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Things We Learned: Notre Dame risks turning attention ahead to Clemson to find peak before Nov. 7

Ian Book Notre Dame

Oct 24, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) looks on from the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Panthers during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Fighting Irish won 45-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

So much for coach-speak. Brian Kelly and No. 3 Notre Dame (5-0, 4-0 ACC) are no longer taking 2020 one week at a time, not focusing on only the coming opponent, not pretending to forget who comes to South Bend next on the schedule.

Scuffling past Louisville a week ago was a risk too far for Kelly’s patience. It was time for the Irish to start playing like they are one of the most talented teams in the country.

“We’re interested in being a championship football team, and just playing to win games is not good enough anymore,” Kelly said after Notre Dame deconstructed Pittsburgh in every way, 45-3, on Saturday. “We need to elevate our compete level. We need to coach better. We need to play better. We need to play at an elite level.

“It starts with playing at a level that allows you to not all of a sudden play your best when you have to, but have that ready to go because you are playing at a high level.”

The Irish needed to play at a high level in the second half against the Cardinals just to piece together a win. They never needed to find that level against the Panthers because they were there by default.

Notre Dame’s offensive stats speak for themselves, let alone in the context that they came against one of the better defenses in the country led by arguably the nation’s best defensive line. 83 plays. 9.7 yards per pass attempt. 11-of-18 on third downs. 40:59 time of possession.

As Kelly jested, that’s a pretty good day. The Irish had not matched a single one of those numbers in any of the previous four games, all against inferior defenses compared to Pittsburgh’s.

“Coach Kelly had a clear message before the game to come out, play loose and make plays,” graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek said. “That was our focus as an offense and as a whole team, just make plays and play loose. Not worry about the score but worry about winning the individual matchups and just make plays.”

Skowronek made bigger plays than anyone, beating his defender in one-on-one coverage for two Ian Book passes and then turning them into 34- and 73-yard touchdowns. Those dramatic moments set a tone and created too much of a deficit for the Panthers to reasonably think of overcoming. They will be needed moving forward now that junior receiver Kevin Austin has reinjured the foot he broke in August and will miss the rest of the season.

But Notre Dame’s offensive explosion went deeper than Skowronek’s deep go routes. That array of stats illustrates efficiency, prolificness and control. When the Irish needed to run, they ran. For the second week in a row, Notre Dame ran off nearly eight minutes to end the game, handing off the ball 12 times in 14 plays to chew up 28 yards and 7:52.

When the Irish needed to pass, the chance to exploit Pittsburgh’s devotion to stopping the run, Skowronek made the plays, as did freshman tight end Michael Mayer (“a very important weapon for us,” per Kelly) and senior receiver Avery Davis (three catches for 44 yards).

“This game plan was centered around our ability to make plays down the field throwing the football,” Kelly said. “It’s difficult to run the ball when there’s nine guys there and it’s man-to-man, regardless of how good your offensive line is.”

Kelly views a balanced offense as one that can threaten an opponent via the ground or the air with equal aplomb. For the first time in 2020, Notre Dame had a balanced offense in Heinz Field. By no coincidence, for the first time in 2020 — more honestly, for the first time in at least eight years, if not 15 — the Irish looked like they could hold their own on the field against the-team-that-used-to-not-be-named.

Kelly not only answered questions that directly referenced No. 1 Clemson and its date with Notre Dame in two weeks, but he evoked the thought voluntarily.

“The challenge this week was so much more about individuals and the team understanding that what’s important now is also about what’s important next,” he said in his postgame opening remarks. “There’s an understanding with this group that everything they do now has bearings on who we are as a football team later in the season.”

Kelly felt a need for the Irish to prove to themselves what they can be, that they will have a chance on Nov. 7. Struggling against a disappointing Louisville team left palpable doubt in that regard. Playing Pittsburgh off the field in all three phases brought with it some belief.

That belief alone will not top the Tigers, and if things had gone sideways in the Steel City, this change in tone would most likely have been stuffed in Kelly’s back pocket and never been acknowledged publicly. But things did not go sideways, and Notre Dame suddenly has an idea what it looks like at its best.

“It’s risky, in some instances, people would say you’re looking ahead,” Kelly said. “We are looking ahead a little bit. We needed to get this football team to understand that they are really good.”

Kelly has coached the Irish for 11 years now and his career spans three decades. He has presumably never before said, “We are looking ahead a little bit.”

Notre Dame hosts Clemson in 13 days. It might not pull off the biggest Irish upset in 27 years, but it is now feasible the-team-that-used-to-not-be-named may face something it is not accustomed to, an opponent without fear.

“Play fearless, go get the football, attack all the time,” Kelly said of his charge. “Because we’re going to need to look like this down the road if you want to fulfill any of your goals.”

Notre Dame will not need that approach this coming weekend, but that is no reason to shelve the long-lost aggression. If it was good enough for Pittsburgh, it can serve well against the-team-that-needs-not-be-named, because it isn’t Clemson.

(It’s Georgia Tech.)

Skowronek’s Irish breakthrough came less than two days after Austin was lost for the season, fitting in that if anybody on the roster right now can sympathize with the heralded junior, it is Skowronek. His arrival in South Bend took some time to gain steam thanks to a balky hamstring, making him worry about the season he moved 100 miles east to enjoy.

“For me, personally, getting off to a very slow start to the season — but coming out today, being able to make some plays to help the team win, obviously feels good,” Skowronek said. “... I’m sick for Kevin. He’s worked so hard, doing all the right things. I just feel terrible for him.

“When somebody goes down, somebody has to step up.”

That will need to be Skowronek, the only example of sure hands on a big frame among Notre Dame’s receivers.

Kelly indicated Austin should be back by the spring, but the exact steps forward have yet to be laid out, perhaps partly because another setback is so disheartening for a former four-star recruit who flashed as a freshman only to have that season quietly curtailed and his sophomore year spent sidelined by silent suspension.

“He’s had a rough run of it,” Kelly said. “But we’re going to get him right and get him back for next year.”

Austin finishes the 2020 season with two catches for 18 yards.

Junior receiver Braden Lenzy’s absence should be shorter. He pulled up in the fourth quarter, clearly favoring his hamstring, an issue that has slowed him throughout the season. Kelly said the scar tissue of Lenzy’s original hamstring injury has proven troublesome, but if the issue does not extend beyond that scar tissue, getting back to 100 percent should not be a lengthy process.

Junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy did not make the trip to Pittsburgh, but not out of coronavirus concerns.

“There are other sicknesses,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know that after being caught up in this (pandemic) for so long.

“He had been sick and under the weather, and we just felt like it wasn’t right to travel him under the conditions that we’re at.”

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