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Notre Dame is top 10, but absolutely imperfect

By Brian Hamilton, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — As a bracing Saturday neared expiration, all things were possible for Notre Dame, according to Notre Dame. The arguments had merit. The record was unsullied, the defense left no meat on the bones of both state of Michigan rivals, the schedule looked digestible and the coach talked about doing big things.

Most everything was going right for the Irish, and even things not going exactly right weren’t going wrong enough. So they thought big, too. They rode an undertow of belief out of their stadium’s north gate and into snappy post-midnight air, excitedly humming into who knows what next.

“We have the talent, we have guys with the heart to go forward,” cornerback Bennett Jackson said. “Obviously the goal is you don’t want to lose a game. We have the guys that can get it done. We just have to keep working every day. And we’ll see how this season goes.”

Notre Dame is a top 10 team, it is absolutely imperfect, and it is unclear how much this will matter once the season resumes after an off-week. The theoretically noxious stuff — quarterback issues, young secondary, lack of receiving playmakers — hasn’t mattered. But it might now, given what is now at hand.

Turns out that prohibitive 2012 schedule can be had, with Oklahoma and USC already saddled with losses, Stanford trekking to South Bend for an Oct. 13 showdown and other foes looking like damp rags. It can also be trapdoor after trapdoor if the defense isn’t near-perfect and a sputtering offense is an issue, dissolving BCS dreams in an instant.

Hence Brian Kelly’s Sunday assessment: “We need to continue to get better on offense, there’s no question.

“We’ve left a lot of points out there that are there for the taking, and it’s not just the quarterback. It’s the right tackle or the left guard, it’s the wide receiver. We just need to gain a sense of consistency on the offensive side of the ball. We just have to hone in on everybody doing their job.”

It starts, Kelly conceded, with the quarterback. And the quarterback who starts is Everett Golson, still, even as the carousel with Tommy Rees has produced just 53 points in the last three games and 4-of-23 third-down efficiency in the last two. It won’t stop, with Kelly rejecting the idea of a rotation.

How good can Notre Dame be? Look no farther, really. Both quarterbacks have limitations. So Golson must start getting it; he got yanked for what Kelly deemed “carelessness” against Michigan. Or Rees must be mistake-proof. Or the defense can’t lose even a half a step off the plus-9 turnover margin or allergy to allowing touchdowns.

Or … well, or else. Even if the “else” is better than any “else” of recent vintage.

“We’ve got to be able to complement the play that our defense has had on the offensive side of the ball, and there’s no reason we can’t get to that end,” Kelly said.

So far, a unit ranked fourth nationally in scoring defense (nine points allowed per game), one that has allowed the fewest points (36) through four games of any Notre Dame team since 1975, doesn’t merit over-inspection. Maybe a truly accurate opposing quarterback will loosen up the Irish. Maybe not.

A truly efficient offense certainly would loosen collars in South Bend, creating even a fraction of margin for error. Reintroducing tight end Tyler Eifert to the offense after one catch in two games will help. A decent attack overall would clarify precisely what Notre Dame is capable of, anyway.

“There’s no telling,” safety Zeke Motta said Saturday, more right than he knew.

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