SOUTH BEND — Covered by clouds for most of the previous two days, skies over Notre Dame Stadium began clearing early Saturday evening around the same time the big picture was coming into focus for the No. 10 Irish football team.
Hey, look, the sun. Hey, look, a heck of an effort by the home team. Hey, look, a really promising future.
If Saturday was to be as defining a day as coach Brian Kelly had promised (hoped?) a week earlier in Georgia, something would have to happen to make it as such against No. 18 Virginia. Something that nobody saw coming on a day that featured the only clash between two ranked teams.
It indeed turned into something that nobody expected. Something that would force the rest of college football to sit up and take further notice of Notre Dame. Saturday indeed was defining. Definitely defining.
Oh, and dominant. Especially defensively. Whoa.
On a day when the Irish offense sputtered at times and sailed in others, it was the defense that provided some clarity to this team. To this season. The Georgia loss aside, the rest of the regular season now opens up for Notre Dame following a 35-20 victory. It didn’t seem that close.
“It was not an easy week,” Kelly said. “We challenged them. They accepted the challenge. The staff accepted the challenge. They responded.
“They were exactly what I wanted them to be.”
How was that?
Determined. Persistent. Poised. Mature. Together. Pick one. Pick them all. The Irish were, just, different.
“Maybe teams I had here earlier wouldn’t have found a way to win that game,” Kelly said. “They didn’t flinch.”
At anything. It wasn’t so much that the Irish (3-1) won a game that many feared they’d struggle in. It was the way in which Notre Dame won that really sets the stage for the coming weeks and months for this football team. After the way they played, what’s the ceiling for this group? For this season?
Those questions might not have answers, and that’s OK. Because the way Notre Dame worked Saturday, especially on defense, especially in the second half when the home team had every reason to hang their collective heads and feel sorry for themselves, they did the opposite.
They planted their collective feet in the plastic grass and wrestled control of this one. They just didn’t win a game. They took it.
Mistakes aside, stops and starts by and an OK day by the offense aside, Notre Dame cleared what might be one of its few big hurdles remaining. This win slingshots the Irish into October, which can slingshot them into November success, which will keep Notre Dame relevant in the big-picture (playoff) conversation.
Look, Saturday does nothing to ensure a trip back to the College Football Playoff. Or going 11-1. or even 10-2 or 9-3. But what it did do was serve as a reminder — don’t forget about Notre Dame. The Irish are still there. May still be there when it’s all over.
As for those special teams, they were anything but after Notre Dame was bitten by a perfectly-called and even better executed on-side kick to start the second half. On a day when it could ill afford it, Notre Dame seemed headed for one of those days. One that ends with questions and concerns and long Irish faces and trying to find ways to pick up the pieces. To explain how another game got away from them. How they’d have to carry on and keep pushing through the rest of the schedule.
That wasn’t going to happen. Not on this day. Not to this group. Because when the Irish defense needed to find another gear, it found so many more. They weren’t just good. They were scary good.
Notre Dame entered Saturday having sacked the quarterback four times the first three games. The Irish doubled that number and then some while dropping Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins eight times. Julian Okwara was a nightmare turning the corner and bearing down on the backfield. So was Khalid Kareem. And Jamir Jones, who stepped in after an injury shelved Daelin Hayes.
“We definitely knew we had to pick it up and show that we’re the best D-line in the country,” said Jones, who may have blown up any plan to possibly redshirt him this season.
Jones spent the entire week on scout team. He ended it surrounded by media in the interview room. That’s a pretty good jump.
Virginia had the ball six times in the third quarter. The Cavaliers ran 20 plays and gained a total of 31 yards. With the defense giving the ball back to the offense, Ian Book finally found some flow. So did Tony Jones Jr. At one point, Notre Dame scored 21 unanswered points. It played with a cruelness it hadn’t shown this year. It took Virginia’s will. Took its fight. Took its heart.
“We took over that game in the second half,” Kelly said.
While heads may have dropped on that sideline, it was as the opposite on the home side. Heads were held high. Guys were in good moods. Plays were being made. By this guy. By that guy. By a lot of guys.
“It’s so fun,” defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa said when it got rolling for the Irish. “It’s so contagious. When you’re on the sideline and see everyone smiling, you want to smile too.”
Following the Georgia game, Kareem who fired a warning shot to upcoming opponents. Be careful, Kareem said, because the Irish would be ready. They’d have even more of an edge about them. They were dangerous.
Did they have that edge Saturday?
“A little,” Kareem said. “But honestly, we’re still the same team.”
A good team. A really good team. A team with a whole lot in front of them waiting for them to go and get.