Brian Kelly and his players openly talked about their BCS-bowl dreams during the summer, after two season-opening losses and again in the midst of four-straight wins.
That chatter is now on hold with a 31-17 loss to USC, a defeat that all but eliminated the Irish from the "playoffs" they so often spoke of being in during the pursuit of their goal.
Kelly downplayed the BCS carrot angle Sunday when asked if he has to find something else to dangle in front of his players after a 4-3 start to the season.
"Quite honestly, and I'm just telling you the truth here, the dangling of the carrot is more about a sound bite," Kelly said. "It's not what we do on a day-to-day basis. We don't come to practice dangling that carrot. We come to practice saying we've got to be more disciplined with our eyes, we've got to do a better job on route adjustments. We're just so focused more on the detail that I think we look too much into those sound bites as to each and every week, each and every day is for us the most important thing.
"We've got plenty to play for. We've got plenty to play for because when you're building your football program you're building pride in what you do. And I think that's the overriding factor is that our guys have an immense amount of pride in what they do, and they want to get better at it."
In other words, there is plenty of season left, at least five games that will shape this team's fate in one way or another, whether or not the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla., seems like a foregone conclusion at this point.
With plenty of young talent on the current roster, plenty more on the way for next season and a harsh schedule looming in 2012, it is fair to wonder if Kelly will have next year in mind when making some personnel decisions during these last five or six games.
Kelly, as to be expected, said that wouldn't be the case.
"It never gets to, I think I said this [Saturday] night, I think you guys have more of a global view of everything," he said. "We just don't operate that way. We're dealing with a day-to-day process. We're looking at how we can improve, how we can stop Navy. We really don't get into that. That's good talk for the radio shows and the pundits; they can talk about that stuff. We just don't get into those kinds of conversations. We keep it really focused on the day-to-day."
Kelly said he would use the rest of the season to continue to build his program, by which he would ultimately measure his success. Three losses seven games into Year 2 put him a little behind schedule.
But one, two or even three more defeats would make the current situation seem like paradise, which makes righting the ship this week against rival Navy an important first step in the rest of a season that, in much of the public's view, is already lost.