Five things we learned: Oklahoma 35, Notre Dame 21

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Notre Dame’s first four plays could’ve served as the CliffsNotes for their 35-21 loss to Oklahoma. On third and long from the Irish 28, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came unblocked off the backside, hitting Tommy Rees just as he was trying to throw. The ball ended up in linebacker Corey Nelson’s arms, and just 49 seconds into the game, the Sooners were up a touchdown.

Notre Dame’s next play from scrimmage was no better. Looking for TJ Jones on a slant route, Rees missed Jones but hit Sooner cornerback Aaron Colvin, who batted the ball into the air, where it was snatched up by linebacker Frank Shannon. Shannon scampered down the field, giving the Sooners the ball inside Notre Dame’s 35-yard line. Four plays later, Oklahoma was up 14 points

“If you’re going to turn the football over and give Oklahoma a 14 point lead, you’re in trouble,” Brian Kelly said after the game.

Even as the Irish tried their best to dig out of it, Bob Stoops’ Sooners seemed to have an answer for every counter the Irish seemed to mount. Riding an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers — all of which were turned into touchdowns — and a mistake-free performance by Blake Bell, Oklahoma earned a big non-conference victory to close out September.

Let’s find out what else we learned in Oklahoma’s 35-21 victory over Notre Dame.

***

Notre Dame’s slow start practically doomed them from the beginning.

After a clockwork opening quarter against Temple, the first quarter has been a disaster for Notre Dame. We’ve talked about it before, but after three-and-outs against Michigan, and even uglier starts against Purdue and Michigan State, the Irish found the only way to one-up that futility with two interceptions in their first four offensive plays.

When asked about the slow starts, Kelly was candid about his frustrations.

“If I knew what that was, I would not be standing here right now. I’d be doing something else,” Kelly said. “This is my 23rd year as a head coach. You never expect to not pick up the simplest of stunts. You never expect not to run the right route when you’re supposed to. But they happen.

“That’s why we have ulcers in this business. So you go back and you’ve got to coach. You’ve got to do a better job communicating. Ultimately it falls on me. We lost today.”

Credit should go to the Irish for fighting back, making a game of it and pulling within a touchdown both late in the second quarter and again in the second half. But Kelly’s prediction that Notre Dame needed to play their best game to win proved true, and now it’s up to this staff to find some answers for the early woes.

***

***

Just as he was starting to look like the odd man out, George Atkinson took back the No. 1 running back job. 

Late in the first quarter, freshman Tarean Folston burst around the left side of the offensive line, sprinting for a 36-yard gain before being tackled inside the Oklahoma five-yard line. The freshman looked like he was racing to the top of a jumbled depth chart, with five backs all jockeying for position behind him.

And then George Atkinson reminded everybody why Kelly and the coaching staff can’t give up on him. Atkinson played his finest game in an Irish uniform, gaining 148 yards on just 14 carries, with his 80-yard touchdown run a reminder that the Irish have one of college football’s most explosive players in their backfield.

All of that doesn’t matter if Atkinson doesn’t run like it. And after four games, the 220-pound back was given a stark appraisal of his work by Kelly this week.

“We didn’t think George ran physical enough. We told him that,” Kelly said. “We told him if he wanted to be the starter, he can’t get tackled by his ankles. He’s 220 pounds and I thought he ran the ball today like I expect George Atkinson to run the ball. He’s got to do that every week.”

Entering the game ranked 100th in rushing, the Irish did their job running the football. The Irish gained 220 yards on the ground, netting a hearty 7.6 yards per carry with Folston also looking very good on his two touches.

With it painfully obvious that the Irish are simply unable to beat a quality opponent if they’re forced to be a one-dimensional passing team, the ground game’s revival might be the one positive that the Irish can take out of Saturday’s lost offensively.

***

This offense can’t succeed if it’s hoisted solely on the shoulders of Tommy Rees. 

It was an ugly step backwards for Tommy Rees, who finished the day 9 of 24 for just 104 yards, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Dissecting the turnovers will help shine a kinder light on Rees — the backside blitz snafu wasn’t his fault, nor was an incorrect pattern by DaVaris Daniels on his third — but a combined 39 percent passing over the last two Saturdays is a pretty glaring datapoint that Rees can’t be the man that serves as the engine of the Irish offense.

“We don’t want to put Tommy in a position where he’s got to carry the whole load,” Kelly said after the game. “We thought in the second half we were able to get into a position where we ran the football, play action pass, some quick throws. That’s how we want to play.”

