College football employs a four-team playoff. In that system, a championship team plays two playoff games, a semifinal and a final. Notre Dame, however, is looking at a 12-game playoff this year. As Irish coach Brian Kelly explained Tuesday, every Notre Dame game since the 20-19 loss to Georgia in the season’s second week has had the significance of a playoff game.
“Our guys don’t know it any other way,” Kelly said. “Everybody else seems to have caught on with this idea that Notre Dame is playing for a Playoff spot. We don’t have anything else to play for. That’s what we play for. We’re an independent football team, and our mission is to graduate all of our players and play for a national championship. That’s all we have.
“It’s not really any different than it was yesterday or the day before or last week.”
Kelly’s point is valid. Even after suffering a 49-14 drubbing at the hands of the Irish, USC returns to the West Coast in pole position to win the Pac 12 and play in a playoff-eligible bowl. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, could fall against Florida this week or South Carolina next week and still have a clear path to the SEC title game. A win there would likely give Georgia a push into the Playoff even with a loss.
Those teams have a margin of error remaining. Notre Dame does not.
Rushing past rushing expectations
Kelly had an idea the Irish would rely on the running game this season, even if that is contradictory to most of his career. After averaging 163.3 rushing yards per game in 2016, he hoped to increase that by more than 50 percent.
“If we could average 250 [yards], we were going to be really effective running the ball,” he said.
Suffice it to say, Notre Dame has met that mark, currently averaging 317.9 yards per game. In five of seven games, the Irish have surpassed that 250-yard threshold, obviously highlighted by the obscene 515 rushing yards in the 49-20 victory at Boston College.
“A lot of that has to do with collectively nine of the 11 guys blocking at the highest level,” Kelly said, the two exceptions being the quarterback and the running back with the ball. “A commitment form everybody, receivers, tight ends, offensive linemen, and then the talent of [junior running back Josh Adams] in terms of his ability to turn pedestrian plays into big-chunk plays.”
Kelly also complemented Adams’ ability to block for junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush when Wimbush runs with the ball. An Adams block sprung Wimbush for a touchdown against the Trojans, showing the embracing of physical play extends to every offensive player.
“The mentality of our football team has been crafted over the year of this physicality and running the football, where last year was about throwing the football,” Kelly said. “These guys really take so much pride.”
A rotating defense is a stronger defense
Including punts, a missed field goal and a play officially lost to a penalty but having occurred in the real world nonetheless, USC had 34 offensive snaps in the first half Saturday. Nine Notre Dame defensive linemen partook in at least 10 of those snaps, including freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish.
Getting more guys onto the field does more than keep players fresher, Kelly said.
“We felt like last year when we started to get into a deeper rotation with players, we saw how the culture began to change within our defense in terms of camaraderie, in terms of closeness, in terms of guys being into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “… [Defensive line coach] Mike Elston has done a great job of developing those guys, so now they’re at a point where they can really come in and impact the football game.”
They racked up two sacks and a quarterback hurry in the opening half, plus a sack erased by that aforementioned penalty, though it played a key part in the game. (See Saturday’s “Overlooked Point of the Game.”)
For the second consecutive week, Notre Dame will face a viable passing threat. North Carolina State senior quarterback Ryan Finley, however, has had a consistent and mistake-free season, especially if compared to USC junior Sam Darnold. Finley has yet to throw an interception and has been held to fewer than 200 yards only once, when he threw for 198 at Pittsburgh two weeks ago.
Heading into the matchup with Darnold and the Trojans, Kelly said there was no way to protect the Irish safeties. They would have to hold their own. For the most part, they did, but that performance may not be enough moving forward.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Kelly said. “We have to communicate better on the back end of the defense. That’s an area that has got to get better for us defensively. There were some times there that communication was an issue.”