Before their trip to Michigan State last month, several Notre Dame players talked about how they enjoy playing in hostile atmospheres. But whatever the reason, the Irish were not successful in East Lansing and, after winning their first four home games, this week gives them a chance to prove that they can play on the road too.
Charlie Weis made it clear that he will use the fact that the Irish have yet to win a game away from Notre Dame Stadium as motivation.
"I might prod them a little bit," Weis laughed. "Saying, ‘Well, maybe we shouldn't even go this week. Maybe we should just stay home, eat hot fudge sundaes' or something like that. I think they'll get challenged on this one… We talked about it at 2:30 Monday afternoon. We'll be talking about it at 2:30 (Tuesday). We'll be talking about it when practice has ended (Tuesday). It will be the main theme of the entire week. ‘Can you win on the road?'"
Offensive coordinator Mike Haywood has spoke with his unit about feeding off of the road crowd.
"We talked about embracing the atmosphere. There are 59,000 people at $50 a seat coming to this game. What can they do to harm you? Nothing. The only thing they can do is stand up in the stands and scream and yell the entire game," Haywood said. "We talked about the different mechanics we are going to use in cadences. We talked about how we are handling the crowd noise. We talked about the cadences we use, about the formations and how we're going to handle it.
"You just embrace the atmosphere. It is an opportunity to go into their stadium and show them you are the best team on the field on that day. You don't have to be better than anybody else in the country; you just have to be better than North Carolina on that day. It's a great challenge for us."
Offensive guard Chris Stewart said that it will be important to eliminate whatever distractions come their way."It could be all kinds of things: small locker room, change in schedule, whatever it may be. Hostile environment, fans yelling," Stewart said. "It's almost like you have to kind of enjoy the moment, enjoy that you're getting that much emotion from other people."
Center Dan Wenger expects the Tar Heels to have the same mindset that the Irish have when it comes to playing at home.
"It's their home turf," Wenger said. "It's like our mentality here that we feel that we're going to win every home game that we have and they should be thinking the same thing. That's what you should be thinking at home."
For a bunch of freshmen contributors this will be their second road trip and Haywood expects them to get more comfortable each time.
"I think it will be beneficial to them because they will go to their hotel and they won't be in awe. They'll go to the stadium and they won't be in awe," he said. "Once you do it once or twice, it's like a walk in the park because you get used to a routine. Once you fall into that routine, it's like clockwork."
The Irish have enjoyed success the last couple of weeks using a no-huddle offense that will be more difficult to run in Chapel Hill.
"You'll definitely have to factor noise in. I think that you never can go into a game and not factor in noise," said Weis. "It's a lot different playing at home when the crowd's letting you run your operation than when you're on the road. So that will be factored in."
RUNNING BACK ROLES: The Irish broke training camp with the idea of using three running backs, but that position is beginning to see some separation. After productive performances in consecutive weeks, Armando Allen has claimed the number one running back job and Weis hinted that the Irish could be looking for either Robert Hughes or James Aldridge to step up and be the clear number two.
"The first thing that James has to do to get on the field a little bit more is be better than Robert. We told both these guys that (Monday), that we have one guy (Allen) that's kind of featured at one thing and these other two guys that are kind of battling out because it's really tough to get three guys enough carries in the mix," Weis said. "You still can get them involved, similar to what North Carolina is doing. You still can get them involved. But everyone wants more touches, as you would imagine. So we just want to try to have as competitive a situation as we can to get the best guys out there."
Haywood has good relationships with his guys, but stressed that he keeps everything businesslike on the field.
"My friendships, my relationships, don't carry over to the field," Haywood said. "I can have you over for dinner every night of the week if you want to come over, but if you're not producing on the field, you're not playing and I really don't care. I'm sure it was difficult for guys in the beginning, but they understand that now."
KICKING COMPETITION TO END SOON: This week's placekicker should be announced sometime today. Brandon Walker missed a pair of field goals in last week's game to drop to 1 for 7 on the season. Ryan Burkhart was given a chance to compete for the position after the Michigan State loss a couple of weeks ago, but both Weis and special teams coordinator Brian Polian said that Walker was the best kicker and it "wasn't close."
There were some reports of another kicker coming in to compete, but Burkhart, Walker and walk-on Joe Bizjak were the only kickers at practice on Tuesday. When Weis was asked about the process and how many people would be compete the head coach said that he would let everyone know soon.
"It will be over by (Wednesday)," Weis said. "Let me just wait until (Wednesday), because in the past I've left things so gray it's been a big guessing game and everything. Let me just get through it and I'll come back to you and I'll answer more directly (Wednesday)."
STANFORD CALLS REVIEWED: Weis and Stanford's Jim Harbaugh each had complaints for the officials after last week's game. Weis was upset that the Cardinal were not called for an illegal substitution rule and said that the explanation given to him was not in the rule book. Weis asked the Big East offices for an explanation, but they had none either.
"They're not aware of that rule. That's all I'll say," Weis said.
Harbaugh was upset that his team was called for catch interference on a punt muffed by Allen. The Pac-10 Conference reprimanded Harbaugh for his comments and confirmed that the referees were correct.
"From what I understand, all they said was (the refs) got it right. From going back and watching it, there are two issues," Weis said. "Number one, the guy clearly interfered with Armando having an opportunity to catch the ball. And, number two, the ball didn't hit Armando, the ball hit the other guy. That's clearly interference if the ball hits the other guy. So all I can tell you is from what I read and they read that the call was right."
Harbaugh felt that it could have been a game-changing play since one of his players returned the fumble for a score, but muffed punts cannot be advanced anyway.
YEATMAN STILL WAITING: Tight end Will Yeatman was scheduled to have his hearing with the school about his recent arrest on Tuesday, but Weis was not expecting an immediate decision.
"I'm not expecting at the hearing they're going to sit here and say, ‘OK, this is what it is.' But as soon as I know, you'll know," Weis said.
DUNCAN COULD BE HELD: Weis said that left guard Paul Duncan continues to be hampered by a nagging hip injury and hinted that Andrew Nuss, who is listed third on the depth chart, could be the next guy in.
"If in doubt I'll play the healthier guy," Weis said. "It's not because he's played himself out of the mix. It's because, if I have to play a healthier guy, I'll play the healthier guy."
If Duncan does not play again this season, there is a good chance that he would be eligible to come back for a fifth year in 2009.