That was evident in the game plan, which used two tight end formations and Andrew Hendrix in short yardage and zone read looks, his first playing time of any importance since the Champs Sports Bowl at the end of the ’11 season. Hendrix didn’t necessarily look comfortable out there, but he did add another wrinkle to the Irish offense, especially in short yardage situations.

After being questioned about his offense’s predictability, Kelly’s curveball at quarterback could be a sign of things to come.

“We’re just trying to diversify the offense a little bit, trying to add some more looks,” Kelly said on Hendrix’s inclusion in the game plan.  “He’s got some work to do.  We’ve got to continue to work with him, but I think it gives us some things that the defense has to defend as well with him in there.”

Rees’s performance awoke a mob of critics that hardly ever go far from the scene. But with Notre Dame’s starting quarterback sitting in San Diego because of an academic impropriety, the vitriol for a senior leader that’s done nothing but his best for the Irish football program these past four seasons is one of the ugliest parts of Notre Dame Nation.

“We don’t want to put this whole thing on Tommy,” Kelly said. “It’s everybody. We always go back to the quarterback around here.  But this is about eleven players.”

***

Even a great defensive effort can be undone quickly by inconsistency. 

There was plenty of good mixed in by Bob Diaco’s defense, who did a nice job containing the Sooners’ passing game for most of the afternoon. But on a critical third down and short when the Irish needed a stop, Blake Bell hit an easy slant route to Sterling Shepard that all but sealed the football game for Oklahoma.

“I thought we gave up one play that we’d love to have back,” Kelly said after the game. “You know, the quick slant where we let Shepard inside. Just something that shouldn’t happen. Other than that, we were doing a really good job defensively against a very good offense.”

Oklahoma’s offense was able to run the football against the Irish, running for 212 yards and five yards a carry after being held to less than a yard a carry last season. And after establishing the ground game with the Sooners’ stable of backs and both Bell and backup quarterback Trevor Knight, that success opened up a back-breaking pass play that came out of a short-yardage running formation.

“When you can run the football in those sets, people have to start trickling down from the secondary to stop the run,” Stoops explained. “Generally, you can find some space to make big plays.  Fortunately, we caught one.”

With Sheldon Day still hampered by an ankle injury, the Irish got a nice effort by Kona Schwenke. Carlo Calabrese led the Irish with ten tackles. Freshman Jaylon Smith made seven stops and both Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt were active as well.

But with the chips in the middle and the defense needing a critical stop after clawing back to within a touchdown, they couldn’t deliver. In a scene too reminiscent of the fourth quarter in Ann Arbor, when it was time for one team to make a play, the opponent made it.

***

Fans and media members can focus on the implications of the loss. Brian Kelly and the Irish are going to get back to work. 

You can understand if Brian Kelly wasn’t too interested in discussing the Irish’s BCS hopes with the calendar still in September. That’s the type of big picture thinking that’s so destructive to a team that’s already dropped two games.

“I don’t really care about that stuff,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s for you guys to talk about.  I’ve got a football team here we’re trying to develop and work with.”

After five games, it’s easy to look at the remaining schedule and wonder what could be in store for an Irish team that is in the middle of its toughest stretch and still needs to play four games that look very losable on paper. But that’s not how this program operates.

“This is a group that each one of them knows why we lost the game,” Kelly said. “Each coach, each player in that locker room. This is a transparent group. There is nobody in there that is pointing a finger.  There are only thumb pointers in there.”

On Saturday, turnovers told the story, stacking the deck against a team that fought its hardest to get back into the game after spotting a talented opponent 14 points. While the Irish stayed with their game plan throughout most of the first half, the mistakes proved too costly as the Irish tried to play catch-up in the second half.

“I wanted to be in two tight ends and I wanted to run the football, and I wanted to run play action and I wanted to be able to control the game that way,” Kelly said of his original game plan.

“You just can’t turn the football the way we did. If we take care of the football, we might be in overtime right now. Who knows? But the bottom line from this offense is take care of the football. Play good defense. And these kids will battle their butts off and find a way to win.”

It wasn’t all negative on Saturday afternoon, though the Irish loss will likely knock Notre Dame out of the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the ’12 season. The running game looks to have found its identity. The defense continues to make progress. And while it’s easy to think about what could’ve been had the Irish not started out so terribly, it’s back to the grind for the Irish, who next take on Arizona State, one of the most explosive passing teams in the country next Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium.

“We’re four years into our program. We know clearly what needs to be done,” Kelly said. “We’ll get back to work on Tuesday and work to get better.”

Questions for the Week: Wimbush’s health & the unpredictability of college football

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How was your weekend off? Did you catch up on some sleep? Perhaps rake those leaves you had been ignoring?

Of course you didn’t, but let’s pretend you did. And as you did, you kept asking yourself …

Will Brandon Wimbush be healthy enough to start against USC? Actually, skip the enough. Will he be back to 100 percent?
No one in this space should play doctor, so offering insights on the recovery time from a grade one foot strain would be duplicitous and likely inaccurate. Rather, let’s turn to the most trustworthy of sources … Twitter.

The Notre Dame football account (@NDFootball) posted a video Thursday morning opening with Wimbush rolling a few steps and throwing a pass. Presumably, the footage was from a Wednesday afternoon practice.

To say the clip is brief is to say bacon tastes good. Nonetheless, the Irish administrators even allowing the inclusion of the junior quarterback in the video is noteworthy. If he was distinctly limited, there is no chance that would have been showcased.

For now, presume Wimbush to be healthy. By the time kickoff comes Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBC), he will have had nearly exactly three full weeks of recovery time. If Wimbush is not at 100 percent, he should be close to it. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly will inevitably discuss as much during his Tuesday press conference.

Wimbush will be needed against the Trojans. Sophomore quarterback Ian Book played well — or at least well enough, and there’s that pesky e-word again — to lead the Irish past North Carolina, but Wimbush’s playmaking could be the key to getting past USC. The difference between the two is that simple.

During the bye week, was there any depth chart movement?
If there is a time for more-than-minimal reshuffling of the depth chart, it is during the midseason week off. When a team is 5-1 courtesy of a plus-139 scoring margin, moving things around may seem counterintuitive. On some level it is. On another, though, finding a way to get junior cornerback Shaun Crawford on the field even more often would seem a wise decision. Conceivably, moving sophomore Julian Love to safety alongside junior Nick Coleman would create that opening for Crawford.

Two disclaimers here: One, this is mere speculation. Two, the answer to this may actually wait until after kickoff, running contrary to this piece’s weekly theme, but it is also possible it could show up in the depth chart before then.

Will high-flying Syracuse hand Miami (FL) its first loss two weeks before Notre Dame gets the chance to?
It is still a touch difficult to believe. Underdogs by 23.5 points, the Orange beat No. 2 Clemson on Friday, 27-24. Anyone claiming to have seen that coming can go ahead and check the mirror to see how much their nose just grew.

This space certainly did not expect it. In retrospect, this pondering of Clemson’s fate in the College Football Playoff published Friday morning rings particularly prescient now, even if unwittingly so: “A still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake …”

For that matter, only a few paragraphs later, this space predicted Washington State would cruise past Cal on Friday night. Care to guess what did not happen?

With all that in mind, Syracuse overcoming a 14-point spread to beat Miami (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) is a possibility to be recognized. The Orange have the momentum, if nothing else. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are getting by with nothing to spare, winning each of the last two weekends on last-minute touchdown drives hinging on extremely difficult catches.

Will Navy respond to its first loss with a renewed focus on the AAC title?
The Midshipmen host undefeated Central Florida at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. Favored by seven, the Knights are likely to thoroughly dampen any Naval hopes of winning the American Athletic Conference a year after getting routed in the title game. In falling to Memphis this past weekend, Navy obviously lost the tiebreaker in the AAC West, but knocking off Central Florida would keep the Midshipmen in the mix.

Speaking of which, how will Memphis fare Thursday night at Houston?
A three-point spread in Houston’s favor indicates Memphis could fall behind Navy in the AAC standings before the Midshipmen even face Central Florida. If nothing else, the Tigers and Cougars will fill up the scoreboard (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Bye Week Primer: What to watch & what to read

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This is Notre Dame’s bye week. Any “Who, what, when, where, why and by how much” ponderings do not really apply this week. Instead, it comes down to “What to watch” and “What to read.”

Partly due to the Irish not playing, there are no top-25 matchups this weekend. There are, however, still a handful of good games. If spending this fall Saturday indoors with football on the screen, consider these options:

12 p.m. ET on ESPN2 — Florida State at Duke. A loss here would just about put a wrap on the Seminoles’ season.
3:30 p.m. ET on ABC — Georgia Tech at No. 11 Miami (FL). The triple option is one of worthwhile two hurdles standing between the Hurricanes and meeting Notre Dame undefeated. The other comes the week immediately prior that game, when Miami hosts Virginia Tech.
3:30 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network — Purdue at No. 7 Wisconsin. If watching the triple option hurts your senses, perhaps turn toward the Midwest. Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm will be determined not to let this turn into a typical Big Ten rock fight.
3:45 p.m. ET on ESPNU — No. 25 Navy at Memphis. Again considering an Irish outlook, if the Midshipmen can get past the Tigers, they will have only one more difficult contest (next week vs. Central Florida) before traveling to Notre Dame. Those two games could lead to two Navy losses or they could lead to a rolling 9-0 entrance to South Bend.
8 p.m. ET on ABC — Utah at No. 13 USC. Utah may not be ranked, but this is essentially a top-25 game and certainly a Pac-12 indicator. In addition to that, the Trojans will be looking to build momentum before the primetime tilt with the Irish next weekend.
10:30 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network — Boise State at No. 19 San Diego State. Do not let the time, the network or the school names fool you. This very well could be the best game this weekend.
11:00 p.m. ET on FS1 — Oregon at No. 23 Stanford. The Cardinal are still in the thick of the race for the Pac-12 North Division, but a loss to the Ducks would change that.

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive
A statistical look at Notre Dame’s offense through six games compared to the past
Notre Dame’s defense has limited scoring, but what keys have led to that?
A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles
Friday at 4: 40 predictions updated & 4 more for the next six weeks

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE NORTH CAROLINA GAME
Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory
Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
538 gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1
ESPN’s midseason All-America team
Oregon State head coach Gary Andersen said he would walk away from $12.6 million and he did just that
The NCAA formed a commission to look into the current college basketball scandal. It is led by Condoleezza Rice and also has Notre Dame. Pres. Fr. John Jenkins on it.

Friday at 4: 40 predictions updated & 4 more for the next six weeks

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It may be a common exercise, but that is because it is a logical one. What fun are season-long predictions if not checked on throughout the fall? For that matter, a time will come to tally results and either offer self-congratulatory praise or quietly hang a head in shame. If nothing else, this update can remind Notre Dame fans of more specific expectations from a time when it was presumed the Irish would lean on the passing game and have a suspect defensive line.

That feels like a long time ago now, doesn’t it?

If wanting a thorough refresher of this space’s 40 predictions from mid-August: Friday at 4: 40 Predictions. For now, a look at ones already having occurred, somewhat in progress or already ruled out.

1) Campus Crossroads will receive positive reviews. — Deeming this as correct, as arbitrary as that may be.

2) Campus Crossroads will become an afterthought. — This reality is why No. 1 is correct. Thus, this is, as well.

3) Videos recognizing the 1977 national championship team will be a good use of the new video board. — Hasn’t happened just yet, though there are four more home games for such.

4) Fans will initially balk at pre- and post-game shows on the video board. — I never heard anyone gripe about those, so if we’re being honest here, perhaps this is a miss.

5) Those shows will be considered background noise before long. — A strict grader may argue this cannot be accurate if the shows were never in poor standing to start with, but since when does anyone grade their own paper by the letter?

8) No one has discussed the NFL with the junior trio of running back Josh Adams, receiver Equanimeous St. Brown or tight end Alizé Mack, so none have made the mistake of rashly declaring they’ll return for their senior year. At this point, only Adams seems like an option to turn pro, lowering the odds on this prognostication entirely.

11) DeShone Kizer will throw more touchdown passes than Malik Zaire. — Kizer threw three touchdowns in the season’s first five games before being cast to the bench last weekend. Even if he does not return to the field, he should hold off Zaire, currently with zero and little chance of much playing time at Florida.

12) Kizer will have more turnovers than Zaire. — Another gimme. Kizer has thrown nine interceptions and lost one fumble. Due to his lack of significant playing time, Zaire has only one turnover, a fumble lost in the season opener against Michigan.

Chase Claypool‘s emergence as a receiver has aided prediction No. 14 while reducing No. 13’s likelihood of accuracy. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

13) Chase Claypool will lead Notre Dame in special teams tackles. — Claypool has just one tackle on the season. The odds do not look good for this prediction.

14) Claypool will have more receptions than tackles, unlike last year. — Thanks to that sole tackle, this looks like a lock. The sophomore receiver has 12 catches through six games.

15) Justin Yoon will set the Irish career field goal percentage record. — The junior kicker needs to make two of his next six attempts to achieve this. Presuming he does better than that in his next half dozen, it would take quite the cold streak to set him back far enough to fall behind John Carney’s 73.9 percent.

16) Special teams will win Notre Dame at least one game. — Not yet, and given their performance thus far, somewhat unlikely.

17) Cam Smith will have the second-most catches. — St. Brown actually holds that distinction at the moment with 15, curious as that may be.

