NOTRE DAME INSIDER/3 Things We Learned in Week 10

With the unbeaten burden mounting, the Irish took Northwestern’s best shot and handled it.

EVANSTON, Ill.—Notre Dame improved to 9-0 with a good win at Northwestern, which is poised to win the Big Ten's Western Division and had nothing to lose in this non-conference matchup.

Three things we learned about Notre Dame football in Week 10. . .

1, These Irish sure look playoff-ready

You know that Notre Dame team that went 4-11 against Power Five teams in the five Novembers after it marched to the 2012 BCS championship games against Alabama?

This ND team is 1-0.

And that 31-21 win at Northwestern on Saturday night was a good barometer game against a team that’s on the verge of playing in the Big Ten championship game. Notre Dame, which improved to 9-0, and figures to be No. 3 in this week’s College Football Playoff poll.  

An early fumble gave NU a short field and a chance for an early lead. The Irish defense held and came away unscathed when the Wildcats missed a 39-yard field goal.

And when Northwestern, after trailing 24-7, woke up its own echoes to close to 24-21, the Irish kept their poise and drove to a game-clinching touchdown.

Heck, ND even got some snaps from linebacker Drue Tranquill, the senior captain who was supposed to be sidelined by a nasty sprained ankle.

“He’s a leader,’’ coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s inspirational.’’

That’s a good guy to have on your side.

I was in Evanston for that game and it was a gem as well as a good test. It’s not easy to create pandemonium at Ryan Field. But the invasion of Irish fans, with both sides lubricated from a long day of tailgating, made it an impressive atmosphere.

If Notre Dame is feeling pressure to keep its unbeaten season moving forward, it is handling that pressure.

“With the experience we have, it is easier,’’ Irish cornerback Julian Love said of the pressure. “It’s just a bunch of seniors that are leading us in not feeling that pressure. It’s a great feeling. It seems like Michigan was so long ago. The next step is 10-0, then 11-0. It’s just one game at a time.’’

Those games? Florida State, Syracuse and USC. And based on what they’ve done so far, the Orange look like the toughest remaining opponent. How many times would we have said that in the last few decades?

2, Ian Book is looking savvy enough to keep it going

Ordinarily, asking a quarterback who didn’t start until Game 4 to lead you to an unbeaten season that includes games in Blacksburg, San Diego, Yankee Stadium and the Los Angeles Coliseum is not a recipe for success.

But Ian Book is not an ordinary QB.

Shaking off an early fumbled exchange, Book completed 22 of 34 for 343 yards and two touchdowns. He added 56 rushing yards, including a 23-yard run around left end for the game-clinching TD.

After all that conversation about what Book couldn’t do—throw deep—the emphasis now is on what he can do. Which is make accurate throws, use his feet effectively and make good decisions.

“You know hes going to put the ball where it needs to be. I trust him, he trusts me,’’ said receiver Chase Claypool who caught eight passes for 130 yards..

Kelly’s comfort level with Book is evident when he talks about the progress his junior QB has made in his six games as the starter.

“He can make those adjustments at halftime,’’ the coach said after Book sparked an Irish offense that was locked in a 7-7 tie at halftime against Northwestern. “It probabably would have taken a film study to make those adjustments and they would probably go into action the following week. [Now] he can make them at halftime and access immediately in the third quarter.’’

3, There’s still not a lot to like about how Notre Dame would match up against Alabama or Clemson

The thing is, we could say that about virtually any team in the nation, including some that play on Sundays.

All Notre Dame can do earn a berth in the final four—and see what happens. Being in the College Football Playoff is a big deal in itself.