Durham Smythe

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Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

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When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first introduced his new coaching staff way back in January, he singled out offensive coordinator Chip Long’s penchant for finding ways to use tight ends in his play calling.

“[He] utilized two tight ends, which was going to be a mode that we have to move toward with the great depth that we have at that position,” Kelly said Jan. 30.

Technically speaking, that was even before the Irish signed two more tight ends on National Signing Day that same week, bringing the roster’s total to six before Tyler Luatau’s career ended with a medical hardship during the summer.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
With Durham Smythe’s return for a fifth year, Long had at least one tight end he could trust. Senior Nic Weishar presented a security blanket if need be and junior Alizé Mack brought great hype upon his return from a season lost to academic issues. Having those three around allowed for the two freshmen, Cole Kmet and Brock Wright, to progress as the young luxuries they are.

Fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe saved his best year for his last year at Notre Dame. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Long did use two tight ends with frequency. Smythe usually lined up attached to the line while Mack would be detached as more of a receiving threat. Occasionally, one or the other would line up in the backfield as an H-back, creating a run-pass wrinkle for the defense to diagnose at the snap.

Smythe blossomed in the role, putting together a quality final season both in blocking and in receiving. To a degree, his success serves as a lament exposed. He presumably could have offered just as much in 2016 if the offense had not essentially forgotten about the position.

Weishar also enjoyed a few moments of shine, enough so to give thought to a role — one in the mold of what Smythe fit this season — in 2018.

Mack, meanwhile, formed the mold of frustration, tantalizingly so. Long tried to include him in the offense, going Mack’s direction more than any other name thus far herein, but Mack never grasped the opportunity, that often times being a literal description of the mishaps.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The receiving stats are a bit misleading. With Mack not yet ready for a pivotal role, none of the active trio were going to join the line of recent Irish tight ends with outstanding aerial productions. Rather, Smythe contributed to the Notre Dame ground attack alongside the likes of senior left guard Quenton Nelson and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey. For that matter, Mack handled his share of blocking, as well — one area his frustrations may have worked in Irish favor.

Fifth-year Durham Smythe: 13 catches for 234 yards and one touchdown.
Jr. Alizé Mack: 19 catches for 166 yards and one touchdown in 10 games.
Sr. Nic Weishar: Seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Fr. Cole Kmet: Two catches for 14 yards.
Fr. Brock Wright: No statistics, but saw action in 11 games, primarily as a blocker, sometimes in a fullback role.

Before figuring out the tight end’s role in Notre Dame’s offense next year, the Irish need to determine if current senior Nic Weishar will return for a fifth year. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

COMING QUESTIONS
Before this fall, looking at the 2018 tight ends and genuinely wondering what will come of Weishar would have seemed absurd. Indeed, such is now the case. Will Notre Dame extend Weishar a fifth-year invite? If so, will he take it, or will he look to serve as a graduate transfer somewhere else he would not need to compete with the likes of Mack, Wright and Kmet for catches?

Weishar showed reliability in the red zone, specifically, this season, and could serve as a locker room and position group leader. The odds are the Irish coaching staff hopes he returns, counting on natural attrition to figure out a scholarship crunch later on.

Ideally, Mack will not be part of that annual tradition like he was two years ago. Instead, he can provide the answer to the wondering of was his disappointing fall largely a result of rust, immaturity/youth or, well, what?

Mack has the physical talent. Combining the speed of a receiver with the size of a tight end can be a game-changing luxury, if that talent shows up ready to play. Perhaps Mack did this year and was just unlucky. A 12-game sample size could obscure that. Two seasons of it, though, would point to a larger issue.

How much more of Wright and Kmet will Long find use for? At least one will be necessary, and that is presuming both do not pass or at least pressure Weishar for playing time — and even that assumes Weishar returns. Long’s two tight end thoughts make a third tight end a necessity, always one injury away from significant playing time.

Kmet saw more chances in passing situations this season while Wright was an erstwhile blocker out of the backfield. Though both arrived at Notre Dame highly-heralded, neither had a chance to make a notable imprint, but there was good reason for that. There were three talented veterans ahead of them on the depth chart. At least one of those will be gone next season, and a full offseason in a collegiate weight room should ready the young duo even more so.

