Leftovers & Links: The ticking clock on Clark Lea’s time at Notre Dame

Clark Lea Notre Dame
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A day after No. 2 Notre Dame earned the win of the weekend with its 31-17 worse-than-the-scoreboard-indicated win at No. 19 North Carolina, Vanderbilt offered the moment of the weekend when kicker Sarah Fuller became the first female to play in a Power Five football game with her boot to open the second half.

A day later, Vanderbilt became part of the Irish storyline and not just the national conversation when the university fired head coach Derek Mason in his eighth season, a campaign that reached a new low with a 41-0 loss at Missouri on Saturday, national and cultural breakthrough aside. The first name on Commodores athletics director Candice Storey Lee’s shortlist is presumably Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea, a Vanderbilt 2004 alum.

Lea nearly did not reach his third year as Irish defensive coordinator, and fourth with the program. If not for former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, Lea would likely be leading Boston College these days.

Instead, he is directing the No. 9 unit in both scoring defense and total defense, among teams to have played at least four games. That success, in fact, is the obvious reason Lea is a hot commodity on the coaching market. Vanderbilt is the natural fit for someone who turned a baseball career into a football career there, but it will be far from the only possibility for Lea this winter. And given the Commodores’ football history, it may be far from the most desirable. Aside from James Franklin’s final two seasons in Nashville, 2012-2013, Vanderbilt has not posted a winning record since … 1982.

But even with a presumed predilection for a Power Five program with an academic focus, Lea may have other options during this coaching carousel. David Cutcliffe, 66, is in his 13th season at Duke, this 2-7 faceplant making last year’s 5-7 look enjoyable. David Shaw’s 10th season at Stanford may be only 1-2 to date, but that makes the Cardinal 1-6 in the last 13 months and showing no signs of contending in the Pac 12 anytime soon. At some point, Dave Clawson will welcome an overture to leave Wake Forest, Lea’s previous employer.

Ignoring the odd prevalence of Davids at the schools that might entice Lea, what should be noted is he can be selective. Even if the financial repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic keep those other three gigs static in 2020, each is closer to opening up than not.

Ranking defenses by yards or points allowed does not factor in the opponent or playing style. San Diego State is 3-3, yet ranked No. 7 in scoring defense; Army’s triple-option ball control creates the No. 8 scoring defense.

Lea’s defenses have done more than that. Based on spreads and combined point total over/unders, Notre Dame has held its opponent to fewer points than expected in 24 of its 35 games with Lea leading the defense.

There are several issues with the impulsive want for the Irish to name Lea the coach-in-waiting behind Brian Kelly. It puts inherent if unspoken pressure on Kelly to conclude his tenure, it requires an ambitious and successful coach-on-the-rise to put his career on hold for an indefinite amount of time, and it alters the dynamics with the entire coaching staff.

Furthermore, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has made it clear he sees the coach-in-waiting as a tool to use rarely in only the most private of situations.

“The only circumstances under which I would do something like that is if I was absolutely certain about the head coach’s timetable, the timetable was soon, and I thought we had absolutely the right person to succeed the current head coach,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister earlier this month. “… In the circumstance where there’s any uncertainty about the head coach’s timetable, I’d never go down that road. I think that causes confusion in the program. I think it sends a mixed message to the kids and I think it can be destabilizing for the head coach.”

When Buffalo running back Jaret Patterson scored his eighth touchdown Saturday, you may have chuckled at the overlapping, though consonant-deficient, identification with Irish center Jarrett Patterson.

You should have been thinking of Notre Dame junior safety Houston Griffith, and not just because he stepped in on a moment’s notice and excelled in the Irish defensive dominance at North Carolina. Griffith’s father, Howard, holds the NCAA record with eight rushing touchdowns in one game, the mark Patterson tied.

Notre Dame head and shoulders over No. 19 Heels
Things We Learned, pt. i: Defense puts Irish firmly in conversation with Alabama, Clemson & Ohio State
Things We Learned, pt. ii: Defensive depth the difference between 2020 and all years prior

Vanderbilt needs a football coach. Who are the likely candidates?
Vanderbilt kicker Sarah Fuller makes Power-5 college football history after giving halftime speech in her ‘goalkeeper voice’
Two feel-good moments save bleak weekend

Things We Learned, pt. ii: Notre Dame’s defensive depth the difference between 2020 and all years prior

Marist Liufau
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Notre Dame has a habit of losing key defenders in second quarters. Cornerback Julian Love’s head injury that cost him the second stanza of the 2018 College Football Playoff famously coincided with Clemson turning a 3-0 lead into a 23-0 blowout, but go back further than that and less noteworthy Irish moments come to mind, as well.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt’s targeting penalty on the first play of the second quarter at Pittsburgh in 2013 led to the Panthers marching down the field to tie that early November contest at 7 as part of outscoring Notre Dame 28-14 after Tuitt’s ejection.

