No. 8 Irish need to win out and have help for playoff berth
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — It isn't often that Brian Kelly has to get his team's attention.
Late in Saturday's 30-27 victory over Southern California that moved the Irish to 5-1, Kelly tried. He raced out onto the field to get a timeout from officials as the Trojans lined up to attempt an onside kick late in the game.
Kelly wasn't successful but neither were the Trojans as tight end Brock Wright fielded the kick cleanly to seal the win and keep his eighth-ranked team's hopes alive for a College Football Playoff appearance for the second straight season.
Since a 23-17 loss at then-No. 3 Georgia, Notre Dame has shown enough improvement in victories over Virginia (35-10), Bowling Green (52-0) and the Trojans to remain in the picture. They would have to win their final six games — starting with a trip to No. 16 Michigan after this week's bye — and get some help.
Kelly likes how his team is going about its business.
"I think it's a mature team in the way they handle themselves," Kelly said. "They know they have to do the little things the right way. Each week has required our team to find different ways to win. I like the fact that our guys, regardless of the situation, can adapt and adjust and find ways to win."
After the Wolverines, Notre Dame finishes against Virginia Tech, Duke, Navy, Boston College and Stanford — teams that are a combined 23-12, none of them ranked. An 11-1 finish might be good enough, but the overall strength of Notre Dame's schedule is generally middle of the pack.
For the most part, Notre Dame's defense, under second-year coordinator Clark Lea, has performed decent enough. Led by sack-minded defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, aggressive linebacker Asmar Bilal and safeties Alohi Gilman and Julian Elliott, the defense is allowing just 16.8 points a game (13th nationally).
The offense is ranked 14th, putting up 39.2 points per game behind senior quarterback Ian Book. He is completing 63.2% of his passes, down slightly from last season but has twice thrown for five touchdowns in a game to an impressive receiving corps that includes wideout Chase Claypool and tight end Cole Kmet.
"Ian is making good decisions, he's taking care of the football," Kelly said. "He's helping us win games."
Book is quick to credit Notre Dame's improving offensive line led by Associated Press midseason All-America guard Tommy Kraemer that opened holes against USC for a season-high 308 rushing yards. A career-high 176 came from Tony Jones Jr., who has been over the century mark against Louisville, Virginia and Bowling Green while replacing Jafar Armstrong, finally back from abdominal surgery.
"The line was phenomenal, I'm super proud of those guys," Book said. "Tony is a great tool in our offense. If he keeps doing that, it opens up everything else in the passing game."
The special teams have been just that, with freshman punter Jay Bramblett averaging 41.4 yards and junior Jonathan Doerer perfect on 27 PATs and six-of-seven on field goals, including 45-, 52- and 43-yarders against the Trojans.