First & 20: Notre Dame makes statement with big win

Anthony Gimino

October 23, 2017 at 11:30 am.

Oct 21, 2017; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Josh Adams (33) runs with the ball against the Southern California Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 21, 2017; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Josh Adams (33) runs with the ball against the Southern California Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. Photo Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame was a wreck last season, Brian Kelly was on the coaching hot seat, and the Fighting Irish seemed joyless after this season’s Week 2 home loss to Georgia.

Now, of course, the Fighting Irish are one of the hottest teams in the country and on a path to reach the College Football Playoff, no questions asked.

College football comes at you fast, and the Irish — in a rare bout of being unranked and undervalued at the start of a season — are, along with unbeaten TCU, one of the fastest risers in the nation.

They haven’t done it with flash. They are getting it done because Kelly went back to identifying the running game as his offenses’ bread-and-butter, while new defensive coordinator Mike Elko — a savvy but un-sexy pick from Wake Forest — has transformed his unit into a tougher outfit up front that specializes in turnovers.

The results Saturday night: 394 yards rushing, 111 rushing yards allowed, a plus-3 turnover margin and a 49-14 home victory over then-No. 11 USC that screamed: “WE’RE BACK.”

“I wrote on my card tonight in my locker room, and I said if we didn’t win really big, I would be disappointed,” Kelly said.

What would have been disappointing is if Notre Dame didn’t take advantage of having two NFL players on the left side of its offensive line — tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson, both seniors, and both projected as first-rounders by

The Irish were 80th nationally in rushing last season with DeShone Kizer at quarterback but are now sixth, averaging 317.9 yards per game as Josh Adams has emerged as a Heisman-caliber running back. Adams (191 yards) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (106) led the relentless ground attack against USC.

“Credit Notre Dame,” said USC coach Clay Helton. “They won the battle in the trenches tonight.”

Last season, when Notre Dame went 4-8, the Irish had a minus-4 turnover margin and had one of the nation’s lowest sack totals — 14. Elko’s Wake Forest defense, surprisingly lethal, made 41.

He has brought that edge to South Bend. Notre Dame is more than doubling its sack rate — from 1.17 per game to 2.57 — and is among the national leaders with a turnover margin of plus-1.43 per game.

“We want more,” Kelly said after the USC game. “This was a great victory. We’re excited about the win, beating a very good USC team. But our guys want to be unique. So there’s more out there for them.”

Yes. There is.

Notre Dame hosts yet another fast riser this season — North Carolina State this Saturday. The Irish play at currently unbeaten Miami on Nov. 11. Always tricky Navy awaits on Nov. 18. They close at nationally ranked Stanford on Nov. 25.

If Notre Dame runs the table — with those quality wins and only a one-point loss to Georgia on its resume — it is getting into the four-team playoff, no questions asked.

“Mindset wise, I think we’re in a good place,” Kelly said.

5 thoughts on Week 8

1. The Pac-12’s playoff hopes just got worse. Preseason favorite USC is on the canvas, and one-loss Washington and Washington State have lousy nonconference strengths of schedule. Don’t sleep on two-loss Stanford, which could close with wins over the Washington schools, Notre Dame and in the conference title game.

2. Jeff Tedford is the first-year Coach of the Year. Remember when this guy was at Cal and considered one of the best minds in college football? Now, he’s revitalizing his alma mater, Fresno State, which is 5-2 and has a two-game lead in the Mountain West’s West Division after a 27-3 road win at San Diego State, which spent a few weeks in the Top 25 this season. Oh, the Bulldogs were 1-11 last season.

3. Derrius Guice is still Derrius Guice. Finally looking healthy again, LSU’s preseason All-American running back ripped off 276 yards on 22 carries against Ole Miss. With Guice and another first-round prospect — edge rusher Arden Key (two sacks vs. the Rebels) — returning to full strength, the Tigers still might have something to say when they visit Alabama on Nov. 4.

