Vorel: Notre Dame must meet its 'standard' against USC — and beyond

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

When in doubt, Brian Kelly cites the standard.

The eighth-year Notre Dame head coach’s press conferences, in fact, are frequented by a rotating cast of usual suspects, coach-speak words and phrases sprinkled generously onto his sentences like salt on an icy sidewalk.

Q: What does Player A need to do to contribute?

A: Work on the Traits of Excellence.

Q: How do you account for the team’s defensive improvement?

A: Grit.

Q: What has allowed the Irish to finish games?

A: Laser focus. Attention to detail.

The question hardly matters.

The answer, more often than not, is “the standard of Notre Dame.”

“I think it's critical to continue to play to the standard of Notre Dame. I mean, that's what we have to play to. There's a standard of play that Notre Dame needs to play to,” Kelly said on Tuesday, when asked about the importance of Saturday’s game against rival USC.

“Look, at the end of the day, we're all going to be judged by wins and losses and I understand that and I said that from day one. But there's a standard of play that we have to live up to. Our players understand that, and that's the most important thing is a standard of play that we're interested in.”

OK, but what does that mean? What does it look like? Is it a win total? Is it championships or bust? Does it encompass a set number of touchdowns or takeaways? Or is it just an answer at a press conference, eight letters of empty jargon?

What, exactly, is “the standard of Notre Dame”?

“These plaques,” said sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes, motioning to a series of posters lining the walls of the auditorium. Each one contained a list of key words, the “mental performance foundation.” Awareness. Motivation. Confidence. Intensity management. Attention control.

Above, a list of Notre Dame’s bowl victories were scrawled across the wall.

“We talk about our traits, all of that stuff,” he continued. “We know what we’re capable of, and we prepared relentlessly this offseason for opportunities like this. So we’re ready to just go out and show the world.”

“The standard is set to be great here,” added left tackle and two-time captain Mike McGlinchey. “When you don’t live up to that, that’s when you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror and go back to the drawing board. We’ve done a good job so far of playing to a standard that we’ve set. When we have dipped below it, we’ve been able to fight our way back up so far. That’s what we hope to continue to do.

“ ‘Standard’ is such a broad word, but it’s just about being as consistent and as great as you can be. That’s pretty much all you can say.”

At Notre Dame, home of the No. 2 all-time winning percentage, the standard is national championships, not Camping World Bowl appearances. The standard is to win every football game. Home games. Road games. Ranked games. Rivalry games. Games when it’s raining and your starting quarterback can’t play.

Every. Game. That includes Saturday’s primetime match up against No. 11 USC (6-1) and one of the country’s premier quarterbacks, Sam Darnold.

Close games, too. No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1), which is beating teams by an average of 28 points this season, has lost nine of its last 10 one-score games.

It won’t beat USC by 28. Same with NC State (6-1) and Miami (5-0).

Good teams win the games they’re supposed to win. Great teams win the toss-ups.

And, to be sure, there will be plenty of toss-ups the rest of the way. Statistically, Notre Dame has the most difficult remaining schedule in college football, with an overall opponent record of 31-7 (.816). It’s the team’s most challenging six-game stretch since 1928.

And, you know what? Good.

If this really is a different team, with a different attitude, with a different culture, with no breaking point, then it will prove it. This week. Next week. Every week. Against USC and Stanford, and everyone in between.

Or, it won’t.

There are two sides of the line. You can't straddle both.

You either meet “the standard of Notre Dame” — however you define it — or you don’t.

“The standard was defined back in January. It’s the dominating mindset in everything that we do,” said senior Rover Drue Tranquill. “It doesn’t change. So we’re all aware of that. Anything below the line is unacceptable.

“The standard is the standard. That’s a saying (linebackers) coach (Clark) Lea has for us linebackers and (defensive coordinator Mike) Elko and coach Kelly continue to reiterate throughout our team meetings.”

He laughed and shrugged. A consensus definition can be hard to come by.

“The standard is the standard, I guess.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) celebrates during the Georgia at Notre Dame NCAA College football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA