Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 23, 2017

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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54 OCT. 23, 2017 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED H ow good is the 2017 Notre Dame football team? Through the first half of the season, the Fighting Irish roster replete with mostly four-star starters (and a couple of five-stars) out-tal- ented the mainly two- and three-star opposition it en- countered. That's not a backhanded compliment. If anything, it's a plus because far too often there has been a tendency to play to the level of the competition. The 2017 unit has attacked with a consis- tent vision and attitude that transcends wins and puts a greater premium on achiev- ing optimal performance. It also excelled in the most vital areas — red zone, run- ning game, turnover margin, pass rush, etc. — with the offense, defense and special teams complementing each other. Nevertheless, Notre Dame's 2017 outcome was going to be judged pri- marily on how it fared versus Georgia and USC at home, and at Miami and Stanford in November — a month where the Irish are 7-10 since 2013. There were/are five tiers for head coach Brian Kelly's team to help erase the 4-8 fiasco from 2016: Step one: Beat the opponents where you have flat-out more talent. Upsets happen, but the frequency is what has been alarming over the past decade. Enough of the "Notre Dame is the Super Bowl for every team." With all due respect to schools such as Connecticut, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy, Northwestern, Louisville and Duke that all have won at Notre Dame since 2009 … this absolutely needed to end. Check, so far in 2017. Step two: Not only win step one games but display "style points" and dominance along the way. That has been occurring, too, most notably on the trips to Boston College and a decent Michigan State team. Letdowns are an inevitable part of sports. Even one of the greatest moti- vators I've ever met, Lou Holtz, con- ceded that about three times per sea- son a team will not be in the sharpest frame of mind. What was essential was on those days just being able to out-talent your foes. Check, so far in 2017. Step three: Beat someone of at least equal ability, if not slightly better. This is where the quartet of Geor- gia, USC, Miami and Stanford come in, although North Carolina State also could present a challenge. Defeating USC (Oct. 21) — a good team this year but not elite and more on par with the Irish — would help fill a void. Notre Dame has not de- feated a ranked Trojans team since 1995, one of many dubious Irish foot- ball droughts since 1994 that need to end to start regaining credibility. This box has to be checked Oct. 21. Lose to USC at home and the mantra becomes "same ol' ND." Step four: End the "we came so close" conversation against the upper-tier teams, which is not de- fined by one game but a yearly consistency. Florida State in 2014 (31-27), Clem- son (24-22) and Stanford (38-36) in 2015, Georgia (20-19) in 2017 … Notre Dame has become the con- summate "almost" team, where moral victories are signs of progress or encouragement. I have immense respect for Irish director of athletics Jacks Swarbrick, but even he stated that the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl was "our best game of the season," all things considered. Three years in at Notre Dame in 1988, Holtz sus- pended both his top rusher and top receiver prior to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown at USC — and still won 27-10. Ara Parseghian vanquished three No. 1-ranked bowl teams in five years against whom the Irish were under- dogs, sometimes heavily. "Programs" don't talk about coming close or per- sonnel setbacks. One such win doesn't put you over this hump, but it has to start somewhere this year. Step five: Slaying the ultimate dragon. These are epic, watershed events. Today, it would be like defeating Ala- bama — sort of like Parseghian's 1973 Irish finally toppling USC after going 0-4-2 the previous six years, en route to the national title, or Holtz's 1988 Irish slaying the Miami dragon when the Hurricanes had won 36 straight in the regular season and had terrorized Notre Dame in the 1980s. They are immense catalysts, a la Dan Devine's "Green Jersey Game" versus USC in 1977 that propelled the crushing of No. 1 Texas later for the national title. That's down the road for now … but steps three and four are achiev- able in 2017. Kelly said this team has come full circle in buying in with the new staff and eradicating skepticism. There is a combined joy with intent concentration and highly improved leadership/coaching, all of which makes for a potent combination. Steps three and four, come on down! ✦ Next Steps Must Begin With Win Versus USC THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Notre Dame has not defeated a ranked USC squad since 1995, but can check that box when the Trojans come to South Bend Oct. 21. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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