Are Irish rising to top?
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.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book throws a pass as defensive lineman Houshun Gaines closes in during the first half Oct. 6 in Blacksburg, Virginia.
Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams, right, celebrates his touchdown run against Virginia Tech.