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Notre Dame’s need to ‘keep pushing and fighting’ against No. 18 Virginia

Notre Dame's home game against Virginia can serve as a turning point and season-defining game for the Fighting Irish.

They may be varied phrases, but they all boil down to the same thing. “Letdown game.” “Trap game.” “Don’t get beat twice by one opponent.”

However you want to look at it, No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1) will need to avoid as much against No. 18 Virginia (4-0) on Saturday (3:30 ET; NBC). Avoid thinking all Playoff hopes are dashed, and thus lessen its level of competition. Avoid assuming a close game against No. 3 Georgia assures an easy victory against weaker opponents. Avoid dwelling on that loss and thereby diminishing this week’s preparations.

That all may be easier said than done, but it was also already on Irish minds before even leaving Sanford Stadium as the clock ticked into early Sunday morning.

“[The Playoff] isn’t what we’re thinking about,” senior receiver Chase Claypool said. “We’re thinking about Virginia, because none of that matters if we don’t beat them next week.”

It was more than one line from one player and more than a rehearsed party line. Their understandable dismay preventing anything but sincerity, even if expressed including a few cliches.

“We’re not really focused on [the Playoff] right now,” senior safety and captain Alohi Gilman said. “We’re just focusing on this next week coming up, learning what we have to do, learning from our mistakes. That (Playoff) stuff will take care of itself, we have to take it one week at a time.”

Perhaps the result of the Athens primetime matchup had no effect on this mindset. Either Notre Dame was going to win, and a want to get to the Playoff would immediately take a massive step toward reality and therefore refocus attention to details, or the Irish would lose, and a want to get to the Playoff would hang by a thread, no further misstep allowed.

“The season is not over. This doesn’t define us,” senior defensive end and captain Khalid Kareem said. “With one loss, we can still make it to the Playoff. Keep pushing and fighting. As long as we win out, we’ll see.”

These were not echoes of head coach Brian Kelly’s public words; those had not yet been offered, though they continued down that same path. These were declarations of intention more than anything else, such that the captains called for a team meeting Monday afternoon, presumably to buttress the approach.

“My sense and expectation is that they understand the importance of where we go from here after the Georgia game,” Kelly said Monday. “For them to fulfill the goals and the mission that we have set forth for us, we have to play better football from here on out. Pretty confident that they understand that and what’s needed from them moving forward.”

It may not fit the public talking points, but Kelly has kept Notre Dame from letting one tough loss snowball into an unexpected one the next week aside from extenuating circumstances.

For these purposes, let’s write off 2016, as no single loss could be considered all that tough, quite frankly. If wanting to cling to the overtime defeat at Texas, keep in mind the Irish won the following week. The only other exception needing to be made is an acknowledgment of the rampant injuries devastating Notre Dame’s defense in November of 2014. The Irish were indeed coming off a wrenching and controversial loss at No. 2 Florida State two weeks before the spiral began, but even if that offensive pass interference flag had not been thrown, Notre Dame was heading toward a stumble simply due to attrition.

Otherwise, the last regular-season losing streak for the Irish was way back in the first two weeks of 2011. Realizing such sheds light on Kelly’s description of this game against Virginia when he was only about an hour removed from the Georgia defeat. One could have forgiven him for hyping the close loss a bit longer, trying to establish that moral victory and alter some headlines moving forward. Instead, Kelly put that impetus on the coming challenge.

“The defining game will be next week,” he said. “We’ll know who we are truly next week. How you come back on Monday will certainly define who this football team is. I know who you are tonight, based on what I saw, but you want to talk about defining games? It wasn’t tonight, it will be next week.”

That rallying cry would ring hollow if Bowling Green was a week earlier on the schedule or if Navy’s triple-option rendered the coming performance as a one-off. Instead, it is the second-best team in the ACC, gaining momentum, led by a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. Not to mention, Virginia should be the best team remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

“Virginia has their attention, there’s no doubt about that,” Kelly said Monday. “They know they have to pay attention to their detail and play well against a quality opponent. There’s no question when you play a team of this caliber, they recognize how important it is to go back to work.”

Go back to work as if the last trip did not end in 23-17 heartache, as if the biggest game of the year was always going to be against the Cavaliers.

That may be easier said than done, but the Irish have established a track record of doing it.