The trick to eating out on Thanksgiving is to commit to not having turkey. It is a questionable meat choice in the home dining room; paying gouged prices for turkey at a restaurant yields a mixture of disappointment and frustration. Instead, find Chinese food, get spaghetti, enjoy chicken wings.
To force the parallel, expecting delicious turkey at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco is equivalent to entering a Notre Dame season looking for an undefeated year. Is it possible? Sure. Is it likely? Very much no.
Should an Irish fan be thankful for a likely 10-win season ending in a New Year’s Bowl? Maybe it isn’t mom’s home cooking, but a plate of spaghetti at Gregg Popovich’s favorite Bay Area restaurant certainly demands appreciation.
So let’s start there with our annual 40 givings of thanks with a Notre Dame tilt. Irish fans should be thankful for …
1) A strong November, a possible 5-0 finish creating a memory of this season that will not outlast the Michigan disaster, but will at least accompany it.
2) Chicken wings at Clarke’s Standard and barbeque ribs at Pulaski Heights in Athens, Ga. That weekend as a whole was a delight.
3) Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. With Vanderbilt committing to Derek Mason for another year, there is little reason to think Lea will be anywhere but South Bend in 2020.
4) Specifically, Lea’s impact on the Irish linebackers. After the season opener at Louisville, Irish head coach Brian Kelly has admitted he was not sure if fifth-year Asmar Bilal would continue in Notre Dame’s starting lineup. Bilal played that poorly against the Cardinals. Instead, Bilal is second on the team with 69 tackles, including nine for loss. Only junior linebacker Drew White has more tackles, with 72.
“We knew there was a guy (in Bilal) that was willing to get in there and be physical,” Kelly said Monday. “We saw that in his special teams play. … Based upon his physical traits, I know that Clark felt like he could get him to do the things at the linebacker position that we needed.”
5) Lea’s defense giving up 18.2 points per game this season, comfortably in the range predicted in the preseason of between 12.77 and 21.5. The context of that range was this defense would be worse than 2012’s, but better than 2018’s. As long as Stanford does not score 58 points, that prediction will end up correct.
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6) Defensive line depth, a big part of that defensive success. Senior end Julian Okwara’s broken leg cut short any hopes of leading the Irish in sacks (prediction No. 29), but classmate Khalid Kareem has not slowed down, with 5.5 sacks thus far (predicted 7.5). The ability to replace Okwara and senior end Daelin Hayes with Jamir Jones and Ade Ogundeji is unprecedented in Notre Dame history.
7) Ogundeji’s touchdown against Virginia, off a fumble forced by Okwara. Kelly said afterward his previous teams would have lost that game. They didn’t have such defensive end forces.
8) That depth going beyond the ends to the defensive tackles. Jayson Ademilola is now battling a balky ankle, but his four tackles for loss outpace starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s 2.5 (prediction No. 31).
9) Tagovailoa-Amosa’s near score against the Cavaliers. Even coming up seven yards short, he was a joy to talk with afterward, thrilled to have his moment to shine.
10) That depth keeping players like sophomore end Justin Ademilola and freshman end Isaiah Foskey in the shadows. All this is to say, the Irish defensive line should be a strength again next year.
11) The 12 opposing beat writers who answered questions for the weekly “And In That Corner …” They have no reason to do so outside of enjoying their jobs and professional courtesy. It is nothing but added work (for no compensation), yet they answer them with a quick turnaround, making this space’s content worthwhile for at least one day a week. Note: Though two writers answered questions previewing the Michigan game, the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Mike Barber responded twice, for both Virginia and Virginia Tech, keeping the total to 12 participants.
12) Speaking of Virginia Tech, enabling friends with southeastern-based cable packages handing over their phones, and nearly two gigabytes of data, at wedding receptions. They deserve more credit than they are usually given. Such a college buddy was the only reason yours truly could watch the Hokies win in six overtimes against North Carolina, showcasing this year’s new overtime rules, in Virginia Tech’s final Notre Dame tuneup.
13) When the Hokies came to South Bend, things almost went awry. Almost. Since they didn’t, be thankful for that 98-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown just before halftime. Not only did it end the nearly four-year stretch without an Irish running back losing a fumble (maybe the easiest preseason prediction), but it also reminded how fluky this game can be. That would be a bitter thought if not for Notre Dame’s win, but the last-minute heroics create some gratitude.
