I believe we have finally reached the point where we can alter our expectations. Following the big win against USC, I didn’t want to get too ahead of myself. Beating USC, in such dominating fashion, was great. Like, really great. And I wanted to enjoy it for what it was, because wins don’t come around like that very often. And lets be honest, we didn’t really expect much this year, and we couldn’t have dreamed our boys would wax our hated rivals so thoroughly. I think most fans spent the majority of last week just basking in the glow of what happened.
But, there was the thought in the back of my mind, just sitting there to be pondered: if Notre Dame gets by NC State, who many saw as the biggest threat left to Kelly’s troops, we might really have something here. It was a dare to dream matchup, where if Notre Dame won, the path to 11-1 was very real.
Well, we have an update: it’s time to dream.
11-1 is no longer something that could happen, it should happen. Notre Dame has shown itself to be superior to everyone remaining on the schedule. This guarantees nothing of course; while the Irish are better than all the remaining teams on the schedule, by wider margins than USC or NC State, no one would call any of them bad. Miami is overrated, but undefeated is undefeated. Wake Forest and Stanford aren’t great, but they’ve played good football at various points this season. And Navy is Navy.
Notre Dame is good. Really, really good. They’ve shown it time and time again over the last five weeks. It’s time to alter expectations. As Charlie Weis once said “9-3 isn’t good enough.”
This point has been made indirectly throughout the season when discussing the depth of this team, but I wanted to focus on it directly here. What we’ve seen from a development standpoint has been remarkable, and it’s been going on since day 1. And it could also lead them to great things this year.
One of the reasons I picked 9-3 prior to the season was I thought Notre Dame would fall apart, particularly on the defensive line, as the season wore on. I didn’t think they would be the same team to end the year as they were to start the year. That turns out to be correct, but in the opposite direction. This team will be superior to the one who took the field against Temple and Georgia.
Notre Dame has used a TEN player rotation along the defensive line this season, with little drop off between the first and 10th player. This assures a fresh group series after series, and it saves legs as the season goes on. Key stalwarts like Jerry Tillery, Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes, Jonathon Bonner, et al have seen a much lower percentage of snaps as this position group in seasons past and it allows them to play at their max, all the time. This group is entering it’s ninth week, but their snap counts are way down. This is a relatively fresh unit.
It isn’t just the defensive line. They’ve been rotating linebackers, corners, and safeties throughout the year, and even the young right tackles rotate series to series every week.
The obvious dividends are a fresh team, a team gaining in experience throughout the roster, and of course quality depth. One that isn’t talked about enough, especially as it relates to week to week excellence, is what it means for the teams focus.
When you have a core group of guys who receive most of the snaps on offense and defense, those players are more susceptible to complacency. Football is hard and a physical grind. Up and down weeks are normal. But when you have a roster of 50-60 guys who know they are going to play key roles in every game, it drives practice intensity, and it maintains focus. When people talk about culture, this is it what they are referring to.
This is an under the radar development and it goes hand in hand with that I discussed above. Brian Kelly mentioned Pride last week in his NC State preview presser as having been improving and to expect to see more of him. See more we did. He often replaced Nick Watkins in the nickel defense throughout the game against the Wolf Pack and his presence also brought on a previously unseen defense: the dime. Pride was joined by Watkins, Love, Crawford, Coleman, and Elliot on the back end on passing downs. This just adds another layer of diversity for Mike Elko’s troops and it’s all a credit to Pride, who has worked his way into the corner rotation.
There was finally a calamity with one of these units, a blocked punt for a touchdown, and it really was a long time coming. It’s been an inconsistent season for all the units so far in 2017. They gave up a long return on kickoff, Newsome offered several poor efforts when he wasn’t getting blocked, and the blocking on punt return wasn’t great.
Notre Dame has been utterly dominant on offense and defense, so special teams ails seem like small potatoes. But, some time soon it’s going to matter and Brian Polian’s group needs to clean up its act.
Also, Justin Yoon hasn’t attempted a field goal in two straight games, so that’s just something to keep an eye on.