Three realities emerged from Saturday’s college football slate:
- Notre Dame is in better shape than it was prior to the weekend
- Notre Dame’s offense is outstanding
- Notre Dame’s defense is no longer a work in progress (I’ll explain later).
Point #1, as promised in this space, has begun to take care of itself, i.e., contenders will fall by the wayside, both to fellow heavyweights and in upset fashion. If Notre Dame continues to win, chances are it will be asked to play among the sport’s Final Four on New Year’s Eve.
At least six playoff hopefuls – Florida State, TCU, Ole Miss, Memphis, Michigan State, and LSU – lost Saturday. The initial four from that sextet now have no chance of earning selection over a potential 11-1 Irish team while the latter pair will have trouble finishing ahead Notre Dame without ample aid. (LSU cannot win its side of the SEC without an Alabama loss.)
But in the interim, as a result of Point No 3, Point No. 2 remains paramount. And I’m not offering anything you haven’t heard before, but it’s time to officially dismiss with the pleasantries:
Notre Dame does not have a playoff caliber defense.
They’re not, as often suggested, “one or two plays away” from cleaning up their act anymore than I’m a few feet from the ground as these words are typed at 35,000 feet. It’s a unit that plays well in spurts because, well, it has a few really good players.
But it’s a group that likewise offers up more big plays than Christmastime in the city.
Fret not Irish fans, there no contender void of an Achilles Heel this fall, and head coach Brian Kelly’s crew can score, which gives them a puncher’s chance in the playoffs or in the acceptable consolation of a New Year’s Six bowl matchup. Foremost, it equips them to take on peer foe Stanford in Palo Alto.
(As for upcoming games against offense-optional Wake Forest and Boston College, let’s just say the Irish defense is temporarily going to hit its stride.)
“WE COULDN’T TRADE FOR A NICKEL”
Kelly’s deadpan response to the natural post-game query, What compelled you to try (slot receiver) Torii Hunter, Jr., in the secondary? was met with a round of chuckles. After all, it was funny in two ways: organically, and because when all hope is lost, laughter is likely the best medicine.
Notre Dame’s long-projected nickel, freshman Shaun Crawford, hasn’t played a snap this season due to August injury. His replacement at the position, senior KeiVarae Russell, has since endured his fair share of should-be-humbling moments in coverage, and Russell’s backup options remain so untrusted on the perimeter that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has rarely chanced their collective presence.
Enter Hunter. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here, because if Notre Dame’s much improved slot receiver ends up pitted against the wrong athlete in space (rest easily, Irish fans, the Demon Deacons and Eagles don’t possess such an entity), a big play for the opponent is likely to follow.
But VanGorder’s unit has little to lose for trying, after all, the first time Hunter is beaten he’ll officially be indoctrinated into the position group – it seems to be a prerequisite for playing time as big plays are the order of the day against Notre Dame’s weekly whipping boys.
On the other side of scrimmage? The Irish are as good as anyone, and if short-yardage inconsistencies can continue to be assuaged, Kelly & Co. will score on anyone they might encounter come December 31.
AN APT COMPARISON
Collectively, the 2015 Irish are reminiscent of Lou Holtz’s revered 1991 squad. (One that finished 10-3 with losses to three Top 15 teams.) Including its Sugar Bowl victory over Florida, no Notre Dame team has produced more touchdowns (64), but the team was hindered by a pass defense that was regularly riddled downfield while its front seven more often than not handled its business.
The present-day Irish D has yielded 25 touchdowns in nine games (all occurring in the last eight). It’s by no means an obscene total, and is doubtless an average (basically three TD per contest) Kelly can llive with through season’s end, though it remains sobering that 17 of the opponents’ 25 trips to pay dirt have included a barely brushed or untouched scorer, including two Saturday in Heinz Field.
Asked post-game how his Irish must improve to qualify for the playoffs, Kelly deferred offering ideas for betterment to instead highlight the bottom line.
“We need to win three more games. That’s all we can do,” he said. “Here’s what I told the guys, ‘You put yourself in a position to be a contender, you just have to play one play at a time.’ 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
The rest is out of our hands.”
And on the offense’s capable shoulders.