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Things We Learned: Notre Dame expected, demanded this November dominance

Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem looks back at the four years he played for the Fighting Irish and reflects on the last game he will played in Notre Dame stadium.

When Chris Finke finished his on-field postgame interview, the Notre Dame Stadium DJ queued up the Macarena. Two weeks ago, the fifth-year receiver celebrated his two touchdowns at Duke by performing the dance on the Irish sidelines. It fit Saturday’s result again, with No. 16 Notre Dame (9-2) having little trouble gaining 501 yards in a 40-7 victory against Boston College.

But Finke didn’t dance as he walked up the tunnel for the final time of his storybook Irish career. As he slipped out of sight of the fans, the Macarena ended and with it, any thoughts of a bigger Notre Dame celebration for winning its 18th straight home game, finishing its second straight unbeaten home slate, and sending the seniors out with a win.

The Irish were satisfied as they enjoyed the moment, but hardly jubilant. Perhaps the cold subdued justified pride, but more likely, Notre Dame has decided it isn’t content with the status quo. After the embarrassment at Michigan to end October, that status quo became that of a good, not great team.

Winning five games in November does not erase that memory, but it does distance it, both in public perception and in locker room mentality.

“This is huge,” Irish senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji said. “To keep building on these wins, to keep building on success, this is important for our team. We always talk about winning in November. That’s a big part of what we’re doing right now.

“Set the tone for the future people who are going to be here, future kids, future young players. We can win in November.”

Notre Dame is not messing around with those wins, either, notching three consecutive 30-point victories for the first time since 1988.

The Irish offense is firing on all cylinders, and the defense is removing the opposition’s preferred means of attack each week. Virginia Tech could not rely on its physical receivers; Navy could not get comfortable with the triple-option; Boston College could not cut loose star running back AJ Dillon.

If this is the defensive standard, it is a sustainable one, and frankly, it has been the standard under defensive coordinator Clark Lea. With that one exception a state northward, his defense has only improved. Even in that disappointment, Notre Dame stood strong for a significant middle portion of the game, but its offense never picked it up. The Irish are giving up only 18.2 points per game, despite entering the season with questions at linebacker, concerns at defensive tackle and worries at cornerback depth, not to mention losing two stud defensive ends to injury.

“We wanted to be the best defense as a whole in November,” said junior linebacker Drew White, who has formed a pairing with fifth-year Asmar Bilal that warrants notice from opposing offensive coordinators.

They were all a part of that fall in the Big House. That night ended any hopes of a return to the Playoff. Until a Pac-12 upset late Saturday night — and maybe still so, depending where Penn State falls in the rankings — that 45-14 loss last month ended any hopes of a New Year’s Six bowl. Going through the motions afterward may not have been preferable in any regard, but it still would have been a nod toward human nature.

Notre Dame opted otherwise.

“We talk about failure,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Failure is not fatal, and it’s the ability to come back from those times. This group has certainly learned that and understands how it’s that group that gets back up and goes to work and perseveres and shows grit, and they’re just great life lessons.”

In that respect, it was fitting these seniors would not celebrate winning on a day honoring them. Their freshman year was the 4-8 debacle of 2016. They know failure, they know it better than they think anyone at Notre Dame should ever know it. Thus, they also knew how to respond to the Michigan failure.

They have. In doing so, the Irish have repositioned themselves among college football’s near-the-top tier. If Notre Dame does win next week, it will be one of only six teams to win 10-plus wins each of the last three seasons. Its home winning streak ends up in sentences next to Clemson. Only Alabama has a longer stretch of beating unranked teams.

It is not an accident the Irish are near those names. They are not on that level yet, but they are within range, and that would not have been the case if not for this response to that rain-soaked faceplant. It would not be the case if they had not won 18 straight at Notre Dame Stadium. It would not be the case if November had not become so definitive.

“November is hard,” White said. “Any college player would tell you that. It’s the end of the season, it’s the end of the semester, you have school work, your body is hurting, mentally you are worn down.

“What has really gotten us through this is the captains have taken charge, brought people in at practice, telling us we have to keep fighting. Great teams win in November.”

One of those captains saw little reason to celebrate Saturday, even as the Stadium literally begged him to dance. Finke and the Irish had one carrot to reach for this season after the Ann Arbor disaster, running the table at home.

Even with that done, Notre Dame, Finke and the rest of the seniors want more.