SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame has not only survived, but thrived through to this point despite losing six players to season-ending injuries within the span of a little over a month.
The Irish are 4-0 with a backup quarterback, a converted slot receiver playing running back, a slew of inexperienced tight ends and a freshman nose guard playing significant roles. Freshman cornerback Shaun Crawford and sophomore safety Drue Tranquill are out, too, robbing Notre Dame of a couple of important depth guys.
“They lost a friend, they lost a teammate,” coach Brian Kelly said. “There were some tears shed because of it. They want to accomplish the mission. That has been a focus of the group was that they really want this mission to be accomplished. So they're moving on quickly but never forgetting.”
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Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t experienced a dropoff with DeShone Kizer replacing Malik Zaire, largely due to a stout offensive line and the All-American production of running back C.J. Prosise (74 carries, 600 yards, six touchdowns) and wide receiver Will Fuller (22 receptions, 454 yards, six touchdowns). The Irish are averaging 7.59 yards per play (sixth-highest among FBS teams), though haven’t faced a defense as good as Clemson’s yet.
Defensively, Notre Dame’s had some blips — like making Virginia quarterback Matt Johns look like a Steve Young clone — but is limiting opponents to a slightly above-average 5.1 yards per play (54th). But again, this defense hasn’t faced an offensive like Clemson’s, certainly not one with a quarterback as skilled as Tigers sophomore signal-caller DeShaun Watson.
Overall, Kelly’s been pleased with his special teams units, too, despite some misses from freshman kicker Justin Yoon and a string of uninspiring kick returns by Amir Carlisle. It’s all added up to Notre Dame proving to be a competitive team in 2015, despite all the injuries.
But can this group be the playoff contender it fashioned itself back in August? That’s the question that’ll begin to be answered on a soggy Saturday night in South Carolina.
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“We want it. We want it real bad,” safety Elijah Shumate said. “This team especially, we know what we can do, we know what we’re capable of. And we worked really hard. And that’s one thing that you can’t take from us, is we worked really hard.”
Notre Dame players feel like they’ve already formed a concrete identity, one that’s been shaped by losing so many teammates yet still rolling to a 4-0 record in September. Whereas last year, Notre Dame imploded after Joe Schmidt’s broken ankle kicked off a string of injuries, this is a group confident in its depth. That confidence has only been reinforced by the performances of guys like Kizer, Prosise and Jerry Tillery.
“It really motivated us,” Fuller said. “People were dropping left and right, and they all contributed to the team, so it really motivated us because we know they want to be out here with us.”
“We know those guys that may be second and third string are exposed to the same identity we’re exposed to, and they have the same mindset,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “So you know they’re going to come in and play hard and play with the same intensity.”
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The best-case scenario for Notre Dame on Saturday is that gritty, tough identity translates to overcoming whatever obstacles emerge at Death Valley, be it Watson, cornerback MacKensie Alexander, a raucous crowd or a projected five or so inches of rain. We’ll know by the dying embers of Saturday night if Notre Dame is up to the challenge of making the College Football Playoff.
“We can handle just about anything,” Prosise said. “Going what we go through these first couple games, somebody’s getting hurt, people going down, it speaks to the adversity — we can overcome so much adversity. That speaks a lot to the team and how far we can go this season.”