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Things We Learned: Heading into the ACC title, Notre Dame finds 2020’s first sense of normalcy

The Fighting Irish finished out a perfect regular season on QB Ian Book's Senior Day.

In a season so unsettled its own existence was doubted, Notre Dame delivered a welcome dose of certainty in its regular-season ending 45-21 win against Syracuse on Saturday. Even when trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter, there was no doubt the No. 2 Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) would finish their scheduled season unbeaten for the second time in three years.

More than reaching 10-0, bringing the season to a semblance of a conclusion stood out — with fewer and fewer teams involved, it is easier to envision the postseason playing out as planned. Head coach Brian Kelly made it a point to spend a chunk of his postgame comments thanking those who orchestrated and made Notre Dame’s season possible, from University President Fr. John Jenkins for insisting classes would be in-person this semester down to the media relations staffers for doubling as logistical utility knives as the Irish shrank their travel party.

That travel party went east more often this year, a result of Notre Dame’s temporary membership in the ACC, both the most vital aspect to the season and the reason some of Saturday’s Senior Day festivities felt subdued. Without the ACC, the Irish season would have been as disjointed and even less satisfying than BYU’s independent and impromptu scheduling. With the ACC, Notre Dame ended the regular season unbeaten without the same celebrations as doing so at USC did in 2012 and 2018; the Irish yet worry a Playoff spot may not be sewn up, and even if it is, No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1) still awaits in Charlotte on Dec. 19 in the conference title game.

In both respects, the ACC allowed Notre Dame a luxury August did not assure.

“It didn’t really matter who we played, as long we just played anybody this year,” junior tight end Tommy Tremble said.

Anybody will include the Tigers twice. Facing them again will underscore the greatest difference between playing as an independent and this foray into conference membership. The Irish have an idea of what Clemson brings, not only because they faced the Tigers in that double-overtime classic on Nov. 7, but also because their style is not wholly unique.

“One thing that’s a little different than our schedule from last year is there’s consistency in the (ACC) offenses,” sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton said. “Just the type of offenses they run, from week-to-week, it’s kind of consistent. Everybody kind of does the same thing, in comparison to one week playing USC which is Air Raid and the next week playing Navy, which is triple-option; it’s a big switch-up.

“Consistency has helped us learn week-in and week-out what to expect, how to be better and how to put ourselves in better positions.”

Two years ago, Notre Dame knew its Playoff berth was assured only when Tony Jones broke a check-down pass into a 51-yard touchdown with three minutes remaining in Los Angeles. Up until that 24-10 lead, the Trojans had stressed the Irish by targeting specific cornerbacks, Notre Dame’s first genuine exposure that season to an all-out, vertical offense.

Now, thanks to facing Clemson once and then checking the even more explosive North Carolina offense, the Irish know to rely on freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis. They know to trust their safeties in both run and pass support. They know senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah may be the ultimate ace in the hole. Even Boston College and Syracuse contributed to these confidences with tests via their own respective outside speed.

The Orange broke two long runs on Notre Dame, in doing so notching the two best individual rushing performances of the season against Clark Lea’s defense. Chalk that up to mental lapses natural in this of all seasons, and know that the Irish did not take those mistakes lightly.

“The defense was a little disappointed,” sophomore linebacker Jack Kiser said. “We didn’t play up to our standard. They were rushing a little bit on us. We have to tighten things up next week and move on from it.”

Obviously, such missed run fits will be even more costly against Clemson, facing an opponent of that caliber twice in one season another shift in this once-in-a-century schedule. Then again, the Tigers were on Notre Dame’s pre-pandemic 2020 schedule, and a trip to a national championship in that nostalgic version of a world presumably included beating Clemson twice or both it and Alabama. The ACC championship game may not serve as an absolute win-or-go-home contest, but it will feel like one all the same (and it might be a win-or-go-home contest), so facing the Tigers again is not all that different from what the Irish always intended for this season.

“There was a time we didn’t even know if we were going to play with coronavirus,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said. “We join a conference, which nobody’s done at Notre Dame, and just a lot of unexpected things and this team just never shied away.”

Book never would have imagined saying that after the one Irish spring practice in March. He would have, however, ended most comments with the ones he ended Saturday night with.

“I want to win a national championship, and if you hear my name, that is what you think of. We still have to go do that.”

This most unorthodox season has finally reached a point where it overlaps with usual expectations. Notre Dame typically seals postseason title berths by beating its longest rival halfway across the country. Now the Irish can lock up their second Playoff appearance in three years by topping their newest rival, albeit eastward this time around.

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