NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Forgive Romeo Okwara for his fumble inside the postgame interview room on Saturday.
The senior defensive end arrived there with a game ball for the first time in his suddenly distinguished career and tried to stash it under the lectern. It rolled onto the floor, Okwara finally securing it beneath his backpack. That ball was a trophy of Okwara’s three-sack afternoon on Senior Day and a reminder of where this season can still go.
Staring straight back at Okwara was that ball’s gold College Football Playoff logo, Notre Dame’s realistic goal after putting down the Demon Deacons to close the home slate unbeaten. The Irish don’t control their own postseason destiny, but they have a decent grip on it. Ranked No. 4 in last week’s College Football Playoff poll, Notre Dame should stick there for at least another week after the 28-7 win over Wake Forest.
For how much attention that destination demands, the journey warrants more for this senior class that won its 21st home game on Saturday. No senior class in school history has won more inside Notre Dame Stadium, matching the senior classes of ’90 and ’91 that had better winning percentages.
“It’s one thing each and every player that goes through Notre Dame wants, to create a legacy here,” Okwara said. “And that’s something we can look back on and say, ‘Hey we did that.’”
Yeah, they did that.
Notre Dame’s senior class got help in this overachievement, including from a couple linebackers inside the stadium Saturday: Manti Te’o and Jaylon Smith. The class also scrapped for this in a way few appreciated or predicted, enduring de-commitments, transfers, flake outs and dismissals.
When Brian Kelly signed this class four years ago it included Tee Shepard, Davonte’ Neal and Gunner Kiel. The class lost four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry on National Signing Day. Cornerback Ronald Darby had flipped a month earlier.
It was a 17-man haul on unstable ground before it enrolled.
One national title game appearance and a potential playoff bid later, the class may produce two first-round picks (Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley) and another couple early selections (KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise). It’s been a poster for player development too in Russell, Chris Brown, Jarron Jones and Okwara.
Amazingly, of the 17 players who signed with Notre Dame in this senior class, only seven factored against Wake Forest after injuries took their toll. And one of them was long snapper Scott Daly.
“Just losing people only made us grow stronger,” Day said. “I don’t think anything can break this senior class. There’s been arguments, but the next day we’re brothers again.”
Whether Notre Dame makes the College Football Playoff or not, this group has left a legacy. That’s a long road to travel from Kelly’s worst National Signing Day four years ago when the story was Greenberry’s flip to Houston, Kiel’s flakey landing in South Bend and basically how Notre Dame’s recruiting department needed a rework.
Remember that before freaking out about the next five-star that got away or the next project prospect the Irish green light. Kelly’s staff has more than earned the benefit of the doubt in scouting and development. Not every decision is the right one. But they do better than most. Stanley and Day were top talents who grew into top NFL prospects. Okwara wasn’t a diamond in the rough when he signed, he was still coal. Russell was supposed to be a running back. Some saw Prosise as a throwaway prospect that fit better at Duke or Virginia.
Kelly’s staff maxed out virtually all of them while landing plenty of supporting talent too.
It’s a great story lost in the all-encompassing playoff chase. It shouldn’t be.
“I definitely didn’t know we were near any record like that,” Stanley said. “Definitely something I can look back on throughout my whole life.”
Notre Dame remains a strong playoff candidate going into the regular season’s final three weeks. The Irish can do enough against Boston College and Stanford to make not playing a magical 13th game a non-event on their resume.
For some, not making the playoffs will make Notre Dame’s season a disappointment, including Kelly. I get that. But considering where this senior class was when it signed to where it is today – with the potential to play for two titles still out there – that shouldn’t be the story.
This class has already overachieved. The only question left to answer is by how much.