18) Mack will have the second-most receiving yards. — So far, so good. Mack’s 154 edge Claypool’s 144 while trailing St. Brown’s 211.

19) St. Brown will lead in catches, yards and touchdowns. — It seems entirely reasonable to think the junior receiver will outpace Mack by at least two receptions in the season’s second half, giving this prediction a strong chance of accuracy.

20) Tony Jones will rush for the second-most yards, behind Adams. — Brandon Wimbush probably has this locked up.

21) Adams will rush for between 1,174 and 1,274 yards. — He already has 776 on only 86 carries. That ambitious initial math is certainly the low-end of his range by now. Hard to believe, considering the figuring was a 21 percent increase over last year’s rushing total prorated to 13 games. By no means would that have been a disappointment for Notre Dame.

22) Dexter Williams will finish with the fourth-most rushing yards. — This did not expect Deon McIntosh to be one of the three ahead of Williams, but that does not make the two-month-old prediction any less accurate, just less precise.

23) Wimbush will rush for more yards than Williams. — Not quite a lock already, but close to it (450 to 214).

24) The Irish offense will average between 34.9 and 36.4 points per game. — Through six games, Notre Dame is averaging 40.0 points per game. If it averages between 29.8 and 33.0 points per game in the second half of the season, then bullseye. Considering North Carolina State (No. 49 in scoring defense), Miami (No. 17), Wake Forest (No. 14) and Stanford (No. 55) all await, a drop in scoring seems rather likely.

Senior linebacker Drue Tranquill and his playmaking have been a key part of Notre Dame’s defensive resurgence.

25) Nyles Morgan will tally the most tackles. — His current lead of two more than Te’von Coney seems safe, but it is far closer than was anticipated.

26) Drue Tranquill will make more “big” plays than Morgan. — Tranquill has 4.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, as well as an interception, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Give him that nod.

27) The Irish defense will record between 25 and 29 sacks. — With 13 to date, this looks eerily prescient.

28) It will also force between 25 and 29 tackles. — Again, with 14 to date, this scribe just might look smart.

29) Notre Dame will give up between 23.6 and 25.1 points per game. — That would have been a distinct improvement over last year’s 27.8. To date, the improvement has been much greater than that. The Irish have allowed only 16.5 points per game, highlighted by the 10 at North Carolina last weekend. How extreme of an improvement is that? If Notre Dame allows 33.7 points in the second half of the season, the 2017 average would be that mark of 25.1 points per game. Even with all of North Carolina State, Miami, Navy and Stanford in the country’s top 40 in points per game, more than doubling the points allowed per week seems a rash projection.

30) The Irish will exceed the win total over/under of 8.5. — Currently at five with six to go, 4-2 will be needed for this to count as correct.

32) Some unders in win totals: South Carolina under five, currently with four; Georgia Tech under six, currently with three; Wake Forest under 5.5, currently with four; Stanford under nine, currently with four; and LSU under nine, currently with four. To be clear, if three of these are correct, it would be considered a success by a career gambler, and thus will be considered a success in these parts.

33) Some overs in win totals: North Carolina State over 7.5, currently with five; Ohio State over 10.5, currently with five; Rutgers over three, currently with one; Arizona over 4.5, currently with three; and Oregon over 7.5, currently with four.

34) Notre Dame will first reach the top 25 after beating Georgia. — Well, that was wrong on two fronts.

35) Four Irish opponents will finish the season ranked. — Currently, seven are in the top 25. Attrition may narrow that focus, but probably not by half. Then again, if seven are ranked, doesn’t that mean four are? Again, it’s accurate … just not precise.

36) Those four opponents will not be the same as at the beginning of the season. — This might be generously counted as accurate if any of Georgia, Miami (FL), USC or Stanford fall out of the top-25. Clearly, the Cardinal is the best bet in that regard.

37) Notre Dame will remain in the top 25 for the remainder of the season. — As soon as No. 34 was wrong, this was, too.

38) The Irish will finish between Nos. 13 and 18 in the polls. — At No. 16 in the Associated Press and No. 19 in the Coaches, a 4-2 finish might be enough for that range.

40) At least 15 of these guesses will be wrong. — A loose counting of those gauged here puts 14 at either already or likely correct and 10 at either already or likely incorrect. That pace would expect at least six more to miss.


While we’re here, let’s add four quick predictions for the second half of the season:

— Notre Dame will beat USC but lose to North Carolina State.

— The Irish will then blow out Wake Forest, becoming the first team to do so this year.