When Joe Schmidt broke his ankle in the second quarter against Navy in 2014, he played through the injury for the first series of the third quarter, but the Midshipmen still capitalized on his struggle to score a touchdown and draw within one possession of the Irish. Navy would take a 31-28 lead before a Notre Dame flurry in the fourth quarter clung to the victory, but the Midshipmen outpaced the Irish in nearly every regard following Schmidt’s injury.

And then came sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton’s targeting ejection Friday at No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3 ACC) at a point in which the top-20 matchup was tied, and Notre Dame’s defense had yet to stop or even slow the Tar Heels.

North Carolina used the first down gifted by Hamilton’s clear penalty to gain another 31 yards and notch a field goal. It would then not score again as the Irish, sans Hamilton, turned what had been the No. 4 offense in the country into a unit unfavorably-comparable to Kansas and UMass.

Without Hamilton, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 9-0) turned to juniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown, not to mention more responsibility landed on sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford. Aside from that, the Irish did not change much, despite losing their best defensive back and arguably best defender. (Naming either Hamilton or senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah the undisputed best defender on coordinator Clark Lea’s unit would be an insult to the other.)

“We thought we had some things that they hadn’t seen before,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the 31-17 victory that may have essentially sealed Notre Dame’s slot in the College Football Playoff. “We were able to take away some of their glance reads off the [run-pass option], which made it difficult for them in certain situations. We were able to do it with moving our safeties around.

“I thought the plan was outstanding and players executed it extremely well. This was as well as our group played on the backend, even when Kyle went down. Houston and DJ and Shaun played extremely well and assignment-correct. Great communication.”

The Irish of the past could not lose a crucial defender and expect to hold up, not against Tino Sunseri, not against the triple-option and certainly not against a dynamic offense with a star quarterback supported by an explosive running game, be that 2018 Clemson or 2020 North Carolina.

North Dame has enjoyed defensive playmakers for a few years now — Tuitt and Love unquestionably qualified, and Schmidt’s steadfastness deserves its own acknowledgment — but only now has it found the depth needed to be a genuine contender.

“Houston coming in for us did a great job of locking down the secondary,” Irish senior linebacker Drew White said. “That’s just how the defensive unit is. It’s more than just 11 guys, it’s all the guys on the team, all the guys on defense locked in in meeting rooms, locked in in practice.

“Whenever a guy goes down, all 10 other guys have the utmost respect and trust in the guy filling in.”

White also praised sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau (pictured at top), who finished with five tackles in place of usual starter Shayne Simon, a deliberate choice by Lea to utilize Liufau’s length and ranginess, rather than Simon’s power and run fits, to counteract the Tar Heels’ RPOs, as Kelly mentioned.

And White credited freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis for stepping in to relieve junior Tariq Bracy after Bracy was beaten a few times on North Carolina’s opening two touchdown drives.

“We’ve got great players and great depth,” Kelly said. “… Our defense was outstanding, especially in the second half. One of those road wins that really shows the mettle of your football team. Offense, defense was outstanding.”

That depth was on display on both sides of the ball, though injuries along the offensive line have not cost Notre Dame as dearly over the years. By no means should sophomore center Zeke Correll’s and senior Josh Lugg’s work up front be downplayed simply because Griffith, Liufau and Lewis all excelled.

But even Kelly knew what to expect from an offensive line back-stopped by reliably elite recruiting.

“We knew both these guys were going to step in and play well for us.”

The same could not be said for the Irish defenders. Losing key players there once turned a 7-2 season, with the two losses both coming to top-20 opponents, into an 8-4 finish (2013). It sparked a four-game losing streak (2014). It contributed to the narrative of Notre Dame getting blown out in worthwhile postseason competitions belonging alongside death and taxes in discussions of life’s certainties.