There is an offensive philosophy quandary here. On any given play, Long can fill five skill positions. Assuming a running back is involved in nearly all of those, he is down to four. If continuing with a multiple-tight end emphasis, that leaves only two spots for receivers. While the receivers may not have been an impressive grouping this season, Long could want to see three of those — namely, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Chase Claypool — as often as not.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends

Notre Dame’s turnovers lead to 38-20 loss and 9-3 finish

Associated Press
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STANFORD, Calif. — Notre Dame had a chance to seize every ounce of control at Stanford on Saturday, just like the Irish had an opportunity in November to force their way into the forefront of the national conversation. By failing to deliver a blow to the No. 21 Cardinal, No. 8 Notre Dame completed its fall to a disappointing 9-3 conclusion from a strong 8-1 beginning.

The final ledger will point toward three fourth-quarter Irish turnovers as the catalyst to the 38-20 loss. Head coach Brian Kelly cited them directly and frequently afterward.

“Each game that we’ve lost this year, we’ve turned the football over against quality opposition,” Kelly said. “… We turned a good game into a not-so-good game by turning the football over late.”

That is not an inaccurate telling of the game, but it is incomplete. Notre Dame outgained Stanford 415 yards to 328, but could never establish its running game, averaging only 4.58 yards on 38 rushes (sacks adjusted). The Cardinal sacked Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush six times, keeping him hemmed in for 81 yards on 11 rushes otherwise. Specifically, that was a piece of Stanford coach David Shaw’s game plan.

“I was not subtle this week about containing the quarterback,” Shaw said. “We had to keep him inside. … Get [Wimbush] to a sideline, he’s going to kill us either with his legs or his arm.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson (29) and Notre Dame’s offense never found consistency during the 38-20 loss at Stanford on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

Wimbush added 249 yards and two touchdowns on 11-of-28 passing, though the scores and 158 of those yards came on two plays alone, an 83-yard touchdown to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson and a 75-yarder to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.

Wimbush also threw two interceptions, two-thirds of the crippling dynamic Kelly focused on.

“I thought we were in a good rhythm,” Wimbush said. “I thought we had control of what was going on. I felt good about what we were doing.

“Can’t turn the ball over at that time.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The turnovers did in Notre Dame. That can hardly be denied. Yet, the Irish were not exactly humming before Wimbush’s first interception.

When junior Shaun Crawford downed a punt at Stanford’s one-yard line, he set up the Notre Dame defense to force the Cardinal’s hand. It quickly led to a three-and-out. Junior Chris Finke returned the ensuing punt all the way to the 19-yard line, breaking a tackle before finding a crease. Suddenly, the Irish were set to take a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter, having held Stanford largely in check all night.

“We’ve been really good all year about taking those possessions and turning them into touchdowns,” Kelly said.

That is not what happened.

To be clear, the Cardinal did not stop Notre Dame; the Irish did themselves in. Two procedure penalties created a first-and-20 from the 29-yard line. Stepherson gained all 10 of those yards back on a jet sweep — one of the few designs offensive coordinator Chip Long could count on this last month — but the momentum was already gone. The following two plays lost another two yards and Notre Dame settled for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.

“I didn’t feel like it was slipping away in that sense, but I felt like we left some points out there,” Kelly said.

Per usual, fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey was even more blunt about the mishap.

“Just dumb penalties,” he said, himself guilty of the second penalty with a false start. “It can’t happen. That’s the only thing you can say about that.”

The Irish took an ideal situation, squandered it entirely on their own and by the time they had another chance to threaten, Stanford had scored three unanswered touchdowns to create the final 38-20 margin.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Cardinal took a 31-20 lead with most of the fourth quarter remaining. Notre Dame was very much still in the game, if not for possibly having already checked out mentally. Irish junior C.J. Sanders took the kickoff from the goal line and did not even get the ball to the 20-yard line. Instead, he deposited it on the grass to be recovered by Stanford.

The Cardinal did exactly what Notre Dame did not after Finke’s punt return. It took great field position and turned it into seven points.

Wimbush will get the headlines and the brunt of the criticism for his two turnovers, but he was not alone. The mistakes came in a number of varieties.

“We played really good football teams and turned it over,” Kelly said. “If you’re going to do that, you’re going to put yourself in a bad situation. There’s not that guys were tired, not mentally sharp, [or] they didn’t come ready to play. They came ready to play. They were ready to win today.

“Got to hold onto the football. Can’t turn it over.”

