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O’Boyle: Irish face chance to overcome road woes

| Friday, November 24, 2017

I wanted to write this column two weeks ago before Notre Dame faced Miami.

I hope I don’t have the opportunity to write it again.

Before the Irish (9-2) played the Hurricanes, just about every flaw you could point to in post-2012 Notre Dame football looked to have been answered.

In the first few games of the season, the Irish defense improved massively from from former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s mess. The play calling looked much better suited to situations and personnel than it had been in 2016. Against USC, Notre Dame finally earned a big win against a top-15 team.

But one problem still lingered: The Irish still didn’t have a signature true road win.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish sophomore running back Tony Jones Jr. attempts to tackle Hurricanes junior defensive back Jaquan Johnson following an interception in Notre Dame’s 41-8 loss to Miami on Nov. 11 at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

Miami could have been that win; instead, it was a humiliating 41-8 blowout. That drew attention to the Irish record that’s gradually been building into one they’ll carry into every big road game until it ends.

Since Notre Dame beat No. 8 Oklahoma on its way to a national championship game appearance in 2012, the Irish are 0-8 in road games against ranked Power-5 teams.

The blueprint to how Notre Dame loses these games isn’t clear. Not all of these games have turned out the way the Miami game did. The Irish have played well against top teams on the road during that span, they just never turned into a win.

In 2014, there was the controversial offensive pass interference call against Florida State. In 2015, there was a failed comeback attempt against Clemson, featuring a questionable two-point conversion attempt, followed by Devon Cajuste’s catch and Conrad Ukropina’s field goal to give this week’s opponents, Stanford, the win. On the other hand, USC in 2014 was another blowout.

More often than not, the Irish have struggled to get out of the gate quickly. That happened against Miami, where the Hurricanes built an unassailable 27-0 halftime lead, and it still looks like the easiest way for the Irish to lose again. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush played like the stage was just too big for him and threw multiple interceptable balls before his first pick of the game.

Stanford (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) may not be as brash about it as Miami, but it too boasts one of the most ball-hungry defenses in the nation, forcing 21 turnovers so far this year. If Wimbush makes the throws he did against Miami, we’ll see a similar result.

Yet this Stanford team should be just the kind of opportunity to break this streak.

Playing at Stanford should not be the loud, intimidating atmosphere that playing at Miami was. The Cardinal also just don’t look to be as strong as the Hurricanes, showing signs of weakness in a defeat to San Diego State and a narrow victory over Oregon State.

Likely Heisman finalist junior running back Bryce Love is unlikely to be at 100 percent, though he should play and will still be dangerous. The Cardinal aren’t so good that an Irish team playing its best should still feel doubtful about their chances of victory, but they’re good enough that it’s still a meaningful result, a milestone road win. Figuring out how meaningful may still depend on whether Washington can beat Washington State and give the Cardinal a path to the Pac-12 title, but regardless, an Irish win will be the biggest since that game in Norman, Oklahoma.

If Notre Dame is to make the Playoff in any upcoming year, the Irish will need not only a great team, but a little luck with the schedule. But even with some luck, it’s hard to imagine the team avoiding a single road game with a team of around Stanford’s quality.

This game matters so much because, with the Playoff out of the question, it’s about getting into the best position for next year.

So a year from now, if Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes depend on beating a ranked USC team, it’s important to no longer have this hanging over the team’s head.

A year from now, hope you don’t have to read this column again.

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