WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. —
's football team became eligible for a bowl game with Saturday night's 24-17 victory over
But it almost certainly will not be one of the five
bowl games for which the Irish aspired to be eligible at the start of the season.
"You can look at it that way, but we don't," Irish coach
said. "We think we are moving to where we want to be in this process."
With a 6-3 record and no position in the polls or the BCS rankings last week, the Irish need a highly improbable series of losses by the teams in the top 25 to have a shot at a BCS bowl. Notre Dame must finish in the top 14 of the BCS rankings to be considered for one of its bowls.
And that, of course, assumes the Irish finish 9-3, which would mean beating currently unbeaten No. 4 Stanford in the regular-season finale.
Back to the present: The first meeting between Notre Dame and Wake Forest (5-4) produced an entertaining, seesaw game in which the Irish came back from a 17-10 halftime deficit with another of the strong third quarters that have defined their season.
This time, the rally wiped out the sting of having allowed the Demon Deacons to mount an 81-yard drive and score the go-ahead touchdown with 28 seconds left before intermission.
"That kind of left a chip on our shoulder," Irish senior safety Harrison Smith said. "As a defense, we wanted to shut them out after that."
A pass interference call against Smith had been key in Wake's drive to make it 17-10. He responded with key defensive plays — forcing a fumble and turning a completed screen pass into a 4-yard loss — to keep Wake Forest from scoring when it first reached the Irish 8-yard line and later the 10 in the final 20 minutes.
"When you go on the road you want to play the kind of football that allows you to win games consistently, and that is closing games out," Kelly said. "You have to win games like this. It's just a gritty performance."
The Irish won despite losing their iron man center, Braxston Cave (22 straight starts), to a foot injury on the first play of the second quarter. They won with star linebacker Manti Te'o playing on one leg most of the second half. They won despite quarterback Tommy Rees throwing two interceptions (he atoned with two touchdown passes).
"The toughness our team showed tonight is the stuff we are trying to develop," Kelly said.
Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions of each half. It now has outscored opponents 66-13 in third quarters. Its defense has allowed just six of those points.
"Our coaches make great adjustments at halftime," Smith said.
With the calendar having rolled into November, the Irish were entering Kelly's happy days: his teams have won 16 straight games in November (12) and December, including five in his two years at Notre Dame.
"The guys know what they are playing for," Kelly said. "We are playing for a consistent performance. You can't have spurts. Tonight was a great step in that direction. Playing on the road against good competition, down at halftime, come back a couple times.
"That's resolve. We are trying to build this, and it is starting to come."