Stanford took two short fields and turned them into touchdowns. Notre Dame took a short field and turned it into a field goal. Remove the former scores and turn the latter into a touchdown, and this game would have been 24-24. Obviously, that isn’t how football works.

“It’s what we thought it would be,” Kelly said. “We thought the game would get into the fourth quarter and we’d have a chance to win it. We didn’t expect to turn the football over a couple of times.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Wimbush’s first interception created one of those short fields for the Cardinal. After the debacle of a possession off the Finke punt return, Stanford scored a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. On the very first snap afterward, Wimbush tried to force a pass to fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe for about a 10-yard gain.

He did not see Cardinal sophomore linebacker Curtis Robinson reading the passer’s eyes and jumping the route.

“I just didn’t see the Buck defender drop,” Wimbush said. “Then he got into my window. I thought I could squeeze it in there. He made a great play.”

Down only four points, the Irish were in good position to regain control. Three plays later, Stanford had all the control after sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello found senior tight end Dalton Schultz for a 12-yard touchdown pass.

“Brandon is a competitor,” Kelly said. “He’ll bounce back. He is who he is, he wants to win as bad as anybody.

“He’ll go back to work and work on his craft. He’s our starting quarterback. He’ll be starting in the bowl game.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
On the Notre Dame-specific side of things, the focus would go to either junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (six tackles, three for loss including one sack) or St. Brown (five catches, 111 yards, one touchdown).

Notre Dame limited Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love’s big plays, but he still found his way to 125 yards on 20 carries. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

For the game, the honor goes to Cardinal junior running back Bryce Love. Playing with a sprained ankle, as he has much of the season, Love took 20 carries for 125 yards. He broke only one run for more than 30 yards (31, to be exact), but he did enough to mandate the Irish defense’s attention all evening.

“It was tough,” Love said. “It’s just part of the Stanford brand of football, though. We enjoy those gritty games where you have to fight for yard after yard. That’s kind of what it was the first two quarters.”

STAT OF THE GAME
Things turned south for the Irish in a hurry, both in the game and in the season. Only 15 days ago, they were No. 3 in the College Football Playoff selection committee poll, 8-1 and looking to make a statement at Miami. Now, Notre Dame is 9-3 and likely headed to a bowl game in Orlando.

To start the fourth quarter Saturday, the Irish led 20-17 and looked to be in position to slug out a physical win at The Farm for the first time since 2007. In just three minutes and 36 seconds, the Cardinal turned that into a 38-20 margin.

QUOTE OF THE EVENING
The outsider’s focus right now may be backward, a retrospective of the season. Inside the locker room, however, the bowl game looms.

“Like any other game, we got to learn from this one and move forward,” junior running back Josh Adams said. “Got to really get back to that grind, finish this [season] out strong. We want to do it the right way, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
3:40 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Stepherson 83-yard reception from Brandon Wimbush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 0. (3 plays, 86 yards, 0:39)
0:43 — Stanford touchdown. Trent Irwin 29-yard reception from K.J. Costello. Jet Toner PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Stanford 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:49)

Second Quarter
11:29 — Stanford touchdown. JJ Arcega-Whiteside four-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 7. (6 plays, 55 yards, 2:40)
2:36 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Stanford 14, Notre Dame 10. (15 plays, 69 yards, 4:34)

Third Quarter
14:48 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 75-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 14. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:12)
10:23 — Stanford field goal. Toner 24 yards. Notre Dame 17, Stanford 17. (9 plays, 64 yards, 4:19)
1:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon 38 yards. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 17. (4 plays, -2 yards, 2:43)

Fourth Quarter
13:46 — Stanford touchdown. Kaden Smith 19-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 24, Notre Dame 20. (7 plays, 70 yards, 2:31)
12:21 — Stanford touchdown. Dalton Schultz 12-yard reception from Costello. Toner PAT good. Stanford 31, Notre Dame 20. (3 plays, 29 yards, 1:22)
10:10 — Stanford touchdown. Cameron Scarlett three-yard rush. Toner PAT good. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 20. (4 plays, 18 yards, 2:06)

Notre Dame vs. Navy: Who, what, when, where, weather, why and by how much

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WHO? No. 8 Notre Dame (8-2) vs. Navy (6-3).

WHAT? It is a storied series, if not necessarily a rivalry. Partly due to that, partly as an homage to the original “House That Rockne Built” and partly because otherwise there would be no alternate uniform this season, the Irish will be wearing “Rockne Heritage” uniforms.

