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Joseph: October will show who Notre Dame really is (Oct. 7)

Allan Joseph | Thursday, October 6, 2011

September may be filled with excitement over the new season, and November may hold the push for a BCS bowl, but for this year’s Irish, October is the most important month of the season. Four weeks from now, when Halloween festivities are in full swing, we’ll know whether the Irish have been unmasked or whether the start of the season was the only time Notre Dame donned a costume.

In September, the Irish showed their best and their worst — and won the game they played worst in (Pittsburgh), while losing the game they showed their best play in (Michigan). While the start to the season was ugly, Notre Dame regrouped and battled back to 2-2.

November is always crunch time. While the Irish face weak Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College squads, those are classic “upset specials.” As Notre Dame streaks towards an undefeated record in its final 10 contests, a matchup with No. 4/7 Stanford looms at the end of the season. A 4-0 November could mean a January bowl game in Glendale or New Orleans.

But none of that matters if the Irish struggle in the rest of October following the win over the massively inferior Boilermakers.

It starts with Air Force. Quite simply, the Falcons are nothing short of explosive. Andrew Luck’s Stanford offense might be a little more talented, but the Air Force triple option (with serious vertical passing thrown in) is probably the most difficult offense to stop on the schedule.

Last year’s Irish squad would have had all sorts of problems with this team. Air Force would have been able to run the triple option both over and around the softer, less disciplined defensive front — and then would have hit the secondary for big gains. This year’s squad shows no signs of those symptoms, but then again, it hasn’t faced an offense like this. Saturday’s game will be a true test of defensive progress, as it won’t just be an athletic test. It will be a mental test as well.

After a much-needed bye week, Notre Dame will face USC in a game that will be absolutely flooded with distractions. From stars like Will Ferrell on the sidelines to a star-studded group of recruits in the stands, from the first night game in over two decades to the unparalleled scrutiny that comes from any Battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh, there will be distractions galore when the Irish can least afford them.

If Notre Dame can close off those distractions and defeat the Trojans, it will have shown a level of maturity seldom seen recently in South Bend. Last year’s win over USC was a game between two struggling programs. This year, every eye in America will be focused on the primetime broadcast. A win on that stage would be much-needed.

And then, of course, there’s Navy. Brian Kelly has tried to change the culture surrounding the Irish. There may never be a bigger test of that effort than whether the players truly expect to beat Navy — and then follow through. This program has not struggled recently because it couldn’t beat better teams. It’s struggled because it’s failed to defeat less-talented teams. If the Irish beat Navy like it’s just another game, then Kelly might have succeeded in returning the Irish to a place where beating Navy is an expectation, never a question.

If Notre Dame can win the three games remaining in October, the implications will be much more far-reaching than a top-25 ranking and a shot at a BCS ranking. Winning the next three games means the Irish have really developed a stalwart defense. It means that they have really developed true focus. It means they have really returned the culture to what it once was.

So when Notre Dame arrives at its Halloween party, it’ll be dressed as a BCS contender. By then, we’ll know whether that’s a costume or not.

Contact Allan Joseph at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.