— A week later, Notre Dame junior cornerback Shaun Crawford will spend all night mirroring Miami receiver Braxton Berrios. This will be one of the first times, if not thee first time, the 5-foot-9, 176-pound Crawford matches up physically with an opponent, as Berrios is listed at 5-foot-9 and 186 pounds. It will also be one of Crawford’s tougher assignments this year.

Yes, this is implying the Irish vs. Hurricanes tilt will be in primetime even though Nov. 11 is a day filled with tantalizing top-25 games. Georgia at Auburn, TCU at Oklahoma and Michigan State at Ohio State also fill that Saturday slate, not to mention Florida State at Clemson, Iowa at Wisconsin, Washington State at Utah and Virginia Tech at Georgia Tech.

— Adams will finish the regular season with between 1,347 and 1,447 rushing yards. The Notre Dame single-season record, set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979, is 1,437. Bowl games are now counted in those pursuits, so Adams should set the record easily in a 13th game, if need be.

A Notre Dame Bye Week Mailbag: On bowls, momentum & passing game struggles

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This bye week mailbag starts off with a long answer. I’d apologize for that, but it would be insincere. The question was a valid one and I understand the thinking. That is why I took the time to dissuade it outright.

“One question I’ve been toying with in my head is, if we run the table, do I want us to make the playoff? I think we’d have the résumé for it, particularly given the back half of our schedule, but I’m worried the one-point loss to a potentially really good Georgia team is kind of obscuring the fact that we got Jake Fromm in his first start and honestly he played pretty poorly. I still don’t think we’re really playoff caliber.
I’d like to see us get to a winnable bowl that sets the table for next season.”
— “Marcus”

I’ve known Marcus for nine years. And no, his name isn’t Marcus. I look forward to him trying to figure out why I used that pseudonym. I’ll give only one clue: It has nothing to do with “The Matrix.” That’s a movie, and this is life we’re wasting here.

In nearly a decade, this may be the first time I have ever thought Marcus was 100 percent wrong. He has taught me much, led me toward both vice and virtue, even paid me a few compliments over the years. But here, he’s off-base. Then again, he probably was with those kind words, too.

Aside from getting ahead of yourself — it’s only natural during the bye week, and it isn’t even beyond comprehension considering fivethirtyeight.com gives Notre Dame an 11 percent chance of finishing 11-1 — and not questioning your assessment of the Georgia game, you want to make the playoff. Yes, Alabama and Clemson appear to be better than everybody else. The other two playoff entrants will likely leave with nothing but the wrong end of a rout on national television.

But what if? Sometimes it takes just one bounce.

Basketball and football are very different games, but when it comes to the performances of 18- to 22-year-olds, some things translate. If you talk to many college basketball coaches, their goal is not a national championship. Rather, they aim to make a Final Four in their career. At that point, they know one bounce could change the entire weekend.

One deflected pass could lead to a 14-point swing. Perhaps at that point, a still-proving-himself quarterback (Clemson’s Kelly Bryant) doubts himself and makes another mistake before getting his head on straight. Suddenly, a defense has more moxie than anticipated and that New Year’s Day hangover you are nursing goes out the window as you realize “What if” might have some validity.

That is not an outlandish scenario. Is it less likely than a 42-14 beatdown? Yes, much less likely, but it is not beyond feasibility.

Furthermore, bowl game wins are overrated. They do not offer as much momentum as fans like to think. The biggest perk, a few weeks of added practice time, comes in both victory and defeat.

Consider Notre Dame entering the 2009 season. The previous Christmas Eve, the Irish routed Hawaii 49-21 in the aptly-named Hawaii Bowl. Led by Jimmy Clausen (22-of-26 passing for 401 yards and five touchdowns) and Golden Tate (six catches for 177 yards and three scores), that was supposed to mark the arrival of a long-awaited offensive explosion no collegiate defense could stop. Instead, Notre Dame went 6-6 in 2009, leading to Charlie Weis’ dismissal.

Just this past bowl season, LSU beat then-No. 13 Louisville (and Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson) 29-9 in the Citrus Bowl, Tennessee finished a hectic season with a 38-24 victory over Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, and Boston College notched a postseason victory for head coach Steve Addazio, slipping past Maryland 36-30 in the Quick Lane Bowl.

LSU lost to Troy two weeks ago. Volunteers head coach Butch Davis is firmly on a hot seat after starting this season 3-2 — one of those victories came in overtime against Georgia Tech while another was by only four points at home against Massachusetts. Addazio’s job is also in jeopardy thanks to a 2-4 beginning to his fifth season with the Eagles.

