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Everett: Notre Dame is becoming a heavyweight

| Sunday, October 7, 2018

BLACKSBURG, Va. — After Notre Dame squeaked out a 22-17 win over Vanderbilt back on Sept. 15, I wrote a column stating that Notre Dame was not playing like a heavyweight program, at least not a quarter of the way through the season.

Now, as the Irish (6-0) hit the halfway mark of the regular season, it’s clear they’re starting to play like one.

The first three games of the season were characterized by Notre Dame’s inability to deliver the knockout punch against its opponents when it should have — most notably against a far inferior opponent in Ball State. To use boxing language, the Irish were seemingly fighting to win via decision, not looking to knock their opponent unconscious to the floor.

The Irish have been throwing haymakers ever since, starting by drubbing Wake Forest 56-27, eventually wearing down and defeating Stanford 38-17 and most impressively by knocking out Virginia Tech on the road by a score of 45-23 Saturday night.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
The Irish defense swarms Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis during Notre Dame’s 45-23 win over the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va. on Saturday night.

What a performance by Notre Dame. Everyone was talking about Notre Dame’s road struggles against ranked opponents and the intimidating atmosphere the Irish would have to combat at Lane Stadium. Instead, the Irish calmly opened the game by marching down the field and punching the Hokies in the mouth, and withstood opposing blows in the second quarter to land those of their own.

Goal-line stand at the one-yard line in the second quarter to force a field goal? Huge punch by the Irish to respond to Ian Book’s interception.

Forced fumble by Khalid Kareem and recovery and return for a touchdown by Julian Love? Major counter while the offense sputtered.

Yet, Notre Dame only went into half up one, and Love commented on how the team went into the second half with a mindset to dominate and land the knockout blow.

“We have a mentality that’s … being relentless,” Love said. “Hitting body-to-body with our boxing gloves. That’s what we were all yelling at each other. We allowed one touchdown in the first half and our defense wasn’t satisfied, and so we really wanted to come out [in the second half] and come off the ropes and attack.”

Attack the Irish did, on both sides of the football. A 97-yard touchdown run by Dexter Williams? An absolute haymaker by the Irish. Ian Book’s scramble and eventual 40-yard pass to Miles Boykin? The back-breaking blow.

The point is that the Irish not only pulled away on the scoreboard, but utilized game-changing plays to alter the course of the game and break their opponent, physically and mentally.

“It’s a momentum swing,” Boykin said of the big plays. “Dex with that huge run was huge for us. We like to think we should have been in that situation in the first place if we just came out and kept hitting them like we did in the first quarter, both those plays are huge.

“ … I think we had a good game, not our best game but a good game.”

That last part is key. Notre Dame is currently in the process of becoming a heavyweight. Notre Dame is not currently an established one. The Irish were certainly not perfect on Saturday night, and must improve in a lot of areas if they want to accomplish their goal of winning a national championship.

The encouraging side of that statement is that the Irish know they could be better and embrace that reality moving forward. Ian Book believes the Irish could have hung 70 on the Hokies. Drue Tranquill wishes the Irish pitched a shutout on defense. This team has an elite mentality when it comes to self-analysis and the desire to improve.

In terms of its physicality and performance on the field, as well as its cultivating a mentality to be great, Notre Dame is transitioning to playing as a heavyweight fighter. If its goal is to reach the College Football Playoff and find success there, it will need to continue to do so. No. 1 Alabama hung 65 on Arkansas. No. 2 Georgia easily handled Vanderbilt 41-13. No. 4 Clemson destroyed Wake Forest 63-3. All of these teams have adopted and engrained a heavyweight personality into their team culture, and Notre Dame will have to do the same.

This can’t be the 2012 team, which made a living off of winning close games and then promptly got exposed by a true powerhouse in the national championship. The 2018 version needs to dominate teams, and the exciting thing right now is that the Irish are showing that they can, in stretches, against good teams.

We’re midway through the 2018 regular season. Notre Dame is 6-0. Up next is Pittsburgh, followed by Navy, Northwestern, Florida State, Syracuse and USC. Merely winning those six games won’t be enough to merit Notre Dame success in or even qualification into the College Football Playoff, but how it wins certainly will. The Irish have made great progress over the last three games, and against Virginia Tech they showed they can dominate a proud program in its own house. Lane Stadium was Notre Dame’s by the end of the night.

Exit Sandman. Enter Notre Dame as a heavyweight CFP contender.

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

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About Joe Everett

Joe is a senior PLS major and hails from the thriving metropolis of South Bend, IN. In addition to formerly serving as Sports Editor at The Observer, Joe is a RA in Stanford Hall and a past champion of the Observer's Fantasy Football league.

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