Week 5: Three Things We Learned about Notre Dame Football

Herb Gould

How high are the expectations for Notre Dame? Brian Kelly pumped up Northwestern by saying the Wildcats ``just beat Duke.'' Which is news to Pat Fitzgerald. Because Northwestern lost to Duke. More on that below. . .

1, The Irish are squarely in the College Football Playoff hunt

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It didn’t take long for Brian Kelly to start tamping down the College Football Playoff fire that’s starting to burn in Notre Dame’s world.

``Man, we've got a long way to go,’’ he said, ticking off the remaining challenges moments after Notre Dame had throttled Stanford 38-17, breaking a three-game losing streak against the Cardinal in no-doubt-about-it fashion. ``We're going to go to Blacksburg, Virginia, and play in a tough environment. And then we have to play Pittsburgh, who is tough to play. Oh, then we've got to play Navy, by the way. Northwestern, who just beat Duke. We've got a long season ahead of us. So if we're going to walk out of here thinking that we just are the best team, we're going to get beat and it's going to diminish this victory. I told our team, `I'm proud of what you accomplished tonight, but if we don't embrace how hard this is going to be, we're climbing Mount Everest with this schedule. So take one step at a time and get ready for a tough opponent in Virginia Tech.’ ’’

Author's note: I covered Duke's 21-7 win at Northwestern in Week 2, so I don't know which game Kelly is talking about. I hope the Notre Dame staff looks at the right game tape.

I guess his point is, running the table is no easy deal. I do not disagree.

And yet, the path to the playoffs is now there for Notre Dame. And for all the challenges, if you’re talking difficulty-of-schedule, ND’s situation stacks up very favorably with other playoff contenders.

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Clemson’s remaining opponents don’t strike fear. But Alabama and Georgia still have some serious work to do—and never mind how capable they appear to be of handling it. Ohio State, which has a history of inconsistency in the difficult quest for going unbeaten—most recently at Iowa last fall—has some dangerous opponents.

In a way, Oklahoma is the most intriguing contender. The Sooners could see West Virginia back-to-back (regular-season finale and Big 12 championship game), plus TCU and Texas.

The Irish nudged ahead of the Sooners, checking at No. 6 in this week's AP Poll. Oklahoma is No. 7 but will have better opportunities to impress voters and the playoff committee.

And so, the good news: With the possible exception of Clemson, any of the playoff contenders probably would be interested in trading schedules with Notre Dame, which has no ranked opponents left.

The bad news: With only one ranked opponent left—Virginia Tech sneaked back into the top 25 this week—ND has no margin for error.

When you’re talking about a final four, if Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State are unbeaten, they are in. Even if you dismiss a one-loss Georgia, which is hardly a given, that leaves Oklahoma and Notre Dame jockeying for the fourth slot.

With most teams having seven regular-season games to play, a lot can and will happen. But these points stand out in assessing ND’s prospects: The Irish need to win out, and they have the schedule to do that. And they need to keep an eye on Oklahoma.

2, Two new standouts have energized ND’s offense

Two players who weren’t factors a couple of weeks ago have energized a Notre Dame offense that was wobbly as the Irish won their first three games by a total of 20 points. Say hello to quarterback Ian Book and running back Dexter Williams.

Making his second straight start, Book completed 24 of 33 for 278 yards and four touchdowns against Stanford and hooked up with 10 different receivers. In Book's two starts, ND has put up 94 points.

Perhaps best of all, he gave Kelly a comfort level the coach didn’t have with Brandon Wimbush.

``What I liked the most about Book was, if it didn't look right to him he didn't enter into that picture. He got out of it,’’ Kelly said. ``And he got out of it with his feet. When he didn't like it, he took off. When he was sure what he saw and he was decisive, he put the ball where it needed to be. And I was proud of him because of it.’’

``It's a night I'll never forget,’’ Book said. ``And I know it's a night our team will never forget. We needed to beat Stanford. It's been a while.’’

Williams, making his 2018 debut after serving a four-game suspension, also had an unforgettable night. He ran for 161 yards, including a 45-yard TD run on his first carry of the season.

Williams ignited the crowd with a 45-yard TD run the first time he touched the ball this season.

``I've been so excited to play for so long,’’ Williams said. ``Then I got even more excited as I was playing tonight.’’

``When he got his chance,’’ Kelly said, ``he made the best of it. And we needed him.’’

Williams’ contribution was especially timely because running back Jafar Armstrong was sidelined by a knee injury that’s expected to keep him out the Irish play Navy on Oct. 28.

The offensive excitement was tempered Sunday by Kelly's announcement that standout left guard Alex Bars will be out for the season with a major knee injury.

3, The defense is looking stout

While Book and Williams were in the spotlight for leading an offense that piled up 550 yards, the Notre Dame defense stealthily limited Stanford to 229 yards on 51 plays.

Jerry Tillery, a 6-7 305-pound senior defensive tackle led the way with four sacks and two hurries. If you haven’t heard of Tillery, an erstwhile offensive lineman. . . you will.

If the Irish keep this up, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more about the ND defense.

``I don't know if they get enough credit for who they are as a defense. They've been really good at taking away what your strengths are.’’[/membership]


Herb Gould