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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The best thing No. 5 Notre Dame has going as it looks toward No. 2 Florida State is this: The Fighting Irish find a way to win each week.
Yet there are plenty of concerns.
Quarterback Everett Golson can't hold onto the ball, turning the ball over nine times in the past three games. The defense appeared flustered by North Carolina's high-tempo offense and made quarterback Marquise Williams look like a Heisman Trophy candidate — not an ideal situation for a game where the Irish will be facing reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston.
The Irish are also about to play in an opponent's home stadium for the first time this season against a team that has won a school-record 22 straight games, the nation's longest winning streak. The Seminoles (6-0), overtaken by Mississippi State for the No. 1 ranking Sunday, represent the biggest game for the Irish (6-0) since they were routed 42-14 by No. 2 Alabama in the national title game two seasons ago.
"These are the kind of teams we want to challenge ourselves against, whether it's Alabama, Florida State," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "We want to be challenged nationally against the very, very best. I think that's probably more significant than anything else. These are the games we want to play. We want to be relevant playing the very best at this time of the season."
The players, after the 50-43 victory over North Carolina on Saturday, realize they need to play better.
"We need to increase intensity, increase focus, increase execution, communication, all that kind of stuff," safety Max Redfield said. "Florida State is a great team. ... We know it's going to be a challenge. We love it."
Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt called the win over North Carolina a learning experience.
"We've got to do a much better job next week. A lot of learning happened today," he said. "We just need to make sure that we continue making plays. We've got to be better next week."
Kelly blamed much of the defense's problems on the three Golson turnovers that led to 21 points and the defense tiring late against a quick-moving offense that didn't allow the Irish to substitute the way they wanted. Losing safety Austin Collinsworth to a dislocated shoulder also caused problems in the secondary.
"We're young and inexperienced, and if we put ourselves in bad situations as a team, we can have some tough moments out there," Kelly said.
North Carolina's 184 yards rushing and 326 yards passing were the most this season against the Irish and the 43 points were the most scored by an opponent in a Notre Dame victory. The previous record was a 48-42 victory over Hawaii in 1991.
"I just think fundamentally we need to improve," Schmidt said. "So this week will be big. We'll just need to focus on doing the little things right over the next week of practice."
Golson said the key for him is to stop turning the ball over.
"I come in here kind of every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job. Right now, it's time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that," he said.
Some Notre Dame players wore towels Saturday with the numbers of five players being withheld from games because of possible academic dishonesty. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell posted on Instagram on Friday that he won't play this season but plans to return next season. Redfield, one of the players wearing the towels, said it was to show support.
"It's just kind of a respect to those guys," Redfield said. "Obviously we love all the players. We hate to lose any player. We obviously think it's really unfortunate what happened to them. We want them on our team. We won't forget about them. They're still our friends, still our brothers."
Kelly said he usually isn't a fan of such gestures, but he has no problem with this.
"I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation," he said.