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Things We Learned: In 2020, Notre Dame reaching a disappointing football end was a success

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JANUARY 01: Head coach Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football players run on the field during player introductions before the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl football game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at AT&T Stadium on January 01, 2021 in Arlington, Texas. The Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 31-14. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

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When looking back on Notre Dame’s 2020, the unfortunate instinct of college football fans will be to simply lump it in with 2012 and 2018, a good season with a great run that ended up short on the biggest stage.

But there were 11 games played before the Rose Bowl for a reason, and that 31-14 semifinal loss erased neither those 10 wins nor the key pieces that led to them. For that matter, the fact that there simply was a semifinal remains a differentiating factor to 2020.

Ian Book still set the Irish record with 30 career wins as the starting quarterback, going 30-5, appearing in two College Football Playoffs, never losing at home, leading Notre Dame to three straight double-digit win seasons. The list goes on to such an extent that at this point, Book’s 2017 Citrus Bowl miracle to Miles Boykin is an afterthought.

“I can’t wait to see what he does next,” Irish senior right tackle Robert Hainsey said after the season-ending New Year’s Day loss. As Book’s last pass fell incomplete, Hainsey had already turned to hug his quarterback, soon joined by fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer. “The kid’s a winner, and all he’s going to do is go on and be the best he can be, the best Ian Book can be, and that’s all that he needs to be.”

Book’s critics will linger, just as Tommy Rees’ have for the better part of a decade, but they will miss the bigger picture. Book’s 2020 established him as a standard of consistency for future Notre Dame quarterbacks to strive toward, and it will be at least a few years before one reaches it. That deserves a tip of the cap and much more.

Similarly, the defensive conclusion to the year, giving up 65 combined points to Clemson and Alabama, will render the immediate memories of Clark Lea’s performances as negative ones. That misses the fact that the Irish held both the Tigers and the Tide to fewer points than their expected totals or the fact that once again Notre Dame’s defense covered for the offense’s shortcomings throughout the season to push the Irish to the Playoff.

If anything, Monday night showed how impressive it was for Notre Dame to keep Alabama to 31 points. Even if the Tide had intended to run that score up, it was not going to score 52 as it did in winning the national championship against Ohio State.

“Our job is to go out there and limit the offense to zero points if we can,” sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford said. “We don’t try to take moral victories by holding them to 31 points. If our offense can’t get it going, then our job is to go out there and limit them to no points, if we can, limit them to field goals in the red zone.

“We stepped it up as a defense in the second half, and we fought to the end as a defense, but this unit, we don’t believe in moral victories. We pride ourselves on trying to shut out teams. If our offense can’t get it going, then 3-0 should be the game-winning score for us.”

That standard is largely unattainable in the current era of college football, but Crawford’s insistence upon it speaks to the expectations set by Lea. In three years, he created a defensive attitude Notre Dame had lacked for a long time. The 2012 exception aside, it could be argued that mindset had not been seen since the early ‘90s.

The biggest piece of it, of course, was senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. There is no single quote, moment or fact that exemplifies his development from a three-star afterthought in 2017. In the last 23 years, Notre Dame has seen exactly one defensive player drafted in the first round, safety Harrison Smith at No. 29 overall in 2012. The Irish have not had a linebacker drafted in the first round since Bob Crable at No. 23 in 1982.

That three-star afterthought should break both those trends this April, a testament to both Lea and Notre Dame strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

“Coach Balis has done a tremendously awesome job with understanding how the body works, understanding how to get one stronger, but even above that, you have a mental aspect of it that is really prominent,” Owusu-Koramoah said. “... Notre Dame has always been known for its physicality, and we just wanted to get back to that. Coach Balis has done a great job.”

Balis’ fingerprints can also be seen in how the Irish offensive line cleared a path for running back Kyren Williams’ intensity. Williams’ emergence will be dissected thoroughly this coming offseason, as his churning legs should be the key to Notre Dame’s offense in 2021, but there may come a time when it is realized the departing offensive line had more to do with his sophomore success than yet acknowledged.

Unfortunately, for a second consecutive Playoff, the Irish offensive line that set the tone for the season and may have been the best in the country only reached the semifinal without arguably its best player. Losing Alex Bars in the middle of 2018 clearly set back that unit, and without center Jarrett Patterson, the 2020 version could not maintain its absolute dominance. In both instances, the offensive lines were still elite, but no longer transcendent.

And that remains the lesson of 2020 for Notre Dame as much as anything else: Its margin of error remains non-existent when hoping to compete with Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State. As Irish head coach Brian Kelly repeatedly and briskly said after the Rose Bowl loss, that is not a problem “unique” to Notre Dame, but as this space’s headline said afterward, it is an undeniable problem for Notre Dame all the same.

In 2020, though, there was hardly a margin of error in simply getting on the field. Book’s wins, Lea’s schemes, Owusu-Koramoah’s dynamism, Williams’ physicality will all be footnotes to the Irish simply playing in 2020. Even after the loss to Alabama, Kelly brought the focus back to the discipline and sacrifice it took to play during a pandemic.

“You signed your name to a team that would never give up, that would never give in, that never gave in to the adversity of a pandemic, that never gave in when things got difficult, you kept fighting back,” Kelly said in the postgame locker room, the emotion of the moment palpable even via social media.

Crawford spent six years playing for Notre Dame, and he insisted this was the closest team he had been on, understandably so given its circumstances. The defensive mantra became “for the brotherhood.”

That brotherhood played 12 games in 2020. Setting aside the questions that will never be sufficiently answered of if the University should have pushed for the season, if it enabled the pandemic, if it exposed the players to more risk than deserved given their lack of standing in the decision-making process, it remains impressive the Irish roster held together through 12 games of a pandemic.

“We battled through a lot of stuff, fought a lot of adversity through 2020,” senior linebacker Drew White said. “In August, going back, we didn’t even know if we were going to have a season. So having a successful season, going undefeated in the regular season is special.”

No ACC title game or Rose Bowl loss should detract from that. No individual records or development should overshadow it. In this season and this season alone, the fact that there was a football end to it was accomplishment enough.

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