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Klonsinski: Notre Dame wins. Ignore the rest for now.

| Monday, October 31, 2016

Notre Dame needed this one.

No, that doesn’t even begin to capture it: For Notre Dame this game was more of a must-win than sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders’ muffed punt was an absurdly bone-headed decision.

After stumbling out to a 2-5 start, the Irish and their fan base were reeling. Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick had to give Irish head coach Brian Kelly a “vote of confidence” and squash rumors Kelly might not lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in 2017. Recruits were becoming skeptical: Four-star defensive end Donovan Jeter decided to decommit and jump north of the state line to become a Wolverine over the bye week.

Even the student section failed to approach capacity Saturday, large swaths of wooden benches and concrete glaringly visible throughout the game, from the senior to freshmen sections.

In short, basically everything had gone wrong.

Saturday afternoon slowed the bleeding. Barely.

The Irish still have a lot of work to do to salvage anything from this season, but 3-5 sounds a heck of a lot better than 2-6.

Cautious optimism surrounded those involved with the program after the bye week and the University’s fall break. There was a new excitement in the air that hadn’t been felt since before the season opener down in Austin, Texas. It was an indescribable buzz nearly pinchable between a thumb and index finger but always just slipping out.

In the latest installment of what has been a seemingly endless case of déjà vu, Notre Dame jumped out to the early 20-0 lead and seemed to be on cruise control offensively. For a quarter and six minutes, the Irish actually looked like the playoff contender we all thought they were at the beginning of the year.

Then a short Miami punt practically landed on Irish freshman cornerback Troy Pride Jr. as he ran down the field to block. The Hurricanes pounced on the loose ball, and 27 unanswered points later Notre Dame once again found itself trailing late in the fourth quarter.

Irish fans are forgiven for being a bit skeptical of the team’s chances based on what we’ve seen this year. Notre Dame has always been just a few yards short of getting over the mental hurdle that’s plagued it in close games.

This time, however, the Irish finally made the play they needed to. Plays even, emphasis on the plural: junior quarterback DeShone Kizer somehow emerging with the football from that massive pile of humans at the 1-yard line, sophomore running back Josh Adams’ 41-yard touchdown scamper to tie the game at 27, and junior linebacker Nyles Morgan’s game-ending sack all come to mind, as well as anytime the name Jarron Jones was mentioned.

The Irish tried to give the game away on multiple occasions, of course: senior tight end Durham Smythe’s fumble Kizer pulled out of a hat, Sanders’ I-don’t-know-what-adjective-to-use debacle, and Pride’s wrong-spot, wrong-time moment on the game-changing punt in the second quarter.

The Miami punt coverage unit celebrates scoring a go-ahead touchdown after Irish sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders, right, muffed a punt that rolled into the end zone. The recovery put the Hurricanes up 27-20.Michael Yu | The Observer
The Miami punt coverage unit celebrates scoring a go-ahead touchdown after Irish sophomore receiver C.J. Sanders, right, muffed a punt that rolled into the end zone. The recovery put the Hurricanes up 27-20.

But, finally, the Irish stayed out of their own way just enough to get a victory. Notre Dame starts the second half of the season with a win, and suddenly a bowl game doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Don’t be disillusioned, of course: There’s still an immense amount Notre Dame has to fix, starting with the mental lapses on both ends of special teams and ranging all the way up to more questionable coaching decisions. The military academies, Virginia Tech and USC will all expose Notre Dame’s shortcomings, like Miami managed to at times Saturday. The road ahead is far from well-traveled, and more than a few Irish blessings may be necessary along the way.

But that’s for Monday, when the team gets back to practice and begins preparing for Navy. For now all the Irish need to do is remember this feeling, find a way to bottle it and keep it on the sideline.

“We won. We won,” Kizer said when a reporter started asking him about Miami’s comeback, the relief visibly washing over him. “We won tonight. That’s all that matters. I don’t know how they came back. I don’t care how they came back. I don’t care what it took for them to come back. … I don’t care how pretty it looks. I don’t care how many yards I throw. I don’t care how many touchdowns we run in, how many trick plays we run.

“I just want to make sure we freaking win games because that’s all that’s on my mind.”

He’s right: The scoreboard doesn’t ask how it happened. The only idea that matters for now is that the phrase “Notre Dame wins” has meaning again.

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

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About Zach Klonsinski

A History graduate, Zach spent all four of his years on campus as a resident of Knott Hall. Hailing from Belgrade, Montana, he covered a wide variety of sports in his time at Notre Dame, including Football, Hockey, Men's Basketball, Men's Soccer, Women's Tennis, Fencing, Rowing, Women's Lacrosse and other events around campus. You can contact him in his post-graduation travels and job search at [email protected]

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