There’s loud (Notre Dame Stadium in a close game), and there’s really loud (USC or Michigan are in South Bend), and then there’s a separate, rarely achieved, other level of crowd noise, the type that becomes part of a contest’s story line. (Rare Notre Dame Stadium examples include games against Michigan and Miami in 1988, Florida State 1993, and USC 2005.)
The traveling Irish are expected to encounter that other level Saturday night in Clemson’s Memorial Stadium, aka, “Death Valley.”
Reverberating, nerve-rattling, mind-numbing, crowd noise.
For nearly four hours.
Fret not Irish fans, head coach Brian Kelly has a plan, and it’s worked well over the years in similar if not identical environs.
Below is a look at Notre Dame’s “Crowd Control” statistics facing the five best opposing crowds over the last four seasons.
-- #22 Michigan (2011): 1 Delay of game, 3 false starts, 2 offensive timeouts taken with play clock running. The game marked Tommy Rees’ second road start.
-- #10 Michigan State (2012): 0 Delay of game, 3 false starts (including the first play), 1 timeout. Everett Golson’s first road start.
-- #8 Oklahoma (2012): 0 Delay of game, 0 false start, 2 timeouts (both on third down, both converted thereafter). Golson’s second road start.
-- #17 *Michigan (2013): 0 Delay of game, 1 false start (near goal line), 2 timeouts, both on third down, one converted)
-- #2 Florida State (2014): 0 Delay of game, 2 false starts (one near goal line), 1 timeout needed. Notre Dame’s first road game of 2014.
The bottom line results above include a debilitating, give-away last second loss (Michigan 2011), a wire-to-wire loss in which the Irish had a chance late (Michigan 2013), a wire-to-wire win (Oklahoma), a wire-to-wire humbling (Michigan State), and a last second disputed loss (call it a tie?) at Florida State.
The final tally among the five outings are one delay of game penalty, nine false starts (the per game average for Notre Dame in 2013-2014 was 1.5), and eight total timeouts needed to combat the noise.
Win or lose, in none of the above did the Irish offense – namely their noise-related subjects, the quarterback and offensive line – succumb to the deafening atmosphere by performing out of character pre-snap.
“We'll be on the grass (practice field) for about six periods, and we'll have loud noise pumped in,” said Kelly of this week’s preparations. “We'll be in nonverbal cadence throughout the entire practice. So it will be a loud environment on the practice field, and we'll be working nonverbal cadence as if it were the *loudest environment that we've ever played in.”
(*To a man, Notre Dame veterans refer to the 2013 loss at Michigan as the loudest crowd they’ve ever experienced.)
Twenty-nine current Irish regulars occupied similar roles in last season’s toughest road test, Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium. Fifth-year senior Nick Martin has advice for a handful of younger teammates preparing for their first such situation.
“Go back to basics, rely on your fundamentals and preparation,” Martin said. “It's going to be loud, but after a few series, you'll get used to it, and honestly, enjoy it because they're fun. A lot of people don't get these opportunities. This is something you'll remember for the rest of your life.”
One of those rookies at the ready is quarterback DeShone Kizer, a true freshman that traveled with the team to Tallahassee last season.
“Florida State is something that I've thought about quite a bit this week,” said Kizer. “It was a very, very loud environment. I've never heard anything so loud in my life, something where, you know – it feels like your insides are shaking on third down. But with that being said, being able to feel that and being able to go through the emotions and being able to see Everett (Golson) almost conquer that loud crowd gives me a little more confidence going into a bigger environment like this against Clemson.”
THE ACTUAL IMPACT
None of the 81,500-plus partisans will make a tackle or throw a block Saturday night in Memorial Stadium, but at its collective best, a crowd can control one aspect of the game for opposing offenses.
Cadence. For the layperson: “hut-hut” or “Go!”
“I mean definitely the first series, when they get going,” said Martin of a raucous home crowd. “I mean you can't hear anything.”
Because no one can hear Kizer in the team’s preferred shotgun formation, it will be up to Martin to call the cadence for the offensive front (perimeter and backfield players can watch the ball).
“That call at some points in the game, the guards should get it,” he offered. “Tackles probably won't. I would say, depending on the down, certainly the tackles obviously having more athletic pass rushers out there, that’s definitely a challenge. That's why I say, you go back to basics, you rely on your fundamentals.”
Senior Ronnie Stanley played at Michigan in 2013 (he noted with a smile that it was easily the loudest crowd he’s experienced. “I can’t even explain how loud it was,” said Stanley) as well as at Florida State last October.
Stanley’s chief cadence challenge Saturday will come on third down vs. Clemson emerging all-star defensive end Shaq Lawson.
“That’s the biggest challenge, not being able to go on the quarterback but having to go on the sound of the center’s voice,” he said. “(Lawson’s) a physical guy that does a lot of things off the edge.
“I think the atmosphere will be crazy. It’s going to be electric and something none of us will ever forget.”
Ultimately it will qualify as such only for the victor, as the unofficial beginning of a march toward the second annual college football playoffs ensues.
Kizer’s control under intense pre-snap (not to mention post-snap) pressure will be key to that end.
“We started incorporating it way back in Culver,” said Kizer of silent cadence and snap counts. “We know the environments that we're going to play in throughout the year and we take reps in the silent cadence mode.
“When it comes to advantages and disadvantages, I think you can incorporate the silent cadence just the same way that you do with your verbal cadence. Having a different rhythm, doing some things different from a quarterback perspective that to try to get a jump on what the defense is doing.”
The group generally getting that desired jump, at least in third down situations, is the host squad’s defensive front.
“Oh I’ve noticed an edge on third down,” said Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith when asked about a similar environment that benefitted his team in a 31-0 home win over Michigan last season. “That’s when you really get off the ball (better than the offense.)”
Saturday night’s purportedly dead-even matchup will be won between the whistles, not pre-snap. And though poise and calm under pressure alone can’t produce a victory, the lack of it often results in defeat.
Don’t expect that to be a Saturday night storyline for the battle-tested – not to mention noise-ready – Irish.