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Mazurek: Irish fans should employ cautious optimism

| Friday, September 29, 2017

Over the past year, this weekly Insider column has been negative more often than not.

That’s what a 4-8 season will do.

But after a 38-18 win over Michigan State in which every unit played extremely well with good coaching, there’s really nothing negative to say.

Irish junior quarterback passes the ball during Notre Dame's 38-18 win over Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan.Rosie LoVoi | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback passes the ball during Notre Dame’s 38-18 win over Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, Michigan.

A big win in a rivalry game tends to breed excessive optimism and it’s not hard to see why.

The Irish are now 3-1 and many, including this columnist, expect them to be 4-1 after Saturday’s contest versus Miami (OH) (2-2, 1-0 MAC). And next week’s game against a struggling 1-3 North Carolina team looks easily winnable as well.

National polls only added to the optimism, with the AP poll slotting Notre Dame in at No. 22 in the country.

None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be some sense of optimism for Irish fans. The Michigan State victory was dominant and Notre Dame hasn’t had that type of notable road win in a long time.

But there’s a word Irish fans should put in front of their optimism: “cautious.”

Because for all the talent the Irish have, and for how well they played in the second half against Boston College and against Michigan State, playing at that level against a marquee opponent for a full four quarters has been a struggle.

Just three games ago, the Irish just couldn’t quite get over that hump against Georgia. And while the Irish should be 5-1 going into their matchup against USC, expecting them to upset the currently-No. 5 Trojans is not in line with the “cautious” part of cautious optimism.

The last time Notre Dame beat a ranked opponent was Halloween of 2015. For context, Barack Obama still had over a year left in his presidency the last time Brian Kelly and Notre Dame beat then-No. 21 Temple.

The Irish will be heavy favorites in their next two games, but even if they handily defeat Miami (OH) and North Carolina, we may not learn much about Kelly’s team in the coming weeks.

Beyond Notre Dame’s propensity to lose versus marquee opponents, the 2017 Irish still have some question marks.

The suggestions that junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush should be benched for sophomore Ian Book are silly. But questioning how well Wimbush will perform when the Irish absolutely need to throw the ball to win is fair. However, it’s hard to imagine Wimbush will be called on to win the game through the air versus the Redhawks.

The secondary played admirably against the Spartans with a pick-six and a key forced fumble and recovery, but since the Boston College game, opposing teams have had extended success throwing the ball over the middle of the field. Again, the quarterbacks and receivers on the Miami (OH) and North Carolina rosters shouldn’t present too big of a challenge, but Sam Darnold and USC will.

With all that being said, cautious optimism isn’t a bad place to be, especially considering last year’s 4-8 fiasco. It’s unreasonable to expect a program to go from 4-8 one year to beating every ranked team on its schedule the next, no matter how much tradition Notre Dame has. To become a championship contender, a culture of success has to be built and the first step on that staircase is dominating lesser teams consistently.

So far in 2017, Notre Dame has done that.

For the first time since 2015, Irish fans should expect the team to win if Vegas says so.

In the Boston College game, the Irish blew open a game that was close at halftime by making key plays and showing grit for the first time since facing Syracuse in October of 2016.

And for the first time since Nov. 14, 2016, Notre Dame won a game against a Power-5 opponent by 20 or more points.

If you’re an Irish fan, enjoy the Michigan State win. Enjoy the expected Miami (OH) win too. Just don’t let the 3-1, 4-1 or even 5-1 record blind you to the uphill battle Notre Dame faces in getting back to a playoff contender.

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

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

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