SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Can a mentally tough yet flawed Notre Dame team make the College Football Playoff?
That’s the overarching question as Notre Dame fades into its bye week after defeating USC, 41-31, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. Plenty has been established over the season’s first seven games about the 6-1 Irish: This is a team with explosive playmakers on offense, a quarterback who doesn’t make the same mistake twice, a disruptive defensive line and outstanding leadership.
It’s also a team that allowed USC to gouge it for 590 yards on 77 plays (7.7 yards per play). After Torii Hunter Jr. lost a fumble at the one-yard line, USC scored 21 of the game’s next 24 points and held a seven-point lead entering the fourth quarter. There have been defensive lapses, be it early against Clemson or in the second quarter against USC.
But this isn’t a cynical Notre Dame team, one that plays to not lose or finds itself thinking pessimistically even as its historic rival slices through its defense and its offense appears to be running on empty. If anything, Notre Dame’s win over USC cemented an identity for the program, one it’s lacked for the past few seasons.
“I just never sensed that our football team didn't believe that they were going to win today,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I thought those were big things for me to see from our team today. It turned some question marks into exclamation points relative to their mental toughness today.”
Mental toughness is one of those nebulous, inscrutable facets to a football team that doesn’t show up in a box score and is less important than actually having good players and good coaches.
From a talent and depth perspective, there isn’t much separating Notre Dame from Ohio State, Alabama, Clemson, Baylor, etc. Kelly has proven to be a savant in developing gameplans for first-time starting quarterbacks, with DeShone Kizer the next in that line. The Irish defense hasn’t played at the same prolific level as its offense under Brian VanGorder, but an improved special teams unit — which featured freshman Equanimeous St. Brown blocking a punt for a touchdown against USC — and the safety nets of C.J. Prosise and Will Fuller could be enough to cover for it.
And this is a defense that, for all its issues allowing big plays against USC, or its slow start against Clemson, or its inexplicable inability to muffle Virginia’s mediocre passing attack, has come up with a number of big plays this year. KeiVarae Russell’s diving interception and deflection that tumbled into Max Redfield’s hands in the fourth quarter were Saturday’s latest examples.
Notre Dame knows it has no margin for error going forward. It can’t afford to lose again, which means beating a potentially-undefeated Temple on Halloween in Philadelphia then running the table in November, in which its only home game is against Wake Forest. An 11-1 record complete with a season-ending win over a Stanford team that’s rampaging through the Pac-12 could very well be enough to get Notre Dame into the College Football Playoff so long as chaos continues to rule (which it did in Ann Arbor and Memphis on Saturday).
“I don’t care who you are, you’re going to be tested at some point during the year,” Schmidt said. “… If you look at the rest of the top 25, people are getting in and out of one-score games, and it’s not easy to win football games.
“I don’t care who you play. In college football, anybody can win on any day, and to be able to know that we’re going to fight regardless of whatever the situation is something that you can hang your hat on, and the rest of the stuff you can fix. But if you don’t have a bunch of guys that are willing to fight and put it all out there and lay it on the line, you don’t have anything. You can’t build on anything. That’s gotta be the foundation.”
It was the foundation for Notre Dame three years ago, when a team with less depth and less talent rallied around a strong core of leaders — and a rock-solid defensive identity — to go undefeated in the regular season. It wasn’t enough in the face of Alabama’s superior talent and coaching, but it was the starting point for how Notre Dame eked out so many close wins that year.
“I think I more realized (the importance of it) the next year when we had a team that maybe wasn’t as resilient,” Prosise said. “But that 2012 team, they never gave up, and I definitely see that in this team too.”
The Irish will move forward in that playoff push with a certain belief in their mental toughness that, married with the level of talent on this team, provides them with a confidence in their ability to roll out of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California with wins.
Every college team has flaws, given the rosters composed of 18-to-22-year-olds. But not every team has the mental toughness Notre Dame is convinced it has.
“If you don’t have mental toughness in an away stadium, it’s virtually impossible to win games,” Russell said. “You have to have experienced some adversity in away games, it’s the other people’s stadium, the noise — with the mental toughness we can build off this, it’s going to be amazing going into the away games that we do have when we have to exert our will in somebody else’s stadium.”