Enough with the expected post-game explanation nonsense.
Too easy to lean on the excuse that this was the first time out this college football season for No. 10 Notre Dame. Or that the Irish didn’t have a full preseason practice. Or couldn’t get in more than one spring workout. It’s that way for everybody across the college football board in today’s coronavirus pandemic world. Everyone can claim it. Everyone can lean on it.
Irish coach Brian Kelly ventured down that route early Saturday evening following Notre Dame’s 27-13 victory over Duke at Notre Dame Stadium. He insisted earlier in the week that there would be no excuses. When it was time to play, the Irish would play.
Kelly then couched his team’s early sluggishness with the program’s slow progress to sustain anything that resembled football the last six months.
“It’s difficult to duplicate game-like speed when you haven’t had that in a very long time,” said Kelly, whose Irish played their first actual game in 259 days since the 2019 Camping World Bowl, which seems like it occurred in another life.
“My expectation is that it was going to be a process. We just had to be patient, and you saw we were patient.
“We looked like the team we should have in the second half.”
They looked good then, but it took time to get there.
It wasn’t the most impressive of wins. It’s not going to strike much fear through their Atlantic Coast Conference colleagues, particularly one down South Carolina way. The wow factor was about a five on a 10-wow scale. That’s OK.
Any frustration about this one speaks to the standard of a program that’s won at least 10 games in each of the past three seasons while going 33-6. These are the expectation heights of a program that’s won its last 19 at home, a program that’s expected to challenge for — wait for it — an ACC championship.
Saturday was an all-right effort. A solid start. A first step. But one from the 10th-ranked team in the country? Could have been better.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” quarterback Ian Book said. “Definitely a great way to start.”
Book struggled to find a flow, mainly because it was so hard for him to make the easy play. In baseball verbiage, when he needed to slap a single, he swung for the fence.
Like the screen pass he zinged past tight end Tommy Tremble, which turned into an interception in the end zone. Like not getting the ball effortlessly to Kyren Williams on a screen play that was destined for big yardage.
“He’s got to make some of the easy plays,” Kelly said. “He can’t be great yet.”
Of course he can. Book’s a three-year starter with a career record of 21-3. The training wheels long fell off. It’s time to drive this offense hard and fast down the field. Make the easy plays. The tough plays, Any plays.
Be better than 19-for-31 for 263 yards and one score against three sacks and the pick. Look more in command and comfortable in the pocket. Not stagger through three and out in the first three offensive series in a veteran offense that needed to run 13 plays before gaining its first first down. Not going a pedestrian 7-for-16 on third-down conversions despite a starting offensive line that returns all five starters and is touted among the nation’s finest.
Great lines dominate third down. This was barely average. Or was it?
“I like the way the energy was,” Book said. “I didn’t see anybody shy away. Everybody was ready to go. Like, we’re fine. There’s no reason to freak out. We’ve been doing this all camp.”
They could’ve done more of it Saturday from the start.
Kelly wondered afterward why anyone would expect the Irish to look like a “shiny new car,” from the start. Sure, there was rust, but no way should it look like a car that sputtered and coughed and wheezed its way down the college football highway for nearly a half. No reason to look in need of an oil change, a battery jump and four new tires.
“I don’t think it was difficult for us to get a groove going,” said wide receiver Avery Davis, who started and caught his third career touchdown.
Once everything got rolling, it wasn’t going to slow. They Irish are too talented. Too deep. Too together. Too good. All of that allowed the home team to dictate the second half when they did look like that shiny, new car. Turn it loose on the open road next weekend. Put the top down, turn up the tunes and go.
Give us even more of Williams after the sophomore rushed for over 100 yards (112) and finished with nearly 100 receiving yards (91). More from freshman tight end Michael Mayer, but less about his nickname “Baby Gronk.”
Anything from Braden Lenzy. And keep building that depth up and down the defensive side of the ball that helped tip the talent tables in the second half.
Duke’s offense threw Notre Dame for a loop the first few drives. The Irish adjusted, settled down and settled in. When they did, everything was different.
“We executed to the best of our abilities,” said rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. “We were able to adjust. We haven’t competed since December.”
So a win’s a win after so much time away and wins are tough to come by, especially the way the world is today. But this also is where this program is today — where the standard is. It’s a high bar to hit every week.
That standard wasn’t met over four quarters. That’s not a negative. Not for this group. Not for this season.