Notre Dame keeps alive Play­off hopes

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - LEADING OFF - Mike Ber­ardino

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 final 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 floated 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 flash 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 final 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 deficit.

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 five 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 finish the game off.”

Ad­mit­tedly, ac­cord­ing to Love, Notre Dame lacked the req­ui­site en­ergy at times in a ho-hum first 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 finish­ing off a per­fect reg­u­lar sea­son to earn a seat at that Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off ta­ble. Next up is Se­nior Day and a home finale 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.

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