Associated Press

Friday at 4: If/when Notre Dame loses, shed the disappointment

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For all those encouraged and emboldened by the 49-14 Irish rout of USC a week ago, remember disappointment is still the most likely conclusion to Notre Dame’s 2017.

That is not a shot at this version of the Irish. It is an understanding of how hard it will be to win against North Carolina State, at Miami and at Stanford, not to mention versus Wake Forest and Navy. A loss is probable. Perhaps it will come this weekend, perhaps it will wait until the end of November.

If and when that second defeat dashes Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes, remember where this season started. As long as the next five weeks do not devolve to five straight losses and a holiday week spent in Nashville, Tenn., before the Music City Bowl, this season is set to be considered a success.

A genuine worst-case scenario of 8-4 would elicit some earned lamenting, but even that feels unlikely at this point. (Did you see Stanford on Thursday night? This space has been low on the Cardinal since August, but last night’s 15-14 struggle over Oregon State should prove to all that the Irish are not likely to struggle in the season finale.) Back in August, if offered a 9-3 or 10-2 season with two or three notable wins — including a blowout over USC — and no bad losses, most Notre Dame fans would have gladly, readily and blindly accepted that step in the right direction.

If the No. 14 Wolfpack knock off the No. 9 Irish on Saturday, keep that starting point in mind.

An 11-1 regular season finish and a spot in the College Football Playoff are possible; they just aren’t probable. If and when those latter odds pay out, look past the natural disappointment and focus on the leaps and bounds forward Notre Dame has taken in a short time span.

Even as recently as late April, no reasonable observer would have expected the Irish offense to score 41.3 points per game. In the spring-concluding Blue-Gold Game, the first-team offense managed only two touchdowns and 361 total yards. All but 58 of those yards came through the air, yet junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s aerial attack seemed disjointed at best.

Two weeks before that exhibition, Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley predicted, “Barring season-ending/altering injury to starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame will break the program record of 37.6 points per game set in 1968.” O’Malley is a reasonable person with generally good analysis, but after the Blue-Gold Game, his prognostication looked rather foolish.

How far have the Irish come? They can dial back their scoring by nearly a touchdown per game in the remaining five and still break that record. Well done, Tim. And impressive growth, Wimbush & Co., led by offensive coordinator Chip Long.

Following that spring barometer, concern about Notre Dame’s offensive line would not have been misplaced. Going up against a supposedly-thin defensive line, Wimbush and sophomore Ian Book were “sacked” 11 times.

Now it is realized that was a testament to the defensive line’s strength, not the offensive line’s weakness as presumed.

In the “Jeopardy” category of Phrases no one expected to write about the Irish in 2017, the $800-clue would get the answer of “the defensive line’s strength, Alex.” The $1,000-clue and Daily Double would obviously be answered by, “Ireland lasted longer in World Cup qualifying than the United States Men’s National Team.”

Pertaining to American football, these are all steps forward, and they should all last beyond this season. Much like winter in South Bend (apparently Saturday may feature snow!), a loss is (probably) coming. That will not diminish the growth of 2017.

The immediate Notre Dame concern remains winning the point of attack on the line of scrimmage against North Carolina State’s veteran defensive front seven. The long-term view realizes the magnitude of progress already seen.