Noie: Notre Dame doesn't let inability to dominate become a distraction
SOUTH BEND – Distractions have been dismissed as quickly and as confidently as the opposition by the fifth-ranked Notre Dame football team as it continues to step toward someplace special.
Don’t want ‘em. Don’t care for ‘em. Don’t much pay attention to ‘em.
Just keep playing. Just keep dominating. Just keep winning.
Did it again in many ways on a miserable Saturday at home against Wake Forest to the tune of 48-37.
Afterward, coach Brian Kelly and the players insisted that in no way was this a Picasso in terms of effort and execution that many of the previous weeks had been. Not enough domination. Too much taken for granted. Perhaps, but it was far from the paint-by-number, outside the lines watercolor wreck that many want to make it.
Yes, there were plays that were left all over the soggy turf. On both sides of the ball. Yes, there’s no way this team may dodge allowing another opponent 37 points and a whopping 587 yards. But do what the Irish are supposed to do, are built to do, are expected to do the season’s final three weeks and the only way this one is remembered is with one letter.
More distractions were there Saturday. On the field. Off the field. Notre Dame again played like it didn't pay any attention. Nothing seems to rattle this group. Not the building national attention. Not barreling toward a possible spot in the College Football Playoff – the Irish (8-1) are currently ranked No. 3 and are on really firm footing. Not Saturday's early deficits or key injuries or ineffectiveness.
Nothing matters but the end game.
“It’s how we’re built; it’s how we’ve trained ourselves,” said senior rover Drue Tranquill. “All these guys are trained and prepared. When those situations strike, we’re ready.”
The Irish can play the part of front-runners. Can play from behind. Can ride comfortably behind their mammoth offensive line or even hit a few big shots in the passing game. Can approach the school freakin' record for total yards with 710 (the record is 720). Less than six minutes into the third quarter, the scoreboard again was decidedly lopsided. The Irish were up 34-10 and steam-rolling toward doubling their win total from last year.
In the end, doesn’t that most matter?
Who would have thought that the distractions would surface right from the first Wake Forest drive? The Demon Deacons pushed the Irish on their collective defensive heels with a tempo offense. It left the Irish subs running in and out and trying to keep pace. Fourteen plays and 82 yards later, Wake was up 3-0.
Just where the Irish wanted them. Just like the previous Saturday, also dull, also gray, also wet. North Carolina State jumped to a 7-0 lead following a blocked punt for a touchdown. Not longer after, it was hit with a Notre Dame haymaker that saw the Irish score five of the game's final six touchdowns. On Saturday, the home team ripped off 17 unanswered points.
“It’s the next-play mentality,” Tranquill said. “That’s not the last play, there’s only the next play. The one thing we try to focus on is the here and now.”
For the most part, and some fourth-quarter slippage aside, Notre Dame has done that. Forget about what just happened and make sure something better does. Prior to Wake’s two late scores, Notre Dame had not allowed an opponent consecutive scores of any kind – touchdown, field goal, safety – through eight games. Every time someone answers, the Irish do two, three, four times.
“We don’t flinch,” Kelly said. “It’s something we’ve built since January.”
And something that is required now.
“Winning’s hard,” Kelly said, “especially in November.”
Especially with a whole lot of eyes watching every Irish move. The narrative coming in was that quarterback Brandon Wimbush couldn’t do a championship-caliber job in the passing game. He then connected on 15-of-30 for 280 yards and a score. Should have been more. A lot more if some of his receivers made a few more plays.
“The narrative of him being able to throw the football should be changed drastically,” Kelly said.
With his Heisman Trophy campaign having hit another gear during the week — #33Trucking hats now are as common around campus as Lime Bikes, even the ones flipped upside down and standing sentry along Douglas Road — running back Josh Adams got some early work complete with the sound of a truck horn one time he carried. But the #33Trucking Heisman express blew a tire early in the first half. That’s when Adams left the field, entered the medical tent on the west sideline and then spent the rest of the day watching. That’s where he was either riding the stationary bike without his helmet, standing with his helmet on or joking around with his teammates. He never did re-enter the game and finished with 22 yards on five carries.
He was reported to have hurt his back. His knee. His head.
How about none of the above? Adams just wasn’t himself after a trying week in the classroom, on the football field, on campus.
“He wasn’t feeling right,” Kelly said.
Something didn’t feel right for much of the day. It was a weird, dark and dreary one at Notre Dame Stadium. And it started long before kickoff when rain and wind and thunder and lightning rolled through campus. That kept teams in the locker room longer than normal, but never posed any threat to the scheduled 3:41 p.m. kickoff.
The weirdness didn’t go away once kickoff arrived. Referee Jeff Flanagan requested five times for the clock operator to reset the game clock to 15 minutes before the Irish received the kick. On the fifth time, the clocks in the stadium finally jumped to 15. Flanagan later accidentally revved up the crowd when he requested over his microphone that the Notre Dame band not play while the Wake Forest offense was on the field. That got the rain-soaked crowd going just a bit before the Irish defense allowed the Demon Deacons (-4) yards the next four plays.
Might have been their last – and best – series of the day.
Saturday's in the past for this group. Time to think about Miami (Fla.). The stakes will raise with another fresh week of distractions awaiting. They're lurking. In waves. In every direction.
Notre Dame should be ready with additional answers. Again.