WHEN? 3:41 p.m. ET. Considering Notre Dame will recognize 26 seniors before kickoff, tuning in a bit early would include a few of those moments. The last half dozen are likely to be the six senior captains. In order: former walk-on receiver Austin Webster, linebacker Greer Martini, linebacker Nyles Morgan, left guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Drue Tranquill and fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey.

WHERE? For the seventh and final time this season, Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.

NBC has the broadcast, which means an online stream is available at: http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/

For those on the move, take a look at the NBC Sports app. If abroad, enjoy NBC Sports Gold.

WEATHER? It’s mid-November in northwestern Indiana. An unpleasant outdoor experience is something of a given. This weekend is no different. Precipitation is all-but guaranteed, the only question is if it will be rain or snow, with temperatures reaching as high as 50 degrees before falling just below freezing.

WHY? By now, most are familiar with the Navy’s role in keeping Notre Dame’s doors open during World War II. That bit is not legend. It is very well-established fact. That is also the company line as to why this series continues on with never a thought of a break.

On a more philosophical level, they play this game because strange things happen in football and taking the time to reach a result is often worthwhile. If not, the world would be robbed of this Allen Rossum memory from 1997.

BY HOW MUCH? A spread on this game was only intermittently available this week, due to questions about who Navy will start at quarterback. That should hardly matter. To use Irish coach Brian Kelly’s phrase, the Midshipmen triple-option offense is “plug-and-play” at quarterback. Kelly meant it as quite the compliment to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo.

When available, the line has consistently favored Notre Dame by 17.5 with a combined points total over/under of 59.5, making for a theoretical 38-21 conclusion.

Using that as a baseline, let’s expect the Irish defense to be motivated to have a good showing for the first time in three weeks.

Notre Dame 38, Navy 14. (7-3 record on the season.)

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:

Monday’s Leftovers: A need to execute and a need for continued defensive line improvement

Question for the Week (rather, for the Year): On Notre Dame, pride and progress

Notre Dame’s bowl likelihoods and opponents round-up

And In that Corner … The Navy Midshipmen with that pesky triple-option

Things To Learn: Will Notre Dame, and Wimbush, rebound?

Friday at 4: To the seniors, the leaders

Friday at 4 (Oct. 27): If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MIAMI GAME:
Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes drowned by Hurricanes

Things We Learned: Without a passing game, Notre Dame is not *there* yet

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Atmosphere, crowd & turnovers doomed Irish from outset

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
The Observer profiles all 26 Notre Dame seniors

After brief benching in Miami beatdown, Brandon Wimbush regroups with Navy on deck

For Durham Smythe, patience finally pays

Leaving a legacy: Mike McGlinchey cements place as leader for Notre Dame

All-American mentality: Quenton Nelson instills high standard as Irish leader

Always working: Drue Tranquill focuses on growth in all aspects of life

Notre Dame among the dozen looking at the Playoff, though, it is still October

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With Notre Dame’s inevitable interest in the release of the first College Football Playoff selection committee poll tonight, conversation focuses on that and much else can be forgotten.

Quickly on that forgotten note, Irish coach Brian Kelly said all injuries, with one exception, from this weekend should be non-issues by the time Notre Dame takes the field against Wake Forest (3:30 p.m. ET, NBC). Junior tight end Alizé Mack’s availability will hinge on his progress in the concussion protocol. He will attempt a cardio workout today (Tuesday), usually a significant barometer in that process.

If Mack is unavailable against the Deacons, Kelly insisted the Irish offense will hardly miss a beat.

“[Freshman] Cole Kmet is ready to go. He’s chomping at the bit,” Kelly said Tuesday. “… [Senior] Nic Weishar’s role will activate, and [fifth-year] Durham Smythe is playing his best football of his career.

“… We feel good about what the next options are for us.”

As for the poll, released at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN, Kelly would not take the bait as to how high he thought Notre Dame should be ranked.

“It’s hard for me to judge the other teams,” he said. “I know Georgia is a really good team, and I know Notre Dame. So I’d have Georgia one, Notre Dame two, and then there’s no other teams.”

Wherever the Irish land, Kelly’s focus remains the same and he expects as much from his team. Carrying forward a theme from this past weekend, Notre Dame is not concerned with its record, only its performance.

“Winning is not even something that we think about,” Kelly said. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m honestly giving you the truth in this answer.

