It’s time to talk Stanford. It’s understandable why someone might feel such a move a tad presumptuous – after all, Notre Dame still has two contests remaining before making the long trek to Palo Alto, and head coach Brian Kelly would be the first person to admonish any effort to look beyond the next game. But realistically, Notre Dame will be playing for a playoff berth when kicking off against the Stanford Cardinal in just a few short weeks.
Wake Forest is 3-6 and boasts one of the most anemic offenses in the nation, ranking No. 116 in scoring offense and averaging only 19 points per game. And the Demon Deacons’ few victories have been far from impressive, blowing past FCS opponent, Elon, and notching narrow victories over Army and Boston College, Notre Dame’s final opponent prior to Stanford.
Yes, Notre Dame fans can point to the infamous 1993 loss to the Boston College Eagles that cost Notre Dame a national championship (heck, that was the first game I ever attended at Notre Dame Stadium), but this isn’t the Tom Coughlin Eagles of years past. Boston College has lost six straight games and has been decimated by injuries, particularly at the quarterback position. The Eagles have trotted out four different starters at quarterback this season, and the result has been offensive production even worse than Wake Forest’s. The Eagles have the No. 118 scoring offense in the country and are averaging a lowly 17 points per game. But the biggest reason it’s okay to peek forward toward Stanford comes courtesy of Notre Dame itself.
One of the biggest issues for Kelly’s team this season has been the inability to focus and come out strong, but debuting at No. 5 in the first edition of this year’s College Football Playoff rankings seems to have done the trick. Notre Dame has always struggled against the Pittsburgh Panthers, and despite Brian Kelly’s 3-1 record against Pitt heading into this past weekend, the Irish had never beaten the Panthers by more than six points in the Kelly era. Even in 2012 when Notre Dame finished with a perfect regular season record and appeared in the BCS National Championship, Kelly’s squad had to score 14 late points in the fourth quarter before squeaking out a three-point win in triple overtime.
Notre Dame’s 3-play, 75-yard opening drive against Pitt that culminated in a 47-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Will Fuller was more than shaking off a tendency to start slow – it was a signal the team knows what’s at stake and isn’t willing to let another opportunity slip through its fingers, a message Kelly drilled home after a last-second loss to No. 1 Clemson earlier this season. After Fuller crossed the goal line, Notre Dame never looked back, and the Irish answered some season-defining questions along the way.
Many fans had become concerned with star running back C.J. Prosise’s workload and wondered why true freshman Josh Adams had not been seen more in a supplemental role (my personal theory for the lack of touches involves lack of ball security or ineffective pass protection in practice). Whatever the reasoning, Notre Dame was left with little choice when Prosise left in the first quarter, not to return.
Despite one botched handoff, Adams proved capable of being a trustworthy reliever for Prosise moving forward. The Pennsylvania native displayed good vision and cutback ability en route to a 20 carry, 147 yard performance, an average of over seven yards per carry against a stingy Pitt defense. Adams even proved valuable in pass protection, handling several blitzes well and allowing quarterback DeShone Kizer time to make plays.
Kizer has also made a leap in status from Malik Zaire’s replacement to a dangerously efficient starting quarterback. Kizer completed over 73-percent of his passing attempts for over 260 yards and 5 touchdown passes, chipping in another with his feet. Kizer systematically dismantled Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi’s defense, something very few quarterbacks can claim after Narduzzi’s dominant run as defensive coordinator at Michigan State. And Kizer is only a redshirt freshman.
Notre Dame still has areas to clean up. The miscommunication between safety Max Redfield and cornerback KeiVarae Russell – which led to a late 51-yard touchdown pass to Pitt wide receiver Tyler Boyd – was an ugly sight. And Notre Dame still needs to learn to unleash its killer instinct. Backup quarterback Brandon Wimbush will have plenty of opportunities to see the field over the next two weeks, and his fumble that led to another late Pittsburgh touchdown cost Notre Dame in the style department. But the College Football Playoff Selection Committee will see the Irish dominated Pitt in a way it hasn’t for many years, including 2012 when Notre Dame would eventually move on to the BCS National Championship.
Three games may remain on Notre Dame’s schedule, but make no mistake – this season ends with a playoff showdown in Palo Alto.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.