For an even more distinct example of bowl games not setting a tone for the coming season, take a look at Washington State the last two years. The Cougars finished 2015 with a 20-14 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl. It was supposed to mark the turning point in the rise of Mike Leach’s program. Instead, Washington State started last season 0-2 before winning eight straight to seemingly put those struggles in the rearview mirror. That momentum did not last long. The Cougars lost their final three last season, including a 17-12 defeat to tumult-plagued Minnesota in the Holiday Bowl.

How did that that dismal end to the season set the table for this year? Washington State is currently 6-0 and No. 8 in the AP top 25. If you put off reading this until Saturday, the Cougars are probably now 7-0 thanks to a matchup at Cal late Friday.

Bowl games make December tolerable and provide an excuse for fans to slip off to a southern clime for a few days. They inevitably produce fluke outcomes and comical conclusions. They do not provide or destroy any momentum for a season beginning nine months later.

“Do you think there is credence to the term good teams win, but great teams cover?”
@IRISH_GL

To an extent. This next sentence is not meant to say Notre Dame is a great team, because the Irish aren’t.

Great teams do what Notre Dame did against Miami (OH). This space’s first sentence after that 52-19 victory, in fact, was, “The Irish did what good teams do, they blew out their opponent.”

That does not need to be the case every time. Great teams also find a way to win in close games. The last few years, Notre Dame has lacked in both categories. Notching five lopsided victories in the season’s first half speaks to developing one of those characteristics. The one-point loss to Georgia shows the other is still lacking, though more chances to prove otherwise will undoubtedly come in the next six weeks.

As for the general concept, spreads in expected blowouts attempt to factor in one fluke, be it a turnover, a garbage time touchdown or a broken tackle leading to an unlikely score. Covering a spread of three touchdowns or more means none of those things happened, a sure sign of a focused and disciplined team.

Great teams are focused and disciplined. Thus, great teams tend to cover.

“Odds we come out in the green jerseys against USC?”
@pe11iott

You had my attention by opening with that delightful four-letter word. Considering this year is the 40th anniversary of the first time the green jerseys were used, and considering that occasion was indeed against the Trojans, let’s knock the odds down by half from 40-to-1 to 20-to-1.

“Biggest positive and negative surprise of this year’s football team?”
@PrinceLeo103

The positive is easy: the defensive line. In retrospect, the world should have listened to Irish coach Brian Kelly, to defensive coordinator Mike Elko and even to fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. They all said Notre Dame’s defensive line was pretty good. No one, yours truly included, took them at their word.

The Irish defensive line is pretty good.

The negative is also easy: The ineffectiveness of the Irish passing game to date does not bode well for some of the challenges coming in the second half of the season. By no means was junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush expected to challenge records or the Irish receivers thought to be potential All-Americans, but a certain degree of potency was a reasonable prediction. Clearly, that has not yet been the case.

Notre Dame will need that to change if it wants to manage much offense against North Carolina State and Miami.

On that note …

“Are the problems with the passing game more of a reflection of the play calling, the QB, the receivers not getting separation or a combination of any of them? From my couch, it appears the issue is a combination of the QB and play calling. The play calling Saturday gave the QB a lot of easy reads, but in other games that has not been the case. If the QB is struggling, and we all agree he is, than why not give him easy reads and simplify things?”
codenamegee

All of the above.

(Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

Why not give Wimbush easier reads? It is not necessarily that simple. Wimbush is most-dangerous when the defense fears both his arm and his legs, but he has not shown much accuracy while on the move, unlike sophomore Ian Book. Thus, to set up Wimbush for success in the passing game, calling plays keeping him in the pocket makes more sense. The flipside of that is in those situations, the defensive backs and linebackers can focus more on coverage, no longer worrying as much about Wimbush breaking off on his own to gain the first down.

The Irish receivers have not made Wimbush’s job any easier. Sophomore Chase Claypool’s increased involvement in the passing game should help with that in a few ways. Not only does he provide Wimbush a big, sure-handed threat on the sideline, but he also draws a bit of the coverage away from junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

St. Brown’s slow start to the season is the most startling of all the receivers’ struggles. At some point, one has to think he will break loose, assuming he is completely healthy. At that point, it may be akin to a basketball player making a layup. Seeing the ball go through the rim gives the shooter enough confidence to make a three-pointer on the next trip down. If St. Brown can break just one six-yard slant for a 45-yard touchdown, he may start approaching defenders with the expectation of making them miss rather than simply holding onto the ball.

