SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Before the season -- and the carnage -- started, Brian Kelly stood before a lectern in front of media members from across the country and declared this Notre Dame outfit faster, more athletic and, most importantly, deeper than the group that ran the regular-season table just three seasons ago.
“Maybe we don't have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of the group is a whole different football team than that group,” Kelly said during the Fighting Irish’s Aug. 18 media day.
We're not even a quarter of the way through the season, and Kelly has been proven emphatically right over and over again. Starters in the offensive backfield (Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston), contributors in the defensive backfield (Drue Tranquill) and a starting tight end (Durham Smythe) have joined the list of the walking wounded, leaving the No. 6 Irish down six significant players for the rest of a season that began with College Football Playoff hopes.
Notre Dame’s strong play through three wins -- particularly against a Georgia Tech team that entered this past weekend ranked 14th -- suggests that it is business as usual for the Irish, who have repeatedly declared that their goals remain attainable. Ohio State’s well-told run to last year’s national title seemingly shelved injury excuses for any program that views itself among the elite.
But as admirable as the Buckeyes were in overcoming the injuries of two standout quarterbacks, the totality of their trauma might have been less than what the Irish have already experienced -- and Notre Dame still has nine regular-season games remaining.
Among Ohio State’s projected two-deep entering 2014, the Buckeyes lost 53 games to injury, which accounts for the ailments of 10 different players. At Notre Dame this season, that number is already at 64 games lost, among six players. And that doesn't take into account any possible postseason games.
Projected out to a 14-game schedule -- should the Irish make the playoff and then the title game -- that number would be 76. They still would have played one game less than last year’s Buckeyes, who had a conference title game, too. (For argument’s sake, Notre Dame’s number of games missed to injury across a 15-game schedule would be 82.)
The hard part for Kelly now might be what comes next. Or, better put, bracing for the idea of what could be next.
“I don't know (if) we'd have been able to do some of the things that we are doing with the number of injuries that we have currently had back in 2012 -- matter of fact, I'm certain we wouldn't have,” Kelly said Tuesday. “And we still have a long way to go. We have a lot of games, a lot of big games. We’re going to have some more injuries.”
Of course, not all injuries are equal. Braxton Miller was a two-time Big Ten offensive player of the year before a labrum tear cost him 2014, while replacement J.T. Barrett finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting before fracturing his ankle and missing the postseason. Zaire, meanwhile, had just three career starts to his name.
Ohio State also had nine other reserves miss games to injury throughout last season. The only Irish reserve to suffer an injury that is not season-ending is safety Avery Sebastian, who is expected to return mid-season after breaking a bone in his foot in the opener.
"The best way (to overcome injuries) is to have a good quality player behind him,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday. “I don’t mean to sound too elementary with that. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve had some tough injuries, but there’s been some guys behind them, the most notable obviously the quarterback situation, but there’s been several other ones.”
To Meyer’s point, his two full recruiting cycles through 2014 netted an average ESPN rank of 5th nationally. Kelly’s five through this year come in at 9.2. Last year’s Ohio State team had 27 fourth- or fifth-year players on its roster; this year’s Notre Dame team has 26.
With the season’s first month nearing its close, and with bad news always seemingly right around the corner, the Irish are pushing forward, making the best with what they have, which they believe is still more than enough to win.
“We’ve got a job to do, and really the team’s going to continue to play football games with or without anybody,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “It doesn’t matter who you are, the team’s going to continue to play, and the guy behind you, and if you’re a backup, if you’re a 2, a 3, it doesn’t matter, you’ve got to be ready to come in the game, at any point."