Friday at 4: 40 Thanksgivings as Notre Dame’s ascending season comes to a close

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SAN FRANCISCO — This space has no Black Friday discount to offer. Free cannot get cheaper. Inside the Irish can, however, offer its usual listing of 40 things Notre Dame fans should be grateful for this year, with a number of personal pieces of appreciation from your resident rambler.

And, undoubtedly, as the No. 6 Irish (10-1) are one win at Stanford (8 ET; FOX) away from cementing a reasonable Playoff hope, there is plenty for their fans to be thankful for …

1) Those Playoff hopes almost died before they could begin when Notre Dame squandered an 18-point lead in the fourth quarter at Florida State in the season opener. Fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer, however, hit a walk-off game-winner in overtime, the first game-winning kick in overtime or the final minute of regulation for the Irish since the 2016 season against Miami, then a Justin Yoon boot.

Doerer was only on the field at all due to the pandemic eligibility waiver, and even with that option, his return in 2021 was never a sure thing.

Before Notre Dame’s idle week, Doerer doubled down on his impact, making a game-winner at Virginia Tech with only 17 seconds left.

RELATED READING: Pair of game-winners steady Doerer in uneven final season

2) Then the Irish Playoff hopes almost died in week two against Toledo. Trailing in the final minutes, quarterback Jack Coan dislocated a finger on his throwing hand. Notre Dame needed its veteran starter, and neither Coan nor trainer Mike Bean flinched at the idea of popping that finger back into place along the sideline between plays.

“It wasn’t sideways,” Coan said the next week to Jac Collinsworth on the ND on NBC Podcast. “It was sort of, the top part was popped up and back. It wasn’t sideways. Definitely didn’t look right.”

Football programs are more than the coaches and players, and never was that more readily apparent on a Saturday than in Bean’s composure.

3) Along with Bean, some credit should go to adrenaline.

“You kind of just feel it go back into place and it felt like normal,” Coan said. “I’m sure if my adrenaline wasn’t going so fast, probably would have been a lot more painful. But it didn’t hurt too bad at the time.”

4) More than 95 percent of the Irish roster received the coronavirus vaccine, protecting the locker room from both an outbreak and from extensive testing throughout the season, some of them receiving the vaccine despite some likely hesitation. Thank you to them for leading by example.

5) Thank you to all others who have also received the vaccine despite their own hesitations.

6) Some question if the need for “style points” and “game control” has rendered sportsmanship a memory of the past, but the scoreboard has never been the true barometer of sportsmanship. Rather, it lies within the, well, the sporting man, if you will. Consider Notre Dame junior safety Kyle Hamilton immediately after the Irish victory against Purdue, when he was asked about Boilermakers star receiver David Bell. Hamilton quickly praised Bell and offered concern for him after an unfortunate and unavoidable ugly hit from Hamilton in the closing moments of that game.

“He’s a really good player, he was a focal point of our game plan this week,” Hamilton added. “I think we did a pretty good job of shutting him down to the best of our abilities.”

7) On the other end of the spectrum may be junior running back Kyren Williams’ ever-running mouth. Irish head coach Brian Kelly insists Williams’ trash talk remains within the bounds of what the coaching staff encourages, but it is not hard to think the most energetic player in recent Notre Dame history might cross that line on occasion. He may not be alone.

“We have some other guys that you’d be surprised that don’t fit that mold and if you watch carefully, you know who they are,” Kelly said this week. “I don’t need to be pointing them all out at this point, but we have some guys that, because they’re mature enough and they handle themselves the right way — we don’t need to be throwing hand warmers into the front row after an extra point and getting 15-yard penalties — but other than that, we’ve done a good job.”

Kelly was exaggerating a personal foul flag drawn by junior left guard Andrew Kristofic against Georgia Tech, but there may even be value in that kind of mentality.

8) Personally, this season really got started at an Indianapolis tiki bar, the Inferno Room, that not only had rum selections that would make a pirate blush but also sweet’n’sour noodles with pork belly.

9) Not only am I thankful for that occasion, but also for the friend who recommended and joined there, only to then quote an article I wrote, quite literally, four years ago. That’s a rare level of retention of these ramblings.

10) It took the Irish about half the season to figure out its offense. Notre Dame fans still lament that, given that slow start played a key part in the loss to Cincinnati, but they overlook the fact that Wisconsin suffered the same delay, which is essentially why the Irish won in Chicago. If the Badgers had already figured out they should never throw the ball, Notre Dame would not have been gifted that rout of a fourth quarter.

