Associated Press

Things We Learned: Notre Dame is focused, but continues to struggle in the secondary & with Wimbush’s accuracy

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — It was decisive. It was never in doubt. It was efficient.

The 52-17 Irish victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday was exactly what it should have been, and that made it different.

This space poised the Thursday question, “Will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks?” A year ago, the answer would have been a definitive no, though it should have been a shrill yes. Consider this weekend’s 59-minute, 35-second rout a demarcation of certainty that times have changed.

Even the Irish knew this was not a sure thing.

“It’s huge for us,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said afterward. “This was a big week for us. We were going to see if we were mentally tough or not. We went out against an opponent that we were supposed to, on paper, beat. That’s not always how it goes.

“We had to come in mentally tough and go out and execute at a high level.”

Notre Dame did.

It can be left that simple. If insistent on more-specific metrics, the Irish committed five penalties for 60 yards Saturday, not much of an increase over the beforehand season average of 48.2 penalty yards per game. Notre Dame did not commit any turnovers. The defense allowed only one play of more than 30 yards. (More on that 34-yard RedHawks touchdown pass in a bit.)

All of these are indications the Irish focus did not stray. The scoreboard was another clear sign.

“We preach all the time we don’t want these up-and-down performances,” junior defensive tackle and game ball-recipient Jerry Tillery said. “That’s how you get beat. We were able to impose our will on this team consistently and that was our goal from the start.”

This is what should be expected. Good teams win in blowouts when the opportunities present themselves. That is exactly what Notre Dame just did. There is no need to nitpick the performance.

But if insistent on nitpicking and looking at items that were not egregious, because in a 52-17 victory, nothing is actually egregious …

The Irish secondary is not yet ready for true aerial threats.
First of all, let’s give credit where credit is due. RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner could be playing for most Power Five teams. His five catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns, including the aforementioned 34-yarder, are not the most terrible reflection of Notre Dame’s secondary, but they are tangible proof of an area needing improvement.

“We tried to defend the back shoulder, and we thought we were in some pretty good positions for back shoulder throws,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “They made some good throws down the field, quite frankly. We were in position one time where I thought it could have gone either way on a couple of calls here or there, but we were competing for the ball.”

No one in collegiate football excels at covering 6-foot-4 athletes with strong hands. That is why it has become such a passing-oriented sport. But Notre Dame struggles more than most.

Both Gardner’s touchdown catches were over senior cornerback Nick Watkins, who up until this weekend had quietly put together an impressive season. Gardner twice pulling in passes despite Watkins’ defense illustrates the greatest weakness in the Irish defense. As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Notre Dame concern, offensive or defensive.

Yes, it is even more concerning than Brandon Wimbush’s inconsistent accuracy.
The junior quarterback’s (in)accuracy remains questionable. He finished 7-of-18 for 119 yards passing. To the quickest memory, at least two of those incompletions were wise throwaways. Perhaps more were, but however many can rightfully have that justification, Wimbush still falls short of an expected completion percentage.

“It’s an apprenticeship,” Kelly said. “We’re still learning as we go, but [Wimbush is] making some really good progress.”

Perhaps the Irish rushing game grants Wimbush some leeway. Actually, it certainly does. But this could be of great concern if and when Notre Dame needs to convert a two-minute drill.

For that matter, it should be of worry well before then. Wimbush lucked out of an interception in the second quarter Saturday. The phrase “lucked out of an interception” has been used to describe his passes many times this season, to the point even this scribe is starting to consider it a trite wording. Yet, it remains accurate.

Much of any Irish success thus far this season has derived from the ability to avoid turnovers offensively while creating them defensively. The moment Wimbush’s luck runs out, that ratio quickly evens out and a 70-3 points off turnovers differential in Notre Dame’s favor may become an anomaly rather than a reliability.

Hello, Mr. Stepherson.
Yes, sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson played. He lined up wide, as Kelly said he would. He even caught a pass.

That reception lost three yards.

Stepherson was targeted three times, the first two coming on back-to-back snaps. One of those Stepherson dropped. The other fell to the turf due to either an overthrow or a misrun route.

“We weren’t able to get him the ball in the first half,” Wimbush said. “But just want to get him a couple of touches and get him up to speed with what we’re trying to do on the offensive side of the ball.”

At least Claypool is consistent.
Once again returning to Thursday’s wonderings: “Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?”

If the answer is no, it is because in time Claypool may challenge junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for top target honors. Claypool finished with 28 yards on only two catches Saturday, but they were both vital receptions.

The first converted a fourth-and-11 which led to the second Irish touchdown. The other was the fourth Notre Dame score.

Wimbush dodged the question when asked if Claypool may be the best jump-ball receiver on the Irish roster, but that does not make it any less a viable concept.

“I’ve had a couple opportunities to throw them up,” Wimbush said. “Those guys, 6-5, all big bodies, all able to go up there and do what Chase did today. When those guys get the opportunity to go do that, they definitely go do it. I have tons of weapons out there.”

Kelly gave Claypool a touch more credit, though not asked as specific a question. When wondering if Notre Dame has established its preferred receivers yet, Kelly included Claypool in the two-man subset of known commodities.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and [St. Brown],” Kelly said. “We’re still a work in progress with some of the other receivers. … We’re still evolving. We’re getting closer, but no, I’m not ready to tell you that we’re solid in our first three guys yet.”

Adams moves up Notre Dame record books while awaiting national attention

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Rarely do touchbacks make anything in football more dramatic, but if Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday had opened with one, then Irish junior running back Josh Adams’ 73-yard run on the evening’s second play would have been even more notable.

Instead, the opening score left Adams one yard short of moving into a tie for ninth place of Notre Dame’s career rushing leaders. The two additional yards a touchback would have granted that touchdown would have moved Adams past George Gipp.

Yes, that George Gipp.

Adams gained those yards, and five more, on the second Irish drive. His 159 yards by the end of the night moved him up to eighth on that career rushing list with 2,426 yards. If an aggravated ankle had not cut short Adams’ chances in the first quarter, he would have almost certainly passed Cierre Wood (2009-12) for seventh place, needing only 21 more yards for that mark. Frankly, he was likely to gain many more than 21 additional yards.

“He would have had 350 if he had played the second half,” RedHawks coach and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin said afterward. “He’s really good. He’s been really good here.

“He tends to break off big runs if you give him [space]. He’s big and strong, but he runs through those — you can’t really make him miss — he runs through arm tackles. … He could have set some records today.”

If Adams can stay healthy, the days for those records will come. (More on those pursuits in a few paragraphs.) This was the second week in a row his night was ended prematurely by an ankle concern, though Adams said this week was not the same ankle as last week. Irish coach Brian Kelly also said Adams could have returned to the game, but Notre Dame instead opted to exercise caution considering the sizable lead it already had at the time. When Adams injured his ankle, the Irish led 21-7 and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush connected with sophomore receiver Chase Claypool for another touchdown a play later.

Despite those nagging injuries, Adams has rushed with nearly unparalleled efficiency this season. Including this weekend, he has taken 73 carries for 658 yards, a 9.0 yards per rush average. When compared to some of the nation’s most prolific and/or best running backs, Adams certainly holds his own. He now has the fourth-most rushing yardage this season in the country, behind Stanford’s Bryce Love, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and North Texas’ Jeffery Wilson.

Including Saturday, Love has rushed for 1,088 yards on 98 carries, an 11.1 yards per rush average. Penny has rushed for 823 yards on 116 carries, a 7.1 yards per rush average. Wilson comes in just ahead of Adams with 666 yards on 93 carries, a 7.2 yards per rush average.

Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is the widespread Heisman Trophy favorite at this point. Including Saturday, he has rushed for 564 yards on 86 carries, a 6.6 yards per rush average.

