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Ben Smith

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Notre Dame
vs. Wake Forest
When: 3:30 p.m. today
TV: NBC
Radio: 1190 AM, 92.3 FM, 107.3 FM

Irish try to tune out talk about title game

– And welcome, America, to Sensory Deprivation Central.

“The big goal right now is to take care of Wake Forest,” declares Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore.

“You’re in the grind of the season, so you’re just trying to figure out a way to beat your next opponent,” insists peerless tight end Tyler Eifert.

And then there’s this, from Lewis-Moore again: “We can’t look ahead to USC, and I think that is one thing this football team has done a great job of. We don’t look ahead.”

Do tell. The rest of the country might be talking about how the BCS will conspire to stick a shiv in Kansas State or Oregon should the No. 1 Wildcats, No. 2 Ducks and No. 3 Irish all wind up unbeaten. But in South Bend, everyone just claps their hands over their ears and chants “La, la, la, la” every time someone brings it up.

The blinders, it seems, are in their upright and locked position. And so is the focus.

Well. Almost.

Given enough prodding, coach Brian Kelly will slip and peek a bit. His official position is he won’t start politicking for his team until (and if) the Irish have fully run the table, but he’s only human. The Irish have been so good and so dependable and so clutch when they needed to be, even Kelly feels compelled to point it out at times.

“I think if you want style points, look at our defense, look at the schedule that we played, 10 FBS teams,” he said this week. “We’ll just keep working on one at a time and let other people figure out where that puts us.”

Of course, you can say that when you sort of know already where it will put you. Kelly’s a smart man, he’s probably already figuring that if the Irish roll Wake Forest as expected and then beat USC next week, it doesn’t much matter what Kansas State or Oregon does. If both win out, it’ll more than likely be one of them and Notre Dame in the BCS championship game, simply because the TV boys aren’t going to want any part of Kansas State-Oregon if Notre Dame’s in the mix.

Not that Kelly or anyone else in South Bend is pretending to keep up with any of that.

“That’s the message coach Kelly has given us all year,” offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr. says. “He’s been tremendously valuable to us in passing along what we need to do every week and kind of giving us a message to focus on each week and what our job is that week. Everyone from top to bottom buys into that.”

And if you suspect that, being human, they sometimes don’t completely buy into it – no bubble is that impenetrable when you’re Notre Dame and you’re 10-0 for the first time in two decades – they have bought into it enough. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be 10-0 to start with. And they wouldn’t have held onto their wits when Purdue pulled even with them late and Stanford was hammering on the gates and Pittsburgh had them buried by two scores with a quarter to play.

Every time, they pulled through. It’s been ugly at times and nerve-shredding and never stylish, but who cares about that?

Style, after all, is just one more thing on the other side of the blinders.

“We’re not a stylish team,” Eifert said this week. “We grind it out. We have the best defense in the country. What’s more important, having a stylish offense or having the best defense in the country? You can look at it from both sides.”

Or, as the Irish prefer: Neither side.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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