Consider, Wisconsin is on a seven-game winning streak and covered the spread in five of those seven games, including four straight beginning the week the NBA season started.

11) Speaking of spreads, the haphazard state-by-state legalization of sports gambling has created many headaches, but it is also the reason promotional signup offers exist in a similar, haphazard, state-by-state manner. Using some logic to attack that capitalistic generosity can yield enough profits to pay for a new (to you) car.

12) Why need a new (to you) car? Let’s just say we should all be thankful for airbags and seatbelts. We never quite realize how effective they are until we need them, like when a seemingly indestructible Ford Ranger is proven destructible on the side of the interstate.

13) And in moments like those, having a best friend who will not hesitate to speed 20 minutes to the scene of such an accident to get you and your belongings off the side of the interstate is a blessing that cannot be overstated.

14) Sometimes the writing helps itself. This is vaguely intended to go chronologically, and only now do I remember that accident — that frustratingly led to a couple days of in-season silence around here, the likes of which not seen since 2018’s idle week after that same best friend’s bachelor party — occurred the day after the Irish lost to Cincinnati.

It’s nice when the writing helps itself.

15) Notre Dame’s defense continued to be publicly criticized, terribly mistakenly so, throughout October. The casual observer missed that the defense had already flipped from its opening two weeks of struggles. The transition to Marcus Freeman from Clark Lea was pulled off quicker than many realized.

Recognizing that as the Irish have not given up a touchdown in the last three weeks is understandable, though.

16) Senior linebacker Bo Bauer may have been the biggest beneficiary of that transition, shining with 18 tackles in the last two weeks.

“Coach Freeman is a great coach,” Bauer said this week. “He always says we’re going to work with who we have and what their strengths are. He’s just tailored the defense to things I do well and I think our defense is inherently aggressive, so I think that plays to my strengths.”

17) Yes, Bauer could return in 2022. No, he has not decided if he will.

“Obviously it’s something I have to consider, but right now, I just love my team and my teammates and I want to be where my feet are, so I just want to focus on being the best teammate I can be, trying to push this team to be its best.”

18) Another beneficiary? Ohio State grad transfer Isaiah Pryor could not get into the linebacker rotation under Lea, but he has become a key piece of Freeman’s scheme, with 37 tackles this year in a safety-linebacker hybrid role, compared to the usual linebacker-end hybrid of Notre Dame’s rover.

19) Yes, Pryor could return next season, thanks to the pandemic eligibility waiver, but at some point, players have to move on to the next step in their lives, and logic suggests that time may have come for Pryor.

20) One of the joys of travel lost during the pandemic? Trying a dozen different beers throughout a football season. Beers like a Mai Tai PA in the corner of your favorite South Bend bar, or an oak and orchard ginger lemongrass sour beer at your favorite brewery in Denver, or a raspberry sour at a riverside brewery in Minneapolis.

21) Shouts to the entire staff at the LaSalle Kitchen & Tavern. Missed y’all these last two years.

22) Shouts to Parker, for joining for one at Epic Brewing in Denver, though that one became more than one, always a risky choice during the season.

23) But no shouts to the drinking relief in Minneapolis who pointed out this and led to a personal identity crisis.

24) Speaking of Parker, a better understanding of his work with EPA (expected points added) at cfb-graphs.com has led to a better understanding of this sport. That might be the best thing gained this season, a few points on the college football IQ.

25) But not all college football IQ points come from advanced metrics. Never underestimate the joys of working through winsipedia.com. For example, a comprehensive look at the Notre Dame-Stanford series history.

26) Back to the look at the season, that’s the intention here, right?

Losing Hamilton for half of it has not been the calamity immediately assumed, and particularly dreaded by those closest to him on the sideline as he went down awkwardly in the first quarter against USC, lest his injury be misconstrued as somehow their doing.

While it has robbed the Irish of the joys of watching a unanimous first-team All-American, as Hamilton was going to be, it has given them a look at something unexpected and somewhat delightful: Hamilton the coach. When sophomore cornerback Ramon Henderson moved to safety a few weeks ago, he turned to the star for help.

“He’s more so like a coach now,” Henderson said. “He’s telling me what to do, what to take away, what I should be looking at on this play, what I should be looking at on that formation.”

Henderson then revealed some of what made Hamilton so good on the field.

