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Stanford is latest test for Notre Dame to pass

– So this is the week now, right?

This is the week we find out if Notre Dame is, you know, Notre Dame again, or just another knockoff that got this far running Smoke Left and Mirrors Right and hid the rest beneath six or eight layers of gold paint.

This is the week of No. 17 Stanford, of “Mike & Mike” and “College GameDay” and academic mid-terms, and all the distractions that come whenever the Irish show the slightest inclination to stir an echo or two.

This is the week a real opponent from a real conference comes in, not those posers from the Big Ten. What, you thought Michigan State was the week we found out the truth about Notre Dame? You thought Michigan was?

Silly you. Why, they were only the big test until Notre Dame passed it. And this week, it’ll be the same.

Stanford won’t be the Week of Truth, either, see, if the Irish roll the Cardinal the way they rolled the Spartans and Wolverines and, last week, the program formerly known as the Miami Hurricanes. That’s because this is Notre Dame, and that’s how it works here. Sixteen seasons of diminishing returns have bought a stubborn skepticism that comes with its own raised eyebrow and accompanying signature line: “Yeah, but wait’ll they play somebody.”

You could say that again, I suppose, with Stanford and No. 13 Oklahoma and No. 11 USC still on the plate. But you know what?

They’ve played as many somebodies as anyone so far. And somehow it all feels different this time.

Maybe that’s because these Irish have the look and feel of the Lou Holtz Irish, which won by crushing you on defense and hitting you in the grill everywhere. Or maybe it’s the numbers, which are certainly impressive.

Start with this: In last three games, the Irish have given up, total, four field goals. No one’s touched the end zone on them in a month. They’re second in the nation in scoring defense, 13th in total defense. And their top guy, Manti Te’o, is the best defensive player in the country not named Jadeveon Clowney, the freak of nature who plays defensive end for South Carolina.

They beat Michigan State, then ranked 10th, by two touchdowns, on the road. Embarrassed Denard Robinson and Michigan. Ran for more yards in one game, against Miami, than they have in a dozen years.

And now here they are, 5-0 for the first time in a decade, and ranked higher (7th) than they have been since 2006. It’s exactly where they should be, frankly. And yet, because of who they are, and because of those 16 years of dashed expectations, you can’t say that without someone adding, “Yeah, but …”

Yeah, but Miami was ranked 118th in the country defensively, so it was Cierre Wood and George Atkinson III vs. 11 turnstiles. Yeah, but the only team they’ve beaten that’s still ranked is Michigan, and the Wolverines are 25th. Yeah, but the combined won-loss record of their five opponents so far is 16-10 …

And so on, and so on. And that’s not entirely a bad thing, because it helps keep the keel even in a place where it has an alarming tendency to get out of kilter.

“The noise is there, regardless of whether you win or lose,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said this week, a couple of days after noting that NFL Films had been following the Irish around. “All we can focus on is what we can control on a day-to-day basis. … Sometimes I let our team know I’ll talk in those terms, but amongst us, it’s about today and what we do today.”

In this Week of Truth, and in all the Weeks of Truth to come.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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