In a season like no other, Notre Dame proved that it is among the best programs in college football. But once again, the elites of college football distanced themselves from the rest of the pack and illustrated that Notre Dame remains strides behind, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
Although the season ended with back-to-back disappointing results for Notre Dame fans, it also included a home upset of Clemson, the then-No. 1 team in the country, and a trip to the College Football Playoff, both feats of which the Fighting Irish can be proud.
This was a season of many firsts, and thanks to the great efforts of Notre Dame football staff, coaches and players, it will go down as a success. The team finished 10-2 with a trip to its first ACC Championship, its second College Football Playoff and its third undefeated regular season of the past decade.
When the season began in early September, no one could predict whether a full season would be played or the numerous challenges that the team would face, but nevertheless, they persevered and opened the season at home against Duke. After a 27-13 victory over the Blue Devils, it was clear that this year’s team would be led by their excellent defense and experienced offensive line and quarterback.
Following the victory over Duke, Notre Dame went on to rout South Florida and Florida State in successive games behind strong performances from breakout sophomore running back Kyren Williams. Senior quarterback Ian Book, however, seemed to be regressing due to a lack of connection with his receivers and his frightened demeanor in the pocket. Heading into the contest with a stumbling Louisville squad, there were many questions for Notre Dame to answer if they hoped to return to the College Football Playoff.
After an ugly 12-7 victory over the Cardinals, it was evident that Brian Kelly’s squad had even more questions to answer, most importantly in identifying which receivers would step up and take the Irish offense to the next level. Against a struggling Louisville defense, Notre Dame’s leading receiver was Ben Skowronek with just 28 yards.
With serious doubts expressed by the national media heading into the middle of the season, the team found answers in the following two games against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech. The defense continued to dominate, led by stars Kyle Hamilton, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Ade Ogundeji, while the offense finally started to fire on all cylinders. Ian Book appeared confident working with graduate receivers Javon McKinley and Skowronek, while the experienced offensive line continued to create massive holes for the running backs.
Notre Dame was playing its best football at the right time, as it was set to face off against No. 1 Clemson on Nov. 7. Without several key pieces on Clemson’s lines, including Heisman finalist Trevor Lawrence, the Fighting Irish were able to do what few thought possible: win the big game.
The double-overtime victory, led by strong performances from Williams and the defensive line, propelled the Fighting Irish squarely into the playoff picture. Despite several thousand students storming the field after the upset, the program reported no positive cases the following week.
With its confidence at its highest point of the season, Notre Dame easily defeated Boston College to spoil former quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s revenge game. Although it was not the prettiest victory with several Irish turnovers, the victory kept them as a frontrunner to make the College Football Playoff, heading into a difficult matchup with a ranked North Carolina team on the road.
After exchanging two touchdowns early in the game, it appeared that Notre Dame would have to win in a shootout against one of the best offenses in the country. Late in the second half, the Irish were dealt another blow when star safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected from the game on a targeting penalty. But as Clark Lea has done so many times throughout his coaching career, the defense made the adjustments necessary to stifle the Tar Heel offense. In shutting out UNC in the second half, the defense allowed Ian Book and the offense to take firm control of the game and secure a two touchdown victory on the road (31-17).
Traveling to Syracuse undefeated, Notre Dame had one final test to pass before securing their spot in the ACC Championship. Once more, the Irish struggled early and let Syracuse hang around for longer than they should have, but in the end, Notre Dame easily defeated the Orange by a score of 45-21.
Following a bye week for each team, Notre Dame and Clemson were set to have their rematch for the ACC Championship in Charlotte. With Trevor Lawrence back at the helm, the Tiger offense looked significantly more dangerous in a 34-10 rout of the Fighting Irish. While the scoreboard appeared lopsided, this was a game of missed opportunities early as Notre Dame had multiple chances to score and keep the game competitive. Instead of controlling its own destiny, Notre Dame was forced to wait until the following day to hear if the team had secured a bid in the College Football Playoff.
Although the season ended with a 31-14 defeat to the eventual national champion, the Alabama Crimson Tide, there was plenty in that semifinal game and the season that will have fans excited for the future. Notre Dame proved that they belonged in the College Football Playoff all season long, as their showing against Alabama was better than that of Ohio State, the eventual runners-up.
While Notre Dame fans are surely tired of falling just short, the program is closer to winning a national championship than it has been in over three decades. With several young playmakers returning and a revamped staff featuring new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, the Fighting Irish will begin the push for another national championship in Tallahassee next fall.