The point here is, Adams has played three Power Five programs and two Group of Five conference title contenders. (Well, at least Temple was supposed to be one.) His stats nonetheless stand up against anyone else’s in the country. Kelly outright compared Adams to Barkley.

“I used Barkley’s name, that guy is a jump-cut special player at full speed,” Kelly said. “Josh is going to run over you and break it.

“[Offensive coordinator Chip Long] and the play calling, the way we’ve constructed this offense, it’s a great fit.”

Projecting Adams’ national standing is an entirely subjective exercise. Projecting his landing spot in the Notre Dame record books is not. That is simply statistics and math.

Adams has averaged 131.6 yards per game this season, even with troubled ankles. If he were to maintain that rate over the seven remaining regular season games plus a presumed bowl game, he would finish 2017 as the No. 3 career rusher in Irish history, passing Vagas Ferguson (1976-79) by five yards.

Such a pace would equate to 1,711 yards this season, shattering Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 set in 1979.

Those do not seem to be unrealistic imaginings.

Projecting even further, if Adams were to maintain health and return for a senior season, presuming one bowl game in both 2017 and 2018, he would need to average 90.1 yards per game to surpass his position coach and school career leader Autry Denson’s mark of 4,318 yards, set between 1995 and 1998.

To give some idea of how quickly those numbers can change, per a conversation with Notre Dame reporter Mike Monaco during Saturday’s pregame, Adams needed to average 93 yards per game to break Denson’s record before the 159 yards gained against Miami. (This scribe pauses to check Monaco’s math. It checks out to the tune of 93.3 yards per game.)

Whether or not he sets those marks, Adams’ influence extends beyond these outrageous statistics.

“He’s been doing this for two-and-a-half years now,” Wimbush said. “To have a seasoned vet, even though he’s only a junior, it makes things a lot easier. Coach Kelly is right in saying that [Adams is comparable to the Barkleys of the nation]. Josh is just going to have some more things to prove the rest of the season.”

More running back health

Injuries have slowed Josh Adams’ successes this season far more than opposing defenses have. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly said, flat out, Adams could have returned Saturday. The fact that he was available for media interviews following the game indicates he was rather healthy, all things considered.

Sophomore running back Tony Jones took a hit to the helmet in the second quarter and did not return, but Kelly said Jones was not ruled out of the game. Instead, thanks to the scoreboard cushion, the Irish staff simply opted for caution. With junior Dexter Williams ruled out of the game in a Saturday decision due to a sprained ankle, Notre Dame turned to sophomore Deon McIntosh.

McIntosh finished with 47 yards on 12 carries, leading the Irish in rushing attempts for the second week in a row.

Kelly said Williams should be 100 percent by the time Notre Dame heads to North Carolina.

Notre Dame puts Miami (OH) away early and often

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — The Irish did what good teams do, they blew out their opponent. From the outset, No. 22 Notre Dame (4-1) made the matchup with Miami (2-3) a clear mismatch Saturday evening en route to a 52-17 victory.

Not even half a minute into the game, Irish junior running back Josh Adams found the end zone on a 73-yard rush. Quite literally, it was a rout from the get-go. By the end of the opening quarter, Adams had scored again, on a 59-yard run featuring three broken tackles, and junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush notched both a rushing and a passing touchdown.

“Coach [Brian] Kelly challenged us in the early week to not put a face to a team — whether it’s USC, whether it’s Georgia, whether it’s Miami of Ohio — you just want to go out there and execute,” Wimbush said. “We took care of business tonight, and I think we could have even put some more points up on the board.”

After Adams’ second score brought Notre Dame’s lead to 21-7 and Wimbush then connected with sophomore Chase Claypool for the receiver’s first career touchdown, the RedHawks would not again close the gap to fewer than three possessions.