“He’s a good eye guy. He’s very good at recognizing formations, recognizing tendencies really quickly. I wouldn’t say I have the necessary hang of that while playing, but on the sideline, he is like, ‘Yo, if he comes out here this way, he’s going to do this.’

“With him, just watching everything I do, and critique it to the fullest so I can not mess up the next time they come at me with it, that’s a major blessing. It’s the best to have a guy like that in your corner. He’s trying to get me to where he is at this point. I thank him for it a lot.”

27) Hamilton has made more of name, image and likeness opportunities than anyone else on Notre Dame’s roster, expectedly so given he is a certain top-10 draft pick this coming spring, but that is also somewhat a result of his personality. Others would rather not deal with it as much as possible.

No one would describe Williams as modest — see the above thoughts regarding his on-field demeanor — but his prioritization of social media and pizza is something more people should hold.

“I don’t like posting on social media,” Williams said Monday. “When I gotta post a picture of me with some pizza, I’m like, ‘Come on, really, do I have to do this? I’m just trying to enjoy my pizza.’”

28) Do not for a moment think the media overstates Williams’ personality. Fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg found the tone of an exasperated parent when discussing Williams this week.

“You want to talk about someone who has energy every — single — day, it’s Kyren,” Lugg said, those dashes intended to mimic his emphatic pacing.

“On Saturdays, it’s pretty rewarding to run 16 yards and pick him up and be like, ‘Great run man,’ and some other expletives in there. To be able to be like, let’s get the next play call, and oh, it’s the same play call, let’s do it again.”

29) That has been the story of the second half of the season for the Irish, a dominant running game and an even more dominant defense. Development through the year makes finding storylines easier.

30) Speaking of infectious attitudes, here’s to Anthony Edwards, and we are not talking about the lead actor from “E.R.”

31) And speaking of promising young talents — no, this is not to put her on the same plane as Anthony Edwards but the transition otherwise worked — Caroline Pineda has made life easier in these parts the last two years, and for that, the greatest of thanks. When you read her story on Notre Dame’s equipment truck and its annual drive to California, you should realize not only did Caroline write that story and write it cleanly, but she thought of it on her own, pitched it and then pursued it.

All her editor had to do was slap a headline on it.

32) She also works thoroughly enough to send unused quotes for any future purposes, things like how junior linebacker JD Bertrand views his Oura ring as proof of what was already his lifestyle. The Oura ring tracks a player’s sleep, quality of sleep and other various health items that most of us assuredly neglect.

“It’s always been a thing for me,” Bertrand said last month. “But the Oura ring just allowed us to kind of put a number to it, and so you can see if you need to just put a bigger emphasis on sleep for that week or that day just because you’re behind or something like that.”

33) Bertrand’s habits rubbed off on roommate Isaiah Foskey, helping the junior defensive end become a possible first-round draft pick already.

“Luckily, I also have roommates that are trying to prioritize, so our lights are out almost every night by like 10, 10:30,” Bertrand said.

The two compare Oura stats “like four or five times a week,” per Bertrand.

34) Dry rub chicken wings. That has nothing to do with Notre Dame or Oura rings or sleep, but they are underappreciated and thus, we should be more grateful for them.

35) The Irish recruiting class of 2017 should go down as one of the most crucial in program history. It may not have been ripe with clear NFL talents, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah aside, but it stayed committed through the 2016 faceplant and then led the way to 53 wins, and counting, in five years with two, perhaps three, Playoff appearances.

36) Of that group, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa may be one of the most special and deserving players I have covered in a dozen or so years on this beat. That young man has gone through the worst parts of life and some of the best this fall, and he has never been anything but a kind soul in the process.

37) Friends who understand they will not see you for most of the fall, stay in touch as they are able and do not hold that absence against you. Not everyone understands dropping off the social map for 13 or 14 weeks, but those that do, please know it is appreciated.

38) PointsBet had no reason to reach out about making a weekly Notre Dame prediction, but it was a welcomed opportunity.

39) The Irish home finale represented 25 years of yours truly going to games at Notre Dame Stadium, and it hasn’t lost all its appeal just yet. After the 55-0 Irish win against Georgia Tech, a few extra minutes were intentionally spent on the field, lest six-year-old Douglas find a time machine and express displeasure at taking such a luxury for granted.

40) Lastly, I’m still thankful for all you readers, even when you get angry at me for insisting 11-2 Alabama will have a better Playoff claim than 11-1 Notre Dame.