It’s telling that no Notre Dame player mentioned “next week” in the wake of Saturday’s necessary 50-33 victory over Syracuse.
Who could blame them? Last week was enough to take for any working professional on staff much less the collection of dispirited 18-to-22-year old athletes forced to deal with a termination and its aftermath.
(When Thomas Paine mused, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” he might as well have been forecasting the opening month of Notre Dame’s 2016 football season.)
And for the better part of Saturday’s first 30 game minutes against Syracuse in the New Meadowlands, it appeared more of the same was afoot. In the contest’s opening stanza, reportedly rejuvenated Notre Dame bore a disturbing resemblance to the left-for-dead Irish of September.
Sloppy. Defenseless. Ready and willing to accept its lot in life as a one-pronged football team.
Was Notre Dame’s offense good during those first 30 minutes? Probably, but how could anyone know for sure? What does 356 yards of total offense mean against an Orange defensive secondary that couldn’t guard a barn or plug a runny nose?
And what in the name of “Be careful what you wish for!” was wrong with the purported pep-in-its-step Notre Dame defense? For the duration of the first quarter Saturday and the opening of the second, it seemed that GWH, aka, Gregory William Hudson, was a carbon copy of the heretofore forever frustrating fan acronym BVG that just last week was laid to waste.
Then, as predicted by no one in attendance or tuning in at home, they evolved.
A TALE OF TWO TEAMS
While the first half could be best summarized as “barely football,” the second stanza sure did seem to signify a team coming together.
“Coach (Brian) Kelly mentioned this to us: I think we evolved as the game went on,” said Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, he of the *program-record 471 passing yards.
“And I think it’s something that’s going to stay with us as we move forward. That second-half defense was out flying around, and playing the way they played, that’s who and what we’re going to see consistently. I know it. I trust it.”
Kizer’s yardage total was the most by a quarterback in victory in program lore. And he wasn’t all that sharp.
Twenty-three of his 35 passes were completed; three of them were touchdowns. But he took a sack to take the Irish out of field goal range, missed a chip shot fourth score deep downfield – one that would have put his yardage total well over the 526 needed to break Joe Theismann’s longstanding mark of 1970 – and his lone interception was ugly and nearly costly, thrown in Irish territory, late in the first half of a 33-27 game.
“That was the sloppiest 50-point game I’ve ever been a part of,” Kizer said. “That was the sloppiest 400-plus passing yard game I’ve ever been a part of, and I think that’s the best part about it. To come out and play the way we played and have the amount of fun that we had, but know that there’s a lot of work to be done, I couldn’t be happier right now.
“Because I know our guys are going to figure out how to build on that attitude we had today and be a better team going forward.”
A NEW HOPE
For the first time this season, proclamations such as Kizer’s above seem plausible. No rallying cries appear necessary. No slogans to get the Irish through another week of practice dread amid a losing skid.
Just build on what happened the previous day and play better football the next.
“I think everybody (felt) less about the unit and more about the number, 1-3,” said Kelly when asked if Kizer and the offense had been pressing because of the struggles of the Irish defense. “I think the entire team felt 1-3. So they press you know? And that’s a natural thing.
“I told them at halftime, ‘Listen, we respect all of you, we care for all of you, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to put it on your shoulders; you just have to do your job. And nobody’s going to yell and scream at you. We’re all in this together.’”
Young and old alike.
- Freshman Chase Claypool was Notre Dame’s best player defensively among its specialty units while sophomore C.J. Sanders provided the spark on the receiving end, his 93-yard second quarter score marking the second of his young career.
- Three freshmen and a sophomore at multiple times populated Notre Dame’s secondary. On occasion, four real-world college freshmen – all of them in high school last season – took the field in unison. But that group was augmented by the play of senior Cole Luke, who started on the perimeter but also shifted to the challenging Nickel role.
- Upperclassmen Drue Tranquill, James Onwualu, Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, Isaac Rochell, and Daniel Cage combined for 36 tackles including 12 of the defense’s two-season high total 21 Stuffs.
That’s what you’ll see moving forward: the young and the old, living at last as one – just as the football gods and enlightened defensive coordinators have always intended.
“We have so many young players. They can’t sustain 70, 80 plays,” said Kelly. “They’re going to be good for 20-30 plays. We have to roll guys in. We have a lot of depth. We have a lot of really good players that deserve to get on the field.
“That’s the kind of defense this is going to be. There’s going to be a lot of players playing in this defense.”
Playing, it appears, for analyst-turned conductor Greg Hudson, the Notre Dame graduate who broke down post-game after he, the players, staff, and Irish faithful in attendance sang the Alma Mater sans the Band of the Fighting Irish.
“I told the team in our mental edge meeting, that I was certain we were going to win and that they would pick who led them in the fight song,” said Kelly. “And to a man, they all yelled out ‘Coach Hudson is going to lead us.’
“It was pretty cool. He led them. Just a lot of positive energy.”
And clearly better than the alternative.