But losing Hamilton on Friday did not slow the Irish in the slightest. It would be foolish to say they played better without him — their intended system finally took hold — but the fact that Lea did not change his approach without his greatest failsafe speaks as loudly as the second-half shutout.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s defense puts Irish firmly in conversation with Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State

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“We’re the best defense in the country.”

Drew White did not mean to diminish Cincinnati’s defense, allowing 15.0 points per game, or Northwestern’s, having given up only six touchdowns through five games. The senior Irish linebacker certainly did not intend to knock Georgia’s name-brand defense, which has allowed only four rushing touchdowns this season (compared to eight on Notre Dame) and 2.47 yards per carry (2.88).

But White may be on to something. The No. 2 Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) just might have the best defense in the country.

“I really am (proud of the defense),” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame shut out No. 19 North Carolina in the second half of a 31-17 Black Friday win. “There’s a lot to be said about holding this offense to under 300 yards. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in terms of what they were able to do.”

The Tar Heels (6-3, 6-3) had been nothing but prolific thus far this season, averaging 43.1 points and 563.4 yards per game before this week, and 7.7 yards per play. Then came White and the rest of Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s unit.

17 points, 298 yards, 5.2 yards per play.

Those numbers do not do the performance justice.

After North Carolina opened with two touchdown drives, an effect of Notre Dame coming off an idle week more than anything else in Kelly’s mind, the Heels gained 173 yards in the final 47:59, averaging 4.02 yards per play.

To put that into context, North Carolina ranked No. 4 in the country in yards per play before this week. That figure for three-plus quarters against the Irish would rank No. 125, ahead of only Massachusetts and Kansas, one spot behind Notre Dame’s next opponent, Syracuse.

“There were some adjustments that were made, but by and large, the game plan was in,” Kelly said. “It was executed flawlessly. It was well-developed, well-planned. At the end of the day, it was extremely well-executed.”

There is a knee-jerk reaction in college football to undercut a strong performance by pointing out the opponent’s shortcomings, lack of previous worthwhile competition and so forth. Doing so to the Tar Heels offense misses many points: Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell is an efficient and talented quarterback who averaged 299 yards in his first 21 career games. That is a sample size beyond dispute. In the next 16 games of his career, there is a distinct chance no one else holds him to as few as 211 yards, not to mention only 7.8 yards per attempt, his lowest mark in the last 11 games.

All that without the best Irish defensive back for most of the game, 

The best defense in the country.

For the last 5-8 years, offenses have increasingly outpaced defenses in college football. Be it the influence of year-long 7-on-7 work at the prep level, a simple influx in brainpower on the offensive side of the ball or a shift in the rules, offenses now rule the day.

Even Alabama head coach Nick Saban, the man who used to spend entire seasons ridiculing anyone who won a game while giving up as many 30 points, has acknowledged the days of 2012’s suffocating defenses are long-gone. Offense now wins championships in college football.

The effects of the pandemic — loss of spring practice, loss of conditioning, interrupted preseason practices — have exacerbated that, worsening defensive fundamentals across the country this season, at least compared to the negative repercussions on offenses.

But Notre Dame’s defense appears to be the exception at the top of the sport. Entering this Saturday, No. 1 Alabama gives up 359 yards per game, No. 3 Clemson, 349; and No. 4 Ohio State, 390 (not to mention 26 points per game, among other developing issues). The Irish, meanwhile, give up 303 yards and 16.7 points per game.

Lea has developed a defense that proved magnitudes better than the No. 4 offense in the country, per SP+, this week and at least stood up against one of the generation’s most consistent offenses earlier this month.

Combined with a power running game that has yet to be stopped when it commits to ending a game — Friday’s final drive marked the fourth time this season Notre Dame has run down the clock with a methodical march down the field to strangle away any desperate hopes from its opponent — that defense makes the Irish look like real contenders. Add in mistake-free quarterback play, and perhaps Notre Dame should be considered every bit the threat that the Tide, Tigers and Buckeyes are, even if it feels odd to describe Ian Book as playing “mistake-free” the day after he approached quarterbacking in a way that would make Brett Favre beam.

“Playmakers make plays,” Kelly said. “… You let guys play, he’s a playmaker.”

To be a true championship contender, someone has to make those plays. The last two months have shown the Irish that they have that player. The entire season has featured a running game that refuses to yield. And Friday proved Notre Dame can claim the best defense in the country.

