Notre Dame keeps alive Playoff hopes
The Indianapolis Star USA TODAY Network
EVANSTON, Ill. – There was a moment on a rainy weekend at Ryan Field in which Te’von Coney became severely disoriented.
Thankfully, this wasn’t because of a head injury in a hardhitting game.
Instead, chasing a Northwestern player toward the sideline during a sloppy-but-satisfying win that carried a final margin of 31-21, Notre Dame’s star linebacker faceplanted and was treated to a helmet full of soggy turf.
“I got up and I had a whole bunch of grass and dirt in my eyes,” Coney said. “I couldn’t see what was going on.”
Before panic could set in, his Fighting Irish teammates raced over to pick him up and carry him back to safety.
“My brothers came over there and grabbed me and told me, ‘Let’s get back to our sideline. Let’s keep playing football,’ ” Coney said with a relieved smile.
In the search for an apt metaphor after third-ranked Notre Dame bobbed and weaved and improved to 9-0, that Coney anecdote just might serve as well as anything else that floated to the surface.
Things got a little dicey there for the visitors, who were playing without starting tight end Alize Mack (concussion) and with a limited dose of hobbled senior linebacker Drue Tranquill, who still managed to flash repeatedly on third down.
Notre Dame pulled away from a 7-7 halftime tie only to let the Wildcats close back within three points midway through the final quarter. In the end, however, they did just enough to be whisked off to the team buses and pointed back toward the road to the national championship.
Whether that path truly runs through South Bend, Indiana, this season remains to be seen, especially after top-ranked Alabama manhandled LSU 29-0 on the road in prime time. But the Irish continue to take care of business in a way that suggests they can avoid the same sort of November disaster that befell them a year ago.
“I think with the experience we have, it is easier than it has
6. Oklahoma (8-1)
MATT CASHORE/USA TODAY SPORTS been in years past,” cornerback Julian Love said after a successful homecoming to Chicagoland. “(Notre Dame) teams in years past, they’d feel that pressure building every single week, which it does. We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing and what has led us to be 9-0.”
Typically, that formula
12. Kentucky (7-2)
has featured a ferocious pass rush, a bend-but-don’t-break defense, the accurate passing of Ian Book and a healthy dose of “Juice,” courtesy of running back Dexter Williams.
Notre Dame lost a fumble inside its 40 on the game’s opening drive, for the second consecutive week, but just as it did a week earlier in San Diego, the Irish defense kept that bit of carelessness from turning into an early deficit.
At that moment, and in further tense situations that came along in the second half, the sideline mood was one of resolve and poise.
“We were telling each other, ‘Don’t break, no matter what,’ ” Coney said after mustering two of five sacks for the Irish. “We’ve faced adversity all year long. Our coaches do a great job of putting us in situations like that where we have to go out there and try to win the game.”
Once again, the Irish responded to the challenge.
“It’s like waking a sleeping beast,” Love said. “When we were up by three, everybody was pacing down the sideline, yelling at each other, screaming, motivating each other, saying,
18. Washington (7-3)
‘Let’s go!’ Not yelling at each other but with each other to really finish the game off.”
Admittedly, according to Love, Notre Dame lacked the requisite energy at times in a ho-hum first half. What’s more, the 10-point favorites seemed to relax once they got ahead 24-7 in the fourth, only to put the hammer down once again with a 10-play, 89-yard touchdown drive.
Now it’s a matter of finishing off a perfect regular season to earn a seat at that College Football Playoff table. Next up is Senior Day and a home finale against a Florida State program that has fallen on unspeakably hard times.
Those lopsided road losses to Miami and Stanford last November remain fresh enough in Irish minds to serve their cautionary purpose, no translation required.
“We’ve got to stay humble,” receiver Chase Claypool said after a 130-yard night. “Last year around this time, the rankings came out and Miami happened. I think that’s why we’re coming up to these games and keeping our focus right because you never know who could beat you.”
24. Utah (6-3)
“We were telling each other, ‘Don’t break, no matter what,’ ” Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney said of the Fighting Irish’s victory against Northwestern.