Noie: No. 4 Notre Dame firms up foundation for what's next

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ATLANTA — From the open-air press box at Bobby Dodd Stadium, no fewer than six high-rise construction cranes could be seen around the midtown/downtown area of the Georgia state capital.

New buildings stretched into the southeast sky. Others remained only skeletons. Some were outfitted in reflective glass that sparkled when the setting sun hit it just right. Foundations of the future can be seen all over town, but not on a football field where No. 4 Notre Dame took up residence for a few hours Saturday.

The foundation of the offense is solid. The foundation of the defense even more so. Special teams? As long as a contest doesn’t come down to preventing an onside kick, all also is well. Even if the architect of it all, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, wasn’t as excited about how the blueprint looked Saturday as he was the previous weekend in another Atlantic Coast Conference city.

That night, back in Pittsburgh, there was a lot to like about his team's 45-3 victory. This night, in midtown Atlanta, Kelly was quite subdued after his team moved to 6-0 overall, 5-0 in the ACC following a 31-13 victory over Georgia Tech. It wasn’t Notre Dame’s best game, but it was the next game. The one after this one?

Let the buildup begin. It already has. Kelly admitted as much afterward.

“We talked about Clemson,” he said of his post-game locker room. “We’ve been waiting to play Clemson. We wanted to play Clemson when we upped our performance level.”

Kelly believes that level was upped against Pittsburgh. Not as much against Georgia Tech. Too much needs to be cleaned up. It’ll get cleaned up. There’s no other choice. Kelly didn’t like the team’s “critical” errors in the second half, when human nature likely kicked in.

That standard rule where wins are to be savored for 24 hours? This one was probably embraced for all of about 24 seconds. Kelly knows. The Irish know. Everyone knows what’s next. No use dumbing it down or back-burnering it for later in the week. The week arrived before the Irish even left town.

“It’s just an awesome opportunity," said defensive end Daelin Hayes, who played the most complete game of his college career Saturday with five tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a quarterback hurry. "We don’t have to beat around the bush anymore. It’s Clemson week, baby."

Saturday at 6:51 p.m., when this one went final, that's when it all got real. Really nothing before much matters. Just get the Irish and get us all to about 7:41 p.m. next Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium. Somewhere, someone affiliated with Notre Dame has to have a countdown clock running.

How many more minutes and hours and days remain? Post it to social media already.

Kelly said post-game that this whole season runs through Clemson. Maybe more than once. Notre Dame’s ready to take a run at that program. It used to be that program. The Irish have answered every challenge to date. This is the next one. So accept it and answer it.

After the win in the opener over Duke, it was on to South Florida. After the two-week stop for coronavirus, it was on to Florida State. Then Louisville. Then the two road tests. Now, Clemson. At night. At home.

Remember when South Bend annually was the center of the college football universe? It’s about to in this weird season, in this weird upcoming week. It includes a rare mandatory day off for all college teams Tuesday for Election Day.

Notre Dame’s work week begins Sunday. For the Irish, that's Monday. That will just add to the intrigue. For the last two weeks, there’s been so little of it around this program. If there’s a defense playing better than Notre Dame’s, let’s see it. Might be time to buy some stock in coordinator Clark Lea and what he’s created.

“It’s a really good defense,” Kelly said.

It’s a monster.

Since seeing the unit gashed for 26 points against Florida State in early October, the Irish defense has allowed seven, three and 13 points. Even seven of those Saturday came with an asterisk. Georgia Tech scored on a Kyren Williams fumble and 93-yard return. That’s what it takes for teams to feel they have something of a chance against Notre Dame. Fluke plays.

The Irish defense has been too good. There have been times when they’ve been made to look slow by opposing offenses. And they were. Now, it’s the opposing offenses that look like they’re running in quick sand. And sinking. Quickly.

In a pro sports town, Saturday’s game and subsequent Irish win didn’t move the meter, except for a small group of Irish fans (player families) that gathered in the south end zone stands afterward. There will be no shortage of interest in the next one back in Indiana. Try slipping into Martin’s for a few items this week without someone mentioning the “C” word.

If it were a drinking game, the adults all would be out by Wednesday.

Offensively, the Irish remain an efficient and effective group. Ian Book finds a different wide receiver every week, Williams continues to evolve as a runner and the points and yards and time of possession accumulate.

Each time it hit third down for the Notre Dame offense Saturday, the Dodd Stadium public-address announcer liked to bellow “It’s……..Money……Down!!!” but all the currency in the city couldn’t keep the Irish from doing what they did.

They got first downs. They kept the chains moving and the drives alive. Notre Dame converted eight of their first 11 third downs. They basically forced the Yellow Jackets into bankruptcy on those "money downs."

"We're getting better every week," Book said. "We haven't peaked yet."

News broke Saturday around halftime that Lawrence will not be available for the Notre Dame game. He missed Saturday’s comeback against Boston College after testing positive for coronavirus early in the week. So he’s out. The Irish? They should be very much in. Last time Notre Dame faced Lawrence, their foundation seemed shaky. Not now.

The foundation’s solid.

"It's time," Book said, "to go."

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis battles for extra yards Saturday against Georgia Tech.