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Farmer: Irish find consistency, need domination (Nov. 7)

Douglas Farmer | Sunday, November 6, 2011

WINSTOM-SALEM, N.C. — Throughout Saturday’s first half, it looked to be Syracuse all over again. A repeat of Connecticut. The Naval Academy refrain we’ve heard three times in the last five years. It was a game Notre Dame should win, but was setting itself up to lose.

But somewhere along the line, the Irish not only realized they were supposed to win this one, but also that they should, could and would win.

“Tonight was a great step playing on the road against good competition, down at halftime, coming back a couple of times,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following the 24-17 victory. “That’s resolve. That’s toughness. That’s gritty.”

That’s what Notre Dame has lacked for at least the last four years, if not the last 15. But it’s also only the first of two crucial steps for the Irish.

Finally, Notre Dame is winning the games it is supposed to win. Yes, the season-opening loss to South Florida was unacceptable, but the other two losses in the last 13 games — at Michigan and to USC — are relatively understandable, though still not desirable.

Notre Dame has needed to win the games it is supposed to win, not lose to Tulsa, not hand a victory to Denard Robinson at Notre Dame Stadium and not let Navy run the same play over and over again. On Saturday the Irish did manage the win, just as they did at Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, just as they should do “at” Maryland next week.

“We’re playing for a consistent performance,” Kelly said. “To play like a champion, you have to play consistently. You can’t have spurts.”

Consistency is the first step, a vital step. Now that the Irish have found that, the time has come to make the next step: Dominating the games they should win.

Letting a middling-ACC team hang around late into the fourth quarter is not the mark of a complete squad. Letting Pittsburgh (who lost to Kelly’s former employer, Cincinnati, this weekend) push the game to its closing minutes is not the mark of a Notre Dame team ready to “Play Like A Champion.” Coming out flat in the season-opener, and then again in the biggest game of the year two weeks ago, is not the mark of a focused, motivated team.

Rather, these are the marks of a team still hoping for wins. These are the marks of a team looking at a big picture, instead of each week’s task. These are the marks of an atmosphere still escaping a prevailing losing mentality.

Hence, that first step was the most important step. Maryland and Boston College are, far and away, the two weakest teams on Notre Dame’s schedule this year. Notre Dame should win both games. The Irish should know they should win both games.

And they should do so handily. Dominate the teams you are expected to beat. That is what good football teams do.

“I want winning to become a habit,” Kelly said in his weekly Sunday teleconference. “I don’t want it to be something that comes and goes. We want to get to that level where we expect to win each and every week. That’s something that we’re not there yet, but we’re on that journey. That’s about playing consistently, as well, not having any games that you don’t play your best.”

If Notre Dame plays its best every week, winning will rarely be an issue. The Irish played down to Pittsburgh’s and Wake Forest’s levels. Let’s not even get started with what they did against South Florida.

Instead, the gold helmets who showed up at West Lafayette, Ind., need to become a weekly occurrence — and no, I am not simply calling for the return of the traditional painted gold helmets. I am calling for a team that insists on dominating its lesser opponents, not simply beating them.

“As we continue to check off a lot of the boxes, the next one is to make winning a habit,” Kelly said Sunday.

Having won 10 out of the last 13 overall, winning is nearly habitual once again in South Bend. Now it needs to become good-looking too.

Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.