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Notre Dame needs to navigate one more November game to reach its destination — the College Football Playoff

Notre Dame needs to navigate one more November game to reach its destination — the College Football Playoff
Notre Dame players line up at the end zone to greet fans and cheer with them after their game against Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York. (Howard Simmons / Associated Press)

No one could blame the folks around South Bend for holding their breath.

It doesn’t matter that Notre Dame is undefeated and ranked third in the nation, just one win shy of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.

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It doesn’t matter that the Irish are heavily favored to get that victory against a struggling, if not woeful, USC in their annual showdown at the Coliseum this weekend.

The last few seasons, November has been a cruel month for coach Brian Kelly’s program, cursed by slipups and misfires, tarnished by losses that killed championship runs.

Now, so close to another title shot, the stakes are high. And Kelly knows anything can happen in a rivalry game.

“There’s going to be a lot of noise around it,” he told reporters this week. “And you’ve got to be aware of that.”

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) hands off to running back Dexter Williams (2) during the first half against Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) hands off to running back Dexter Williams (2) during the first half against Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York. (Howard Simmons / Associated Press)

Three years ago, the Irish found themselves in similar circumstances, ranked sixth coming down the stretch, pushing for a spot in the CFP top four, when they fell to Stanford in the regular-season finale.

The 2016 season was a little different, with the team headed for a losing record and dropping three of four games at the end.

But a late stumble cost the Irish again last fall as they tumbled out of the playoff race with losses at Miami and Stanford.

“We had three goals this year,” Kelly said. “Beat Michigan, win all of our games at home, and then win the month of November.”

Notre Dame checked the first item off that list in the season opener, hanging on for a 24-17 victory over the Wolverines.

Defense always figured to be a strong point, anchored by such veterans as tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney and cornerback Julian Love. The Irish rank 20thin the nation, allowing 321 yards a game.

“Those guys get pressure,” Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “Their defensive ends and their tackle, they’re pretty special.”

Just as important, the offense has come alive with critical changes in the weeks since the Michigan game.

Ian Book took over for Brandon Wimbush at quarterback in late September and has added spark with better accuracy and a knack for making plays with his arm and his legs when the pocket falls apart.

“We had him in trouble a couple of times and didn’t bring him down,” Stanford coach David Shaw after his team lost 38-17 to Notre Dame. “Quarterbacks like this, you don’t bring them to the ground, they hurt you.”

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It also helped that running back Dexter Williams, who served an unofficial suspension over the first month, has returned to the lineup and is averaging 120 yards rushing a game.

“He’s got a little more juice,” Shaw said. “He runs hard, he runs physically, he runs through tackles.”

But there have been some close calls against the likes of No. 19 Northwestern and No. 24 Pittsburgh. Even after last week’s convincing 36-3 victory over No. 20 Syracuse, the Irish are fully aware that people around the nation still wonder if they are for real.

“Every week someone’s going to doubt us,” Love said. “Somebody’s going to act like we’re not where we are.”

The strength of schedule has taken a few hits with Stanford, Virginia Tech and Florida State — normally marquee teams — nowhere to be seen in the rankings. USC, at 5-6, won’t help that scenario.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stands with his team before a game against Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly stands with his team before a game against Syracuse on Saturday at Yankee Stadium in New York. (Howard Simmons / Associated Press)

Though Book looked strong against Syracuse, passing for 292 yards and two touchdowns at Yankee Stadium, he is still recovering from a rib injury that caused him to miss the game the week before. And, with eight starts over two seasons, the redshirt sophomore is by no means a veteran.

“Everything is moving really fast,” he said. “You snap your fingers and you’ve got one more game in the regular season. It’s crazy.”

One more thing about the Irish — Kelly needs to prove to detractors that he can fully restore the program’s championship tradition.

“I will tell you this ... Notre Dame is better than what people think they are,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “That’s a really, really good football team.”

A win Saturday almost certainly will put the Irish in the playoffs as one of three undefeated teams, not counting No. 9 Central Florida, which has been kept on the fringes as a non-Power Five program.

The Irish could throw a wrench in the CFP machinery by occupying one of the top four slots as an independent, shoving aside a potential major conference champion such as No. 6 Oklahoma, or No. 8 Washington State, both of whom have one loss heading into the final weekend.

If No. 5 Georgia were to finish with one loss and defeat top-ranked Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship game, the voters might have the headache of choosing two teams from, say, Alabama, Notre Dame and No. 4 Michigan.

Not that the Irish should be thinking so far ahead.

“All that stuff sounds really intimidating and imposing, but we’ll focus on what we need to do,” Kelly said. “We’ve got some things that we need to work on.”

Which means getting ready for the Trojans, using this week’s practice to concentrate on limiting penalties and playing more physically along the line of scrimmage.

Playoff machinations can wait another week, set aside until Notre Dame finishes the task at hand. As Kelly said: “We want to finish off November.”

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