NOTRE DAME — Once saddled with a schedule that featured five schools in the preseason Top 25 poll (three in the Top 10), Nore Dame’s big, bad lineup suddenly looks more human.
It happened from a mix of No. 10 Notre Dame (4-0) remembering how to win and its future opponents showing that they can lose.
The Irish manhandled Michigan State. They shut down Denard Robinson’s one-man show with Michigan.
As for teams Notre Dame has yet to face, USC, which topped the polls in the preseason, lost to Stanford in Week 3 and underwhelmed against Cal last week.
Oklahoma was upset by Kansas State and has struggled along its offensive line. BYU started strong but dropped its last two.
Among Notre Dame’s opponents, Stanford alone remains undefeated, dominating San Jose State and Duke before upsetting USC.
In many ways, Notre Dame’s schedule should still be considered one of the strongest in college football, but the Irish are no longer David fighting off five Goliaths.
A fan base that started the season crossing its fingers to finish 8-5 or maybe, just maybe, 9-4, now has a team expected by many to finish at least 10-3 or 11-2.
The defense is already there, allowing an average of nine points per game (fourth in the nation), 3½ sacks a game (10th in the nation), and more than three takeaways a game.
Notre Dame’s concern lies in its young offense.
“We need to continue to get better on offense, there’s no question,” head coach Brian Kelly said after beating Michigan. “We’ve left a lot of points out there that are there for the taking, and it’s not just the quarterback. It’s the right tackle or the left guard, it’s the wide receiver. We just need to gain a sense of consistency on the offensive side of the ball. We just have to hone in on everybody doing their job.”
That starts with quarterback, which has drawn a wary eye from fans after Everett Golson was yanked late in the second quarter against Michigan.
Tommy Rees came in and carried Notre Dame to victory, but will Rees be a weekly fall-back man or will Golson grow to manage the game for the full 60 minutes?
Kelly thinks so. Just give it time.
“You want to go with one quarterback, but we have a freshman quarterback who’s experiencing being a young quarterback,” Kelly said of Golson. “The only time I can prop him up with a veteran to win a football game because we’re in this to win it, then we’ll do that.”
It’s paid off for the Irish — so far. Then again, Golson’s performance against Michigan was uncharacteristic of the quarterback we got to know in the first three games.
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Golson; nothing like a week off to collect himself after a shaky performance against Michigan.
This also means a greater presence from tailbacks Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III. While all three — especially Riddick — have been invaluable in late-game scenarios when Notre Dame needed to burn time off the clock, the trio needs to present a greater threat for the other 55 minutes of the game.
Notre Dame ran for a combined 196 yards against Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. While Big Ten teams have historically stout run defenses, the Irish have Stanford’s top-ranked rushing defense and BYU’s ninth-ranked rush defense to look forward to.
The Irish don’t even need an elite offense. Manti Te’o and his wrecking crew of a defense will carry the brunt.
They just need to score more than a touchdown a game, especially when the other team is offering six turnovers.
Looking ahead, Notre Dame should beat Miami, Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest. That much hasn’t changed.
Now that the first four weeks have played out, they should also beat a 2-2 BYU team quickly losing a grip on its season.
That leaves No. 8 Stanford, No. 13. USC and No. 16 Oklahoma. Win just one of those games, and Notre Dame can look at a BCS bid. Win two, and it’s all but guaranteed.
Win all three, and Notre Dame could be playing for a national championship.
How high can Notre Dame fly in its final eight games of the regular season?
It depends on how quickly Golson and the offense can shed the moulting.