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Coolican: Just keep winning

| Monday, November 2, 2020

It’s rare for a coach to publicly admit that they are looking ahead on the schedule, but that is what Brian Kelly has done these past few weeks. Kelly said after the Pittsburgh game that his team was “looking ahead a little bit,” adding that the team needed to elevate their competition level before the much-anticipated matchup with Clemson. If any opponent is worth looking ahead to, it is Clemson, in what will perhaps be the biggest game at Notre Dame Stadium since the infamous Bush Push.

Coaches and pundits always warn of the danger of looking past an opponent, but Notre Dame has not shown any weaknesses, dominating Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech, both on the road, by scores of 45-3 and 31-13, respectively. These score lines don’t tell the whole story of how dominant Notre Dame was on both sides of the ball in these matchups. Particularly this weekend, Notre Dame so thoroughly overpowered Georgia Tech in the trenches that it at times appeared the Yellow Jackets’ lineman were mere tackling dummies. 

The moment C’Bo Flemister was tackled as time expired, it was officially Clemson week, and the Irish were no longer looking ahead. The dominant storyline has been, and will continue to be, Trevor Lawrence’s absence due to COVID-19. Fans and pundits alike have been speculating non-stop on what that means for Notre Dame. This speculation is natural, as it’s arguably the biggest game of the season, and Lawrence is the most high-profile player in the country. However, Notre Dame doesn’t need to worry about any of this. All they need to do is keep playing the way they have been playing these last two weeks, and they’ll be able to compete with anybody in the country. 

Hyosub Shin | Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Irish senior wide receiver Avery Davis is tackled by a group of Yellow Jackets defenders during the 31-13 Notre Dame win over Georgia Tech on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium.

Clark Lea and his defense should of course be prepared for the unique challenges that DJ Uiagalelei will bring, as he is a very different type of quarterback than Lawrence. But first and foremost, Notre Dame should focus on continuing to do what they do best. The offense has been as good as it has been all season these past two weeks, averaging 259 yards passing and 171 yards rushing. The defense has also been outstanding the last three weeks. Since the win over Florida State, the Irish have allowed less than 250 yards per contest.

It would be naive for me to suggest that Notre Dame doesn’t have to change anything to beat Clemson. The Tigers’ lineman won’t be as easy to push around as Georgia Tech’s were, and even without Lawrence, their offense is a force of nature. The Irish also made a few mistakes, especially on Saturday, that could prove costly against a better opponent. Despite that, these past two weeks have been some of the best performances we’ve seen the Irish turn in against Power 5 opponents in quite a while. They’re beating inferior opponents convincingly, which is something that used to be sorely lacking. The energy that the Irish have brought to these wins was electric. Watching the sidelines, the entire team was fired up for one another. Notre Dame surely will not have a problem keeping that same energy for Clemson, as it is a once in a lifetime opportunity to host a top-four showdown.

If the Irish have learned one lesson from these past two games, it’s this: effective offensive play calling. Tommy Rees has been playing to Ian Book’s strength so well, that while it might be premature to say this, it seems he has finally unlocked the passing game. Rees hasn’t called for Ian Book to take as many shots down the field as he used to, perhaps finally realizing that Javon McKinley is no Chase Claypool. Rees has called for more short and medium range passes, and Book has responded with back-to-back great games. The effectiveness of the aerial attack allows for run plays and play action to be much more effective than they otherwise would have been in the relatively one-dimensional offense that the Irish had at the beginning of the season. It would have been tough to imagine the run game getting better than it was at the beginning of the year, but it has.

The Irish don’t need big plays to have an effective offense. It might not make the highlights, but it works. Gaining 4-5 yards on every play, with the occasional longer gain thrown in there, taking huge chunks of time off the clock, is how Notre Dame is winning football games this year. They can’t shy away from it now. Obviously, gaining those yards will be tougher against Clemson than it was against Georgia Tech, but the Irish need to stick to their gameplan. 

If these past two performances are an indication of how Notre Dame plays when they’re looking ahead, then they should just start preparing for Boston College now. In all seriousness, though, Notre Dame shouldn’t change much in their approach this week. Their formula has been effective, and Brian Kelly needs to have the courage to stick with it. In simpler terms: Just keep winning.

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

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