“We certainly didn’t run into a bad Notre Dame team,” RedHawks coach and former Irish assistant Chuck Martin said. “They have a very good team this year. They’re playing the game the right way, and they’re only going to get better, I think.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
The RedHawks were not quite set to score, but they had moved 37 yards on only one play, partly thanks to a personal foul on Irish junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery. Miami seemed only a few plays away from tying the contest at seven. RedHawks senior quarterback Gus Ragland threw a downfield pass for junior receiver James Gardner on a second-and-nine from the Notre Dame 36-yard line, hoping to expose some of the vulnerable Irish secondary.

“We’re like everyone else, we’re going to be dreamers,” Martin said. “We came in with a crazy aggressive plan. We’re going to try to attack and whip it around, hopefully catch them in pressures and get the ball on the seam and try to get them back on their heels.”

Rather than set up a red zone possibility, the pass found Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini. He recognized the play’s design from practicing against it specifically during the week. Not only did Martini pull in the pass at the 22-yard line — after quite a bobble, as it seems the ball was closer to him than even he had expected — he also then returned it 42 yards, to immediately put the Irish in scoring position. Apparently some of his teammates did not deem that good enough, though.

“The guys were kind of giving me [grief],” Martini said. “I should have housed it, but I got caught down from behind. … I haven’t had the ball in my hand since high school, so that was a little bit weird.”

If Saturday’s outcome was ever in doubt, Wimbush’s one-yard touchdown keeper seven plays later eased those concerns, giving Notre Dame a more-comfortable-than-it-sounds 14-0 lead.

PLAY OF THE GAME

It may seem the easy way out, but the play of the game came on its second snap. As much as Martini’s interception finalized the evening’s tone, Adams’ 73-yard jaunt first set it. For that matter, Miami feared something just like that would occur.

“We wanted to get the [coin] toss,” Martin said. “We wanted to get the ball first. I didn’t want their offense on the field first. I didn’t’ feel like that was the best matchup, even though our defense has totally outplayed our offense.”

Instead, the Irish won the toss and chose to receive. Wimbush took a deep shot for fifth-year receiver Cam Smith, one Smith probably should have caught but let get away from him. After that pass hit the turf, there was no longer really any other option for play of the game. Adams saw to that.

OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
Considering the final score, retrospect may deem it a small moment, and perhaps its allure stands out more to a certain segment of the football analytics crowd than to many others. Three plays after Martini’s interception and return, the Irish had totaled a loss of one yard, now facing fourth-and-11 from the 37-yard line. Kelly did not send out either senior punter Tyler Newsome for a coffin corner pooch punt or junior kicker Justin Yoon for a 54- or 55-yard field goal attempt.

Notre Dame went for it.

Setting aside any and all fandoms, or lack thereof, it was an excellent call. And it paid off. Wimbush connected with Claypool for a 21-yard gain and Wimbush’s first completed pass of the day (on his fourth attempt). Adams then gained seven yards and Wimbush ran for eight before scoring from the one-yard line.

A field goal would not have been the strong statement needed to collapse any Miami pipe dreams. A punt would have negated much of the impact of Martini’s play. Going for it on fourth down led to Notre Dame putting the game out of Miami’s reach. Literally, after that, Yoon’s two field goals would have been enough to provide victory.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
His chances Saturday may have been limited by injury and/or precaution for the second week in a row, but Adams made a memorable impact, nonetheless. Somehow — and perhaps those consistent nicks have something to do with it — he remains unrecognized by many as one of the country’s better ballcarriers.

“Josh has got to start to get some kind of national recognition for the kind of season that he’s having,” Kelly said. “He is a load. He’s a big, physical runner who gets in the open and then runs away from people. So this is a special back who’s having a special year.”

STAT OF THE GAME
The 45-14 halftime lead may have caught the eye, but the more impressive halftime figure was Notre Dame’s average yards per play: 9.2. The Irish were averaging 9.7 yards per rush on 23 carries.