“We just want to dominate this weekend. If we do that, we’d like three more chances. Then, at the end of the year, if they say that that’s one of the four best teams, that will be fine. We’re just looking to dominate this weekend.”

The Irish can focus on the dominating. That will not stop the poll from coming out tonight. Kelly’s mention of three more games after Wake Forest reinforces a valid point, though. Tonight’s poll is not the destination. Whether Notre Dame lands at Kelly’s No. 2, a more realistic No. 3 or a surprising but somewhat understandable No. 5, no one is awarded a Playoff spot because of the Halloween rankings.

Thus, any discussion of the poll and the contenders should include looks forward to what awaits each of those teams. At this point in the season, it makes more sense to break down the remaining contenders by conference to set the table for coming attrition. There is a discussion to be had about where the 7-1 Irish belong among 7-1 and defending national champion Clemson, 7-1 Oklahoma and 7-1 Ohio State. Those four teams will presumably make up Nos. 3-6 tonight.

Spending too much time on that discussion at this point misses two facts: It is highly unlikely all four finish the season with only one loss, reducing some of the consternation, and only the selection committee’s opinion actually matters.

For example, that latter reason is why Kelly no longer votes in the USA Today Coaches Poll.

“The committee, to me, made my vote obsolete in the sense that they could do such a better job of evaluating truly the top teams in the country,” he said. “I could get a cursory view of it and a look at it, but I couldn’t do the kind of job that the committee can do from 1 to 25.”

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the 12 remaining national title contenders, broken apart by overlapping futures more than claims to date.

The Undefeated and Unquestioned, otherwise known as the SEC.
Neither Alabama nor Georgia has lost. Only the latter has faced a genuine test, its 20-19 victory at Notre Dame.

The order of these two does not matter. If one falls before the SEC title game — both still have to play Auburn — the blemished will fall from its perch. If both arrive to their 13th game with identical 12-0 records, the SEC champion will be guaranteed a Playoff entry. The competiveness of that game, not tonight’s ordering, will likely determine the other’s bowl destination.

The ACC 3: Miami, Virginia Tech and Clemson.
Miami earns top billing here simply because it remains undefeated. That will be tested this weekend against the Hokies and next weekend with Notre Dame visiting. If the Hurricanes win both of those and proceed to claim the ACC, they’ll make the Playoff. There is no need to complicate that.

Virginia Tech’s hopes would hinge on running the table — which includes a trip to Georgia Tech next weekend — and exacting revenge on Clemson in the ACC title game. If the Tigers do not make the ACC championship, the Hokies’ hopes probably dwindle, as well, unless national chaos reigns. This is college football, after all. Anarchy is always just a Saturday away.

Clemson’s loss at Syracuse is but a blip on the radar when compared to dominating wins at Louisville and at Virginia Tech, a victory over Auburn and a trip to North Carolina State this weekend. (And remember, starting quarterback Kelly Bryant missed much of that Orange defeat.) If the Tigers run the table, it is hard to imagine the selection committee would deny the reigning champions a chance to defend that title.

The Mess of the Big 12: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU.
Oklahoma has the only non-conference win of note among this trio, traveling to Ohio State and emerging with a 31-16 victory on Sept. 9. The Sooners’ loss to Iowa State looks better now that the Cyclones also knocked off TCU. Iowa State will get its chance at Oklahoma State on Nov. 11.

The Cyclones’ rise complicates the entire conference’s hopes. If Oklahoma can run the table, beginning at Oklahoma State this weekend, and perhaps get revenge on Iowa State in the Big 12 title game, a valid claim to a playoff spot would emerge. If not, with all other aspects of these résumés being equal due to the conference’s round-robin format, it is difficult to envision any one of the three pulling away enough to challenge Clemson or a Big Ten champion for a Playoff spot.

The Big Ten Dichotomy: Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Ohio State has a résumé and a loss. Wisconsin has neither. That’s why college football developed conference championship games, though. Where the Badgers land remains a superfluous note until they do or do not finish the season 13-0. A loss, any loss, will knock them from these conversations entirely.

The Buckeyes can now claim a win against Penn State to counterbalance their loss to Oklahoma, but other than that their claims are thin. A combination of a conference title and the eye test may be enough to give Ohio State a boost with just a bit of national aid.