14) And speaking of that game-winning drive to kickstart this November run, it played a pivotal role in finishing unbeaten at home for a second straight year (prediction No. 16), another harbinger for 2020 success.
15) That drive would not have been possible without two clutch catches from senior receiver Chase Claypool, one a spectacular toe-tapper along the sideline and one a 26-yard conversion on fourth down. Claypool has 828 yards and 10 touchdowns on 56 receptions. Don’t take Claypool for granted. It has not been widely-reported, because Kelly casually revealed it only this week, but Claypool has dislocated three fingers this season. Yet …
16) Cole Kmet, don’t take him for granted, either. Initial preseason thoughts expected Kmet to have about 40 catches for 500 yards and five scores. When he broke his collarbone, the thought of missing two games forced this scribe to back off those numbers. Through nine games, though, Kmet has 36 receptions for 406 yards and six scores. Keeping that pace for two more games would give Kmet 44 catches for 496 yards and seven touchdowns. Presuming he follows through on coming back in 2020, the preseason expectations may lack a ceiling.
17) Claypool and Kmet leading an offense averaging 36.4 points per game, a Kelly Era high and not too far off the Irish record of 38 points per game. It would be a reach to think they could score 94 points in the next two games, which is what it would take to break that record as predicted (No. 37).
18) With Kmet back next season, Notre Dame’s offense will range from proven in Kmet and the offensive line to proving yet with untapped potential in quarterback Ian Book to proving in current sophomores Tommy Tremble and Braden Lenzy to reams of potential in receiver Kevin Austin, five-star running back Chris Tyree and five-star receiver Jordan Johnson. More time can be spent later figuring out when there was more top-end talent on that side of the ball, but quick thoughts suggest that will be the best group in Kelly’s decade.
20) Lovie Smith’s Illinois revival … means Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long will not have to turn down that job, increasing the chances he returns to helm that grouping.
21) All that leaves out a litany of other, less-heralded names, but as Avery Davis proved against Virginia Tech, when he converted a third-down on that winning drive, they are needed, too.
22) Senior running back Tony Jones … He has been middling since a rib injury at Michigan, but Notre Dame fans should imagine the Irish backfield without him this season.
23) All-you-can-eat Korean BBQ in midtown Manhattan. Need more be said?
24) Five Hour Energies. Someday science will clearly demonstrate the adverse effects of drinking them, but until then, thank goodness they work as advertised.
25) They are even small enough to join your toiletries in carry-on luggage.
26) That is not true of most filled flasks, which is why checked baggage exists.
27) How else do you fill your suit’s breast pockets at a wedding?
28) Oh, right, cigars. Specifically, Macanudos and Montecristos.
29) Back to football and 2020 potential … Safety Kyle Hamilton has four interceptions and five pass breakups as a freshman playing only complementary minutes.
31) Junior kicker Jonathan Doerer keeping the Irish afloat against USC, Virginia Tech and Boston College. Notre Dame may have won those without him, but probably not all three.
32) It’s odd to get this far into things without mentioning the Trojans. Let’s thank them for apparently keeping Clay Helton for another year, if for no other reason than it provides more easy content for next season.
33) Doerer was not crucial at Duke, but everyone is fortunate that blowout made the holes in ACC Network availability easily forgotten for another year.
34) He also wasn’t needed against Navy, the top-25 matchup that can be remembered as the day the Irish sellout streak ended.
35) Grooms who give their wedding party those blindfolds you see on airplanes knowing everyone would need one come Labor Day morning’s flight.
36) Jackets with zippers that don’t jam. You take them for granted until it’s too late and suddenly you’re all bundled up eating tacos indoors.
37) A chance at the Citrus Bowl and either Florida or Auburn. That would make for a worthwhile New Year’s Day.
38) Friends who understand one disappearing 14 weeks a year, and friends who capitalize on a Wednesday opportunity with two rounds after closing the tab.
39) Readers who fill those 14 weeks with interaction, be it constructive or mind-numbing. Readers who match their exuberance with only their demand for excellence.
40) The drink overlooking the Pacific Ocean that is about to be served.