Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 17, 2016

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

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4 OCT. 17, 2016 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED W hile we all savored a pre- season top-10 ranking and the hopes of a possible playoff run, a postseason trip to the Citrus Bowl or the Russell Athletic Bowl never entered any destination con- sideration for Notre Dame or its faithful followers. But as we cross the halfway post to this strange season — and with the toughest stretch of the Irish schedule still looming — the Notre Dame play- ers and coaches find themselves in a full scramble to even reach a second- tier December bowl. This talented team remarkably and unexpectedly still tries to define and reinvent itself well into October. Starting this Saturday with a visit by talented rival Stanford, followed by a matchup later this month versus resurgent Miami, and finally finish- ing a difficult regular-season slate against Virginia Tech and at USC (with ornery opponents Army and Navy sandwiched in between) there are no gimme wins for the Irish the rest of the way. In fact, based on last week's Saga- rin Rankings and real-time calcula- tions from, Notre Dame is expected to beat only the two military academies during the rest of the regular season, pro- jecting as an underdog in the four remaining games against its Power Five opponents during its chase to reach six wins and bowl eligibility. "A lot to play for," assessed Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, in a grand understatement. This bowl eligibility discussion is inexplicable for a roster laden with future NFL talent, considering many of us thought it might already be locked into a place in the postseason. Under Kelly, recruiting is as strong and steady as it has been since the Lou Holtz era, the Irish offense still averaged nearly 40 points and 500 yards during its 2-3 start, and once Texas and Michigan State stumbled after beating Notre Dame, the first half of the Irish schedule has proven to be much less hazardous than ex- pected — all of which makes it dif- ficult to digest the persistent rhetoric from Kelly that lists short- and slow- term incremental improvements as his remaining goals to the rest of this season. "A lot in front of us, a lot of chal- lenges," Kelly said last week in an explanation more fitting for a rookie coach than a veteran skipper coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl appearance. "But more importantly, a group that I feel is really excited about the direction we're going, especially on defense. We hope to build on that." Not surprisingly, a passionate Irish fan base isn't overly excited about Notre Dame needing to take baby steps during the second half of this season just to become bowl eligible. Yet, where this program is and given where it needs to be, making a postseason game this year — no matter when or where — is more important than any of the previous six bowls Notre Dame has played in under Kelly, not only for the sake of the extra game but also because of the practices that come along with it. "It's a long-term approach," ex- plained Kelly, who rotates 18 redshirt and true freshmen into his lineup, "in the sense that we are getting a lot of young players some valuable experience." All of which suggests how vital a bowl appearance will be to affording this team a chance to better develop its youthful players and continue to install a new defensive strategy. "There is a bigger trust and un- derstanding in knowing that we're going to be in pretty good shape defensively," Kelly said … and let's hope so. Add to the chronic defensive defi- ciencies this season the uncertainty as to whether star quarterback DeShone Kizer will return in 2017 — not to men- tion what Kelly wants his defensive leadership and philosophy to look like moving forward — then finding a way to secure six wins and bowl eligibility this season becomes imperative to set the tone for next season. "Let's put these guys in a position to succeed this year, utilizing a lot of young players, gaining experience as we go, and being smart about utiliz- ing our personnel," Kelly said of his objectives the rest of this year. "In other words, putting them in places to succeed." And the quickest way to succeed, Coach Kelly? Find six wins this regular season, more practices, and a bowl game — and that means any bowl game — be it named after a fruit, a veg- etable, an apparel line, or anything in between. ✦ Bowl Eligibility Trumps All Other Missions UPON FURTHER REVIEW TODD D. BURLAGE Todd D. Burlage has been a writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 2005. He can be reached at Every starter on the 2016 Notre Dame offense has at least another year of eligibility in 2017, making continued progress in practice important. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND

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