You got what you wanted, Irish fans.
For the last five college football weekends you’ve watched fellow contenders fail while your Irish never did, though admittedly, Notre Dame’s road through supposed speed bumps Temple, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, and old rival Boston College was unexpectedly bumpy.
Regardless, the stage has been set: one game, win and (likely) in.
Yet another contender (Oklahoma? Iowa?) will surely fall from grace over the forthcoming four-day holiday – Rivalry Weekend in college football claims pretenders annually. It’s fitting then, I suppose, that the Brian Kelly-era’s greatest rival foe, Stanford, blocks Notre Dame’s playoff path.
And the Cardinal has not only emerged as a modern Irish rival but the wistful Notre Dame fan’s white whale. Rivalry week 2015 might as well be Irish Envy week with myriad queries containing some form of the “Why can’t we run the ball like they do?” lament on tap.
Regardless, as predicted by many in August and by nearly everyone in thee wake of Notre Dame’s Oct. 17 win over USC, Kelly’s crew will travel to Palo Alto with a playoff berth on the line. They’ll do so down 10 prospective starters, the most recent casualties in the form of seniors KeiVarae Russell (foot/out) and C.J. Prosise (ankle/doubtful).
It’s not unfamiliar territory for the oft-injured November Irish, as each of the last three seasons has concluded with the troops nowhere near full strength. Losses to (better anyway) Stanford in 2013 and (way better because of) USC 12 months ago predictably resulted.
In fact, three of Notre Dame’s last four regular seasons have ended in defeat out west, as have three straight trips to The Farm where the Irish haven’t won since current assistant strength and conditioning coach David Grimes was made famous by a diving catch that didn’t count rather than a shove that shouldn’t have.
Now they’ll return to Palo Alto as they have entered each of their last three trips – an underdog, that reality made certain after Notre Dame emerged as three-point winners over Boston College last night, failing the eye test throughout Saturday night’s Yawner on Yawkee and previously during a nondescript victory over Wake Forest.
The 2015 squad’s season accomplishments far outweigh their present performance level, though changed perceptions in college football are always at most a week away. Notre Dame can surely cement its spot in the second annual Final Four with one more win.
The latter is the hard part.
CERTAINLY BETTER, BUT GOOD ENOUGH?
The Notre Dame team that takes the field next Saturday afternoon is unlikely to resemble the error-plagued, unfocused unit that bumbled around Fenway Park.
Stanford has a way of focusing this group, at least since the Cardinal handed Kelly’s Irish their hats in 2010-11 meetings with the PAC-12’s modern bullies.
“Our guys (have) known what has been in front of them (since) they lost to Clemson earlier in the year,” said Kelly. “You've got to win all your games. Got one more; got to win it.”
Considering the situation -- a playoff berth on the line during a season-capper at potential PAC-12 champion, Top 10-ranked Stanford – that necessary win would rank as the best of the Kelly era to date.
Kelly is 3-8-1 as a road underdog during his time at the helm in South Bend, but, if that seems especially dreadful it’s not: the three coaches that preceded him were a combined 12 up and 28 down in such situations while Lou Holtz finished a mere 6-8 -1 in his 11 seasons in charge.
For Kelly to better his mark his squad’s performance must be the polar opposite of what was produced last night.
Focused minds must replace last week’s collection of Irish arms sprained by a week of self-aggrandizement. Physical toughness and a champion’s spirit need take precedent over the all-too-convenient excuses offered last night (What’s that you say? Oh the mean BC defender ripped the ball away? Well, then, fumble at will!).
The problem is, we know not which Irish team will take the field in Palo Alto and are all-too-familiar with the Stanford team that awaits.
Do you know how long the Cardinal possessed the football in their 38-36 loss to surging Oregon two weeks ago?
Do you know how often head coach David Shaw’s offense felt it needed to throw against archrival California in a win last night? Twelve times.
The Cardinal is playing its best football. The Irish still aren’t sure what that might mean.
Time to flip the script, Notre Dame, otherwise, a bowl season consolation prize is again on tap.