Things We Learned: Playoff? Notre Dame’s 2021 doesn’t need it, though the Irish obviously want it

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PALO ALTO, Calif. — For the last 33 years, whenever Notre Dame took the field at home, the Irish passed beneath 11 banners noting Notre Dame national championships. It’s one of the less recognized parts of that field entry, bookended by tapping the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign and an eventual welcome from the crowd sparked by a “Here come the Irish” prompt.

It has always been difficult believing a 12th banner would join those 11. With No. 6 Notre Dame (11-1) likely on the outside of the College Football Playoff this year, and an expanded Playoff on the horizon that will make it harder to pull in a championship, it remains difficult to be convinced.

But even if the Irish have fallen short of a third Playoff appearance in four years, the 2021 season was a success in South Bend, nonetheless.

“This football team has grown and developed and matured in all the areas that you want to see your team mature,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame finished its season with a 45-14 demonstration of a winning football program at Stanford on Saturday. “… It’s really easy to evaluate this football team and see the growth. I had officials come up to me that had us early in the season and go, ‘I’ve never seen a team get (to) this level later in the season.’ It’s not just us, it’s not just me.”

College football coaching comes down to recruiting, development and Saturday execution. The splits on those vary on the situation, but for Kelly, the development has always been the key to his Irish program. At times, development has been prioritized because recruiting was not at a peak, but mostly it has been because that is how Notre Dame can cut into the gap between it and Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia.

Usually, that development has occurred from one season to the next. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah showed progress in 2019 that hinted at what he could become, but he did not make inherent leaps and bounds until the offseason, then exploding on the scene in 2020. Kyren Williams was essentially benched as a freshman after dropping a pass in the season opener and then remained an afterthought; it was his development during that 2020 offseason that turned him into the fifth player in Notre Dame history to record back-to-back seasons with 1,000 rushing yards, pushed over that threshold by the final Irish offensive play of this regular season.

This year, though, that development occurred in-season.

“You saw how we tackled tonight,” Kelly said. “We were a sieve at times (earlier in the year) as a tackling team.”

Some of that came from moving players, like Ramon Henderson to starting safety from reserve cornerback. Some of that came from Notre Dame gradually, and then suddenly, understanding first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme. Some of it came from, to quote Kelly, “Practice practice practice practice practice.” It should be noted, he said that emphatically but with a smile on his face, pounding the table with each repetition.

“We don’t just show up on Saturday,” he said. “We do this for a living. A lot of work.

“Marcus every day starts off practice with run support and tackling drills. He’s committed to it, we have to be committed to it.”

Kelly’s defiance echoes both what the Irish have shown on Saturdays the last month — no matter the quality of the opponents, giving up only 3.94 yards per play in an entire month qualifies as impressive and certainly improvement — and what the offense has seen from its counterpart in practice.

“They’ve gotten better throughout every game of the season,” sophomore tight end Michael Mayer said. “… They’re climbing, and they’ve been climbing the entire season.”

Senior defensive end Justin Ademilola pointed to the practice drills for his own improvement, culminating in a strip-sack that he recovered himself on Saturday night.

The defensive improvements are but a piece of this season’s growth from Labor Day Eve to Thanksgiving’s Saturday. The offensive line coalesced as freshman left tackle Joe Alt and junior left guard Andrew Kristofic developed the self-assuredness to call blocking audibles moments before the snap rather than naturally deferring to senior center Jarrett Patterson and fifth-year right tackle Josh Lugg. Freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie stepped into bigger roles after fifth-year receiver Avery Davis tore his ACL to start November. Freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner came to understand the whole playbook rather than only specific packages.

The list goes on, a rarity in all of college football but particularly at Notre Dame. Kelly’s teams have been marked by early-season dominance followed by clinging to get to the finish line, a tendency that has yielded three postseason shots at a national championship, so by no means is it a failing one. It is a college football norm amid natural attrition, one that nearly cost No. 3 Alabama on Saturday, nearly to Kelly’s delight.

Stanford Stadium broadcast the closing minutes of regulation and then the three overtimes of the Iron Bowl on the scoreboards in each end zone. That backdrop to the pregame warmups had the Irish coach spending his pregame downtime watching with rooting interest. An Auburn victory would burnish Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes. He knows as much. 

“I was standing in the middle of the field, they had it on the jumbotron,” Kelly said. “I try to stay out of the way of most things, but that was on, and that was pretty epic.”

Kelly genuinely did watch, baffled at Auburn’s secondary late in the game.

That kind of mishap has not plagued Notre Dame since junior linebacker JD Bertrand was too worn out to shed a block to set the edge late against Cincinnati, early-season attrition draining the Irish defense’s second-level to the point it proved costly. The development of sophomore Jordan Botelho helped supplement some of that, as did a bigger role for senior Bo Bauer. More growth.

That growth turned Notre Dame from hoping for a New Year’s Day bid to hoping for a Playoff bid. To draw an extreme example, though, if the Irish do nothing but face Wake Forest in the Peach Bowl on Dec. 30, has this roster not already separated itself from many of the previous 33?

Notre Dame beat every rival on its schedule, so handily taking care of USC that Kelly had no qualms expressing his glee about triumphing in that rivalry afterward. Williams provided an iconic play with his 91-yard cutback, stiff arm and dash against North Carolina. Even the wins against Florida State and Virginia Tech left memories of dramatic victories.

The Irish did all they could in 2021, a true statement because the praised development had not yet occurred by the first weekend in October. Adding a Playoff berth may validate that true statement, but it would not make it any more true.

“We did what we could with the games that we had left,” Mayer said. “Now we sit and wait, and I really believe we are one of the best four teams in the nation.”

Kelly may insist his team does not pay attention to outside noise, including that Iron Bowl broadcast, but Mayer’s blunt statement suggested otherwise.

“Our guys were totally locked in,” Kelly said. “They don’t follow that stuff. They’re locked in. When it gets to Friday, they’ll hear a little bit of the buzz and the noise, but they’re getting ready for a performance.”

Not this weekend. Now, the buzz and noise will be loud.

But Notre Dame already put on quite the performance in 2021.