Notre Dame has to beat Virginia Tech and USC to become bowl eligible, which is a task that both looked easier and more difficult after Saturday’s chaotic day of college football.
Virginia Tech lost, 30-20, at home to Georgia Tech after narrow wins over other middling ACC sides in Pitt (39-36) and Duke (24-21). The Hokies crashed out of both the AP top 25 and coaches poll after their loss to Georgia Tech — they were No. 18 and No. 22 in both polls, respectively — and now will have to beat rival Virginia on the final week of the regular season to secure an ACC Coastal division championship.
In that sense, Notre Dame almost could become a trap game for Virginia Tech given it won’t affect their ranking or conference standings. And with the Hokies not playing particularly good football lately (their percentile performances against Pitt and Duek were 31 and 25 percent, respectively).
The flip side to Virginia Tech is USC, which doubled up Washington on Saturday in Seattle and entered the AP poll at No. 15 on Sunday. The Trojans have been playing outstanding football since swapping Sam Darnold for Max Browne at quarterback in late September: After losing at Utah, USC has ripped off six consecutive wins, culminated by that 26-13 win over the playoff-hopeful Huskies.
USC still could win the Pac-12 South if they beat UCLA next weekend and Colorado loses to Washington State but beats Utah. Motivation though, shouldn’t be a problem for USC in a rivalry game against Notre Dame.
In short: Even if the Irish cobble together a win against Virginia Tech — which certainly is possible in the two programs' first meeting on Saturday — USC in Los Angeles looks like it will be the most difficult game of Notre Dame’s season.
Tales from the sick bay
Junior nose guard Daniel Cage remains day-to-day as he deals with symptoms stemming from a concussion that’s kept him out of Notre Dame’s last two games, coach Brian Kelly said. Cage saw a neurologist last week, who confirmed that Notre Dame’s doctors and concussion protocol didn’t miss anything in evaluating Cage.
“We'll monitor his progress from a day-to-day standpoint and see how he continues to feel,” Kelly said. “It's really now just a matter of him feeling good and comfortable to the point where we can progress him.”
Wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. missed Saturday’s game with a leg injury — “he just wasn’t explosive,” Kelly said Saturday — and was deemed day-to-day as well.
Notre Dame came out of its back-to-back option weeks relatively healthy, though, which is a welcome change from three years ago, when the Irish front seven was decimated after facing Air Force and Navy on consecutive Saturdays.
No switch for Love; Harrell earns a late nod
Freshman Julian Love started at safety against Army, but that was merely a temporary solution in Notre Dame’s efforts to stop the triple option than anything else. Love, an alum of Nazareth Academy in the Chicagoland area, has been solid as a true freshman cornerback this year and will remain there despite his success against the option as a safety.
“He's not moving to safety, but in terms of what we were asking him to do, he was the better fit in that scheme,” Kelly said.
Graduate student Mark Harrell earned his first career start on Saturday, too, getting the nod over redshirt juniors Colin McGovern and Hunter Bivin. That was a bit of a surprise, given Harrell mostly has provided solid depth at all five offensive line positions over his five years on campus, but against an undersized Army front, Harrell and the rest of the Irish offensive line held their own.
“Mark has been really solid for us,” Kelly said. “And we felt like this was the right time to give him that start. He's been,as one of our only … fifth-year guys. He's just been really solid for us, and we just thought he earned that opportunity to start today.”