Resilient Fighting Irish inching closer to playoff berth

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A week after the year’s first college football playoff poll left them siting squarely on the bubble as the nation’s fifth-best team, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were rewarded for one of their best offensive performances of the season with the fourth spot in the committee’s second playoff poll.

For the most part, head coach Brian Kelly’s Irish have been praised for starting quarterback DeShone Kizer’s development, the play of junior wideout Will Fuller, and senior C.J. Prosise’s relatively instant success in the backfield.

But thanks to a series of key injuries that would sink most programs, it’s become clear that one of this team’s primary strengths continues to be the staff’s ability to replace once-irreplaceable starters with guys we’ve never heard of.

In August, junior running back Greg Bryant was handed a season-long suspension that left the Irish with a backfield led by Tarean Folston and Prosise–a converted receiver with zero experience. Not even a month later, Notre Dame then lost its leading rusher when a torn acl spelled the end of Folston’s junior campaign, making Prosise the team’s lead back with freshmen Josh Adams and Dexter Williams in supporting roles.

However, just when it looked as though Prosise had found his calling as Notre Dame’s lead back, the senior went down in the first quarter of Saturday’s victory over Pittsburgh with what’s since been referred to as an ”upper body” injury.

But once again, the resilient Irish avoided disaster by doing what they do best thanks to a 147-yard performance from Adams who posted the second 100-plus yard game of his freshman year in relief of the senior.

”Josh is an electric running back,” said Kizer following Saturday’s win. ”It goes to show that we’re deep at all positions. This team has been through hell and back, and it comes to the adversity that we’re facing. Josh is just another guy who steps in and has a great game when a guy in front of him goes down.”

Of course, it was the unexpected loss of starting quarterback Everett Golson, who bailed on South Bend in order to take his talents to Tallahassee in the spring, that initially brought attention to this team’s depth of talent by putting the starting job into the promising hands of Malik Zaire.

Then, just seven days after an impressive start in Notre Dame’s season-opening win over Texas, a broken ankle in Virginia forced Zaire to the sidelines and Kizer into the spotlight.

Along with those key losses, the Irish have also fought through the injury-fueled losses of starting tight end Durham Smythe, starting defensive lineman Jarron Jones, and starting cornerback Shaun Crawford. Considering how easy it would be for that many key injuries to completely destroy a program’s entire season, one wonders what head coach Brian Kelly’s talented crew would’ve done at full strength.

Entering Week 11, Notre Dame stands at a very respectable 8-1 with notable victories against 7-1 Navy, 8-1 Temple, 6-3 Pittsburgh, and a sporadically-dangerous 6-3 USC squad.

The nation’s fourth-ranked team isn’t expected to receive much of a test during the next two weeks with home games versus 3-6 Wake Forest on Saturday and 3-7 Boston College in Week 12. But with one loss already on their resume, the Fighting Irish can’t afford to lose their season finale on the road against 8-1 Stanford if they’re going to earn one of the four highly-coveted playoff berths.

Somewhat understandably, supporters of currently undefeated teams such as no.5 Iowa, no.6 Baylor, and no.8 Oklahoma State have taken to social media to express their respective disgust with the fact that one-loss Notre Dame cracked this week’s top four ahead of several unbeaten power conference teams.

But because their one loss came on the road and at the hands of top-ranked Clemson, Notre Dame’s playoff chances improve with every Tiger victory, forcing the Fighting Irish and their supporters to transform into undercover Clemson fans for the final three weeks of the season.

And if both the Irish and Tigers run the table and Clemson remains atop the rankings, it’s reasonable to assume that Notre Dame will get into the playoffs with the best one-loss resume in the country despite losing at least six starters to season-ending injuries.

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