“I’d like to see a comparison of Wimbush to date compared to other first-year starting quarterbacks with five games under their belts. I think he will compare well, exceeding in some areas but behind in others.”
glowplugv

That selection of quarterbacks could be skewed any which way. At some point or another, every quarterback fit the description in the beginning of their careers and common sense will quickly tell which ones were successful from the outset and which ones were not. USC’s Sam Darnold and Miami (OH)’s Gus Ragland both started their careers with winning streaks in excess of five games. Their statistics reflect that.

Instead, let’s acknowledge the coincidence of Notre Dame thus far facing five first-year starting quarterbacks (the exception being Ragland), and take a look at their numbers.

Wimbush in five games: 52.3 percent completions, six touchdowns, two interceptions, 782 yards, 5.92 yards per attempt.
Temple’s Logan Marchi in six games: 53.9 percent completions, eight touchdowns, seven interceptions, 1,302 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
Georgia’s Jake Fromm in six games: 60.0 percent completions, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, 836 yards, 8.80 yards per attempt.
Boston College’s Anthony Brown in six games: 53.1 percent completions, six touchdowns, seven interceptions, 909 yards, 4.73 yards per attempt.
Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke in five games: 61.3 percent completions, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, 1,057 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt.
North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt in six games: 58.8 percent completions, six touchdowns, three interceptions, 1,167 yards, 6.86 yards per attempt.

“Any predictions for players who have flown under the radar so far this year but end up with a big second half of the season? I’m not sure any of the RBs can even qualify anymore, but maybe a Boykin, Studstill or Cam Smith?”
jimharbaughcanbeunpleasant

Chase Claypool.

Let’s start with Claypool. He has 12 catches for 144 yards and one touchdown this season. Nine of those catches, 120 of those yards and that score have come in the last three games.

Then let’s go to junior receiver Miles Boykin. All four of his catches for 84 yards and a score have come in the last three games.

Lastly, let’s include junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. He has performed excellently thus far this season, but he has also flown under the radar in doing so. Well, as much under the radar as one can while making 27 tackles with three sacks and 1.5 more tackles for loss and a forced fumble. In fact, let’s go ahead and boldly declare Tillery will record his first multi-sack game of his career in eight days against USC.

“How many carries do you see CJ Holmes getting per game the rest of the season? I realize it was garbage time against a terrible defense, but I think he showed great poise and patience running the ball.”
ripvanroo2

This is entirely dependent on running backs’ health. Notre Dame will defer to juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams every step of the way in the high-profile matchups to come, bringing in sophomore Tony Jones anytime a multiple-back formation is desired. But, those three will need to be healthy, and thus far, they have had four troublesome ankles among them.

If those ankles hold up, and the coming games are as competitive as expected, don’t look for Holmes to garner many carries. Do look for him to make a few tackles on special teams.

 “A few weeks ago, in response to Brian Kelly’s arguably rude response to a reporter’s question following the Georgia loss, ESPN’s Paul Finebaum went on a rant about Kelly being a bad coach, a jerk and on his way out at Notre Dame. The comments felt more like a reflection of a preexisting dislike for Kelly (or ND?) than professional commentary. Is there some backstory to Finebaum/SEC and Kelly/Notre Dame?”
cbhoov144

The sensitive among Irish fans will insist I give Finebaum too much credit here. Oh well.

Paul Finebaum knows his audience. It is that simple. He rose to prominence by catering to SEC fans. There is no reason for him to stop now. That means any non-SEC school is wrong in all regards. Notre Dame isn’t in the SEC. Thus, Kelly is always wrong in Finebaum’s eyes.

The Irish outrage is only frosting on Finebaum’s cake. In today’s debate culture, many will tune in looking to be upset. To ESPN, the tuning in is what matters.

“Does Doug Flutie have a chip on his shoulder about being rejected by Notre Dame during his recruiting? Seems like it sometimes.”
oxnardpat

Every Saturday morning, I reorder my columns in Tweetdeck to make any tweets directed to the @NDonNBC account show up on the edge of my computer screen. Five of six weekends this year, those tweets have been filled with anger at the announcers. Note: Only three Notre Dame games have been on an NBC channel thus far. Either no one tuned in to watch the Irish top North Carolina on ABC this past weekend, or everyone was okay with the commentary provided by play-by-play announcer Bob Wischusen and color analyst Brock Huard.

The point is, your dislike of Flutie fits in line with no announcer being liked by any audience, no matter the network. (Wischusen and Huard being the apparent exceptions.) Flutie very well might not be the greatest color commentator in the world, but that is not because he has any ill will toward Notre Dame. He is simply doing his job, and that job does not include flattering the Irish.