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Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s fatigue understandable part of Playoff argument

Ian Book Boston College

John Quackenbos

Notre Dame reaches its scheduled idle week in better shape than just about anyone else in the country, yet Irish head coach Brian Kelly already feels the urgency necessitating politicking.

The requisite qualifier of scheduled idle week explains that pressure wholesale. No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) has already equaled or exceeded the number of games nearly half the country hopes to play, despite taking an unplanned week off in late September along with a corrupted-but-planned one, and it has three ACC contests still scheduled with a fourth increasingly likely.

But each day brings another 1,400 coronavirus deaths in the United States, each week brings another five days of rumors swirling around games’ statuses from coast-to-coast, and each weekend brings another increase to the number of games canceled or postponed, with fewer and fewer lucky enough to qualify as postponed. 15 such games this weekend underscored the fragile viability of the remaining schedule, even for a program already with an outbreak nearly two months into its rearview mirror and a public-relations debacle of a scare now seemingly survived this past week.

The Irish intend to still play North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest, and then they hope to face Clemson in the ACC championship game on Dec. 19, but those four programs have to hold up, as well. It takes two to play a game, obviously. There is no guarantee it all comes to pass. So as soon as Notre Dame had dispatched Boston College, 45-31, sans drama, Kelly sought appreciation for what his team has done to date.

“We’ve already played a Big Ten schedule,” he said. “We’ve completed eight games. That’s clearly more than the Pac 12 will play.”

His point is valid and worth making. Whether or not the Irish reach 9-0, 11-0 or 11-1 — a 12-0 ACC champion would have nothing to worry about whatsoever in this dialogue — they will be contrasted with Ohio State and Oregon, as long as they each remain unbeaten. Buckeyes fans arguing quantity does not matter would be a rich piece of irony, but this may be the sole season it does matter.

Navigating a longer schedule this year is harder in ways beyond football, but all tied to football by the emphasis of the sport during a pandemic.

“It takes a lot,” Kelly said. “Our team was tired tonight. You could see that they were, especially on defense, because [remaining disciplined about all coronavirus protocols] requires a lot of mental energy. Certainly the physical of playing a lot of games, that takes its toll.”

Notre Dame would know, having had that September outbreak with nearly 40 positive tests but still on pace to play 12 games before the College Football Playoff selections are made. Ohio State will max out at eight games, the Ducks at seven.

This is less an indictment of those programs and more a statement of reality. Their conferences made what they deemed to be the safe and prudent decisions; the teams can only play the games ahead of them, if even those as the Buckeyes learned this week when their matchup with Maryland was called off while the Terps assess the reach of some positive tests. But these are the teams the Irish will be held up against, along with Alabama, Florida and Clemson, though those résumés will be more similar to Notre Dame’s, not to mention the Irish should have a chance to end any Tigers’ Playoff hopes outright.

Beating Clemson once played a role in Notre Dame’s sluggish start at Boston College, falling behind 10-3 and 13-10 before taking control of the game 20 minutes in.

“We’re testing, we tested four times this week. Obviously, the training room. We played a double-overtime game (last week), those kids probably didn’t go to bed until 4 o’clock in the morning,” Kelly said. “All those things matter when we talk about cumulative games across the board.

“When you’re picking your teams, if this is just one game and you want to put up one team and one game, it’s pretty easy to see who’s really good for one week. But to stretch it out over, for us, we’re going to play 11, 12 games — that’s a whole different test that we’re going to be facing than some other schools that are not going to play as many games as we are.”

The coach of an unbeaten No. 2 team with the best win of the season across all of college football would not usually feel the need to make this case preemptively. Kelly would wait until and if the Irish lost in Charlotte before worrying much about Oregon’s body of work and the (lack of) quality of the Pac 12.

Yet each week’s rash of canceled games underscores the pressing need. Kelly does not actively worry about Notre Dame, but he has already learned first-hand the logic of expecting trouble.

“I don’t come in every day worried that we’re going to be shut down because our guys have been extremely responsible,” he said Thursday. “But the virus is as the virus is, right? It’s out there and you never know.”

It’s out there more than ever. Canceling 15 games this weekend sets up for just as many, if not likely more, next weekend. More and more of the shoehorned season will disappear.

But the Irish have already put together eight wins, and in beating Boston College so casually, Notre Dame proved it does not have to be at its best to win most games.

Fortunate, too, because the Irish are too beat up and too worn out to be at their best currently. The scheduled idle week is needed.

Mentally, three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties showed the frayed edges. Talking trash is one thing, but repeatedly, including when the game is tied, is another.

“That’s not the standard,” fifth-year defensive end Ade Ogundeji said. “We’ve got to do better on that.”

Losing three fumbles showed the physical effects of the fatigued focus, though Kelly downplayed concern over the rash of turnovers. If being critical, one would wonder if numerous dropped interceptions were also a symptom of the stress.

Notre Dame has played six weeks in a row, the entire time building up to last week, while always on high-alert to avoid another outbreak. In 2020 terms, six weeks of tension is akin to six months, if not more. This is a strung-out roster at the moment. A week off is welcomed.

“It’s good timing,” fifth-year quarterback Ian Book said. “These guys could use a break. … It’s a great time to rest up and get our bodies back to where they need to be.”

In that respect, one bit of the season will feel normal. The Irish will use the week to get junior receiver Braden Lenzy back into the rotation after a minor hamstring procedure a few weeks ago. Junior running back C’Bo Flemister (leg) and sophomore running back Kyren Williams (shoulder) were both beat up enough by the end of Saturday to be sidelined, though Kelly did not express concern over either. Senior right tackle Robert Hainsey took to the sideline early thanks to a nagging ankle. Junior defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola will miss at least the North Carolina game on Black Friday after surgery to repair a meniscus injury earlier this week.

Notre Dame needs to heal up, and it needs to rest, and it needs to unwind. Getting to the scheduled idle at 8-0 gives the Irish those luxuries, but they also have to hope they can return to action afterward.

Doing so will only help the Playoff argument that already needs to be made but normally would not be so much as considered.

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