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O’Boyle: No reason Notre Dame can’t win big games

| Thursday, April 21, 2016

There’s two ways to look at Notre Dame’s season, and 11-5 record, as the postseason quickly approaches. Either the Irish are a team who can beat anyone outside the top five and hang with national title contenders well enough to have a shot if things go their way, or they’re a better-than-most team better that is still a notch below the teams who really matter.

Monday’s loss to USC was the third to a team currently in the top-five, while the first Irish loss of the season came against a Louisville team that started the year hot. Of those four losses, three were by a single goal. A 17-12 loss at Northwestern remains the only major blip on Notre Dame’s resume.

Much like Syracuse in March, USC was a potentially season-defining game for Notre Dame, as the Irish held onto a high place in the polls and had a chance to get a signature win to push them towards the top four. But they couldn’t find a way to get their best win of the season.

Against the Trojans, the Irish held nation’s fourth highest-scoring offense (14.67 goals per game) to just five goals, but couldn’t get it done at the other end of the field, scoring only four. Only one other team has kept within a single goal of the undefeated Trojans, who look set for a top-four seed at the NCAA tournament, all year. So is that a promising sign, or are the Irish just not able to actually beat the best teams?

There’s nothing about the way the Irish play that says they can’t beat a great team. Perhaps the most promising sign for the Irish this season came two days earlier, against Duke. The Irish were behind and without the ball with under two minutes left, but caused a turnover when they needed it to get the game-winning goal. It’s exactly what should make the Irish so hard to play: Their high-intensity defense makes it difficult to close out any game, but USC closed out Monday’s game with nearly eighteen scoreless minutes after junior attack Michaela Michael’s game-winner.

It’s obvious the Irish play with an intensity and passion that should allow them to thrive in close games against top competition, but they haven’t done much more than make games close.

The Irish have the ability to dominate good teams for stretches too. Early in the season, runs of eight and 10 unanswered goals led them past Stanford and Boston College, respectively. Even against North Carolina, Notre Dame managed a 6-1 run over each side of halftime, but the Irish just happened to be trailing 9-1 when it started.

When the Irish find rhythm, they’re as good as anyone: It just doesn’t seem to happen consistently against top teams.

It’s easy to imagine how this season could end for Notre Dame. A No. 7 or No. 8 seed for the NCAA tournament, and a hard-fought loss to Maryland or Florida. That’s what the Irish have to shake, and it needs to start now. A loss to Ohio State on Saturday to close the season would give Notre Dame five defeats in their final seven regular-season games.

Against this schedule, that’s hardly a crisis, but it’s not how you want to get ready for postseason play. A win would give the Irish some much-needed momentum going into the ACC tournament. There, the Irish don’t need to win it all, but avenging a defeat to either Syracuse or North Carolina would make it clear that this Irish team is for real.

There’s no real reason to believe that Notre Dame can’t do this. The Irish look like a team that can win big games. They consistently compete with the best, but after Monday’s defeat, the Irish will have to prove that they can win, not just compete.

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

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel