdown passes – three to Will Fuller – tied a Notre Dame single-game record.
“We can completely see that the game plans the coaching staff have been putting together all year have been flawless. We predict defenses really well and how they’re going to adjust to some of the things that we do.
“As long as we continue to buy into those game plans, we’re going to do fine. We’re going to continue to come out with W's each week if we trust in what the coaches are doing for us.”
It’s much less certain defensively, which is what prompts Jaylon Smith to look at it with such stark maturity and rational thinking. Opposing offenses look forward to matching up with Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish provide enough holes and inconsistency, mistakes, busts, whatever you want to call them, to keep any halfway competent offense in the game.
The 30 points scored by Pittsburgh marks just the second time since the first week of the season the Panthers have scored that many. Granted, one of the touchdowns was a defensive score. But Notre Dame surrendered three second-half touchdowns to the Panthers.
Pittsburgh hadn’t scored three offensive touchdowns in the second half since the season-opener against FCS Youngstown State.
While the Irish certainly have done a quality job on third down and in racking up three-and-outs, the inconsistent nature of the Notre Dame defense does not – by historical standards -- reflect a playoff-caliber team.
Pittsburgh had just 34 plays of 20 yards or more in its first eight games. They had eight (not nine as previously reported), although another 42-yard pass play was overruled by replay.
Notre Dame had a 42-17 lead with less than six minutes remaining. A broken coverage led to a 51-yard score and then a Panther defensive touchdown.
If coffee is for closers, the Irish defense is on a caffeine-free diet.
“The big picture is we’re trying to stay as focused as possible on the game itself,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “We’re thinking we’ve got a great opponent next week and we just beat a great opponent in Pittsburgh.
“We’ve got to try to stay focused each week. If we don’t, that’s where we’re going to run into problems.”
Little respect outside the Notre Dame locker room will be bestowed upon Wake Forest, which is 3-6 overall, 1-5 in ACC play and currently on a three-game losing streak. They have an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame.
Most don’t realize how across-the-board solid the Demon Deacons are defensively, due to the losing record and the absurdly-anemic offense.
They average 18.7 points per game, so against Notre Dame, add seven-to-10 points to that average and that’s how many points the Irish offense will need to claim their ninth victory and remain solidly in place for a playoff berth.
Notre Dame’s strength of schedule will take a significant hit each of the next two weeks with Boston College – losers of six straight, but also with an extra week of preparation for the Irish – following Wake Forest.
The media will talk about Notre Dame the next two weeks as if they deliberately set up a couple of November cupcakes to enhance their playoff potential while the Big 12 in particular will engage in weekly combat.
A loss by Baylor and Oklahoma State would put both in Notre Dame’s rearview mirror. Oklahoma – by virtue of its loss to Texas and Notre Dame’s trouncing of the Longhorns – cannot move ahead of Notre Dame.
That basically leaves undefeated Iowa as the only impediment from preventing the Irish from making it into the top four with an 11-1 regular-season record, although keep an eye on LSU’s slotting this week. The Hawkeyes would have to win the Big Ten championship to move past Notre Dame. LSU has a chance to enhance its strength of schedule against Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas A&M.
Without a conference championship game, who knows how the Irish ultimately will be judged. Stanford needs to stay clean the next two weeks against Oregon and Cal to boost the Irish strength of schedule that takes a hit against Wake Forest and Boston College.
Yes, Notre Dame continues to look flawed, but so do most other teams vying for a playoff spot.
The carrot dangles for another week. Quite likely, three more weeks. Another step into unknown territory as the November drama intensifies.