In this most flawed of seasons, perhaps a team thriving on fundamentals is a team to look forward to watching in Miami in mid-January.

No. 2 Notre Dame head and shoulders over No. 19 Heels

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Maybe Notre Dame’s and North Carolina’s defenses thought their top-25 matchup started at 4:30. Perhaps the defensive backs wanted to have one more plate of leftovers before getting to business. They may have just felt like the best way to be thanked was to first show how badly they were needed.

Whatever the reason, once the Irish and Tar Heels defenses engaged, a Black Friday shootout became a one-sided slog. A 28-point, back-and-forth first quarter gave way to only two more touchdowns the rest of the afternoon. Despite losing its best defender, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) shut down the best offense it will face this regular season in a 31-17 win at No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3), shutting out the Tar Heels in the second half after reaching the break tied.

“When we went into the locker room tied at 17-17, I looked at my team and said, ‘Now you have to understand, we have to take this one play at a time. This is going to be fighting for every blade of grass, but you guys are capable of doing this,’” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “They did it.

“This is on them. … A dominating performance in the second half because our players were locked into all of those things.”

Graduate transfer receiver Bennett Skowronek provided the winning score with yet another red-zone touchdown, this one breaking from the trend set by his previous five touchdown catches, instead taking a 13-yard handoff around the edge for a score.

Otherwise, nearly all the offensive success came early and often. A frenetic first quarter included four touchdowns on five drives, the only one failing to find the end zone being Notre Dame’s opening drive, a three-and-out losing 11 yards. None of the four scoring drives were contingent on a big scoring play. Rather, pressure from each defensive line forced quarterbacks Sam Howell and Ian Book to improvise.

Both have excelled at that all season, and the first quarter was no different, highlighted by Book scooping up a poor snap from first-time starting center sophomore Zeke Correll, scrambling away from two Tar Heels defenders and then finding sophomore running back Kyren Williams for a checkdown that also served as a wide-open touchdown.

“It was a low snap, it hit the ground, so I lose where my eyes were,” said Book, walking through the thought process that led to the most chaotic 279-yard, one-touchdown performance of his career. “I wanted to be looking to the field over to the left a little bit.

“Grabbed it, and I knew Kyren was protecting to the right. I didn’t think he was going to get out, but he did an unbelievable job and he did get out. I kind of flipped my hips and ran that way. I just know our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what. I scramble and try to make as many plays as I can, and I trust these guys to be in the right spot. That was another example of that. Kyren did an unbelievable job.”

Book took that “make as many plays as I can” style as far as he could at North Carolina, showing more trust in his targets than the most generous assessment would have endorsed. His peak moment of backyard ball veered into recklessness and foolishness, an arching pitch to freshman tight end Michael Mayer in the fourth quarter that somehow resulted in an 11-yard gain. Of course, when such a moment converts a third down, it goes from reckless to instinctual and from foolish to endearing.

“They’re obviously risky, I don’t want to do it too much,” Book said, noting he last attempted such youthful passes (also completing a backhanded shovel pass to Skowronek) his sophomore year of high school, perhaps five years later than one would have guessed. “But again, I’m just trying to fight to get that first down, fight to get the ball into playmakers’ hands. I knew Mike would come down with it. It just happens. Definitely not thinking about doing it, it just happens.”

Now tied for the all-time lead in career victories as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame with 29, and second all-time in winning percentage, Book out-performed his Tar Heels counterpart in every regard. Howell finished with 211 yards on 17-of-27 passing with one touchdown while getting sacked six times.

Kelly took the opportunity to trumpet his three-year starter’s success. Without a single word impugning Howell, Kelly expressed offense at how Book is not heralded the same way Howell has been of late.

“He doesn’t get the kind of credit he deserves,” head coach Brian Kelly said to ABC immediately after the game. “He’s a college football quarterback that wins football games. We try to make too much out of it, other than he’s a winner and he won again on the road against a really good football team.”

With all due respect to Book, and respect is due, him out-playing Howell was as much a testament to the Irish defense, even though it lacked its greatest equalizer and failsafe for the entire second half after sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting.

On a third-and-long, Hamilton tackled Tar Heels receiver Josh Downs well short of the first-down marker, but as soon as he made the tackle, Hamilton knew his afternoon was over. He clearly led with his head and initiated helmet-to-helmet contact. Dispute the rule if you want — and you shouldn’t — but this was a clear targeting foul by the letter of the law.

