Coming off a 52-0 thrashing of South Florida and in good position to stake a claim as an ACC contender, No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0, 1-0 ACC) is teetering on the brink, and Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows it.
As soon as Notre Dame reached the locker room after dispatching the Bulls despite missing seven players due to positive tests and contract tracing, Kelly reminded his team what is at stake. In 2020, their every decision impacts the season; a mild Saturday night celebration can turn the entire championship endeavor awry.
“We can’t afford to lose guys each and every week,” Kelly said in the postgame locker room in the above video. “We’re not going to be able to be the championship football team that we want to be, so I can’t be the guy, coach can’t be the guy reminding you every single time to put your mask on.
“The mask will beat this. The mask will beat it.”
Preach, coach Kelly.
If seven players against South Florida becomes a dozen at Wake Forest (12 ET; ABC) and that becomes 20 over the ensuing off week, the Irish depth that just received due praise will be tested to the point of breaking.
“If we don’t use the mask, we will get beat. … When we leave here this weekend with our family members, wherever you are, we cannot let our guard down,” Kelly said. “Please, gentlemen, please, we are now in all ACC games. We’re not going to get a game like this where if we lose starters we’re going to get through it. We’re playing Wake Forest on the road, more dynamics come into the picture now when you’re going on the road.”
— Brian Polian (@BrianPolian) September 21, 2020
Discipline is always vital to a championship contender, but in 2020, it is as much a necessity as a reliable quarterback and a deep defensive line. Notre Dame thinks it has that quarterback and it certainly boasts the defensive line. That leaves the discipline to monitor.
“We can win a national championship if we just show the discipline to wear a mask,” Kelly said. “I know nobody enjoys wearing a mask, but we have a special group of guys here, so why not take this to where we want it to go.”
That mentality, be it optimistic or ambitious, is becoming both known and clear. Kelly’s “No more Mr. Nice Guy” halftime thoughts underscore his assessment of this team, it’s good. Routing the Bulls reaffirmed that.
“I feel like this is the best team that coach Kelly has had during his time here,” South Florida head coach Jeff Scott said after his first loss in that role. “I think he feels the same way. … It’s definitely a Playoff-caliber team.”
Scott would know how to gauge a Playoff-caliber team, coming off 12 years at Clemson, the last five as offensive coordinator.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) September 20, 2020
Also in those postgame festivities, Kelly handed the game ball to sophomore Buck linebacker and spot starter Jack Kiser, thanks to Kiser’s team-leading eight tackles with two for loss. Earlier in the week, Kiser had been working on the Irish scout team.
Talking with the media via Zoom a few minutes later, Kelly noted the boisterous locker room reaction to Kiser receiving the game ball. When asked about it, Kiser struggled to find any words.
“It’s just confirmation that all that hard work that you put working in the shadows, the guys in the locker room see that,” the central Indiana native finally said.
Walking away from a Notre Dame game with the game ball was never something Kiser could consider as he played quarterback at the lowest level of Indiana high school football. It was not something to genuinely ponder in a hometown of only 810 people with no stoplights. It was hardly feasible, in the short-term, before the midweek possibility he might have to jump from the scout team to the first-team.
“To put the helmet on, walk down the staircase and then get on that field, it’s surreal,” Kiser said. “To actually take live snaps and contribute to the defense, contribute to a win, that’s amazing.”
20 WINS AND COUNTING
The Irish set a modern record with their 20th consecutive home win, outdoing the 19 straight from 1987 to 1990. “Modern” records are generally considered achievements post-World War II, partly since so many unique occurrences transpired within college football during the War — some rosters depleted, others enhanced.
To reach the Notre Dame record of 38 straight home wins, set from 1919 to 1927, the Irish would need to win out this season (presuming four more home games, fingers crossed), all of 2021 and, though its schedule is not set, all of 2022. That would likely tie the 38, again depending on this season’s fulfillment and finalizing the 2022 slate.
Included in those 18 games? Two visits from Clemson.
If anybody is keeping track, this weekend’s attendance, down 12 from the opener.
The smallest of things, but props to Ian Book for calling a vultured touchdown what it is. “Those one-yard rushes don’t count. You have to give those touchdowns to the running backs who brought us all the way down there and to the o-line."
Fantasy owners everywhere relate.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 20, 2020
RECEIVERS COMING AND GOING
It had no bearing on the past weekend, so when Kelly gave a brief update on junior receiver Kevin Austin’s broken foot last week, it was immediately filed away to be included here today. A six-week scan gave only encouraging news, and Austin is no longer in a walking boot.
“We’ll get one more scan done in two weeks and at that time, could be cleared to begin practicing,” Kelly said Thursday.
That timeline could have Austin on the practice field during Florida State prep. That would not be too soon as far as Notre Dame is concerned, struggling to find consistent receiver contributions through two weeks. As graduate transfer Bennett Skowronek works his way back from a balky hamstring, the Irish need help from a big-bodied target.
One name can likely be crossed off among breakout possibilities, freshman Jordan Johnson.
Johnson was already up against it as a freshman in a complex offense, as laid out by junior Joe Wilkins last week.
“Definitely a difficult offense, we have a lot of plays, a lot of different formations, the same play out of different formations, it’s a lot to it,” Wilkins said Tuesday after his week one breakout. “Coming at it as a freshman, you’re thrown this huge playbook and you have to know it. It’s rough. It’s definitely rough learning the plays.”
Maybe a playbook understanding was what Kelly meant when he vaguely referenced Johnson’s “traits.” Perhaps it was something else, but either way, that t-word never bodes well for a player’s playing-time status when coming from Kelly.
And all that came before Johnson earned a cheap personal foul late Saturday for a cheap slap (punch?) to a South Florida defender’s helmet after a successful block to the ground. Kelly made his displeasure with the immaturity clear from the sidelines.
The broader market opens #Notre Dame as an 18.5-point favorite at Wake Forest next week, though there are early indications that number could tick upward.
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) September 20, 2020
INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— Down seven players, Notre Dame bull rushes South Florida
— Things We Learned, pt. 1: Notre Dame’s depth provides relief amid quarantine concerns
— Things We Learned, pt. 2: Notre Dame’s multiple-look ground game sets offensive tone
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) September 20, 2020