Notre Dame finished with a per play average of 8.1 yards. To offer some context, in last week’s 38-18 triumph at Michigan State, the Irish averaged 5.9 yards per play.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
Brian Kelly: “We’ve got really good players that we want to feature, and a commitment that I made to change the focus of the offense toward a much more physical approach to running the football. We’ve got really good players, so making sure that we utilized our strengths.

“Our strengths are we’ve got two guys on the left side that are going to be playing on Sundays as well as a very good center, right guard, and our right tackles are coming along, as well. …

“Maybe I just woke up one morning, hit my head and came to my senses and said, let’s go to our strengths and run the football.”

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
14:35 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 73-yard rush. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, Miami (OH) 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:25)
11:36 — Notre Dame touchdown. Brandon Wimbush one-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, Miami 0. (7 plays, 36 yards, 1:43)
7:59 — Miami (OH) touchdown. James Gardner 34-yard reception from Gus Ragland. Sam Sloman PAT good.  Notre Dame 14, Miami 7. (8 plays, 73 yards, 3:37)
6:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. Adams 59-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 21, Miami 7. (4 plays, 71 yards, 1:53)
0:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chase Claypool seven-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 28, Miami 7. (5 plays, 30 yards, 1:35)

Second Quarter
12:50 — Notre Dame touchdown. Equanimeous St. Brown 14-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Miami 7. (5 plays, 57 yards, 1:20)
10:09 — Miami touchdown. Gardner 14-yard reception from Ragland. Sloman PAT good. Notre Dame 35, Miami 14. (5 plays, 57 yards, 2:41)
6:09 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 43 yards. Notre Dame 38, Miami 14. (8 plays, 44 yards, 4:00)
0:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Miles Boykin 54-yard reception from Wimbush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Miami 14. (5 plays, 81 yards, 1:42)

Third Quarter
6:40 — Miami field goal. Sloman from 38 yards. Notre Dame 45, Miami 17. (9 plays, 49 yards, 3:36)

Fourth Quarter
8:10 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh 26-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 52, Miami 17. (7 plays, 87 yards, 2:20)

Notre Dame vs. Miami (OH): Who, what, when, where, why and by how much

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WHO? Miami of Ohio (2-2) at Notre Dame (3-1). One more time, let’s remind Irish fans they will recognize the face leading the way on the RedHawks sideline. Chuck Martin spent four years at Notre Dame on Brian Kelly’s coaching staff before taking the job at Miami.

WHAT? These two schools do not have much in common, but they do share ties to the late Ara Parseghian. The legendary coach started his career in Oxford, Ohio, and ended it in South Bend, Ind. Obviously no one could have planned for this matchup — the first since 1909 — to come only a few months after Parseghian’s death, but it is quite appropriate that such is the case.

WHEN? 5:00 p.m. ET. That is not a typo. Your Saturday schedules will be knocked off-kilter. Factor that in now as it pertains to when to light the grill, when to open the cooler and when to turn the phone to airplane mode. Kickoff is scheduled for 5:18 p.m.

WHERE? Notre Dame Stadium, approximately five miles south of the Indiana-Michigan border and 80 miles west of the Indiana-Ohio border. Those directions should get you there, right? Great.

If lost on the way, find a television with NBC Sports Network. Let’s repeat that: This game is not on NBC. It is on NBC Sports Network. To further confuse you, Paul Burmeister will handle the play-by-play call while Mike Tirico tends to the Presidents Cup coverage on the flagship station.

If relying on an internet browser, head to http://ndstream.nbcsports.com/. If on one of those intelligent handheld devices, try the NBC Sports app. In either of these situations, some form of cable login will be needed.

WHY? When Martin left Notre Dame for Miami, Irish administrators quickly reached out about scheduling a game. In a way, this was Notre Dame giving something of a favor to an up-and-coming coach who left on good terms. Martin wanted to put off the game for a few years in hopes of bringing a competitive RedHawks team to Notre Dame Stadium. He has certainly succeeded in improving Miami over the winless state of affairs he inherited.

