Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 27, 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 28 of 55 NOV. 27, 2021 29 A n edgy Michael Mayer stood in front of a podium inside the Notre Dame Stadium media room Oct. 2. Mayer and his Notre Dame teammates were cooling off from a loss to Cincin- nati in which they were shut out at half- time and exposed as a team in transi- tion. In a way, it felt inevitable. The Irish won their first four games despite some leaks on defense and worrisome bumps on offense. Yes, Mayer admitted, Notre Dame was still looking for an offensive identity. Asked if he thought they were close, he offered a terse response. "We're working toward it every day," the sophomore tight end said. Seven weeks later, he occupied the same spot after a 55-0 pantsing of Geor- gia Tech in a patently different mood — jovial, upbeat and laid back. Even he acknowledged the contrast in disposi- tion and in the games that preceded the two press conferences. "I think we've definitely found our identity," Mayer said. Mayer was talking about the offense. He may as well have been discussing Notre Dame as a whole. Just like the 2021 Irish have found their best offensive path, they've dis- covered how to make the most of a bridge season and take it to point higher than most outside observers expected. Head coach Brian Kelly even admitted it's close to his best-case outlook. "You're always looking to see growth and improvement, but you never really know what that arc looks like," Kelly said. "Sometimes it's measured in much smaller increments. This has been a lit- tle bit larger in those increments. "I think we all wanted to see the growth. It's just been to the point where this is a really good football team." Perhaps even a College Football Play- off team, or at least a team in the playoff mix until selection day. The No. 8 Irish (10-1) are staring at a two-spot jump in the CFP top 25 thanks to blowout losses by No. 3 Oregon and No. 7 Michigan State, which have two defeats each. Thanks to Notre Dame's light end-of- season schedule, its playoff hopes still hinge on losses by higher-ranked teams. In terms of the "eye test" and peaking at the right time, though, the Irish are offering quite the impression there too. Notre Dame ripped off five straight touchdown drives after a field goal on the opening possession and a 43-yard pick-six from junior rover Jack Kiser. The Irish could essentially pick how they wanted to march down the field. Georgia Tech couldn't tackle running back Kyren Williams. It couldn't cover Mayer or senior receiver Kevin Austin Jr. After the opening drive, it couldn't pressure quarterback Jack Coan. In accordance, the Irish won by a fi- nal score normally reserved for games against Mid-American Conference op- ponents. They scored 45 points before the half for the first time since a 2017 blowout of MAC team Miami (Ohio). Notre Dame averaged 8.7 yards per play while holding Georgia Tech to 3.6. Coan completed 10 straight passes and ended 15-of-20 passing for 285 yards with two touchdowns. The Yellow Jack- ets, meanwhile, had one play of 10-plus yards in the first half. This was the damage Notre Dame was expected to inflict on MAC foe Toledo in the first home game. Instead, the Irish escaped 32-29 in what's now a distant memory. "I'm watching this football team out there that looks nothing like it did back when we played Toledo," Kelly said. "That's growth. That's coaching. That's players understanding how they needed to grow as well." The schematic and personnel tweaks between now and then are well-chron- icled. The softer second half of the schedule is worth noting, too. But so is a cultural aspect and evident self- awareness that turned a transition year into a high-ceiling one. "This entire team has been about young players merging with veteran players and how that has really made this a special season, because that doesn't normally happen," Kelly said. "Sometimes it's not easy when younger players are put into the mix with veteran players. "We have a younger group of play- ers in our locker room that are selfless, that model what our upperclassmen do. They're not resistant to the standards that we have in our program. They fol- low. But they are confident in their own abilities as well. They don't just walk around and follow blindly." Take Mayer as one example. Notre Dame's leading receiver understood his 2021 responsibilities go beyond breaking tackles and catching touchdowns. The Irish turning this year's circumstances into playoff contention required them to onboard less-experienced players and fresh faces in short order. Mayer was one of many who raised his hand to help. "Coming into this season, I knew my role as a leader had to become a little bigger," Mayer said. "I feel like I have a personal connection with the freshmen who just got here this summer. "When you get that personal connec- tion with someone on the team, it's way easier to lead someone than not talking to them off the field and then trying to tell them what to do." As Mayer found his identity, his team found its own — on the field and in this season that evokes grander visions by the week. ✦ ENGEL'S ANGLE PATRICK ENGEL Patrick Engel has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since March 2020. He can be reached at Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer's leadership skills have helped Notre Dame's youth movement bring strong results. PHOTO BY CHAD WEAVER ND Knows Itself And Knows Its Ceiling Is Growing

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