DURHAM, N.C. – Let’s hold up on talk about Notre Dame fully joining the ACC. Based on what unfolded at Wallace Wade Stadium on the first Saturday of October, the Irish may not be ready for full football membership in the conference.
Duke was fresh off beating Notre Dame (38-35) on the Irish’s field, but the Blue Devils returned home to ACC play only to suffer a 34-20 loss on Saturday to Virginia. Fortunately for Notre Dame, the Cavaliers aren’t on the Irish’s schedule this year.
Yeah, that’s overstating the significance of Virginia’s win, but it shines a brighter light on why Notre Dame’s treasured independent status is antiquated. The sands of college football are sweeping them toward irrelevance.
Notre Dame bounced back Saturday with a 50-33 win over Syracuse as one of five ACC opponents the Irish face this year. The partial membership allows Notre Dame to maintain the independence it treasures yet find a conference home for its other men’s and women’s sports teams.
The Irish (2-3) have been out of the race for one of the four College Football Playoff bids once they fell to 1-2 with a loss to Michigan State. As an independent, it’s their only race, unless the New Year’s Six bowl race is thrown into the pot.
But think of Notre Dame as an ACC member. The Irish’s overall record is still 2-3, but it would be 1-1 in ACC play. One conference loss doesn’t eliminate a team from winning an ACC title. Notre Dame could still win an ACC division title to advance to the conference championship game.
If Notre Dame won a conference title with three losses, it would earn a better bowl game from one the ACC slots than it will without the league membership.
It’s telling that the winning coach in Durham referenced the Irish in his postgame remarks.
“That we were able to be come in here and beat a team at home that had just beaten Notre Dame on the road, that’s for you to decide how to take it,” said Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall, who is new to the ACC after 13 years at BYU. “(Duke) deserved it. I watched the game, and they out-executed Notre Dame from beginning to end. They played with more heart, grit and determination. They earned that win. It wasn’t a fluke.”
Other reflections from Duke’s loss to Virginia:
At the end of the third quarter, Virginia’s defensive players huddled up with the coaches near the hash mark just as Duke’s offensive 11 were doing on the other side of the field.
Then Virginia’s bench not only emptied to join a mass huddle on the field; the other players jumped and waved towels as if they had already won the game.
Premature celebrations have a way of coming back to bite a team, but when Mendenhall was asked if he will tell his players to tone it down until the game is clinched, he said no.
“I’m actually the other way,” he said. “We went from a team that didn’t approach competing hard in the opening game for fear of being yelled at and making mistakes. We’re working on building resiliency, confidence and a demeanor that they are capable of. “
“Eventually, I’ll pull them back, but this current mindset I’d like to take as far as possible. It’s the most confidence and exuberance we’ve had. We call the sideline the fourth side of the ball that can influence a game. They’re doing what we want them to do. It’s a heck of a lot more fun, and it’s supposed to be fun.”
It was joy that had been lacking for the Cavaliers.
Virginia (2-3, 1-0 ACC Coastal) ended a 17-game ACC road losing streak. The Cavs have a bye this week before three straight ACC home games Pittsburgh (Oct. 15), North Carolina (Oct. 15) and Louisville (Oct. 29).
Virginia is trying end a four-year bowl drought. Duke (2-3, 0-2 ACC Coastal) is trying to extend a four-year bowl streak.
RUFF HIRE WAS A SMART ONE
The decision Mendenhall announced on Dec. 15 to hire former East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill as his assistant head coach/defensive line coach looks smarter each week that Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert puts up big numbers.
Benkert played for McNeill at East Carolina the past two years until McNeill was fired. Benkert went through spring drills with new Pirates head coach Scottie Montgomery, but when Montgomery named Philip Nelson the 2016 starter after spring drills, Benkert rejoined his old coach in Charlottesville.
Benkert announced his transfer on May 1; Mendenhall named him his starter on Aug. 24 a week before the opener. As a graduate, Benkert was immediately eligible.
Against Duke, the 6-foot-4, 230-pound junior completed 23 of 41 passes for 336 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Duke, which was tied for the national lead with 17 sacks, had two sacks but for only two yards. Mendenhall credited Benkert’s mobility to extend plays.
“I’d hate to play (Duke) if your quarterback isn’t mobile, because you’re going to be in trouble,” Mendenhall said. “No matter how good your coverage is – theirs was strong – when you can extend plays it’s hard to keep them covered.”
McNeill also contributed with his coaching. The Cavs worked on getting their hands up to rattle Duke quarterback Daniel Jones on his quick throws on short routes. Virginia knocked down four passes and intercepted him five times.
“We’ve thrown a lot of balls in the tackle box,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “They just stopped rushing and jumped. And they’re tall. They’re 6-6, they’re 6-5, long arms; it’s not a bad ploy.”
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