Are Ir­ish ris­ing to top?

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Mike Ber­ardino

Notre Dame is 6-0 and has a clear path to the Play­off.

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Here’s the scary thing about this Notre Dame team af­ter a 45-23 run­away win over Vir­ginia Tech Oct. 6.

Even af­ter putting up four se­cond-half touch­downs, even af­ter show­ing quick-strike ca­pa­bil­ity in the run game, the pass game and on de­fense, there was a be­lief among the Fight­ing Ir­ish that they had only scratched the sur­face of their po­ten­tial.

“We’re not at our ceil­ing yet at all,” re­ceiver Miles Boykin said af­ter catch­ing two more touch­down passes from Ian Book. “We’re still push­ing. We’re still get­ting bet­ter ev­ery day, and I’m just look­ing for­ward to it.”

Now 6-0 for just the fourth time in the past quar­ter cen­tury, the Ir­ish climbed the Amway Coaches Poll to No. 5 af­ter Ok­la­homa and LSU both lost. A spot in the four-team Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off is look­ing in­creas­ingly likely, es­pe­cially if Notre Dame man­ages to run the ta­ble.

The Ir­ish played “un­even” foot­ball through the first 30 min­utes at Lane Sta­dium, to bor­row coach Brian Kelly’s de­scrip­tion, but there was never any doubt on their side that they would find the for­mula to dis­patch of the then-23rd-ranked but still out­manned Hok­ies.

Once they fig­ured out how to keep Book up­right in the face of de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Bud Fos­ter’s re­lent­less blitz pack­age, it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the home crowd of 65,000-plus Me­tal­lica-lov­ing, war-whoop­ing Hok­ies fans would be sent home dis­ap­pointed.

In the process, they also backed up the strong mid­week words of left tackle Liam Eichen­berg, who al­lowed he was plan­ning to “go in there, kick the (ex­ple­tive) out of them, get a win, then get out of there.”

Ul­ti­mately, that’s how it played out. The 22-point mar­gin of vic­tory, ac­cord­ing to ESPN, was Notre Dame’s largest on the road against a ranked op­po­nent since a 51-0 past­ing of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia more than half a cen­tury ago (1966).

It was af­ter that game that leg­endary Tro­jans coach/quip­ster John McKay said: “I told my team it doesn’t mat­ter. There are 750 mil­lion peo­ple in China who don’t even know this game was played. The next day, a guy called me from China and asked, ‘What hap­pened, coach?’ ”

There was no need for such gal­lows hu­mor in Kelly’s postgame news con­fer­ence. Al­ready with­out left guard Alex Bars af­ter a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury, Notre Dame also lost rush end Ju­lian Ok­wara to a tar­get­ing ejec­tion just be­fore half­time.

“It’s an ex­tremely con­fi­dent group,” he said. “We lose Ju­lian Ok­wara in the se­cond quar­ter and we still play re­ally good foot­ball. It’s a deep team, it’s a ta­lented team, but I would say, more im­por­tantly, it’s a very con­fi­dent foot­ball team.”

Why shouldn’t it be? Since Book re­placed Bran­don Wim­bush as the start­ing quar­ter­back, Notre Dame has av­er­aged 46.3 points in its past three wins.

A week af­ter break­ing loose in the se­cond quar­ter to outscore then-No. 7 Stan­ford 24-3 to the fi­nal gun, the Ir­ish shook off a 17-16 half­time lead to outscore the Hok­ies 28-7 af­ter the break.

Asked if his team was de­vel­op­ing a “killer in­stinct,” Kelly said he wasn’t sure that was nec­es­sar­ily the case.

“The men­tal de­vel­op­ment of the group is where we’re dif­fer­ent,” he said af­ter im­prov­ing to 2-9 on the road against ranked teams since the start of 2013. “Last year we could tell you why you win. (Now) they can tell you how to win. There’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween how you win and why you win.”

It’s the dif­fer­ence, he seemed to be say­ing, be­tween see­ing spe­cific trees and the mag­nif­i­cent for­est as a whole.

“Last year they would tell you that you win if you don’t turn it over and you don’t give up big plays,” Kelly said. “They tell you now they know how to win be­cause there’s an at­ten­tion to de­tail and you can’t be sloppy and you’ve got to be smart. It’s just a dif­fer­ent group, a much more ma­ture group.”

That’s how, even amid the glow of a sat­is­fy­ing road vic­tory, you had Boykin sug­gest­ing the of­fense could have and should have done even more dam­age on this night.

“We missed a cou­ple shots early in the game,” he said. “In big games, we can’t do that. We had some chances. We know we left a lot of points out there with some deep balls that we missed.”

Af­ter shred­ding Fos­ter’s famed “Lunch Pail de­fense,” Boykin shrugged at the achieve­ment and hinted at the per­fec­tion­ism that is be­com­ing this team’s trade­mark.

“I think we had a good game,” Boykin said. “Not our best, but we had a good game.

STEVE HELBER/AP

Notre Dame quar­ter­back Ian Book throws a pass as de­fen­sive line­man Houshun Gaines closes in dur­ing the first half Oct. 6 in Blacksburg, Vir­ginia.

MICHAEL SHROYER/GETTY IMAGES

Notre Dame run­ning back Dex­ter Wil­liams, right, cel­e­brates his touch­down run against Vir­ginia Tech.

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