NOTRE DAME, Ind. – There was magic in the air in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday as the Irish completed an undefeated season at home with a 28-7 victory over Wake Forest.
After all, it was Senior Day where accomplishment meets nostalgia for one last familial romp around the old ball yard.
Manti Te’o was there, reminding everybody of the mystical 2012 season. Joe Schmidt held a family reunion in the northeast corner of the field. Dozens of players danced around and looked wistfully into the stands where family, friends and well-wishers reciprocated the love.
Heck, there may have even been a little voodoo in the air as well. How else could you explain an ACC officiating crew making a personal foul call magically disappear?
Crazy things happen on Senior Day, partly because of the emotions involved, but mainly because it’s November. By November – as the weather turns and the physical and emotional upheaval of a season begins to erode advantages -- it’s difficult to take care of business the way the typesetting/couch potatoes of the world expect.
“You know, when you’re out there and you’re going from drive to drive, it kind of bothers you that you’re not out there with the momentum that we typically have,” said Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, who led an offense that managed just 282 total yards.
“But being on the field and realizing that it’s November and we just came out with a 21-point win, it’s huge for us. We’ve moving forward. We have a win streak going…This is huge, especially at this time of the year.”
Maybe the final day of October is the bewitching time for the rest of America. But in college football, it’s November when what you think you know is a vapor and what you want to believe to be unquestionably true can be a figment of one’s imagination.
Clearly, Notre Dame was not on top of its game, or perhaps more accurately, Wake Forest wanted a piece of what the Irish now possess as a 9-1 team with a No. 4 College Football Playoff ranking, which presumably is safe for another week.
“This is the level we aspire to get to,” said Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, the beneficiary of the bizarre decision to eliminate the personal foul penalty because Clawson popped a gasket.
“I believe we can get there. This is a measuring stick game. When a team plays with that much energy, that much effort, that much enthusiasm and you execute 90 percent of what you want to get done, that should be a happy locker room. But we beat ourselves. We’re a team that does that too much.”
Notre Dame has used up enough emotion this season that to tap the gas pedal and not get a response is hardly a shock. That’s what happened Saturday to the Irish and, apparently, a whole bunch of other highly-rated football teams across the country.
We who micro-analyze every play the Irish participate in see the flaws as the collapse of the universe. The fact is every team has its flaws. Every team taps the gas pedal and simply can’t accelerate somewhere along the line.
Saturday, it happened to nearly every top-rated team to varying degrees.
No. 1 Clemson defeated 3-7 Syracuse, 37-27.
No. 3 Ohio State defeated a .500 Illinois team, 28-3.
No. 5 Iowa barely survived 4-6 Minnesota, 40-35.
No. 6 Baylor lost by 10 at home to No. 12 Oklahoma.
No. 7 Stanford, a 10-point favorite, lost at home to Oregon.
No. 8 Oklahoma State trailed 3-7 Iowa State most of the game before pulling out a 35-31 victory.
No. 9 LSU lost by 17 at home to Arkansas.
No. 10 Utah lost at home to a 6-5 Arizona team.
No. 11 Florida survived at 3-7 South Carolina team.
No. 13 Michigan State defeated 2-8 Maryland, 24-7.
No. 14 Michigan needed two overtimes to defeat 4-6 Indiana.
No. 15 TCU squeaked by 0-10 Kansas by six…at home!
No. 18 Northwestern won by seven at home over 2-8 Purdue.
No. 19 UCLA lost at home to Washington State.
No. 22 Temple lost by three touchdowns to 6-4 South Florida.
Who’d we forget? Oh, yeah, No. 2 Alabama won at Mississippi State by 25. The Crimson Tide were the mutants Saturday, as they are most Saturdays.
It’s no wonder a head coach comes out of what most would consider a lackluster performance and is simply thankful to be 9-1 with a 21-point victory in a game in which the Irish led by three touchdowns for 33 of the 60 minutes.
“I thought Wake Forest played very well today and we’re pleased with the outcome,” said Brian Kelly succinctly.
Yet there’s no mistaking that in the grand scheme of things, the Irish are lacking ingredients normally attributed to a team with a chance to play for the national title. Although the defense held Wake Forest to seven points, it remains a unit as vulnerable to a big play as a 15-play, 80-yard drive.
Highly-ranked teams with quality defenses – defenses far superior to Notre Dame’s – include Alabama, Florida, Clemson, Ohio State, Iowa and Oklahoma, all of which have zero or one loss like Notre Dame. (Note: presumably only four of those six teams can make the playoff with either Alabama or Florida and either Ohio State or Iowa advancing beyond the conference championship.)
How can a 9-1 football team have fewer tackles for loss than its opposition? How can a 9-1 football team lose control of the point of attack as frequently as Notre Dame does – on both sides of the football? How can an offense that averages 220 yards rushing per game consistently allow teams to get seven, eight, 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage?
It’s the great anomaly associated with this football team, one that makes observers look at the Irish and say, “Is that really a playoff team?”
And yet at this point, with two weeks left in the regular season, if that 9-1 team becomes an 11-1 team, it’s more likely than not that Notre Dame will be participating in college football’s second playoff season.
Who really does deserve to be in the playoffs?
At this stage, undefeated Clemson, although their toughest challenges have come at home.
Ohio State, despite its struggle for style points, remains undefeated at 10-0 following a national championship season, which remarkably is the fifth time Urban Meyer has started a season unscathed through the first 10 games of the season.
After that, we don’t know, which is why the next two weeks and then the round of conference championship games will have to determine who the fourth playoff team is.
Of course, that’s if Ohio State can get through Michigan State, Michigan and then Iowa in the conference championship, Clemson can get past North Carolina in the ACC finals, and Alabama can survive its rivalry game at Auburn and then Florida for the SEC crown. Otherwise, it’s a whole new cast of characters.
And yet as we head into the final two weekends of November, Notre Dame controls its own destiny – presumably – although now there’s the Stanford and Temple losses for the committee to consider, plus the possibility of a third Temple loss next week against Memphis.
Who deserves to be in the playoffs? Tune in next week when another spin of the wheel spits out yet another Baylor, Stanford, LSU or Utah.
Notre Dame at Boston College. Absolutely nothing can be taken for granted in November.