Last night’s destruction of 11th ranked USC was perhaps the finest display by a Brian Kelly-led Notre Dame football team. Without question, the Trojan team that ambled into the stadium was missing some key players due to injury. But the great teams take advantage of those situations. Maybe USC’s Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold didn’t play his best game. But the great teams capitalize on those situations. Notre Dame did almost everything right Saturday night, on their way to a 49-14 win for the ages.
Start the playoff discussion now. Start the “best coach” discussion now. Let’s talk about playoffs, first: with just one loss, by one point to a 7-0 Georgia team, The Irish are well positioned to finish in the top four if they win out. Winning out is by no means an easy task, with three games against ranked opponents in their final five games of the season. The other two are against Wake Forest and Navy, neither one a tomato can. But if Notre Dame does finish 11-1, it will be extraordinarily difficult for the committee to keep The Irish out.
Notre Dame is currently eleventh overall in scoring offense with 38 touchdowns, 289 total points, and a scoring average of 41.3 points per game. The Irish finished with 371 total points last year, an average of 30.9 points per game. In the main, the points are coming via a murderous ground attack. The Irish are ranked sixth in the nation with 2,225 rushing yards and have the second-most yards per carry (7.06). Against USC, Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush each rushed for more than one hundred yards. Adams continued his streak of crushing, long runs with an eighty-four yarder. He finished the evening with three touchdowns. Heisman rumblings can be heard in the distance.
This begs the question if there is any point to “worrying” about the passing game. The brief answer is “no.” Wimbush seems more than capable of throwing the ball, e.g. last night’s first touchdown, and as long as he’s not turning the ball over and able to keep the defense honest with his arm, the passing game will continue to be a serviceable second to the ground game.
But it’s the defense, and the sea-change in culture, that have the team, and Brian Kelly, soaring. The 2016 season was a nightmare, with many reasons to explain the 4-8 record. But it was the defense, and Coach Kelly, that were most to blame. And he freely admitted to it. Gone now are the distractions that took him away from coaching. Gone now is the distance that stifled his players’ development and the team’s esprit de corps.
Witness the locker room dance or his demeanor. Witness the genuine affection with which his players are literally embracing him. Witness his masterful retooling of (almost) the entire coaching staff in the off season. In Mike Elko and Chip Long, Coach Kelly has coordinators who are getting the most out of talent they inherited. It’s fair to criticize Coach Kelly for hanging onto Brian VanGorder too long, but it’s not fair to leave off the praise for keeping the program and players together during and after last season, and for taking the steps that are paying such dividends now.
The Notre Dame/USC rivalry is one of the nation’s marquee match ups. The convincing win certainly puts weight on Notre Dame’s side of the balance when playoff discussions really get underway. It also puts weight on Coach Kelly’s side of the balance in the constant conversation about him being the “right guy” for Notre Dame. I don’t think there’s any question but that he is.