Notre Dame got a win when it needed one most on Saturday, saving its season from falling off the rails in a 37-34 victory over Arizona State in Dallas.
While that win was a huge one—and though the opponent was good—Notre Dame's performance was far from perfect. In many respects, this is still the same, deeply flawed team we watched lose to Oklahoma and struggle at Purdue.
The Irish have a ways to go if they plan on redeeming themselves this season, and the schedule doesn't allow for too much wiggle room.
If they want to reach their preseason goals, they'll need to use this upcoming bye week effectively. Here is the best way they can do that.
Consistency in the Running Game
One week after its best rushing performance of the season, Notre Dame's ground game once again fell by the wayside.
The Irish averaged 7.59 yards per carry against Oklahoma, turning 29 rushes (their second-lowest total of the year) into a season-high 220 yards.
But on Saturday, that average reverted back to a meager 3.92 yards, putting a great deal of the offensive burden on the right shoulder of Tommy Rees.
Does anyone feel good about that?
Here's the irony, though: The main reason ND needs its running game is to limit Rees' mistakes. A strong ground attack opens up play action and puts him in less pass-first situations.
But Rees had three picks against Oklahoma, when the running game was rolling, and just one against Arizona State, when it couldn't get off the blocks. Huh?
I wouldn't read too much into that—it seems more like a one-game fluke than a trend. Rees will be a much more confident (and effective) quarterback if guys like George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel get going behind him.
Notre Dame needs to figure out a way to make that happen each week.
Replacing Jarrett Grace
Notre Dame's win might have been a Pyrrhic one, as junior linebacker Jarrett Grace, the team's leading tackler, broke his fibula and will miss the rest of the season.
Obviously a big loss for us, but we've got a senior in Danny Fox that will step in at that position.
Kendall Moore is obviously going to have to play, (Joe Schmidt) is going to have to play for us. Those two guys will be counted on now. And obviously we'll look at (freshman) Michael Deeb. We'll have to activate them over the bye week and start to consider all three guys.
For Moore, Schmidt and Deeb, the bye week will be about three things: evaluation, education and integration.
The staff must evaluate the trio and decide who is best-served to start in Grace's spot. The players, had they been slacking, must go back over the playbook and schemes to ensure a smooth transition. And the team must practice with one of them in the lineup as a means of integrating his presence.
How Notre Dame handles those three things will determine the magnitude of this injury. Losing Grace is obviously not a good thing, but given the way Notre Dame recruits, any one of those guys should be talented enough to step in and provide reasonable production up the middle.
It's just going to take some hard work.
Licking Mental Wounds
Even with Saturday's win, Notre Dame has been the subject of much criticism for how it has played this year.
Some of that is undeserved—few teams outside of Athens, Ga. have a pair of quality wins like Michigan State and Arizona State on their resume right now—but a lot of it has made sense. The Irish have looked bad in more than half of their games.
Kelly needs to get his guys back in the championship mind set. I know that sounds like voodoo or media bluster, but it's the truth. He needs to remind these guys that they're winners.
Last year was a whirlwind of success, and success is an easy thing to get used to. Now this team is in a different spot. Now its back is against the wall. Now it will find out what these guys are really made of.
Who will step up and be the leader? Manti Te'o ain't walking through those doors. Who's going to tell Louis Nix that the preseason is over and it's okay for him to start shedding blockers?
Last year, Notre Dame went into the bye 4-0, coming off landmark rivalry wins against Michigan State and Michigan. It was riding high and rallied to keep the momentum going.
This year is different. This year, it needs to rally momentum to begin with. This year, it needs to look in the mirror, check its gut or do any other sports cliche for measuring one's resolve.
The time is now, because once the games get started again, there won't be a moment to pause for reflection.