Let’s just say it, OK?
Somebody other than Notre Dame is winning the national championship this season.
The Irish are too inexperienced, too unspecial at quarterback, too up against it with a schedule only one of the very biggest of the big-boy programs might be able to navigate.
When coach Brian Kelly tells you the difference between himself and Knute Rockne — the man he passed Saturday with victory No. 106 — is that Rockne won national championships, guess what? He’s right.
There’s a whole list of things Kelly and this Irish team aren’t. But you know what? Sometimes, imperfect is kind of cool. Sometimes, focusing solely on who’s No. 1 in the land means you miss some great stuff.
Notre Dame’s 41-13 victory against Wisconsin at Soldier Field was pretty cool. And the manner in which the Irish got to 4-0 was pretty great.
“Insane,” said cornerback Cam Hart, who had two of the Irish’s four interceptions. “I love it.”
And Hart didn’t even run one of his picks back for a touchdown. Jack Kiser and Drew White pulled that off on a rock-bottom offensive day for the Badgers, quarterback Graham Mertz and under-fire coach Paul Chryst.
Trailing 13-10 in the fourth quarter, the Irish needed a spark. Maybe a kick return or a hero off the bench or a momentum-seizing play by the defense — sure, any of those things would do.
Better yet, the Irish got all of them. An electrifying kickoff return for a touchdown by Chris Tyree to take the lead. A touchdown pass to extend it by quarterback Drew Pyne, an undersized firecracker who was in the game only because starter Jack Coan was hurt and backup Tyler Buchner was unavailable. Sacks. Pick-sixes.
It was an avalanche.
“We’re nonstop,” said wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., who caught touchdown passes from Coan and Pyne. “We’re going to continue to grind, we’re going to continue to fight, we’re going to continue no matter what quarter it is, what down it is, no matter how bad we’re down or whatever the case may be. We’re going to continue to just keep driving and keep fighting to get to our goal.”
That goal is, of course, a national title. But it’s almost unthinkable that a team that needed overtime to beat brutal Florida State and a 75-yard touchdown drive to survive Toledo — and the aforementioned avalanche against offensively broken Wisconsin — is going to do that.
Next up: top-10 foe Cincinnati, the school where Kelly’s last two teams went to the Orange and Sugar bowls, launching him up the ladder to South Bend. Then Virginia Tech, USC, North Carolina all in a row. All of them might be better than any team the Irish have beaten so far.
On the other hand: Could it be the Irish — who were 6½-point underdogs against the Badgers — are more than they’ve been cracked up to be? Could it be they’re just getting started?
“Everybody’s trying to peg teams early on, like, who are they?” Kelly said. “We’re still trying to figure ourselves out, but everybody had us already figured out as to who we were. I just know it’s a resilient group that believes they’re going to win.”
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail was at the game. Now 51, he dressed in green and wore a bandana around his forehead and a thick, white beard on his chin. A mere 32 years earlier to the day, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — “Rocket Man,” it said — the most sensational player in the country.
That was 1989, when the Irish were in a two-year heyday with a 24-1 record and a national title.
This is 2021, and it’s probably different. But pretty cool nonetheless, and maybe even pretty great.