The Pac One: Washington.
The Huskies likely need national chaos. Their non-conference schedule featured wins at Rutgers, vs. Montana and vs. Fresno State. That will not separate a 7-1 Washington from the other one-loss teams in the country. Winning the Pac-12 will not, either, as it appears to be a conference filled with good but no great teams.

Oh, and Notre Dame: Victories over three six-win teams set the Irish apart, and they will have the chance to grow that total to at least five, with both Miami (FL) and Stanford already holding such records. Obviously, as time passes, the metric will rise, but Notre Dame’s overall schedule will pass nearly any test put to it.

For context: Alabama’s only victory over a six-win opponent is Colorado State. Georgia has beaten both the Irish and Mississippi State, and Clemson claims two in Auburn and Virginia Tech.

A Voting Note
Some mention of the committee’s voting procedure should be included here. If Notre Dame lands at No. 3 tonight, that mechanism may deserve some of the credit. The Irish appear to be a pretty clear-cut top-four team at this point. Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State stack up well with each other — and, to an extent, with Notre Dame. One of them has to land at No. 6. As the committee votes, the odds are the Irish receive a combination of No. 3 and No. 4 votes. Those other three, meanwhile, will have ranges from No. 3 to No. 6.

That alone could elevate Notre Dame above them this week. As that trio becomes a duo and then possibly just one, all due to the nature of college football, the Irish hold on a Rose Bowl spot will become more tenuous.

It is this same thinking that makes it somewhat unlikely any of the Big 12’s hopes crack the top-four this week. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU will siphon support from each other, lowering their Halloween ceilings.

Let’s remember that holiday-turned-adjective. It is still October. All of this matters only so much.

A Prediction
Alabama, Georgia, Notre Dame and Clemson. That is who it should be, in this scribe’s opinion, too. For that matter, may the college football universe be only so lucky as to have the season end with that exact order. The dueling rematches in the semifinals would be storylines to make December fly by.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s in-season improvements make the previously-maybe become increasingly possible

Associated Press
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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Let’s get this out of the way now: I was wrong.

The Notre Dame team that dominated No. 14 North Carolina State on Saturday was not the same version of the Irish that lost to Georgia in the season’s second week.

“We’ve gotten better each and every week,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said after the 35-14 victory. “We’re physically stronger, so mentally we’ve established a mindset as to how we play. Our kids are trusting the teaching.

“If you take the physical, the mental and the teaching, it’s a team that is getting better.”

The physical and the mental are most-intertwined in the Irish rushing game. Notre Dame briefly dabbled in a sideline-to-sideline ground game this weekend, attempting to get to the corner before turning upfield. The Wolfpack defense, led by senior defensive end Bradley Chubb, quickly relegated that strategy to fruitless at best and loss-inducing at worst, just as the Bulldogs did. In response, the Irish returned to what they do best, running up the middle through holes the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

That philosophical shift makes the ground attack led by junior running back Josh Adams a force no one outside of Alabama wants to reckon with. Gashing North Carolina State for a total of 325 yards on 52 carries, an average of 6.25 yards per rush, will drop the Wolfpack down any defensive rankings. The sample size of a 12-game scheduled season will have that effect, but it does not reduce the actual abilities of that veteran-laden defensive front seven. It is one of the best in the country, and Adams, his offensive line and offensive coordinator Chip Long’s game plan ran through that front as well as any of them could have possibly hoped.

Long’s dedication to the rushing game underscored a broader and more-tantalizing development to Notre Dame’s makeup as a team. The Irish are not fazed by a deficit or even a figurative punch in the mouth.

The last time Notre Dame faced any genuine adversity came in that 20-19 loss to Georgia. Beating the Wolfpack so handily will prevent anyone, including this space, from touting a newfound Irish ability to prevail in close games, but that — excuse this word choice — trait seems more possible than at any point in the last two calendar years. Responding to a challenge creates that kind of thinking, and North Carolina State offered Notre Dame a challenge early.

The first two Irish possessions gained a total of 10 yards. Chubb sacked junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush to stymie the first drive and altered each play of the next with penetration into the backfield, a tackle and then a quarterback pressure. To top it off, Chubb drew double the blocking on the subsequent punt. Notre Dame sophomore Daelin Hayes turned to help block Chubb, allowing North Carolina State defensive end James Smith-Williams to break through the line largely unchecked, smothering Tyler Newsome’s boot.

“One of the best defensive ends I’ve played in my five years here,” Irish fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe said. “We knew that coming in. He definitely showed that tonight.”

