College Football Playoff berth suddenly a lucid dream for Penn State, Notre Dame

It’s OK to dream, Notre Dame. You too, Penn State.

Any criticism lobbed your way before Saturday was reduced to trash talk by the end of it.

Survival Saturday eliminated most of the doubt about the Irish and the Nittany Lions. How’s this for proof: Two supposed College Football Playoff contenders (USC and Michigan) were knocked off by a combined 64 points.

Inside of  two hallowed, throbbing, frenzied football shrines — Beaver Stadium and Notre Dame Stadium — it seemed like something more.

Something like two newbies in the College Football Playoff. Sure, there are six weeks to go in the season. But in both places, it was one helluva of a way to start a second-half push.

Penn State (7-0) equaled the most points scored against Michigan in the Jim Harbaugh era with a 42-13 thrashing.

Notre Dame (6-1) kicked off perhaps the most challenging second-half schedule in the country with a 49-14 win over the Trojans. The 35-point victory margin for the Irish was their largest in the series in 51 years.

Newbies? Penn State and Notre Dame are just that when it comes to playing for championships of late. This is Year 20 since the BCS debuted and college football decided a champion on the field. Of the two teams, only Notre Dame in 2012 has actually played for a championship in that span.  (It got crushed by Alabama 42-14.)

This seems different, like it may actually happen for one or both of these schools. A year after cratering, Notre Dame proved it is a complete team with a defense capable of thrashing and ruining the candidacy of a Heisman Trophy contender.

USC’s Sam Darnold was pulled from the game early in the fourth quarter, more out of mercy than anything else. Darnold was strip sacked on the first play of the game. It was downhill from there. Notre Dame tailback Josh Adams added three touchdowns and suddenly finds himself the No. 6 rusher in Irish history.  

The last and only time Michigan gave up 42 points under Harbaugh was 2015 against Ohio State. Guess who the Nittany Lions play next week in another one of those winner-take-all games (at least for a week)? The same Buckeyes that Penn State defeated in Beaver  Stadium last season. But why does this already feel like a revenge game for Penn State? No one in Nittany Nation has forgotten Ohio State went to the CFP over the Big Ten champions.

Most of that reasoning had to do with a simple score repeated in the Penn State locker room before the game — “49-10.” That was the measure of Michigan’s flogging of the Nittany Lions last season.

“We play at a whole ‘nother level in front of a White Out,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said.  

Yes, they do. Before a Beaver record 110,823, Michigan became the first ranked team Penn State had beaten all season. Expect that wasn’t the first thing you thought of on Saturday night.

Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead continues lobbying with his call sheet for a head coaching job. The Nits put up 506 total yards. Saquon Barkley burst up the middle for a 69-yard touchdown on the second snap of the game and added two more before the night was over.

Notre Dame proved it’s OK for a coach to have an off year. In the sport’s increasingly impatient culture, a one-year dip is becoming less tolerable. But at this point, we have to consider Brian Kelly a heavy national coach of the year candidate. Think about the typical parameter for that honor: a coach who exceeds expectations.

Sure, Notre Dame was going to be better than last year’s 4-8. But now it has swag, a rep, an identity. One should expect the Irish to move into the top 10 on Sunday. Incredibly, that will be the 17th time ND has been in the top 10 since 2014.  It just doesn’t seem that way. Being an independent, Notre Dame is playing for it all or nothing at all.

“We don’t know any other way. That’s the way we’ve played all year,” Kelly said.

Saturday night marked the first postgame bath Kelly has received in five years. This one was Gatorade. During a 12-0 regular season in 2012, it was ice water.

That doesn’t fit the narrative. Neither Penn State nor Notre Dame could be any hotter. If Penn State at Ohio State isn’t the game of the week, NC State at Notre Dame takes that slot.

“I wrote it on a card in our locker room [that] if we didn’t win really big, I would be disappointed,” Kelly said after the game. “I thought we would do well tonight.

“The big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it. But they know how they got here.”

They seem to know where they’re going, too. Dream on. 

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