Yet that loss did not expose Notre Dame to any Howell Magic. The star sophomore quarterback ended with more than 110 fewer yards than his average entering the weekend. In 21 career games, he had thrown 17 fourth-quarter touchdowns, only to flounder the entire second half against the Irish. After North Carolina gained 220 yards in the first half, the Irish held Howell & Co. to 78 in the second half.

“They were scoring all over film, all over a bunch of teams,” senior linebacker Drew White said. “That just motivated our group as a unit to come into the game and reinforced that we believe that we’re the best defense in the country. We came out not the way we wanted, but I thought we bounced back great.”

Part of that defensive dominance derived from Notre Dame’s offense, which ate up 4:32 on the clinching touchdown drive, Williams’ third score of the day, a punctuation mark less crucial than the time chewed before it. In that regard, an offensive line with two new starters echoed what the original unit did against Louisville, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech earlier in the season.

Book elicited Kelly’s postgame defense, while Williams scored three times to raise his season tally to 13 touchdowns. White received the game ball for his five tackles with two for loss, and senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continued his habit of seemingly being everywhere with nine tackles.

But Correll made his first start and overcame a pair of ugly snaps to put forth a solid debut. Book was sacked twice, but neither seemed to stem directly from Correll. With two distinctly inferior opponents yet on the docket, this beginning should give Correll momentum to becoming a fully-complementary piece by the time the Irish reach the ACC championship game, needing just one more win to clinch that berth.

“As a first-time starter, to get the kind of ball control that we had, especially in the second half, your center has to be doing a great job with protections,” Kelly said. “They threw a lot of stuff at us we hadn’t seen before, his recognition was really good.”

There was less concern about senior Josh Lugg stepping in at right guard, partly because he started five games at right tackle last year and partly because fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer is expected back in a few weeks after an emergency appendectomy, but Lugg performed well all the same.

“We knew both these guys were going to step in and play well for us,” Kelly said.

Family turkey bowls have showcased more responsible quarterbacking than Book’s heave to Mayer and flip to Skowronek. Presented in a vacuum, one would set the over/under on 1.5 of those getting intercepted. The amazement and curiosity to behold them succeeding creates a sense of frivolity and glee. But neither occasion is repeatable or something to build upon.

The scramble, improvise and throw to Williams for a touchdown, however, showcased many of the strengths of the Notre Dame backfield. Viewing the play from behind the line of scrimmage best illustrates how calm Book remained despite looming crisis. Williams buys Book time with a sturdy blitz pickup before leaking out. And as Book explained, he clearly knew where his safety valve should and would be, looping around toward Williams as the play broke down.

The Irish would rather not be in that situation inside the 5-yard line, but the fact that Book still found success in the face of disaster is an ability that can be replicated in the future.

Both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game before this weekend. They were the foundation of a balanced offense averaging more than 50 points across its last four games. They totaled 85 yards on Saturday on 19 carries.

As the early scoring got out of hand, Notre Dame’s defense did not fret. There was no worry Howell was gaining momentum he could roll forward with all game. Because logic dictates that simply is not a thing.

“We really, as a defensive unit, see momentum as a myth,” White said. “I’m sure people will argue that point, but after each drive we go back to the sideline, and we make corrections, however many that will be. Our focus is on to the next drive.”

Preach, young man. Preach.

First Quarter
9:56 — North Carolina touchdown. Emory Simmons 6-yard pass from Sam Howell. Grayson Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 50 yards, 2:54)
5:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. (9 plays, 75 yards, 4:37) North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 7.
2:59 — North Carolina touchdown. Howell 1-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 2:20)
1:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 4-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 14. (4 plays, 82 yards, 1:50)

Second Quarter
1:10 — North Carolina field goal. Atkins 42 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 14. (12 plays, 72 yards, 4:40)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 17. (7 plays, 61 yards, 1:10)

Third Quarter
7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Bennett Skowronek 13-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 17. (13 plays, 97 yards, 5:22)

Fourth Quarter
1:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 17. (8 plays, 89 yards, 4:32)

No. 2 Notre Dame at No. 19 North Carolina: Who, what, when, where, why and by how much?

Notre Dame Boston College
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WHO? No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) at No. 19 North Carolina (6-2, 6-2).

