Everett: Notre Dame isn’t a heavyweight, at least not yet
Joe Everett | Saturday, September 15, 2018
As the famous line from “Rocky” goes: “It ain’t about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
After another closer-than-expected game played out in the form of Notre Dame’s 22-17 win over Vanderbilt, I’m not exactly sure how to think about this Notre Dame football team, but I think comparing it to a boxer would be apt.
This game should serve as a reality-check for fans. Notre Dame (3-0) is not a great team. Let me say that again: Notre Dame is not a great team.
At least not yet.
Right now, this is what Notre Dame is: tough, battle-tested, gritty — use any blue-collar superlative you want. This team is not a flashy, heavyweight boxer like Alabama or Clemson that’s looking to knock someone out every time — the Irish are the fighter that’s just looking to make it to bell, having laid a couple more punches than its opponent.
At least right now.
“There’s things we’ve got to work on,” Irish head coach Brain Kelly said postgame. “It’s the third game of the season. If you’re a finished product after game three, you know, you’re destined for greatness, and we’re not there yet. We’re not destined for greatness.
“ … We’re still evolving. I mean, I’d like to say we’re a finished product, we’re just not.”
A quarter of the regular season has passed, and it’s pretty clear that Notre Dame is not a heavy-hitter like it was last season, at least not on offense. Gone are star playmakers on the offensive line, in the backfield and in the receiving core. Last year’s team was a heavyweight hitter that liked to knock out teams early (see Temple, Boston College, Michigan State, Miami (OH), North Carolina, USC and North Carolina State).
The Irish played their best ball in the beginning and middle sections of the season, then started to crumble in November. However, what that team also started to learn was how to win hard-fought, close games (Navy and LSU come to mind immediately). That grit and that ability to just win are starting to define this 2018 campaign.
“Look, you see us early on in three games — we’re not going to beat you 52-3,” Kelly said. “We’re going to grind it out. We’re going to play tough, hard-nosed, blue-collared football.”
It’s not pretty football. It’s not going to earn style points. But it gets the job done, and the ability to win, in and of itself, is a skill that deserves more praise than it gets in a sport that demands so much and forgives so little.
“I’m excited — I think we’re all pumped up and very happy because we’re 3-0,” junior cornerback Julian Love said. “We’re showing our toughness and showing our grit. It’s hard to win in college football and we’re just happy that we’re doing it.”
On a day where No. 6 Wisconsin fell to BYU, No. 7 Auburn fell to No. 12 LSU and where Florida State got absolutely smacked by Syracuse, the Irish are still sitting pretty by winning ugly.
“It feels great [to be 3-0],” graduate student linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said. “That’s the goal in college football: to win, to be 12-0 at the end of the season. Another step towards our goal. We talk about each and every week, it’s a faceless opponent, and that’s the team that’s trying to keep us from our goal of a national championship, so we were able to get the win this week and we’ve got a tough opponent in Wake Forest next week.”
Now, Notre Dame is by no means a national title contender at its current level of play. To do that, it has to sustain the mindset of a heavyweight all the way through the fight, which Tranquill and the Irish understand.
“We haven’t finished well defensively, offensively is probably the same way … but we gotta be able to come off the ropes in the fourth quarter and put out our opponents,” Tranquill said. “You can’t ever take a play off in college football — the second you feel comfortable with a lead, especially here at Notre Dame when you play good teams week in and week out, they’re going to find a way to put points on the board and get back in the ball game, so just like a boxer, as the rounds go on you can’t just come off the ropes complacent, you gotta come off the ropes ready to knock your opponent out.”
So yes, Tranquill and the Irish aren’t heavyweights yet, and while that’s frustrating for many, there’s also the optimism that the Irish haven’t peaked yet. While Kelly’s teams have traditionally faltered as the season progresses, could this be a team that steadily improves and peaks at the right time?
Maybe, but one thing’s for certain: This Notre Dame team attacks adversity, and while it needs a lot of improvement, it showed a lot of improvement against Vanderbilt. Thanks to its toughness and ability to attack adversity — its ability to take a hit and keep moving forward — this Notre Dame team is still alive through three rounds.
“There were certain situations that didn’t go our way today, but we didn’t flinch — we said ‘alright, let’s bow up and let’s compete,’” Love said. “Defense, offense, special teams — we were all battling and throwing punches together.”
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.