Notre Dame needs tunnel vision to deal with next four weeks

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH — Disrespect is something Notre Dame football players handle well.

It’s like Bunker Mentality 101 is part of the Freshman Studies curriculum.

Dealing with acclaim, though, may be a completely different situation.

Tunnel-vision blinders aren’t part of the Under Armour issue.

But, maybe they should be.

All of a sudden, heading into Saturday’s matinee at Pittsburgh, the Irish are faced with the quite unusual task of having their body of work completely appreciated by those who matter.

Despite an early loss to Clemson, the College Football Playoff selection committee ranked Notre Dame No. 5 in its first poll, close enough to the promised land to get a bird’s eye view of expectations. Seven undefeated teams were positioned behind the Irish.

It’s like the committee members were sitting in the room the other day when coach Brian Kelly was stating his case about Notre Dame having played three undefeated teams — Clemson, Navy and Temple — and its bitter rival — Southern Cal — in the last four games, winning three of them.

Of course, it’s fool’s gold.

Anybody who matters, and even some who don’t, realize that a No. 5 ranking in the first poll and $1.25 will get a can of diet pop at the nearest vending machine.

But still, it’s human nature to bask in the moment. It’s completely normal for any 18- to 22-year-old to get swept away by the possibilities that seem close enough to touch, taste and smell.

“You have to take it one game at a time,” said junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, spouting the company line. “You have to understand that it means nothing if you lose. That’s the approach that we have. We’re really just focused on beating Pitt.”

Then, being the leader, veteran and team spokesman that he is, Smith allowed himself to deviate from the script a bit and put the situation into realistic terms.

“We all have cellphones,” Smith said. “We can’t control social media. There’s no way that we can hide not being happy about being ranked No. 5.”

These aren’t robots under the gold helmets. They’re young men who are fueled by passion. They can’t play the game without the fire stoked from within.

Having a tangible goal that is quite attainable adds another reason to achieve. The flip side, though, is to not let the fear of losing to get in the way of winning.

“We have to keep attacking,” said Irish running back C.J. Prosise. “We have to keep doing what we do.”

What the Irish usually do so well is put that chip on their shoulder, hunker down, and try to prove the rest of the world wrong. In this new role, that predatory persona is missing. Baylor, Michigan State, TCU and Iowa are all undefeateds that feel they’ve been wronged as they look up at Notre Dame, as well as No. 4 Alabama, which also has a loss. It’s the Irish who have a target on their back.

The mandate’s the same for every team in the field — win and it all will work out in the end.

“It's cool that we're ranked where we are,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “I didn't know where we were ranked until someone told me. I didn't know the rankings were coming out.

“We could be ranked 5 or 55. It doesn't really matter until the last week of the year. We have a game this week.”

Defensive lineman Sheldon Day, while calling it “noise” that can only be controlled by winning the next game, did admit to about “13 seconds” of excitement about being ranked ahead of some of those with perfect records.

“We kind of hooted and hollered,” Day said. “It was after practice, we were watching the rankings. We hooted and hollered; kind of got together and said, ‘This doesn't mean anything, we have to win out and be in our best in November.’”

“We completely understand it means absolutely nothing at this point in time of the year,” said quarterback DeShone Kizer. “It doesn't necessarily bring us to any sort of confidence level.

“It makes us put in our mind that we're right there in the top. But we just understand there's only one way we're going to end up accomplishing that goal, and that's to win out and take care of business on our end. That's the mindset we've had all season, it's going to continue go forward. As long as we go 1-0 each week, we'll see where we end up at the end.”

Pass out the blinders. Prepare for the long haul.

Four weeks without disrespect can be tough.

Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates a sack during the Notre Dame-Texas NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN