Unlikely Notre Dame CFP Berth Remains In Play

Notre Dame unlikely CFP

More chaos, another Irish win, and continued pursuit of an unlikely Notre Dame CFP berth that seemed all but hopeless just a couple of weeks ago.

Notre Dame entered a primetime clash with 6-3 Virginia down three defensive captains, albeit against the Cavaliers’ backup quarterback. They never let the home team get comfortable, scoring on three of their four first-half possessions and claiming a 28-3 victory. The Irish received balanced efforts on both sides of the ball, flexing an incredible amount of depth.

Balanced Offensive Attack Leads Irish

With graduate student wide receiver Avery Davis out for the season, it was sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and senior receivers Braden Lenzy and Kevin Austin doing the leg work in the receiving game. All three players were on the receiving end of a touchdown pass from quarterback Jack Coan. Coan was an efficient 15-20 for 132 yards and three touchdowns. In particular, Coan excelled in the tempo offense, going 12-13 for 109 yards on dropbacks of under 2.5 seconds. He was 3-7 with an interception and two scrambles in all other situations.

In the running game, there were plenty of yards to spread between Kyren Williams, Logan Diggs, and Chris Tyree. Williams led the charge with 70 yards, Diggs added 64, and Tyree notched 32. Williams had the only touchdown run – an ankle-breaking 22-yard run extended Notre Dame’s lead to 21-0. Diggs added his own highlight reel effort with a 26-yard run that included a broken tackle in the backfield, a stiff arm, and an otherworldly hurdle to punctuate the effort. The wide receivers also got in on the fun. Lenzy flashed his track star speed with a 31-yard run on a reverse. Then freshman Lorenzo Styles followed his classmate Deion Colzie on a 30-yard sprint.

Irish Continue Defensive Dominance

Defensively, the Irish again played like they had something to prove. After some struggles in the second half of the USC clash and the UNC win, Notre Dame has now gone two straight games without allowing a touchdown. As they chase that unlikely CFP appearance, the Irish are looking for dominating victories, and the defense is doing their part.

Notre Dame was missing All-American safety Kyle Hamilton for a third consecutive game. The projected top-5 pick injured his knee in the first half of the USC game and has yet to return. Then, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and linebacker Drew White were gametime scratches with high fevers. Head coach Brian Kelly said after the game that a flu bug had spread through the Irish locker room, knocking out over 13 players at one point in the week.

As such, there were a lot of unexpected contributors stepping up for the Irish. Sophomore Rylie Mills was moved to defensive end to replace Tagovailoa-Amosa and notched two sacks. He was also a force on special teams coverage, earning the game ball from Kelly. Senior Bo Bauer stepped up as a leader of the linebacker corps; he had 1.5 sacks and a key pass breakup. Both his sacks and the pass breakup were key contributors to halting UVA drives. The safety room also thrived, despite the absence of Hamilton. DJ Brown notched another interception towards the end of the game. Ramon Henderson, a cornerback as of last week, made his first career start, securing his first career interception, a sack, and a big open-field tackle that helped stall an early UVA drive.

“We had a lot of things to look at – injuries, illness, being on the road at night which was not easy, and against another team that had the week off” head coach Brian Kelly said in his postgame press conference, “They took it as a challenge…to play our best football…I’m really proud of them. To get a victory on the road this late in the season and to have some individuals step up and play their best football was even more impressive.”

Dominant From The Start

Notre Dame had few issues with Virginia on either side of the ball, particularly in the first half. The Irish scored on three of their first four first-half possessions. Their only failed drive was a turnover on downs deep in Virginia territory. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers netted a total of -4 yards on their first two drives, allowing for Notre Dame to take command of the scoreboard. A shanked punt set up a 43-yard scoring drive for the Irish to open the scoring. Williams converted a 4th and 1 on a 14-yard dash, and then Coan hit Mayer for a six-yard touchdown pass.

Later, it was Diggs with a highlight-reel 26-yard run to spark another scoring drive. Diggs broke a backfield tackle, executed a stiff arm, and then hurdled a UVA defender to complete the effort. The Irish finished the drive on a Coan to Lenzy connection early in the second quarter. Williams completed the first-half scoring with an ankle-breaking 22-yard effort late in the first half. Meanwhile, the Irish defense stepped up after UVA did begin to move the ball. Notre Dame got key third-down sacks and shut down a fake field goal attempt to preserve the first-half shutout.

The second half was a mere formality. The Irish ballooned the lead to 28 points before settling in to run out the clock. UVA got inside the Irish 40-yard line on four occasions but came away with three points. The lead was never threatened and the banged-up Irish walked away with the 28-3 victory.

Irish Pursuing Unlikely CFP Berth

When the College Football Playoff rankings first came out just two weeks ago, a spot in the top four seemed virtually out of reach for the Irish. They were ranked 10th, near the bottom of the top one-loss teams. Suddenly, however, a route to an extremely unlikely CFP berth exists. Consecutive losses by teams ranked ahead of the Irish have positioned them to jump to 8th in the upcoming rankings. Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan should knock each other out, with just one of those Big 10 East teams making the field. Alabama could lose to Georgia and take on a second loss. Oregon looks anything but invincible with some tricky games to navigate.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame is sitting pretty at 9-1 with a pair of games left. Georgia Tech and Stanford stand in the way of an impressive 11-1 season after the Irish lost eight offensive starters from a year ago. When asked whether he felt his team had a body of work worthy of being in the Playoff, Kelly was strong in his affirmative response:

“We’re better than we were in September and October. We’re ascending as a football team. The eye test says this team is playing better offensively and defensively. We’re playing pretty good football.”

More chaos is needed, but again, the on-field results, both for the Irish and elsewhere around the country, favored the blue and gold. The hunt for what would be the most unlikely CFP berth of any in the Brian Kelly era continues on Saturday, against Georgia Tech in the Irish’s home finale.