SOUTH BEND — Options abound each time Notre Dame senior wide receiver Chase Claypool snares a pass and turns upfield.
Get out of bounds or battle for a few more yards? Claypool’s taking Option No. 2 every time.
Claypool is savvy enough and experienced enough and even cocky enough — good enough — to believe that if he can’t run away from a tackler, he’s going to run over him. Or through him.
Case in point was the season opener Labor Day night at Louisville. Having snatched an Ian Book throw in the second half, Claypool weaved and rolled from one side of the field to the other. Seeing the goal line within reach, he raced toward the near pylon, only to be knocked out of bounds shy of his destination.
Claypool admitted afterward while standing in a parking stall under Cardinal Stadium that he remained down for an extra breath or two because he was exhausted, not because he’d taken a big hit. All was well. If Claypool had the chance to run the same route again, he’d do it the same way.
Straight ahead. No dodging anybody. Or any consequences. Kind of like how Claypool met the media earlier this week.
Following that 35-17 victory by now No. 7 Notre Dame, various Irish did their best to put a happy face on it. Good first game. Good first road game. Plenty to take away from it. Get a shower, get dressed, get on the bus and then the plane and get home.
All was well, right?
Sure, but in the days that followed, which included a bye week — nothing like shutting it all down after revving it all up — the Irish came to a collective realization.
That first game wasn’t all that fine. It was sloppy. It was below the standard this program has held itself to the past two-plus seasons.
Earlier this week, Claypool came clean on what everyone inside and even outside the program was thinking. A win was a win and it was hard-earned and good to get, but….
“We weren’t satisfied walking off the field,” Claypool said. “We have a lot to prove this game.”
This game being Saturday’s home opener against overmatched in all areas New Mexico (1-0). Coming off that bye week, the Irish are fresh and, maybe more importantly, focused.
It was that focus that got a little fuzzy about four hours south 12 days ago. Every play put in by offensive coordinator Chip Long, the Irish wanted to turn into a home run. Every defense that Clark Lea dialed up from on high, they wanted to dominate.
If there’s anything to being too ready to play, Claypool admitted, Notre Dame was.
“Maybe we got too caught up,” Claypool said. “Maybe that’s what the narrative is around that game.”
Maybe, but that narrative took shape inside the Guglielmino Center, not by the outside-the-circle media. Brian Kelly talked this week of the Irish not looking much like the Irish against Louisville. They got out of their comfort zone. They looked to make big plays instead of winning plays. They let everything about the opener — the bright lights, the expectations, heck, maybe a hangover from the College Football Playoff — cloud their collective focus.
The Irish, Kelly said, “got outside ourselves.”
How do they jump back inside?
“Just doing our job,” said senior defensive end Julian Okwara, one of those more outside than inside the first game out. “Focus on your job Not try to be anyone outside of who you already are. We’ll be all right.”
The opener helped in this sense — Notre Dame has film of itself trying to run this and attempting to stop that against guys in other jerseys. That film didn’t lie. The Irish weren’t good in areas they need to be great. Notre Dame had a week and a half to go back and fix what needed fixing. Whether that’s something schematic or something between the ears, expect that it’s fixed.
“Ton of stuff to clean up,” said right guard Tommy Kraemer. “Be more consistent.”
On both sides of the ball. That means converting a few more of those third downs on offense and getting off the field on third down on defense. Settle in and play. Don’t worry about making big plays. Each guy does his job, those big plays will come against a New Mexico team that arrives as a five-touchdown underdog.
Kelly promised that the Irish will be better Saturday. No chance this is a repeat of last year’s second game, Ball State. If it is, Kelly and the Irish have bigger issues, issues that nobody can see.
This should be a day we see why Notre Dame’s a Top 10 team. Why the expectations are high. Why the standard is the standard. See what we should’ve seen against Louisville.
The Irish talked in preseason of doing more, of dominating their opponent. Didn’t happen first time out. Likely will happen second time out. Ian Book? He’ll be better. Okwara? He’ll be better. The Irish linebackers? They’ll be better. The interior lines? Better.
Bad news for the Lobos, who have no business being in this game. Just collect the buy-game check of reportedly $1.1 million and get back to Albuquerque. With head coach Bob Davie not making the trip, there’s little intrigue left in this one.
Really, there’s none, except for maybe how Notre Dame might’ve massaged the final attendance numbers to keep its 267-game sellout streak intact. Even that won’t happen after Notre Dame officially announced Friday morning that this one’s a sellout.
College football enters its third week, though Notre Dame remains a relatively blank canvas. That Louisville game seems like 12 weeks ago, not 12 days. Time for the Irish to add to the overall illustration and bring the bigger picture into better focus.