Associated Press

Leftovers & Links: When Notre Dame’s ‘Everest’ is greater than the sum of its parts

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Let’s presume Mount Everest was offered simply as a phrase. It is far catchier than Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) and certainly more so than Mount Mitchell (in North Carolina, the highest point east of the Mississippi). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not mean to literally compare the Irish schedule to scaling Mount Everest. That might be ever-so-slightly hyperbolic.

“I told our team, I’m proud of what you accomplished tonight,” Kelly said after now-No. 6 Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory against then-No. 7 Stanford. “But if we don’t embrace how hard this is going to be, we’re climbing Mount Everest with this schedule. So take one step at a time and get ready for a tough opponent in Virginia Tech.”

Granting the premise that Everest was not meant genuinely, Kelly’s broad point holds merit. The whole of the remaining Irish opponents is far greater than the sum of its parts. None of the seven are directional schools (at least, by the practical definition, considering … Northwestern) or lacking in talent. For all its restrictions, Navy inarguably finds a way to field a competitive team each year under head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The “any given Saturday” way of thinking applies to all seven in ways it did not inherently to Ball State.

Before getting to points in the clouds, Kelly pinpointed a few of those specific opponents, working chronologically.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “We’re going to go to Blacksburg, Va., and play in a tough environment. And then we have to play Pittsburgh, who is tough to play. Oh, then we’ve got to play Navy, by the way. Northwestern, who just beat Duke.”

Talking up each Notre Dame opponent is an inane exercise when done accurately, and this comes from a space that every Tuesday publishes a piece titled … Notre Dame’s Opponents. Kelly should stay away from trying to hype each of the remaining seven. The material will be in short supply, and he may make a bigger mistake than thinking Pat Fitzgerald coached the Wildcats past Duke. (The Blue Devils won 21-7 on Sept. 8.) Imagine:

“Pittsburgh gave up 38 points to Larry Fedora’s last North Carolina team …”
“Northwestern, if they lose to No. 20 Michigan State this week will be in the midst of a four-game losing streak, sure, but the Wildcats can then snap it against Nebraska!”
“Florida State, they just scored 28 points against Louisville. That is tough to do against a … Brian VanGorder-led defense.”

At least USC beat Arizona.

This is not the Irish schedule anticipated before the season when the quintet of Stanford, Michigan, USC, Florida State and Virginia Tech were all ranked between Nos. 13 and 20 in the AP polling. This is a schedule that many would have considered pitifully easy before the year, front-loaded with two top-15 opponents, not back-loaded with travel.

Yet, it is still back-loaded with travel, and the catalyst of those complaints now looks like a tough opponent no matter where the game would be played. Syracuse very well may be 9-1 when playing Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17. The Orange would need to survive a two-week stretch featuring a home game against N.C. State and a trip to Wake Forest, two high-powered offenses, but neither should be able to outscore Syracuse.

That is to the point: Any schedule looking at the Orange as its remaining peak does not deserve looking at the individual parts. The two months ahead in aggregate, though, warrant climbing analogies, even ones using the most obvious of references.

ON ALEX BARS’ INJURY and 2017’s relative health
Not enough can be said about losing a fifth-year left guard and captain with experience at three offensive line positions. Bars was a preseason All-American in some listings and his play through five games was going to put him in the thick of that postseason conversation, too. He actively sought out his captainship, making it his driving motivation throughout the spring.

Such a loss somewhat underscores the good Irish fortune last season. Of Notre Dame’s 22 starters in any given week, only cornerback Nick Watkins suffered an injury that kept him out of more than one starting lineup, with Troy Pride taking that role four times. As much as that tied to Watkins’ tendinitis, it also spoke to Pride’s progress. Any other shifts in starter were scheme- or personnel-driven.

That kind of season is rare in football, exceptionally so. Losing someone in the preseason is a bit of a norm. Following that with a defensive tackle here, an inside linebacker there and an offensive lineman now is hardly out of the ordinary, as frustrating as it may be when it happens to someone of Bars’ standing in his final year of eligibility.

One more note: Some have speculated it was a dirty play that injured Bars. Check the replay. It was not. At all. Stanford linebacker Joey Alfieri was diving to make a tackle and he caught Bars’ leg at an odd angle. It was that simple.

Bars was engaged with Cardinal defensive tackle Michael Williams, and Williams had no way of knowing what had knocked Bars off balance, so while the visual of Williams bending Bars backward may be irksome, it was both unintentional and after the damage was already done.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin set career highs with 11 catches and 144 yards against Stanford, including this 8-yard touchdown reception. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

ON MILES BOYKIN’S PRE-SNAP READS
File this away as a credit to receivers coach Del Alexander, as a sign of a senior receiver coming into his own and as something to perhaps watch for in the next seven games.

Boykin caught four passes for 64 yards on a pivotal touchdown drive Saturday. Junior quarterback Ian Book seemed to be coming back to Boykin over and over and over again. By the end of the day, the duo had connected 11 times for 144 yards and a score.

Apparently, Boykin was not surprised by any of those passes, or even the three other targets he did not pull in.

“I can tell when it is coming to me, when it is not coming to me just by looking off the coverage,” Boykin said. “I know before the ball is even snapped when the ball is coming to me. So most of the time I’m thinking, I know I’m going to get the ball.”

ON JULIAN LOVE’S PASS BREAKUP RECORD
The junior cornerback broke the Notre Dame career record for passes broken up, now with 33 in only 30 games. (Clarence Ellis, 1969-71, 32 breakups.) Love getting to the record so quickly is largely a result of the era of college football, but it seems safe to presume he would have snapped Ellis’ record at some point or another no matter what type of offenses the Irish faced, considering Love may have another 21 games to now build a cushion.

If looking nationally, Love is tied for second with 10 breakups this season, trailing only Stanford’s Paulson Adebo and his 12. Love is also tied for second among the active career leaders in passes defended (breakups + interceptions) with 37, two behind Iowa State’s Brian Peavy.

Given Love’s talent and aggressive coverage preferences, it seems pertinent to note the Notre Dame career mark for interceptions returned for touchdowns is three, held by a number of players including the likes of Shane Walton (1999-2002) and Allen Rossum (1994-97). Love notched two last year.

ON BRYCE LOVE’S ONE LONG RUSH
The Stanford senior running back broke loose just once, scoring the first Cardinal touchdown from 39 yards out. Aside from that, Love took carries for more than four yards just three times on 17 total attempts, never again reaching even 10 yards. For one of the country’s preeminent big-play threats, Love was kept in check by Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s scheme.

Then what happened on the one touchdown run?

“That was an error up front,” Kelly said. “We had a structural error there. It was the only one we had all night. It was kind of disappointing.”

Looking at the clip, it appears sophomore defensive tackle Kurt Hinish left his gap, opening a lane for Love.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
A (flawed and underestimating) look at Notre Dame’s running backs and distribution without Jafar Armstrong
Notre Dame rushes through top-10 matchup with 38-17 victory over No. 7 Stanford
Things We Learned: Book, Williams make Notre Dame’s offense a real threat and its dreams closer to reality
Torn ACL, MCL knock Notre Dame LG and captain Alex Bars out for season

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame’s path to the College Football Playoff is clear. And easy.
September ends with Irish in contention
Notre Dame is officially your Chaos Candidate.
Notre Dame playoff hype is real.