SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — History suggests No. 21 Notre Dame may already be out of the college football playoff picture.
Still, coach Marcus Freeman insists there is plenty for the Fighting Irish to achieve this season.
Notre Dame’s new quest will take place Saturday with an opportunity to face longtime rival No. 10 Southern Cal and reclaim the Jeweled Shillelagh the team lost last season after holding it for four straight years.
“The best thing about this week is we have to get back to work and get prepared for a great opponent in USC coming in here Saturday night,” Freeman said. “We expect it to be an electric atmosphere, a great environment and a great opportunity for this program to use the adversity we faced this past week and to use it as energy and motivation.”
Saturday’s game closes out a journey in which Notre Dame (5-2) has faced four ranked, undefeated opponents, all in prime time. They lost at home to Ohio State, rallied to win at Duke and then suffered a potentially playoff-eliminating second loss Saturday at Louisville.
While no two-loss team has ever made the championship field, a win over defending Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and the high-scoring Trojans (6-0) could at least set up Notre Dame to get back into the conversation.
But it’s not going to be easy.
Williams, next spring’s likely No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, has the Trojans scoring a Football Bowl Subdivision-high 51.8 points per game. He has the nation’s top passing efficiency rating (206.1), 22 TD passes and only one interception.
The Irish offense, meanwhile, is limping into this showdown having scored just 55 total points in its past three games, the last two on the road.
Returning home could help the Irish turn things around, though Freeman refuses to accept excuses about pressure, fatigue or being an opponent’s top target week after week.
“That’s what a part of playing at Notre Dame is about,” Freeman said. “We’re fortunate. We’ve get four prime-time games, and that’s how we have to look at it. We get another prime-time game versus USC in Notre Dame Stadium. If you don’t have the bubbles in your stomach, then you’re not the elite competitor we need you to be.”
Notre Dame certainly appeared mentally and physically exhausted in last week’s 33-20 loss to the Louisville Cardinals, a margin that would have been even worse if not for Notre Dame’s late TD.
Offensively, quarterback Sam Hartman was responsible for five turnovers — three interceptions and two fumbles. Equally problematic were missed blocks by the offensive linemen and skill players, mistakes that hurt Notre Dame’s usually strong ground game. Notre Dame ran for an abysmal 1.6 yards per carry even as the team started the weekend with the nation’s top rusher, Audric Estime’.
Defensively, uncharacteristically poor play allowed Louisville to score on long touchdown runs.
Now they all have something to prove.
“(They’re) ready to fight back and earn the right to be a winner,” offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. “That’s who these guys are. You would have no doubt. They were eager. We’re all here together. The staff and players are aligned.”
While players won’t say they are tired, even with this week’s midterms looming, their recent performances indicate something else.
With bye week still not here, they are focusing on what they can control: Beating the Trojans.
“Today, I felt like it was Week 1,” tight end Mitchell Evans said after Tuesday’s practice. “I felt good.”
The key now, though, is for the Irish to bring that same energy, focus and passion into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday night and do something the critics don’t think is possible — giving themselves another chance to get back into the playoff conversation.
“If you’re an elite competitor, which I know I am and we are, you don’t pick and choose when you get ready for an opponent,” Freeman said. “You have to continue to get ready the way we’re supposed to, even after a loss.”
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