Notebook: Storming toward BC, Notre Dame so far so good on COVID-19 front

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The final answer for public consumption won’t come until Saturday afternoon, roughly 90 minutes before No. 2 Notre Dame and Boston College kick off at Alumni Stadium (3:30 p.m. EST; ABC-TV) in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Even then, the detail of whether and/or how much this past Saturday night’s field-storming celebration of a 47-40 double-overtime win over then-No. 1 ranked Clemson will have pruned the Irish football travel roster won’t be spelled out with specifics.

But Thursday afternoon, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was feeling good about what that might look like, with two rounds of COVID-19 testing and results completed (Sunday and Tuesday) and two more rounds (Thursday and Friday) still to be processed.

“Generally speaking, we’re in a good place,” Kelly said Thursday via Zoom. “ I will say, as we speak right now, we don’t have anybody that’s on our travel roster over the last few weeks that would not be traveling with us. Now, we still have two more tests.”

More than a handful of Irish players got caught on the field in the mostly-student celebration that lacked any semblance of social distancing. But none of them exceeded the 15 minutes as defined by the Center of Disease Control as close contact, and photos and videos of the students showed most wearing masks.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune on Sunday that all the students admitted to the game had been recently tested, and those whose tests came up positive or required quarantining had their tickets voided electronically for the Clemson game.

Notre Dame (7-0, 6-0 ACC) is the only team in the AP Top 5 playing this weekend. Three of the four others — No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 5 Texas A&M — had games postponed or canceled due to COVID issues. No. 4 Clemson was previously scheduled to be off.

“I do not come in every day wary or afraid or not thinking that we’re going to play,” said Kelly, whose Sept. 26 game at Wake Forest got moved to Dec. 12 because of an earlier outbreak among the Irish players.

“We’re just not at that point. Since our outbreak, we’ve never had a scenario where we’ve let our guard down in any fashion. I don’t come in every day worried that we’re going to be shut down because our guys have been extremely responsible.

“But the virus is as the virus is, and it’s out there. And you just never know.”

Injury updates

Notre Dame’s leader in receiving yards, grad senior wide receiver Javon McKinley, continues to trend toward being available for Saturday’s road test at Boston College (5-3, 4-3 ACC).

McKinley (19 recs., 366 yards) left the Clemson game early after taking a hit to the head, but he has been cleared all week to practice while being held out of the non-contact periods.

“He should get his full-cleared status (Thursday),” Kelly said. “That looks to be a certainty.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound McKinley had five catches for 102 yards against Clemson.

Pittsburgh’s Marquis Williams (14) breaks up a pass to Notre Dame wide receiver Braden Lenzy (0) during ND’s 45-3 rout of Pitt, Oct. 24 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Fellow wide receiver Braden Lenzy also returned to practice this week, but the 5-11, 181-pound receiver won’t play against the Eagles. Kelly is optimistic Lenzy will return to action Nov. 27 at North Carolina following ND’s scheduled bye week.

A chronic and recurring hamstring has limited Lenzy’s availability and productivity all season. He has a modest six catches for 63 yards and a TD spread over four games and hasn’t played since a 45-3 win over Pitt on Oct 24.

At full health, though, Lenzy could change the dynamic of the Notre Dame offense. Despite being limited to nine games in 2019 because of injuries, he still averaged 23.1 yards on 11 catches with two touchdowns, had a 23.7 average on three kickoff returns, and was Notre Dame’s third-leading rusher, with 200 yards on 13 carries and a TD for a 15.4 yards-per-carry average.

“Braden Lenzy, when he’s healthy, can still be an important part of what we’re doing,” Kelly said. “His role will be one where we’re going to have to accentuate him within the other established players.”

Grad transfer Ben Skowronek and junior Joe Wilkins have been sharing the “X” outside receiver position that Lenzy plays, and that will continue to an extent, Kelly said, when Lenzy returns.

But Lenzy has elite speed, and there’s no one quite like him on the ND roster, which would give the Irish another offensive look to throw at Clemson, for instance, in a potential rematch Dec. 19 in the ACC Championship Game.

“We certainly can use his big-play ability,” Kelly said. “We’ll carve out a role that makes us a better football team with him on the field.”

ACC tiebreakers

Had Notre Dame lost to Clemson Saturday night and then won out against BC, North Carolina, Syracuse and Wake Forest, the Irish wouldn’t have necessarily secured a berth in the Dec. 19 ACC Championship Game if No. 9 Miami (6-1, 5-1) also won out.

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The Hurricanes are one of four ACC teams the Irish don’t play this season.

Now, having beaten Clemson (7-1, 6-1), the Irish own a tiebreaker over both the Tigers and Miami, and a three-way tiebreaker as well, should the Irish stumble once. That means Notre Dame would have to drop two games not to make the ACC Championship Game.

Finishing strong

In ND’s 4-8 season of 2016, that prompted Kelly to make sweeping philosophical and coaches changes, one of the main focuses he hoped to solve by hiring Matt Balis as the director of football performance was Notre Dame’s fourth-quarter fades.

The Irish were outscored collectively 81-52 in the final quarters that season, but reversed that trend in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and are on pace to do the same this season (outscoring opponents, 34-16).

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Notre Dame has been particularly strong on defense at the end of games in 2020, and is on pace to allow a total of 30 points over a 13-game season in the fourth quarters. The best showing of the Kelly Era was 39 points collectively in 2012, followed by 70 allowed in 2018.

“The physicality piece is something we talk about. We want that to be part of who we are in our identity,” Kelly said. “So again in terms of how we actually register that, we put together a tape on both sides of the ball — a knockdown tape — and we show it every Monday.

“It is something that is replicated and we talk about week to week.”

History lesson or not

Kelly actually put his hands over his face Thursday when the question finally came about kicker David Gordon, the 1993 Boston College team that upended the No. 1 Irish in the ensuing game after they had knocked off No. 1 Florida State, and whether Kelly planned to share that info with his team.

For the record, that BC team was ranked 17th. Also for the record, Boston College has lost 13 straight to Top 5 teams, including admittedly a close call (19-16) at Fenway Park in 2015 to the Irish. The Eagles are 1-22 vs. the Top 5 since the '93 upset, but the one win is against the 2002 Irish, ranked fourth, with QB Pat Dillingham starting at QB for coach Tyrone Willingham in the 14-7 loss. 

Boston College is 2-32 all-time against Top 5 teams, and is 0-13 at home in such games. The Eagles’ last win over a team in the Top 25 was a 37-31 takedown of No. 9 USC in 2014.

“It’s more about where your mind is at and who you’re playing,” Kelly said. “I mean if we were playing a JV team, it wouldn’t matter. That BC team that Notre Dame played (in ‘93), I think was a nationally ranked team.

“It was a really good football team. And this is a really good football team you’re playing (Saturday), so it matters who you’re playing.

“We’re playing them in their red bandana game, which is their most sacred game if you will, and there’s certainly a lot to the BC-Notre Dame game. So we talk about much more in terms of how we’re preparing for a team that is a really good football team. And certainly if you’re the No. 2 team in the country, you have a target on your back.

“And that’s really much more relevant than the historical significance of the game.”

Carolina kick time set

Kickoff for Notre Dame’s road game at North Carolina the day after Thanksgiving (Nov. 27) has been set for 3:30 p.m. EST, with ABC televising the game nationally.

Students and fans storm the field Saturday night after Notre Dame defeated Clemson, 47-40 in two overtimes, at Notre Dame Stadium.