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  • Associated Press Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams, left, celebrates a touchdown with offensive lineman Robert Hainsey on Saturday.

Monday, October 08, 2018 1:00 am

Unbeaten Irish try to play down accolades

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame reached a pair of benchmarks with its explosive 45-23 victory Saturday night over then-No. 24 Virginia Tech.

The Irish are now 6-0. They've made it halfway through the season undefeated for the first time since 2012, a year that ended in a BCS Championship Game appearance. Then, when the AP Poll was released Sunday, Notre Dame ascended to No. 5, its first appearance in the Top 5 since before last year's November loss to Miami.

Coach Brian Kelly said his team is aware of its accomplishments, aware of the esteem in which college football experts hold the 2018 version of the Irish. Still, Notre Dame refuses to be distracted from its fundamental goal: winning one game at a time.

“We talk about (records) briefly after each game, about you have to be aware of your situation before you can enhance your situation,” Kelly said. “We're OK with being aware of the situation, but they clearly know that (being highly ranked) does not help them win play-by-play, and that's something that's been ingrained in them.”

The Irish were in the Top 5 for two weeks last season, rising to No. 5 with a late-October win over N.C. State and then moving up to No. 3 with a 48-37 defeat of Wake Forest. That week, the College Football Playoff selection show aired, projecting the Irish to make the playoff. The next week, Notre Dame got blasted at Miami to end those hopes.

Now, Notre Dame can erase that memory if it keeps winning. Earlier in the season, linebacker Drue Tranquill outlined the reasons for the Irish's late-season struggles in 2017.

“I like to think it was probably guys just losing focus, watching too much of the College Football Playoff prime-time show and seeing us in the top four,” said Tranquill, who had five tackles, including one for loss Saturday. “Losing focus on the process and the things that got us where we were at. ... It's just a matter of locking in for 12 weeks.”

Remaining focused will be important for the Irish as the season continues and injuries begin to pile up. They already lost captain and top offensive lineman Alex Bars to a knee injury, and after Saturday's game Kelly announced that talented pass-rusher Daelin Hayes has a brachial plexus injury, more commonly known as a “stinger.”

Hayes, who has 13 tackles, including 21/2 for loss, missed the game against Virginia Tech and will be re-evaluated in the coming days. Kelly called him day-to-day but said he won't practice until he stops feeling tingling in his hand. 

“(Stingers) usually calm down in 24 to 36 hours,” the coach said. “If they don't, then the window opens up to six weeks. So once he's asymptomatic, then he'll be cleared to play.”

Even without Hayes and Bars, the Irish handily defeated Virginia Tech, their third Top 25 victory this season. Now that Notre Dame has reached the midpoint of the season unbeaten, comparisons to the 2012 team that finished the regular season 12-0 will begin to get louder. 

Kelly acknowledged some similarities between the two groups on Sunday but noted major differences as well. 

“(2012) was constructed differently,” he said. “It was largely put together on the backs of a great defense and ball control offense, and slugging it out to the very end. Small ball, if you will.

“I think the similarities are that they know how to win, and the things that you have to do in terms of week-to-week in your preparation. ... But in terms of the teams themselves, they are really different teams. This one has a much more complementary group in terms of offense, defense and the way they work.”

Maybe the 2018 Irish won't be the 2012 Irish. Maybe they'll be better.

dsinn@jg.net