ARLINGTON, Texas -- Notre Dame fans would do well to remember the words of ex-Irish head coach Lou Holtz as their team heads into an early October bye week
"We're not where we want to be. We're not where we outta be. We're not where we're gonna be. We're where we are."
The Irish sit at 4-2, about one game off of most fans' and pundits' predictions and two off their own expected performance. Following an October 19 prime time tussle with reeling rival USC, the soft underbelly of the 2013 Irish slate presents.
Two Service Academies, a game at Pittsburgh, a rare second bye, and a "tricky trap" (to quote my three-year-old daughter) on Senior Day against BYU.
And then -- yeesh, Stanford. (Stanford's not part of said soft underbelly. In fact, nothing about "soft" and "Stanford" go hand in hand. Moving on.)
But in a 37-34 win over No. 22 Arizona State, Notre Dame accomplished what it had to Saturday night in Cowboys Stadium. Simply, they could not enter the bye week on a two-game losing skid, mired at .500, and completely removed from relevant bowl discussions.
"We did feel it was a must win. We're not going to try and hide it," said senior captain T.J. Jones post-game.
Game MVP Prince Shembo concurred, noting a defeat might have ruined his forthcoming time away from the grind.
"Really bad. I can't imagine going into a bye week with a loss," said Shembo, neglecting the mention it would have been consecutive defeats entering the respite. "They have a whole week with us? We'd be practicing every day. I don't know what the schedule will be, but I know that it'll be better than it was with a loss!"
I can imagine it. Extensive over-analysis. Hand-wringing over every debatable decision. Irrational fan-base burying of upperclassmen in favor of the rookies. The outright burning at the stake of one Tommy Rees…Bob Diaco tossed not-so-gently to the piping hot embers. The end of the world as we know it.
Instead, even the most cynical Irish fan realizes opportunity remains. Notre Dame will be a decisive favorite in its next five games. Two, maybe three of those will prove tougher than the experts project. But Notre Dame is doubtless better -- both in terms of developed talent and between-the-lines proof and production -- than each of its five foes prior to a Thanksgiving Saturday showdown on The Farm.
New World Order
Was this Notre Dame's best defensive game of the season?
27 points allowed (one ASU touchdown came courtesy the Irish offense) and 427 yards surrendered. A fourth-down touchdown that allowed the Sun Devils life and 33 completions in 47 attempts.
But considering the foe and the stress the Sun Devils offense puts on its opponent, last night gets my vote as the unit's best effort to date.
"We saw a pass rush today that we had not seen most of the year, which obviously changes the way we look defensively," said Kelly. "I thought we triggered much better in the secondary, tackled much better as well."
That pass rush produced six sacks, three from Cat linebacker Prince Shembo who entered the game sack-free, his defensive teammates had produced just four in five games prior to Saturday night.
"I think we all remember what we saw last year defensively, salting away games," said Kelly. "And we feel like our defense is continually getting better. We are not there yet. But certainly we feel like the defense, with a good pass rush, playing good technique in the back end, that we can do those kinds of things."
Six sacks, three turnovers forced, a defensive score (Dan Fox returned his first career interception for a 14-yard score to seal the deal), and perhaps most important, the unit held a high-powered offense to just 4 of 13 on third down and made them one-dimensional, to boot. Arizona State managed just 65 rushing yards on 25 attempts.
"There's definitely things that we need to fix, but there are so many positives from this week's game," said senior cornerback Bennett Jackson. "It just shows we can be at that level if we want to be at that level. We have to clean up little things and move forward.
"I'd say it was the best tackling for sure," he added of the back seven's effort vs. a explosive collection of Sun Devils. "Guys were just running downhill. We were keeping our eyes up and running through the tackles."
Saturday's 34 points by Arizona State was the most allowed in a win during the 45-game Kelly era. With the win, the Irish improved to 3-12 when allowing more than 21 points in regulation during that span with two of the victories and two of the defeats occurring this season.
Winning a shootout isn't advisable for the Irish, but it will occasionally be the order of the day.
Notre Dame has already allowed eight more touchdowns in six games than it did during the 2012 regular season. It's time for those comparisons to end, immediately.
It's 2013 and the Irish will play the cards they're dealt: starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace out (broken leg), defensive line depth depleted due to graduation, injuries, and transfers, and a secondary that struggles to put together a complete game.
But with a rediscovered front four pass rush -- the definitive key to the 2012 season (see, I can't stop either) -- the Irish will have a chance to win every game through the New Year.
Respite, a return to the top 25, and USC, a program that hasn't lost in South Bend since Bob Davie last roamed the Irish sidelines, await.