BOSTON – Brian Kelly said it all without saying a word.
When the Irish head coach arrived in the interview room late Saturday night after Notre Dame’s 19-16 Shamrock Series win over Boston College, Kelly settled into Red Sox manager John Farrell’s seat and let out a long sigh. That game summary was equal parts exhaustion, exasperation and gratitude.
Last month Kelly said October was for pretenders and November would be for contenders. Yet somehow the Irish still look like both heading toward next weekend’s showdown at Stanford. Down KeiVarae Russell and likely without C.J. Prosise, it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame doing more than surviving the Cardinal.
“Our guys know what has been in front of them when they lost to Clemson early in the year,” Kelly said. “You've got to win all your games. Got one more, got to win it.”
For Notre Dame, there’s still everything to play for heading into that finale.
That’s because the Irish won at Fenway Park. Despite five turnovers. Despite allowing 200 yards rushing to one of the nation’s worst offenses. Despite another half dozen drops, muffs and/or mistakes. Despite all that, Notre Dame won.
What the Irish lost – beyond Russell and Prosise – is control over the argument they’re definitively one of college football’s four best teams. Notre Dame’s best evidence for making the top four feels like that loss at Clemson (in a monsoon, in case you hadn’t heard) and blowing out Texas three months ago. The Irish still have a chance to finish with four wins over conference division winners. But Notre Dame made it harder to pound the table for the Irish with this Shamrock Series performance.
And yet the campaigns for Iowa, Michigan State, Baylor and Oklahoma feel like they’re losing ground too. The Hawkeyes are unbeaten but without any win of consequence. The Sooners and Spartans each have horrific defeats and are now relying on backup quarterbacks. The Bears are digging even deeper at the position and refused any out of conference challenge.
Nobody is perfect, which makes filling out the top four beyond Clemson and Alabama subjective work with no hard criteria. It’s not hard to argue Notre Dame should stick at No. 4 this week in the College Football Playoff poll or even move up. The problem is it’s just as easy to do the same for three or four other teams.
“Today’s mission was accomplished. It was a very, very ugly way of getting there,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “It’s ugly to have this loss at this time of the year, but at the same time it’s gonna be a great learning experience for me and the rest of the offense.”
It only felt that way.
For how much focus Notre Dame lacked during the game, the Irish grasped the big and small picture after it. They didn’t have to admit that duplicating this performance at Stanford means Notre Dame will crash out of the playoff chase.
Kelly talked about Kizer getting humbled at Fenway Park.
That could apply to more than just the quarterback. The fact Notre Dame’s players get that should help the Irish cause heading toward the Cardinal.
“We don’t focus on winning in style and things like that,” said Jaylon Smith. “The most important thing is just trying to make sure we can execute. We have a lot of areas that we can improve on.”
That doesn’t start with Kizer but he’s the biggest key for Notre Dame upsetting Stanford next weekend. For one of the first times all season Kelly put the game plan almost entirely on Kizer, asking him to throw a career-high 38 times. But the problem with red-shirt freshman quarterbacks is that they’re red-shirt freshman quarterbacks. Kizer looked it against the Eagles with those three picks and another near-fumble.
Kizer called his back-foot pick just before halftime “idiotic.” Kelly would have gone a few steps further on that first down interception in the end zone when Alize Jones was completely covered up.
With Prosise almost certainly out at Stanford and freshman Josh Adams – not efficient in blitz pickup, beware – asked to replace him, Kelly figures to double down on Kizer. The quarterback has the mental makeup to handle it. Now Kelly has his most valuable coaching card to play with the sophomore, who should pay extra attention this week.
Did Kizer need a lesson like this? Maybe that’s not the right question.
“I mean, I wish he didn't have any of the turnovers, right?” Kelly said. “Here's what I would tell you: Some may never benefit from a game like this. This will do great things for him, and he will benefit greatly from it.”
If Notre Dame can apply that perspective team-wide, there’s no reason it can’t upset the Stanford next weekend. Despite finishing the Shamrock Series down an absurd 12 frontline players, Notre Dame continues to both march and stumble forward.
How the Irish get to the finish line matters. That they’re still in the race matters more.