4. Something is hot in Arizona. And it’s not the seats of coaches Todd Graham (Arizona State) and Rich Rodriguez (Arizona). Job security is no longer the main topic for both of these sixth-year coaches, whose teams sit 3-1 in the Pac-12 South, each showing recent surprising strengths — the Sun Devils with defense, the Wildcats with stunning quarterback play. It’s not crazy that the Territorial Cup rivalry game on Nov. 25 could be for the division title.

5. More proof that nobody knows college football. Boston College has scored more than 40 points in a game for the first time since 2002; Rutgers has won consecutive Big Ten games for the first time ever; Iowa State is 3-1 and controls its destiny in the Big 12 race.

5 numbers to note

1. 35 — Consecutive seasons with a bowl for Florida State, which dropped to 2-4 after a home loss to Louisville with five games left (a game against Louisiana-Monroe was cancelled because of Hurricane Irma). Can the Seminoles get to six wins? Let’s assume a win over Delaware State. That means FSU has to go 3-1 vs. this slate: at Boston College, vs. Syracuse, at Clemson, at Florida. Not easy.

2. 3 — Consecutive games in which Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate has scored on a run of at least 70 yards. He is the first quarterback to have such a streak in at least the past 10 years, including to ESPNStats.

3. 32 — Years it has been since Army qualified for bowl games in back-to-back seasons. That’s what the Black Knights have already done, getting to 6-2 with a win over Temple and accepting a bid to the Armed Forces Bowl.

4. 804 — Yards of total offense for Florida Atlantic in its 69-31 win over North Texas. Never forget that Lane Kiffin can coach some offense. His Owls are 4-3 overall and 3-0 in Conference USA, tied for the East Division lead with Marshall.

5. 15 — Touchdowns receptions for West Virginia receiver David Sills V. Nobody else in the country has more than nine. Now the chase is on for Sills, with five regular-season games remaining, to get the national record of 27, set by Louisiana Tech’s Troy Edwards in 1998.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Penn State RB Saquon Barkley. His highlight plays in Saturday’s rout of Michigan (and what had been a stout defense) makes him the favorite, but games against Ohio State and Michigan State in the next two weeks will further tell the tale.

2. Stanford RB Bryce Love. The Cardinal were off on Saturday. Next up: More long Love runs against an Oregon State defense that is 100th nationally against the run.

3. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield. An 11-play, 76-yard touchdown drive to beat Kansas State? Yeah, the nation’s leader in passing efficiency did that to cap a 410-yard passing day against the Wildcats.

4. Notre Dame RB Josh Adams. He’s sixth nationally in rushing (138.1 yards per game) after his 191-yard outing against USC, and now he and the Irish have everyone’s attention.

5. Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor. He’s reached 1,000 yards in only seven games as a true freshman. Here’s the list of other FBS freshman who have done that: Emmitt Smith, Marshall Faulk, Adrian Peterson, Jamario Thomas and P.J. Hill.

5 top games for Week 9

1. Penn State at Ohio State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). The Buckeyes have rolled since losing at home to Oklahoma in their second game, but the competition hasn’t been great. The prove-it part of schedule begins … now.

2. North Carolina State at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET). Sure, the Irish dominated a banged-up USC defensive front. The Wolfpack, led by end Bradley Chubb, will be a much stiffer challenge in a game with College Football Playoff implications.

3. Oklahoma State at West Virginia (Saturday, noon ET). It’s the nation’s top-rated passing offense (Oklahoma State) vs. the nation’s fourth-rated passing offense (West Virginia) and, it’s almost not fair, both can run the ball, too.

4. Georgia vs. Florida (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Jacksonville, Fla.). Georgia is looking for revenge in one of college football’s best rivalries, having lost three in a row to the Gators, including 24-10 last season.

5. USC at Arizona State (Saturday, 10:45 p.m. ET). Here is your late-night entertainment, with the surging Sun Devils looking to establish themselves as the Pac-12 South frontrunner against the wobbly Trojans and their suddenly turnover-prone QB Sam Darnold.