Notre Dame had failed on two possessions, found no holes in the Wolfpack defense and been manhandled by that unit’s best player, all leading to a 7-0 deficit.

The Irish didn’t much care.

“What was most impressive for me, coaching for as long as I have, when you get a punt block, it has a tendency to really affect your football team,” Kelly said. “Our guys never flinched. It was as if nothing ever occurred other than let’s get back out on the field and get back to work.”

After Notre Dame scored quickly in response, partly thanks to a 35-yard vertical run from Adams immediately followed by a 25-yard touchdown on a middle slant of sorts to Smythe, North Carolina State again seized control, authoring a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive of its own.

Again, the Irish didn’t much care.

“In past years, I think we’ve had to group up as an offense and talk about, guys, we need this one,” Smythe said. “… This team hasn’t flinched in scenarios like that. We didn’t have to talk about it at all, really.

“It almost is business as usual regardless of the situation, whether they just scored touchdown or we just scored three straight. We’ll take care of our business.”

It may yet be awhile before Notre Dame needs to respond to such adversity again, but it showed it has both the mental capacity and the physical talent to do so.

Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has begun to show the confidence to rely on his arm at the expense of his legs, while the latter remain a valid weapon for opposing defense’s to fear. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Part of that mental capacity showed itself in the physical realization of Wimbush’s passing progressions, literally and figuratively.
Wimbush still completed only 10 of 19 attempts for a total of 104 passing yards and two touchdowns. Even adding in two drawn pass interference penalties, his stat line of 12-for-21 for 134 yards would remain lacking. Yet, his viability as a dangerous passer took another step forward Saturday.

Wimbush rushed for only 28 yards on five carries, the fewest attempts of the season for the first-year starter, and the fewest yards aside from that loss to Georgia. This was a good sign for Notre Dame moving forward.

Wimbush did not abandon passing plays to pick up yardage in what we’ll call coverage runs. (When a defensive secondary prevents any receiver from breaking open long enough that a defensive lineman can notch a sack, it is known as a coverage sack. This is the flipside of such a scenario, when Wimbush breaks from the pocket entirely because of the secondary’s solid play.) Rather than slip upfield, he showed the needed patience to outwait the defensive backs. When he completed a 13-yard pass to sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, the play delighted Kelly beyond the first down and furthered drive.

Stepherson was Wimbush’s fourth read on the play. He progressed past Smythe, past a go route, finally getting to Stepherson’s curl.

“First time he’s done it this year,” Kelly said. “I was pretty excited on the sideline. … He’s confident and wants to throw the football and can throw the football.”

That is not to say the scrambles will go the way of non-existent. They remain an inherent piece of Wimbush’s overall game.

“Brandon’s a different cat,” Smythe said. “If he doesn’t keep his eyes down the field, there’s a chance he’ll have a 50-yard touchdown run. There’s a delicate balance of telling him let’s keep our eyes downfield, let’s make sure there’s no one running wide open and telling him to follow his instincts and go score 50-yard touchdowns. He’s that kind of athlete.

“When he puts those two together, and he’s starting to do that now, he’s a true dual-threat, and that’s kind of scary.”

The more Wimbush becomes a feared passer, the more Notre Dame can open up defenses to be pillaged by Adams.

As for the purely physical, Te’von Coney’s impact continues.
The junior linebacker led the Irish in tackles for the second consecutive week, making nine tackles, including a two-yard loss on a crucial fourth down in the red zone. His efforts landed him the game ball.

“He’s just ascending, playing really, really good football,” Kelly said simply enough.

Senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini appeared healthy and productive, but Coney will demand only more playing time as long as he finds the ballcarrier with such frequency.

While Notre Dame is a team getting better, its future opponents do not appear to be.
Namely, No. 20 Stanford and No. 8 Miami (FL) both struggled immensely with vastly-inferior opponents this weekend, beating Oregon State 15-14 and North Carolina 24-19, respectively. Both the Cardinal and the Hurricanes won — and as is said, a win is a win is a [insert four-beat pause] win — and style points are largely overrated, but the difficulties pointed to deeper concerns.

The Irish proved wrong any remaining doubters, yours truly included, with the 35-14 toppling of the Wolfpack. Their schedule suddenly looks much more reasonable. They remain absurdly healthy.

Perhaps it is time to revise last week’s “Maybe, just maybe …” to Maybe, even probably …