Call it a reset.
No mulligans are available in college football, but Notre Dame’s 39-10 handling of Nevada Saturday night nonetheless sets the stage for opportunity that only six days ago seemed lost.
Michigan State visits South Bend next weekend. A win against the Spartans by the now refreshed, seemingly rejuvenated Irish squad would place Brian Kelly’s crew firmly back in the conversation for contention.
(That’s what happens when you lose your season opener to a team that finished below .500 the previous season: you need to beat a playoff team to even reenter meaningful conversation.)
Make no mistake, the win over hapless Nevada Saturday offers nothing in form of panache, but because of it, Notre Dame’s chance at redemption for a sorry Sunday in Austin is afoot.
An archrival returns to the stadium it referred to as “Spartans Stadium South” as recently as 2009. Ranked twelfth and ready to bludgeon at scrimmage. Ready to challenge Notre Dame in a manner similar to Texas – up front.
Pads cracking. And in the case of the Spartans, playoff style.
Michigan State has won 36 of its last 41 games. They, like Stanford entering Kelly & Co.’s matchup with the Cardinal in the epic 2012 slugfest, represent the gold standard of modern Irish foes.
That is: Notre Dame needs to rise to the Spartans level.
“Yeah, We know what they’re going to do,” said Kelly in reference to the yet-to-be-tested Spartans, on a bye since facing FCS foe Furman on Sept. 2. “We know what Mark’s (Dantonio) offense is about and what they do defensively. Even though there’s only one game on film, we clearly know what their identity is.”
We don’t know what Notre Dame’s is yet. Neither does Notre Dame, though a strong running attack and a top-notch quarterback appear to be the plow horses.
Asked how far his current squad is from reaching Michigan State’s level, Kelly offered, “Here’s what I know: we’re going to get better each and every week. We’re a younger football team in certain areas but we have enough guys that have played enough football that they know what it’s like to play a Michigan State.
“But there are other guys that don’t know what it’s like to get punched in the mouth by a big physical team like Michigan State. There’s still growth that’s going to happen with this football team as we evolve. I like its will to prepare. I like its resiliency.
“As long as we continue to evolve defensively and get better there, I think we have a fighting shot against anybody we play.”
Saturday night against Nevada, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit yielded three points that mattered. Notre Dame’s offense produced 37 points in regulation for the second straight week; again leaving more than one touchdown on the table that was there for the taking.
And after a shoddy effort in the Lone Star State, the Irish special teams provided a punch.
Yet not much is known about Kelly’s seventh-edition Irish squad. Not at the level that matters to its fan base, or at the level to which program aspires.
Because if Notre Dame’s purported training camp identity can be eschewed for a few perceived matchup advantages as was the case last week at Texas, who’s to say what will happen when Game Two toughs Daniel Cage, Te’von Coney, and the rest get punched in the mouth by a playoff program in Game Three?
But if you’re among the impatient sorts, consider this reality:
Within a week from the moment you read this, Notre Dame’s 2016 season will take one of two tracks:
1.) Also-rans, saddled with a 1-2 mark, or…
2.) Members of the conversation, rejuvenated at 2-1 and with one of the five best national wins of the season to date on its resume.
The former would qualify as a true identity crisis. The latter?
Then we’ll know what we need to know.