Despite winning for the third straight week, Notre Dame was under the microscope for the way it won for the second straight week. Blame that on its lack of style points.
Give Brian Kelly credit for standing by his men.
``[I'm] really proud of my football team and the way they competed,'' the coach said, addressing the grumbles. ``Yeah, there's things we've got to work on. It's the third game of the season. If you're a finished product after Game Three, you're destined for greatness. We're not there yet. We're not destined for greatness. So if anyone wants to write that greatness column, I would tap the brakes. But [I'm] proud of their effort, proud of the way they competed. They played Notre Dame football. We've got some things to clean up. But, boy, I really, really like our football team.''
Analysis: This is what coaches say when they like their team's heart more than its talent. And for some teams in some seasons, heart goes to the heart of the matter.
Here are Three Things we learned about Notre Dame football in Week 3.
1, This season is a work in progress.
After the big opening win vs. Michigan, it was tempting to put Notre Dame in an elevated category—to say the Irish were a legitimate playoff contender.
After the slogs past Ball State and Vanderbilt, it’s tempting to say, ``No way.’’
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We don’t know yet. We know the Irish are fighting, but we can’t say whether they have enough of a punch to keep winning when the challenges increase.
“We’re not going to beat you 52-3,’’ Kelly said. ``We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar football, and we’re going to need our special teams to be really good.’’
There’s nothing wrong with that, if ND keeps going in the right direction.
The 24-16 win over Ball State and the 22-17 squeak past Vanderbilt do not inspire confidence. (Nor did either send those who backed the Irish against-the-spread to the pay window.)
The question is, are these untidy victories indicators that Notre Dame won’t be able to handle stiffer competition? Or are the Irish who Kelly says they are—grinders who will keep finding ways to win?
The answer is: We’ll find out.
2, The offense still has training wheels
Face it. Of all the Irish works in progress, the offense is the biggest concern. And that starts with the quarterback. Brandon Wimbush has thrown one touchdown pass in three games, with four interceptions. And he’s completing 55 percent of his passes. These are not inspiring numbers.
If Brian Kelly and his staff were trying to let Wimbush learn on the job against Ball State, they learned their lesson. The senior threw three interceptions.
In addition, the offensive line is feeling the loss of two first-round NFL picks. That hasn’t helped Wimbush, who has been sacked six times, or the running game, which is averaging 164.5 rushing yards a game, 76th in the nation.
The Irish rank 99th in total offense, at 365.3 yards a game. That’s not a number that’s going to get ND where it wants to go.
If you really want to spin gloomy, take away the lightning round of two dominant first-quarter drives in the opening 24-17 win over Michigan, and look at the Irish ``attack’’ in the 11 quarters since then.
That said, the O line has enough talent to improve. Wimbush has excellent receivers, when he can connect with them. And the return of Dexter Williams, who’s serving a four-game suspension, in Game 5 vs. Stanford will give the running game a boost. He’s likely to be the featured back.
Bottom line: Kelly has some pieces to work with on offense. But the Irish aren’t going to be a scoring machine. And if some players—especially Wimbush—don’t make significant strides, Notre Dame will have its hands full against its most dangerous opponents.
3, The next three games will decide the ceiling.
The schedule is coming into focus—and it provides some interesting scenarios for the second half of the season.
That is when No. 8 Notre Dame will travel to Northwestern, play Florida State at home and finish up with the traditional game at USC. All three of those teams are 1-2 and looking far less formidable than they did a few weeks ago.
Obviously, a lot of things can change by the time those games kick off. And the flip side is, the other three second-half opponents—Pitt, Navy and Syracuse—are a combined 7-2.
The final three games of the first half will determine, though, what Notre Dame is playing for in the second half.
The Irish will need to clean up their act this weekend at Wake Forest, which is getting 5½ points, far fewer than either Ball State or Vanderbilt. On Sept. 29, ND faces a marquee meeting with No. 7 Stanford, followed by a trip to No. 13 Virginia Tech.
If they are 6-0, the Irish will have improved enough to deal with the challenges of their final six games.
But based on what they have shown so far, the Irish have a lot of improving to do to get to 6-0.[/membership]