Notre Dame seems different this time after running the table
LOS ANGELES – In the warm afterglow of last week’s 24-17 win over Southern California, a spotless regular season and a likely College Football Playoff berth secured after a first-half scare, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly turned playful.
He joked that this week, when he hops on a plane to throw his recruiting efforts into overdrive, he would walk through high school doors with a renewed sense of mission.
“I’ll say, ‘Why am I waiting for (Nick) Saban? Let me in. I want to see that kid first. We’re undefeated,’ ” Kelly said of the Alabama coaching legend.
Just three other Irish editions since 1950 could make the unbeaten/untied claim after completing the regular-season schedule: the national championship teams of 1973 and 1988 and Kelly’s 2012 team, which got waxed by Saban’s Alabama juggernaut in the Bowl Championship Series title game in Miami.
These third-ranked Irish seem different.
Already they have snapped a fivegame losing streak in these California season finales.
Already they have defeated four current members of the Associated Press Top 25 while trailing at any point in just three games: at Wake Forest (3-0), Pittsburgh (14-6) and against a vexing Trojans team that jumped out to a 10-0 lead.
Already they have ripped through 14 time zones and 12,551 round-trip air miles – according to OneFootDown.com – while making stops in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Blacksburg, Virginia; San Diego; Evanston, Illinois, and the Bronx in New York.
“We’re in L.A. this week — I think,” Kelly said with a laugh. “We’re like an (off)-Broadway show: ‘We open up in a city near you.’ Travel affects people, and it doesn’t affect this group. So if you give us a little bit of a rest and allow us to play in a neutral site, I think we’ll play even better.”
The system is different too, with it now taking two postseason wins to claim the title. Notre Dame won’t know its fate or its next opponent until the matchups are set Dec. 2, but by the tenor of their postgame comments they will be more prepared for whichever powerhouse awaits them Dec. 29.
“We understand there’s so much left for us on the table now that we have to complete,” senior center Sam Mustipher said. “We know it’s not done yet. We understand what’s at stake.”
That’s why the Nov. 24 postgame celebration, at least the on-field version, was relatively muted.
“Our goal was to win in November, and we checked that goal off the list,” Mustipher said. “Our ultimate goals here at Notre Dame are to graduate and win a national championship. So that goal is still out there.”
That goal remains because they made the defensive adjustments it took to slow down freshman quarterback JT Daniels after he started 18-for-19 passing for 159 yards.
“It was just telling ourselves and reassuring ourselves that one on one, man for man, we are the better team,” said cornerback Julian Love, who led the Irish with 12 tackles. “We started playing more to that tendency. We started to get closer to the receivers.”
After USC went up 10-0, its next seven possessions resulted in six punts and a lost fumble in the red zone before a garbage-time touchdown.
A national championship remains as a goal for these Irish players and coaches because they made the in-game tweaks on offense that broke Dexter Williams free for a 52-yard go-ahead touchdown run four minutes into the second half. Fellow running back Tony Jones Jr. added a 51-yard score on a simple screen pass from Ian Book that made it a twoscore game with three minutes to play.
“We were comfortable in the sense we were confident we could still win the game,” Mustipher said. “If there’s time left, we’re always comfortable we can win the game. With the talent that we have on this team, if there’s time left we have confidence.”
That’s not to say there weren’t some anxious moments in the early going. Playing for pride along with a possible bowl berth and their coach’s job, this was a different USC team than the one Notre Dame had seen on tape.
“The anxiety and that angst were there a little bit, but we overcame that,” Love said. “They were struggling this year, but they weren’t going to hand it to us. We had to adjust and take it from them.”
The slow start? Maybe they were still in shock from what happened to fourthranked Michigan earlier in the day in a 62-39 loss at Ohio State.
“A lot of us saw it,” Book said. “That just shows you that anybody can win any given day. It just reminded us how much harder we have to play. It was nothing that we talked about too much.”
Book let his play do the talking with the Irish down 10-0 in the second quarter. Slipping away from the USC pass rush on 3rd-and-11 from the Trojans’ 47, he slithered out to the left and lowered his right shoulder into cornerback Isaiah Langley at the first-down marker.
Langley sagged. Book got the extra yard.
Five plays later, Notre Dame was on the board when Book found Chris Finke for a 24-yard scoring strike.
“It was a huge play,” Book said of his scramble. “We needed that first down.”
It was Book’s right side, you’ll recall, that took the brunt of the punishment a few weeks earlier at Northwestern. He finished that game without incident but would miss the Florida State game the next week with bruised ribs and a contused kidney.
On Nov. 24, when a coiled defender loomed and a sideline beckoned, Book didn’t flinch.
“I just feel like those are the plays that, as a quarterback, you have to make,” Book said. “You have to show your guys how committed you are. I knew where the sticks were. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do when you run up to the sideline and you know that you’ve got to get one more yard.”
Two more wins, and such tales will become part of Irish lore.
Athletics director Jack Swarbrick and head coach Brian Kelly celebrate the victory against Southern California that completed Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season.