Clemson will be true measuring stick for Irish team in need of one

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- KeiVarae Russell, for the uninitiated, always is good for a soundbite or 10. And after Notre Dame’s 62-27 walk-through over UMass, he was able to lend his personal experience to offer a glimpse at what exactly awaits the Irish after four inconclusive weeks of play.

“Me being away for a year, this is going to be the first game I’m really feeling some true tension,” said the cornerback, who served a season-long academic suspension in 2014. “Because when I play at home -- I’ve been playing at home. That’s fine. But our away game at Virginia wasn’t that crazy, but I know these guys are going to be excited for the Irish to come into town. And trust me, we’re excited to go.”

Clemson, at the very least, will help us all learn more about the Irish, whom everyone -- themselves included -- is still trying to figure out. Six season-ending injuries will do that to a team. So, too, will the dulling of a stretch of performances that initially had appeared to be quite impressive.

Notre Dame is 4-0, and that is all anyone around the program can ask for at this point, especially given the attrition around the country. But the combined record of those opponents is 4-11, with the four wins coming against Rice (Texas), William & Mary (Virginia), Alcorn State and Tulane (both Georgia Tech).

Escaping an opposing Power-5 stadium (at Virginia) victorious is nice, but when the quarterback (Matt Johns) who looked so good against the Irish gets yanked after two pick-sixes in a 42-point prime-time home loss to a Group of 5 team (Boise State) two weeks later, well, maybe things aren’t so perfect with Notre Dame’s defense.

Stopping a triple-option attack in a manner unseen in more than a year is admirable, but when Duke does the exact same thing Notre Dame did to Georgia Tech one week later, well, that’s one less resume-builder once the book closes on the 2015 regular season.

“I know the football team and its heartbeat very well,” coach Brian Kelly said Saturday. “I think we're still learning about certain players and what their strengths are. I think that's a fair question as it relates to the kind of players they are and their skill set. I think I've got a pretty good feel for the pulse of the team and its leadership core and then how these younger players fit into that group. They really like each other, and they enjoy playing.”

Clemson, for the record, has not exactly been picture-perfect through three games, having beaten Wofford, Appalachian State and a 1-3 Louisville team. But the Tigers were the preseason ACC champions (overwhelmingly). They boast the league’s preseason player of the year (Deshaun Watson). They host one of the most raucous atmospheres in the nation (Death Valley).

Could they ended up being not good? Sure. Would that hurt Notre Dame’s resume down the line, if the Irish play well enough over the next two months to even get into that playoff conversation? Perhaps. But that would matter little in the immediate aftermath for an Irish team that still is finding things out about itself, that still is plugging in replacement starters, that is quarterbacked by a redshirt freshman with two career starts to his name.

Michigan State falling short of top-10 expectations in 2012 did not seem to matter to then-redshirt freshman Everett Golson and the Irish team he took into Spartan Stadium in Week 3 of that year, the first of many confidence-builders for a group that went on to run the regular-season table and play for it all.

Clemson offers the Irish at least that much, and perhaps much more. And with no shortage of tough opponents waiting in line behind the Tigers, it is time to learn a little about the kind of team Notre Dame can be this fall.