Notre Dame can either finish the season strong, reach 10-plus wins for the fourth time in five years and maintain its status in college football’s competitive second tier behind the perennial Playoff teams … or … the No. 16 Irish can fold, mail in the rest of the season, still likely win at least three of their final five and hope for a favorable bowl matchup.
When it comes to undeniable, borderline-tangible motivations in this sport, there is only one, and Notre Dame no longer has the carrot of a Playoff berth to chase. All that is left is the more figurative, the pride, the want-to, the internal spark. Well, that and extending a home-winning streak to 18 games, but how many kids lie awake at night fantasizing about pushing a Notre Dame Stadium streak to one short of the school record?
This is not over-simplifying what comes next for the Irish. This is a question any team faces if its Playoff aspirations die in October. Those dreams lasted long enough to become worth having, but they ended early enough to leave nearly half the season on the table. It is akin to a pitcher bringing a perfect game into the seventh inning. Perfection is within sight, but once that hope is dashed, the pitcher can either re-focus and finish a complete game or he can unravel. Some teams crater, some teams rally.
Coming off the 45-14 embarrassment at Michigan, Notre Dame lacking competitive motivation again may seem more likely from the outside, but that is where the locker room’s pride may prove to be the difference.
“What you’re really talking about is, is that who you are?” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “You don’t want a game like that to define who you are. This is a team that has a lot of pride, it’s won a lot of football games. …
“How do you really want to be defined? By the play that you had that people saw on national television? There’s a lot that these young men want to put forth this weekend.”
What they want to put forward is about the weeks to come, not about proving Saturday an aberration. Focusing on the past will yield only sub-par results in the future.
“I don’t think you can use it as motivation because if you do that, you think about everything you did wrong,” junior right tackle and captain Robert Hainsey said. “Then you play not to lose and you can’t play this game not to lose. This is a competitive game where you have to go out with the mindset that I’m going to win. I’m going to dominate the man across from me every play, every game. If you think about what happened last week, it’s not going to help you in that regard.”
To be clear, Notre Dame had plenty of time to think about what happened in Ann Arbor immediately afterward. It is a three-hour bus ride from Michigan Stadium to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, and it undoubtedly felt longer than that in the dark of Sunday’s earliest hours.
“A very, very long drive home,” Irish junior tight end Cole Kmet described it.
Pride may not have bubbled up to the surface yet by the buses’ return to South Bend, but if it has before kickoff against Virginia Tech (2:30 ET; NBC), it will most show itself along the trenches. That was where Notre Dame lost a week ago.
There were momentary opportunities to make optics better — a particular deflected punt, a third-down conversion negated by a penalty, a missed interception that would have been tough but was within reach — but the Irish would not have beaten the Wolverines even if every one of those chances had gone the visitors’ way. Not as long as Michigan owned the line of scrimmage.
The rushing stats emphasized that (Michigan 323 yards, Notre Dame 53), but anyone watching Saturday night saw it beyond those numbers. The Wolverines relished the cold contact. The Irish endured the wet misery.
“More than anything else, it’s controlling the line of scrimmage,” Kelly said. “We weren’t able to control the line of scrimmage with a physicality that we have to get back. We’ve had it. We did not have it in this game and for us to improve our lot, as it relates to winning football games, we have to be able to bring a physicality to our play and we’ll be working on that this week.”
Notre Dame used such a physicality to break both Virginia and USC with punishing second-half ground games, but it does not need to solely show itself in a rushing attack. The Irish were plenty physical at Georgia, and they attempted only 14 carries in Athens, knowing that defense would win against Notre Dame’s run game.
Between the hedges, the Irish made six tackles for loss and held the Bulldogs’ vaunted rushing attack in check. Notre Dame’s offensive line kept senior quarterback Ian Book clean despite 47 dropbacks, not allowing an aggressive defensive front to make his life miserable like the Wolverines would.
The Irish were physical at Georgia, the best opponent on the schedule. Kelly was not exaggerating when he said they have had that trait, but there is also no way to overstate how absent it was in Ann Arbor.
“We’re going to have to get back to really who we are and our standards,” Kelly said Monday. “We do that, and we should be playing the kind of football that we played over the last three years.”
Returning to that standard may be slightly more difficult without senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, who will miss the foreseeable future with an MCL strain, but fifth-year Trevor Ruhland is hardly new to what is necessary. He is, after all, one of only four offensive holdovers to have played during the 2016 debacle.
Returning to that standard may actually be a bit easier, given the taste left in Notre Dame’s mouth from Michigan. While Hainsey is right in that thinking about last week will not help this week, there can still be some room for that embarrassment, frustration and anger to come out on the football field.
“Everybody is a little testy, a little ornery,” Kelly said Thursday.
Channel that aggravation one direction and the Irish season can still end up a success. Channel it the other and the progress Notre Dame has built over the last three seasons, a 27-6 stretch, becomes entirely forgotten.