WHAT? The only top-10 game expected to be at-all competitive this weekend, no other boasting a spread within two touchdowns. Given 2020’s regard for expectations, that suggests the Irish will blow out the Tar Heels while both No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Ohio State lose.

In all seriousness, this Black Friday contest should serve as a test of Notre Dame’s defense, more so than even No. 3 Clemson did. The Tigers brought a dynamic offense ripe with playmakers to South Bend, to be sure, but it was (and is) relatively one-dimensional, the Clemson ground game yet to find efficiency despite enjoying a generational talent. North Carolina cannot be reduced to such a singular concern. The Tar Heels boast one of the country’s best quarterbacks taking snaps alongside two running backs with more than 800 yards apiece.

So in terms of “What?”, a test of Notre Dame title viability.

WHEN? 3:30 ET on ABC, just as every Irish road game has been thus far and yes, that much of this sentence was copied-and-pasted from the preview of Notre Dame’s game at Boston College. To continue to acquiesce to Thanksgiving feast-induced fatigue and lean into past points yet true … The next one (at Wake Forest) has not yet been scheduled, but should the Irish make the ACC title game on Dec. 19, it will hardly deviate from this precedent, officially scheduled for 4 ET on ABC. Selfishly-speaking, this run of mid-afternoon kickoffs while on the road is a delight, particularly after a gifted bottle of a Russian Imperial Stout complemented Thursday’s late dinner.

WHERE? Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.

Not to diminish home-field advantage in 2020 — though doing so would be warranted — let’s look ahead for a moment. The next time Notre Dame faces North Carolina could be (should be) a chance for the Irish to set the all-time record for consecutive wins at Notre Dame Stadium. The current record is 28, set between 1942 and 1950.

All college football records come with a “modern” acknowledgement, a period beginning after World War II, partly due to changes in the game, partly due to the anomalies presented by teams like the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. The active stretch of 23 straight home wins serves as the modern Irish record, but beating Syracuse on Dec. 5 and then Toledo, Purdue, Cincinnati and USC would set up Notre Dame to reach 29 against Sam Howell in 2021.

Given Howell’s prolific trends, that could very well also be Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s third chance to notch a top-10 win at Notre Dame Stadium. Note: Not a third win, but a third chance, as well as a third win. A byproduct of coincidence and USC’s continued dead-ends, Kelly has faced only two top-10 opponents in South Bend in 11 years. One was three weeks ago. The other …

WHY? The short-sighted will ask why the Irish must play on a Friday, but given both Notre Dame and North Carolina are coming off scheduled idle weeks, there is no reason not to relish the day’s spotlight. Very few will tune into Central Florida at South Florida instead.

Just like you methodically added a spoon of cheesy mashed potatoes next to your serving of creamy spinach without crowding your sampling of stuffing, already encroaching on the turkey itself which may have knocked the cranberry bread off your plate, this edge has methodically ticked up to favoring the Irish by six with a combined points total over/under of 69. The early part of the week saw that spread fall as low as 3, and more broadly 3.5, before a slight move accompanied each sunrise.

A 37-31 result would certainly fit the gluttony of today’s two servings of leftovers, but it would bode poorly for both Notre Dame’s defensive hopes against likely Playoff opponents — the only offenses better than the Tar Heels’, per SP+, are Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma — but also its offensive line.

Make no mistake, Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book has elevated his play of late, but Notre Dame will still go only as far as its running game can carry it. That is not to say Book will not win a game or two yet in his collegiate career’s twilight, possibly even today; he certainly did so against Clemson. But the rushing attack sets the Irish offense’s floor, and it now must adjust to a new starter at its fulcrum point.

If sophomore center Zeke Correll is up for the task, then Notre Dame should control the ball and limit Howell’s chances at explosive plays. When Howell has those chances, he will convert a few, no matter how good Clark Lea’s defense is and how dynamic his safety pairing is. If the Irish cannot run for four or five yards seemingly at will, then Book will have to adjust pace and that will only mean Howell gets more opportunities.

Not to glamorize the young gunslinger, but he is simply that effectively dangerous. “Effectively” may sound disparaging, alongside “game manager” in the litany of misappropriated football phrases, but Howell is a sophomore quarterback who thrives by pushing the envelope yet has not thrown a fourth-quarter interception in 21 career starts. “Effectively dangerous” fits.

Notre Dame will want to limit him until it is too late for Howell Magic.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 23.
(7-1 straight up, 4-4 against the spread, 3-5 over/under)

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