Notre Dame football: Wins, prayers critical for BCS

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Welcome to the "everything to lose, and not a heck of a lot to gain" portion of the Notre Dame football schedule.

Phase 1 went as expected Saturday, sort of: Notre Dame 45, Air Force 10.

The Falcons might have moved the ball a little easier than Irish coach Brian Kelly would have liked in the first quarter, but that got figured out fast.

That leaves two more of these exhibitions — Navy and Pitt — before the stretch drive with BYU and Stanford.

The Irish, unranked heading into Saturday's game, are running out of opportunities to impress. Statement games don't happen against 1-7 teams like Air Force. If Notre Dame doesn't win big in its next two games, voters will raise a skeptical eye.

Style points might not be as important as they were last season, but for a team on the BCS bubble, it isn't just about winning; it's about living up to perception.

What are the odds? Recent history with Navy or Pitt hasn't been kind. Reality could trump perception.

Given the current situation, Notre Dame could be 8-2 and still may not have cracked the Top 20. Besides the win over Air Force, the best thing that happened to the Irish over the weekend was BYU's convincing win late Friday over Boise State.

At least the Cougars should have some credibility when they come to Notre Dame Stadium in late November.

Notre Dame's mandate is to finish in the top 14 of the BCS Standings in order to avoid being sentenced to some obscure, third-tier, cold-weather bowl in which the payout won't cover expenses.

The only way that happens is for the Irish to run the table — a tall order considering the season ends at Stanford.

Even so, it's not totally out of the question that a 10-2 team could be ranked lower than No. 14. Not probable, but possible.

It's been commendable that Notre Dame has stayed in the hunt this long. Heading into November with a BCS opportunity still a possibility — though the margin for error has disappeared — is an achievement.

It boils down to one aspect of the game: Run defense.

The Irish were able to shut down the running games of Arizona State and Southern Cal (after the first quarter) well enough to force those offenses to be one dimensional. Once Notre Dame was able to dictate what was allowed, the games were played on its terms.

Air Force doesn't have one of the worst offenses in college football by accident. Close your eyes, digest the offensive numbers (17-of-22 for 284 yards, 5 TDs, 0 turnovers) and it's hard to understand why Irish quarterback Tommy Rees isn't a Heisman candidate.

How 'bout a "Rees for Heisman" cold drink cozy getting churned out by the promotional machine?

Rees' fish-in-a-barrel long-range accuracy elevated him to the rarefied air of such legendary Notre Dame quarterbacks as Ron Powlus and Jimmy Clausen for career touchdowns (54).

Now that's an elite group worthy of its own Mt. Rushmore. Or, in this case, Mt. Passmore.

As effective as Rees was, the running game was miserable.

Somebody obviously kidnapped the George Atkinson that bulled his way for 148 yards on 14 carries against Oklahoma and outfitted a guy wearing No. 4 who tiptoed into tackles and would routinely go down on first contact.

Remember folks, this was one of the worst defenses against the run (No. 111, to be exact) in the country.

Finally in the third quarter, this week's viral photo sensation, heartthrob Cam McDaniel, figured out that plowing through the middle of the Air Force line was the best route to big yardage.

If Notre Dame's offense is going to be effective in those final four games, a run game has to be established. Without diversity, average defenses will have success.

Even with Tommy Football under center.

The most critical situations to consider over before the second bye week:

*Navy found a little confidence with a last-second victory over Pitt Saturday.

*Irish freshman Steve Elmer had a baptism by fire at right guard, after Christian Lombard's season-ending back surgery. How Elmer meshes with sophomore tackle Ronnie Stanley will be imperative.

*What's the status of nose guard Louis Nix's shoulder/knee injuries? Getting Irish Chocolate back in the middle of the defensive line makes a big difference.

*Down on the list is the development of a backup quarterback, whether it's Andrew Hendrix or Malik Zaire, if Kelly has to bite the bullet and un-redshirt him. Of course, the Irish are just a Rees twisted ankle away from that being an utmost priority.

Saturday's win did little to alter the trajectory of Notre Dame's season. Even though progress will be slow, it wasn't a step backward.

Just win. And hope for the best.

Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson (2) pulls down Air Force quarterback Nate Romine (6) from behind during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013, at Falcon Stadium in Air Force Academy, Colo. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER