Things We Learned: Notre Dame kept outbreak’s effects to a pause, not a setback

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When Notre Dame returned to practice after its outbreak-induced interruption, Irish head coach Brian Kelly pointed to the primetime kickoff against Florida State as the only moment he could know if Notre Dame simply paused its season or if tallying nearly 30 positive cases in a week served as a lasting on-field setback.

“How we play against Florida State will be the narrative that everybody writes, in terms of this being a pause in dealing with COVID and the realities of it, or it was a major setback,” Kelly said Oct. 1.

Consider it a pause, one in which the Irish may have incurred a bit of rust and certainly some worries about the long-term effects of COVID-19, but nothing more troublesome in the short-term, the time between now and the Nov. 7 matchup with No. 1 Clemson and then the ACC championship game Dec. 19. Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) is still on track for that once-in-a-generation game and that once-in-a-program opportunity, despite a three-week layoff.

Though it would have been preferable to never test the system, the coronavirus response worked. As soon as the finishing touches were put on the 42-26 Irish victory on Saturday night, Kelly credited team trainer Rob Hunt and team doctor Matt Leiszler for spearheading the efforts to get Notre Dame back onto the field, awarding the game ball to a non-player for the first time since strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis received it after the 2018 regular-season finale.

“We couldn’t be here today without their extraordinary efforts to get our football team safe and healthy,” Kelly said. “Just overwhelmed with a sense of pride that we have such a great support group that was able to get this group together.”

Again, everyone would have preferred Hunt and Leiszler not have to step forward, but they did, and shuffling the Wake Forest game to mid-December served its purpose. The Irish are back in the most literal way.

Similarly, credit should go to Notre Dame’s coaching staff for crafting a plan to be ready for Florida State despite the disjointed nature of practice when missing dozens of players. Even at the start of this past week, when typical preparations would have commenced, the Irish were without 11 players. Sixth-year Shaun Crawford moved to cornerback from safety this week because three of the usual top-four cornerbacks were medically unavailable until Thursday or Friday and thus were practically unavailable Saturday.

“Shaun had played the position, so he was … selfless in the sense that he moved over to the cornerback position and bailed us out in a very, very difficult time playing a position that he hadn’t been repping at all because he had played all those safety reps,” Kelly said after Crawford finished with three tackles, two pass breakups and an interception at the goal line.

That elevated junior safety Houston Griffith to a starting role for the second time in as many games due to another’s absence. That stressed Crawford’s routine a bit. That all played into scrambling to be ready while without multiple defensive starters — senior tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa being one of the two coronavirus-related Saturday absences, along with junior Buck linebacker Jack Kiser.

Yet, for the second game in a row, Notre Dame did not feel adverse Saturday effects from an outbreak that would compromise other defenses.

“It’s hard to duplicate the speed of the game,” Kelly admitted. “I thought our conditioning element was not where it needs to be. We were playing a tempo team. The legs get a little bit tired. We had a long week of practice.

“We had to push them hard this week. It wasn’t ideal in terms of optimal game readiness, if you will. We were a little tired, but we had to do it to get them game ready. You could see there was a little bit of fatigue defensively. We were falling off some tackles.”

Falling off some tackles in the first game back from a three-week layoff is understandable. Not falling off mentally during that three-week layoff is commendable, and for that, as much credit should go to the players as was given to the training staff for managing the outbreak and to the coaching staff for game preparations.

Spaces like this all-too-often remind readers these are 18-to 22-year-olds playing a game while surrounded by frivolity and temptation. College students make mistakes, mistakes which reasonable minds largely recognize as natural and typical.

College students are not typically asked to have the mental discipline to stay focused while a third of their team is isolated or quarantined. They are not asked to have the mental fortitude to plan on moving forward even if every instinct shouts the season’s end has already arrived. They are not asked to use mental strength to pull teammates along with them in only a figurative sense, as a literal manner would run contrary to pandemic protocols.

The Irish were asked those unfair and undue realities, and by all accounts, they met each one of them.

“That’s just how 2020 is going. You never know, every day is different,” fifth-year quarterback and captain Ian Book said. “You never know who is going to be able to make it with COVID. This team has done an unbelievable job of focusing and just going one day at a time. We don’t know what’s going to happen, just have to take advantage of every day.

“The next man in mentality, that couldn’t be more of a thing this year. You never know when your opportunity is going to be. This team has done an unbelievable job. Everybody is preparing that it is going to be their time on Saturday.”

In just two paragraphs, Book included five or six clichés, at least, but if clichés were what he and Notre Dame leaned on to persist through the outbreak, so be it. It worked. The Irish ground game didn’t miss a beat in its return, while Book showed enough in the passing game to grant belief it can come through when needed. The shorthanded secondary held together.

As Brian Kelly ran through various excuses in the post-game interviews, he twice insisted he was not trying to make excuses, but excusing the excuses was unnecessary; 42-26 victories do not require explanation.

The training staff provided a system the coaches could implement and the players could follow, all to get Notre Dame back onto the field, and all three facets were successful in turning the three-week layoff into a pause, not a setback needing excusing.