Irish not who we thought they were. But it's still a good season.

What’s the deal with Notre Dame football?

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Before the Fighting Irish went from South Bend to South Beach and jettisoned their national-championship hopes, they seemed like a real threat. Excellent running game. Tenacious turnover-grabbing defense. Athletic quarterback who could tuck it and run, and who seemed to be improving at making the occasional clutch throw.

Then the 41-8 Miami disaster happened. It was followed by Saturday’s survive-and-advance 24-17 win over Navy. The Irish, who wore Rockne-era uniforms, turned in a leather-helmet performance.

What we’ve found out in their last three games is that ND is good. But not as good as we thought they were in their first eight games. Chalk it up to being inexperienced at quarterback, worn down in many places and feelng more heat from determined opponents.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

In hindsight, the Irish defense had showed signs of wear-and-tear toward the end of the Wake Forest game, in which it allowed a pair of fourth-quarter TDs, allowing a 48-23 exhale to become a 48-37 victory of concern.

And now ND heads off to Stanford for a third straight challenge. When you factor in the coast-to-coast travel, the vastly different styles, the wear-and-tear, even the weather changes the Irish are seeing in the Hurricanes-Middies-Cardinal trifecta, it’s enough to give a team whiplash.

Do they have enough to finish strong at Stanford? That depends on your assessment of the Cardinal as well as the Irish.

The signs of concern abound.

Quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who struggled with his throwing technique at Miami, continued to look shaky against Navy. Some of it seems to be mechanics. Mix in doubts, and it’s similar to a golfer making a shaky swing because he’s thinking about the water and the bunkers.

Running back Josh Adams clearly is nursing nagging injuries. The receivers, including Equanimeous St. Brown, who left the Navy game after landing on his helmet in the first quarter and is in concussion protocol, are banged up.

So is the defense.

I thought Kelly was intriguingly forthright in his Sunday media briefing. He seemed to trying to be candid without lobbying or spinning. It’s a delicate balance.

His update on his team’s health:

``It's good. I mean, we'll have to see how EQ responds going through the concussion protocol. [The team has] some bumps and bruises, but came out of it pretty clean. Obviously, the defense played 80 plays. So they're a little bit more sore than the offensive players.’’

Translation: Every team has bumps and bruises this time of year. So no, not surprising. But yeah, we’ve got some.

Asked about the mental shift as the Irish go back to a conventional team like Stanford after playing the trying triple option of Navy, Kelly seemed to say adjusting to Navy was a bigger deal than adjusting to the opponent after Navy.

``I think the bigger shift, the bigger challenge, was this week, mentally get them . . . away from the Miami game to the Navy game,'' the coach said. ``I think they're going to be all too happy to get away from this Navy game and get back to a traditional sense of football. It's the last game of the year. They know what's at stake. So no real concerns here. Let's go play the last game of the year with a lot on the line.’’

In a sense, there is a lot at stake. A fancy bowl. (A Cotton Bowl date with Penn State? An Orange Bowl clash with Clemson?) . . . A double-digit-win season. . . A positive finish where the Miami game is the aberration, as opposed to finishing with two losses in their final three games. . . At Notre Dame, for goodness’ sake, every false start is a big deal.

On the other hand, whether it winds up being a 9-3 regular season or a 10-2 regular season, it was pretty good. Not good enough for the most demanding of critics, but awfully good for a team that went 4-8 last year—a team that underwent a coaching-staff overhaul and started a green quarterback for a coach who was on a very hot seat.

That said, Notre Dame hasn’t impressed in the last three games the way it did in the first eight. That can happen when a banged up team with a shaky young quarterback plays quality opponents delivering their best shots.

Kelly bristled at the notion that ND hasn’t gotten better in November. Asked about the statistical decline in the box scores, he disagreed. And I can’t say that I blame him.

``I think it's nonsense to look at box scores about this [Navy] game and compare it to other games. I couldn't have been more proud of the way we played,'' Kelly said. ``If there's one game we'd like to have back -- and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team for Miami. Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game, and kind of maybe lost a little bit of concentration. [But] other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I'm pretty pleased with our football team.''

Kelly has a right to feel good about what the Irish have accomplished. A 9-2 mark to here, with two losses to teams that have a chance to be in the four-team playoff with only one week left in the regular season.

What happens at Stanford isn’t going to change ND’s life in tangible ways, 9-3 vs. 10-2. A little better bowl vs. a little worse bowl.

But the truth is, what happens in Palo Altto will determine the perception of how the Irish finished—whether they had one bad night in Miami, or limped through November.

And that, when you think about it, is a big deal.[/membership]

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