BY HOW MUCH? The Irish are favored by three touchdowns with a combined points total over/under of 53. Rough math would point to a Notre Dame 37-16 victory. That may undersell the Irish offense.

For this space’s prediction, let’s be logical, or perhaps it is lazy. Notre Dame has scored an average of 45 points in its three wins this season (45.33, to be exact) while giving up 18 points (17.67). Using that …

Notre Dame 45, Miami 18. (3-1 record on the season.)

SOME TRIVIA: Four colleges or universities have graduated both a President of the United States and a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. What are the four?

The comments section here handled this without much trouble. Well done, folks.

Miami (OH): Ben Roethlisberger & Benjamin Harrison
Stanford: John Elway, Jim Plunkett & Herbert Hoover
Michigan: Tom Brady & Gerald Ford
Navy: Roger Staubach & Jimmy Carter

THIS WEEK’S INSIDE THE IRSH READING:
— Monday Morning Leftovers: The long-term effects of Crawford’s punch, limited roster turnover & Yoon’s record approach
Questions for the Week: Ankles, Stepherson and NBC Sports Network at 5 p.m. ET
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia & N.C. St. surge; Boston College & UNC fade
Kelly on targeting, or a lack thereof; Notre Dame’s offensive & defensive lines
Chuck Martin readies for return to Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s increased turnover focus is 2012-esque
And In That Corner … The Miami RedHawks and former Notre Dame assistant Chuck Martin
Kelly on Stepherson’s return to action, Notre Dame RB injuries & hypothetical protests
Things To Learn: Can Notre Dame retain its focus against a “letdown” opponent
Friday at 4: Notre Dame raised the floor, maybe not the roof

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM ARA PARSEGHIAN’S AUG. 2 PASSING
Ara Parseghian: 1923 – 2017
Remembrances and Reflections of Ara

INSIDE THE IRISH COVERAGE FROM THE MICHIGAN STATE GAME
Turnovers tip toward Notre Dame in a 38-18 victory at Michigan State
Points off turnover differential becoming theme to Notre Dame’s season
What We Learned: Notre Dame found a No. 2 WR & an accurate passer
Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Kelly on Wimbush’s accuracy, receivers’ hands & needed secondary improvements

THIS WEEK’S OUTSIDE READING:
Belief system: Why Howard was unstoppable against a 45-point favorite
We probably already know Alabama’s SEC Championship opponent (See item No. 4)
Candid Coaches: Who are the high-major [basketball] coaches who don’t break NCAA rules? In light of this week’s FBI investigation, Rick Pitino firing and whatever else may yet to come, this from August seems worth looking at once again.
Before PJ Fleck, there was Holtz …

Friday at 4: Notre Dame raised the floor, maybe not the roof

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Notre Dame’s 38-18 victory at Michigan State had only just gone final when the phone buzzed. Thinking it was a neighbor offering a beverage, I made the mistake of quickly checking the blinking blue light.

“What is the legitimate ceiling for the team this year?”

Usually a level-headed fan, Corey had let the Irish rout go to his head. It took great restraint for me not to respond with only the obvious, “Clearly, it’s 11-1.”

That would have been tongue-in-cheek, but it could also be an acknowledgement of college football. Remember Tennessee a season ago? Auburn in 2013? Even Notre Dame in 2012? If a total of three breaks happen to have perfect timing, the sample size occasionally seems to remove the ceiling.

With that in mind, the more important question may be, “What is the genuine floor for the team this year?” Sure, fans do not like to think about the lower end of expectations, and setting the floor becomes complicated when considering potential injuries. Nonetheless, if asking about the ceiling, wondering about the floor should logically be in the same conversation.

For the first time in at least two years and more likely a minimum of five, Notre Dame delivered a complete performance against the Spartans. Asked if the Irish have been closer to a “championship-level performance” than Saturday’s showing, head coach Brian Kelly mused it had been awhile.

“[In 2015] we had some, we just couldn’t sustain it for a long period of time,” he said Tuesday. “The mindset is closer here with this group. We’re closing in on that mindset in terms of start-to-finish, and we’ll need to continue to have that and grow with that.”

Discussing that four-syllable c-word may imply a metric for the height of a rafter. Rather, look beyond the generic description and consider the version of the Irish seen in East Lansing as the new bar Notre Dame can reach every week. If an opponent clears it, then perhaps the Irish will be outplayed, but that is no longer the common occurrence it was last year and, frankly, in parts of 2015 and further back.

“From our perspective, this is really about living up to our standard that we’ve established within our program and how we play the game,” Kelly said.

More pertinent to Corey’s actual question, this all may be too reactionary to beating a flawed Michigan State. Yes, it is a Mark Dantonio-coached team and there is no version of this thought process which diminishes the Spartans to an after-thought, a speed bump or any other dismissive noun. Michigan State is not, however, a team poised to challenge for a Big Ten title.

To properly gauge how high Notre Dame’s ceiling is, one must know how high Michigan State’s is, because that may be the Irish floor for 2017. This week and next week will give that Spartan outlook (vs. Iowa; at Michigan).

But it’s Friday and the Iowa result is not in yet. (Typically, that latter half is a political phrase.)

Notre Dame’s ceiling is lower than Georgia’s. That much is clear. That game may have come down to one play here (the questionable personal foul called on Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara) or there (the false start in the red zone by freshman right tackle Rob Hainsey), but overall, the Bulldogs outplayed Notre Dame.

Georgia could be a playoff contender, though. (See Item No. 4 here to realize just how smooth the Bulldogs’ schedule is the rest of the season.)

Let’s take the bold leap and grant the Irish are not a playoff contender. The passing game led by junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has not been consistent. Notre Dame’s passing defense has yet to be challenged. There are still four big tests to come, two each at home in October and on the road in November.

This early in the season, a conservative answer to Corey’s question may presume the Irish split those games. In years past, assuming Notre Dame would lose an additional game, one it shouldn’t by all accounts, would hold merit. After seeing two thumpings of physical opponents on the road, pessimists should not lean on that crutch anymore. The floor has been raised.

That equals a 9-3 record with two strong wins and three losses in tough matchups, at least one of which was competitive. If the other two are, as well, that theoretical three-month stretch would be all a Notre Dame fan could have realistically hoped for entering the season.

So nothing has changed, right?

Wrong. The bare minimum is not so minimal anymore.

Before the season, 2016’s performances were the strongest available indicator of what to expect. That does not mean 4-8 should have been the mark to improve upon — last year’s team was more in line with a 7-5 or 8-4 record. It does mean there was no tangible reason to think the Irish were physically ready to be a top-flight team.

After two thumpings of physical opponents on the road, there is reason.

That benchmark makes it hard to think Notre Dame will be played off the field by an offensively-questionable North Carolina State or a disappointing Stanford. It makes it difficult to envision Miami finding the firepower to challenge the thermometer for the high mark on Nov. 11. That baseline establishes a standard USC is more likely to stay only just above rather than blow by, though it does need to be said the Trojans have the pure talent to race away from all comers. (That disclaimer may not age well tonight.)

Notre Dame’s ceiling in 2017 remains a cut below the cream of the crop. It is, however, high enough to force the cream to rise to the top. The Irish floor is now high enough, some opponents should not be able to reach even it. That is quite a change from just a month ago.

Lest that be forgotten: The season is only a month old. It is still September. This is a young Irish team. All but seven contributing players are likely to be back next year. Sticking to the current calendar, those players can improve dramatically yet this season. By the time Notre Dame heads to Florida, Wimbush will have more than doubled his playing time to date, presuming health.

The ceiling may nor rise much more before facing USC, but it is possible it has not reached its peak yet this year. The Irish have already raised the floor.

Now try to stay off the floor tonight, alright readers? No one likes that friend, least of all the downstairs neighbor.