Sometimes college football teams end up limping their way through the final month of the regular season, both mentally and physically.
Don’t put Notre Dame in that category based on its performance Saturday at Yankee Stadium.
Brian Kelly’s Irish showed up eager and anxious to display what they could do against Syracuse, the 12th-rated team in the country — and it was difficult to miss.
Kelly has promoted the notion of playing well and winning in November with his players — and it shows.
Here are Irish takeaways from their matchup with the Orange:
Not to be picky, but … Kelly after the game noted the need to clean up the Irish penalties (including multiple false starts), which didn’t end up playing a serious role other than to keep Notre Dame from putting more points on the board versus Syracuse. In fact, the last three Irish games have featured the three highest penalty totals of the season for Notre Dame (eight each versus Northwestern and Florida State). Still, the Irish rank 30th nationally in fewest penalties per game (5.18). By contrast, Notre Dame’s opponent this week, USC, stands 116th in that same category at 8.0 per contest.
Another role for Brandon Wimbush? His value as a quarterback is well-understood and established. But, with Ian Book playing as well as he has (ranking second nationally this week in NCAA completion percentage at .726 and seventh in passing efficiency), it’s logical the Irish staff might find more ways to make use of Wimbush. Saturday the duo appeared briefly in the same backfield late in the second period (one carry for Wimbush in that set for no gain), and it leaves Notre Dame open to utilizing Wimbush other than under center. Said Kelly on Sunday, “We think certainly he has the ability to run with the football, but we’d like it to be more than that somebody that can catch the football, that has the ability to impact the offense from more than just that element. So clearly, as you can see, we’re trying to integrate him into the offense more than just a play here or there. And it continues to unfold.”
The matchups. Give Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and the rest of the Irish offensive staff credit for identifying and then executing on matchups they felt they could win against Syracuse. The starting Orange defensive backs listed at 5-8, 5-11, 5-11 and 6-0. Chase Claypool stands 6-4 ½, Miles Boykin 6-4 and Alize Mack 6-4 ¾ — and they made life frustrating for the Orange from the very first play from scrimmage when Book targeted Boykin for an easy nine yards. By the end of the first period those three Irish pass-catchers had combined for nine receptions for 142 yards — and the die had been cast.
The Irish focus has been great. No matter the conversations and conjecture outside their orbit, the Notre Dame players have done a solid job of embracing the challenge awaiting them each Saturday. Kelly doesn’t expect anything different this week: “There has to be transparency in what you’re doing — understanding clearly that USC is a rivalry game. There’s going to be a lot of noise around it, and you’ve got to be aware of that because I don’t think you can move on unless you’re aware. Then you can go back and do what you’ve been doing for 11 weeks, and that is work on your preparation, and by doing so, put yourself in a position to succeed on Saturday. Burying your head in the sand and avoiding all of it and not understanding what’s going on is not the way we’ve been doing it all year. We’ll go back to work the way we have each and every week. We’ll talk simply about our preparation and what we need to do to go from our goal to finish off November. We had three goals this year — beat Michigan, win all of our games at home and then win the month of November. So that will be the primary focus. All that other stuff will take care of itself. We want to finish off November, and that will be our focus this week.”
The schedule. 2018 for Notre Dame has been a great example of never knowing for sure exactly what opposing teams will look like until the actual games are played. The 2018 Irish slate contains four teams in the current Associated Press poll — No. 4 Michigan (10-1), No. 19 Syracuse (8-3), No. 20 Northwestern (7-4) and No. 24 Pittsburgh (7-4). Northwestern is headed to the Big Ten title game and will play Michigan if the Wolverines defeat Ohio State on Saturday. Pitt is headed to the Dec. 1 ACC title game to face current unbeaten Clemson. Meanwhile, four other 2018 Irish foes — Florida State, Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and USC — need one more victory to become bowl eligible. Virginia Tech at 4-6 needs two and is prepared to play a 12th game Dec.1 if it wins this week, after an early-season game was scratched by weather issues. Notre Dame’s overall schedule currently ranks 31st in difficulty by the NCAA numbers (Irish foes playing at a .580 clip versus FBS teams). Among teams playing the toughest schedules to date are No. 3 Stanford, No. 4 Florida State, Nos. 10 Vanderbilt and Pitt, No. 17 Michigan, No. 23 Navy and No. 25 Wake Forest.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.