CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. - Saturday night tested Notre Dame's focus. Maybe the Irish didn't ace that examination, but they at least passed it en route to a 21-6 victory over Boston College at Alumni Stadium.
The performance was more than enough to keep No. 4 Notre Dame (10-0) in the national championship race on the same day top-ranked Alabama fell at home. Word of the Crimson Tide's demise trickled through the Irish locker room before kickoff, players' phones buzzing with the BCS shakeup.
From there the Irish played like a team intent to stay in contention for a title berth, even if they didn't advance their argument against Oregon or Kansas State. But that was never the objective according to Brian Kelly, even if it dominated the postgame narrative.
"We really can't waste any of our energy," Kelly said. "You see how hard it is to win in college football. We can't worry about those things. We have to focus on what we can do, and that's winning on the field.
"If people don't like us winning, I don't know what else to tell you."
Kelly said he didn't talk Alabama after the game. The focus was more Boston College and Wake Forest, two programs advertised as speed bumps on the way to the regular season finale at USC. The Irish will be heavily favored to head to the Los Angeles Coliseum at a perfect 11-0, which would be a first in 23 years.
Getting there means keeping quarterback Everett Golson improving, the sophomore key within an Irish offense that was efficient if not spectacular. Notre Dame converted a season-high 11 third down conversions and chewed up clock on long drives.
"Our quarterback play was really good," Kelly said. "We were effective because our quarterback was effective tonight."
By halftime Notre Dame had mounted just three drives, two ending in touchdowns and another in a lost fumble.
The first scoring drive spanned 13 plays and 95 yards, capped by Golson's five-yard touchdown run. The second came just before halftime when Golson hit Troy Niklas for his first career touchdown, a possession that took 16 plays, covered 87 yards and sucked 8:30 off the clock.
Notre Dame opened the second half with the football, then staged a relatively quick strike touchdown drive to go up 21-3. Golson hit John Goodman for an 18-yard score off a scramble when the fifth-year senior slipped open in the end zone.
Golson finished 16-of-24 for 200 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers. He also rushed 11 times for 40 yards. For the first time since the Navy game, Golson hit Tyler Eifert for the outright team lead in receptions, the tight end making six catches for 67 yards.
"He was young coming in, he's still young," Eifert said. "But he's improving every game. You can tell he's definitely getting better."
Notre Dame's defense backed up Golson by allowing just 300 total yards. The Irish defense didn't allow a touchdown for the fifth time this season.
The Eagles rushed 23 times for 53 yards, a figure depressed by four sacks of quarterback Chase Rettig. Prince Shembo grabbed the game ball from Kelly after making four tackles for loss and a career-high three sacks. The outside linebacker also recovered a fumble forced by Stephon Tuitt that put Notre Dame in the victory formation.
The three sacks were the most by an Irish played in six years.
Bennett Jackson led Notre Dame with eight tackles and nearly had a pick-six that could have helped the Irish put some polish on the final score. He played the final quarter without opposite corner KeiVarae Russell, out with a head injury.
"Style points are style points," Jackson said. "We're just going to come out, give it our all and try and come out with a victory.
"They threw a lot of plays at us. They had many different scenarios and routes, different formations. They're a good football team, they throw the ball a lot."
Jackson acknowledged Alabama crossed the players' minds before the game but insisted it didn't take away any focus away after it started.
But as much as the Irish have tried to block out the static swirling around a program whose national championship competition took a Saturday hit, the players know there's now one less hurdle between Notre Dame and playing for it all.
In fact, the Irish stated their case against the Ducks and Wildcats before flying home to South Bend with a bump to No. 3 in the BCS rankings all but assured.
"I think the teams we've played, we've played a lot of really good teams," Eifert said. "We had the No. 1 schedule coming in, so we've beaten a lot of good teams."
Boston College (2-8) might not be one of those teams, with the Eagles likely searching for a new head coach by month's end.
Still, Notre Dame's reality is better than the one in Tuscaloosa right now.
"Oh no, absolutely not. We didn't talk about Alabama," Kelly said. "We're going to work on winning against Wake Forest and take care of what we can take care of. And then when it's all said and done, we'll see where we are."
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