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Space Notre Dame’s friend off the field, its foe in the red zone

Notre Dame Louisville

Notre Dame Athletics

Notre Dame has figured out how to win at home, not only by doing it 22 times in a row but by also having mitigated its coronavirus outbreak to the point that the Irish have not had a positive test in more than a week. (Sunday’s test results will be released Monday evening, but even with a positive test or two there, the larger point stands.)

Now, the No. 3 Irish (4-0, 3-0 ACC) have to adjust to travel protocols amid a pandemic. They began to ready for that once before, getting about 24 hours into Wake Forest preparations before that trip was scuttled at the onset of an outbreak that peaked with more than 30 positive tests.

Notre Dame would usually fly to Pittsburgh (3-3, 2-3) on Friday morning, practice at a nearby high school or small college, hold a bevy of meetings at its hotel and then have a team dinner before idling time until lights out. This week, only the lights out aspect of that will occur in Pennsylvania. The Irish will take care of everything else in South Bend, almost as if it is a home game, before hopping on a plane after dinner.

“Very little contact with the hotel, very little contact with those situations, and create an atmosphere where we feel like we can control it as best as we can,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Monday.

That will even include eating the pregame and postgame meals at Heinz Field, an available area big enough for the team to appropriately space out, a failure to do so a month ago arguably sparking the Irish outbreak.

“We’ll talk about what the expectations are of everybody and that we’ll follow the procedures and protocols we lay out for them,” Kelly said. “Similar to what was new for them on campus when we made some changes two weeks ago, they’ll have to follow them the same way.

“They’ve adapted well. Emotionally, their ability to adapt has been great.”

That 3:30 ET kickoff (ABC) will not include junior running back Jahmir Smith, who ran five times for 15 yards in the season-opener against Duke, but has not played since. With sophomore Kyren Williams, freshman Chris Tyree and junior C’Bo Flemister, in that order, rather staunchly ahead of Smith in the pecking order, his chances were increasingly limited.

“He’s decided that he is not going to play football,” Kelly said. “We’ll have some further conversations about what his plans are moving forward.”

Smith finishes his Notre Dame career with 53 carries for 234 yards and two touchdowns, both in the 2019 season-opener at Louisville, a momentary goal-line presence that never became a featured part of the Irish offense and is now a duty handled by Williams when necessary.

“When necessary” has not included goal-to-go situations beyond the five-yard line or so. At that point, Notre Dame has leaned on the pass. In the 12-7 win against Louisville, that resulted in the field-goal unit lining up three times within the 15-yard line. Red-zone sacks scuttled the first two promising drives, and an incompletion on a fade route halted the third. On the season, the Irish are 12-of-21 in converting red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, though two of those include clock-killing drives, so a more accurate barometer would be 12-of-19; 63.16 percent would have ranked No. 51 in the country last season.

“Playmakers need to make plays down there, as well,” Kelly said. “That’s quarterbacks, receivers, offensive linemen. Coaches have to be able to highlight individual players down there. We have to put packages together that — I’m not here to make analogies in all circumstances, but it’s like a power play. You’ve got to put your sharpshooters in position to score. ...

“As you get closer, there’s a will down there. We think we can run the ball in on anybody down there. We’ve been in high red and mid-range red situations where a lot of our issues have been for the most part.”

High-red and mid-range red generally refer to work from outside the five-yard line. Two weeks ago, it was exactly there where junior receiver Braden Lenzy took a crossing route through traffic across the goal line. His absence Saturday stood out.

“The kid’s a gamer, he’s trying to play,” Kelly said. “We’re hoping he’s going to be better this week.”

Kelly indicated Lenzy’s soft-tissue injury became a concern after studying his GPS numbers, which can point out when a player is not reaching usual top-speeds, for example.

Somewhere it should be noted, coronavirus cases on Notre Dame’s campus as a whole are rising again. The University reported two daily cases and a seven-day average of 4.7 as of Sunday, Oct. 11. The subsequent five days saw caseloads of 10, 12, 31, 14 and 23; the moving average is now at 13.6 as of Sunday, Oct. 18, and that number will almost assuredly rise as backdated tests are added to the last few days of results.

These numbers pale in comparison to the August outbreak that forced Notre Dame into two weeks of remote-only classes and a near-lockdown of campus, but if they continue to rise, the final month of the semester could yet change form.

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