After 11 days in the hospital, former Notre Dame nose guard Louis Nix III came home Saturday just in time to see on TV his alma mater get clobbered by Clemson, 34-10, in the ACC Championship Game.
The Irish (10-1) then dropped a couple of spots to No. 4 Sunday in the final College Football Playoff rankings, but still made the CFP field for the second time in three years and will face No. 1 Alabama (11-0) Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl semifinal, relocated to Arlington, Texas.
With the Las Vegas point spread sitting at 19½, the Irish are the biggest underdogs in the history of the 7-year-old playoff.
“Based on the Clemson game, people don’t see us competing at all, and that’s OK,” said Nix, a starter on the 2012 Irish team that lost to the Crimson Tide, 42-14, in a national title game that predated the four-team playoff format.
“As a former Notre Dame player and as a fan now, I like when we don’t have the hype around us. It feels a little better when the expectations about us are down.”
As far as how Nix is feeling physically roughly two weeks removed from taking a bullet to the chest as a victim in an attempted armed robbery, he keeps telling himself that he’s on his way to getting back to normal.
Even though none of his doctors have confirmed that’s even a possibility. Even though fragments from the bullet are still lodged in his sternum and the bulk of it resides in his left lung.
And even though the aftershocks of being ambushed while putting air in his car’s tire the night of Dec. 8 at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station still haunt him.
“I went out shopping with my girl to get my mom a birthday gift, and it was crazy,” he said. “You wouldn’t think you’d feel like that, but I was just paranoid being around people. People coming up from behind me, coming out of nowhere. I felt like I just needed to see everything and it was kind of emotional in the moment.
“I didn’t think it’d be like this. My job (Cintas Corp.) is going to provide a therapist for me, and I’m open to talking about this issue. Hopefully, they’ll help me get past that point and learn how to deal with it, because at this point, I really don’t want to leave the house again.”
Nix’s doctors decided against removing the bullet surgically, deeming the operation too risky, for now.
“Apparently there are a lot of people walking around with pieces of a bullet or whole bullets inside of them,” Nix said. “I’ve got some nerve issues too. Because my (fractured) sternum is still healing, I can’t lift anything over 10 pounds or do even one push-up.”
Family and friends keep him company. Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston, director of player personnel Dave Peloquin and Reggie Brooks on behalf of the ND Monogram Club have reached out to Nix, as have former Irish assistants Mike Denbrock (Cincinnati) and Tony Alford (Ohio State), and ND Mendoza School of Business benefactor Tom Mendoza.
More than $41,000 has been raised through Nix’s gofundme page to help offset medical expenses and missed work.
“I know it sounds cliché, but more than anything, I’m happy to be alive,” Nix said.
Alive and looking forward to watching the Irish take on Alabama for the first time since Nix faced the Tide as a player his junior year.
“We played Michigan, USC, Stanford, Oklahoma that year,” he said, “and Alabama looked much different than those teams. They were big, strong, fast guys. And they played with so much confidence, having been in that situation before of playing for a national championship.
“I just want us to go out there and fight, play good football and see what happens. It’s a great opportunity and you never know if you’ll get it again. People tell me, ‘Well Notre Dame got beat down by Clemson.’
“Well, a lot of people wish they could have gotten a beatdown and still made the playoff. Look where your team is.”
At least we know Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wasn’t posturing last week when he (and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly) questioned Big Ten champ Ohio State’s worthiness of inclusion in the College Football Playoff because of the scant number of games played (6).
Swinney voted the Buckeyes 11th in the final USA Today coaches poll, which makes all 62 voting coaches’ ballots public that one time a year.
As a voter in the AP poll, I thought it would be fun to compare my ballot to Kelly’s to see whether we view the rest of the college football world through a similar prism.
Turns out, yeah, we kind of do.
We had seven teams in the exact same spot: 1. Alabama, 2. Clemson, 5. Cincinnati, 6. Texas A&M, 8. Indiana, 16. Louisiana and 18 Iowa. And there were another seven within one spot of each other, including Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Kelly had the Irish third and Buckeyes fourth. I had those two teams flipped.
The only team he had in his top 25 that I didn’t was USC. The only team I had in my top 25 that he didn’t was UCF.
On second thought?
The CFP selection committee gave Notre Dame a lot more credit, it seems, for winning a big game Nov. 7 than much of its own fan base.
Committee chairman Gary Barta was asked Sunday whether the committee re-evaluated the 47-40 double-overtime win over then-No. 1 Clemson in South Bend, given the 24-point margin of victory when the Tigers played the rematch Saturday with starting QB Trevor Lawrence and three defensive starters who missed the first game.
“Trevor Lawrence’s backup played extremely well, and Notre Dame was able to come away with the win against a very good football team,” Barta said.
“Notre Dame played a very strong football game in that first matchup, so we noted who was missing, but we also noted how the game was played, what Notre Dame was able to do, what Clemson did.”
Notre Dame continues to benefit from some early-season protocol adjustments put in place after a September COVID-19 outbreak that put the program on pause for more than a week.
In the latest testing report released Monday, 189 tests were administered last week and none of them came back positive.
ND has one player currently in isolation and zero in quarantine due to contact tracing.
Given the crumbling of the bowl lineup beyond the New Year’s Six, due to team opt-outs and new outbreaks, the fact that 87% of the college football regular-season games (per Barta) were played in 2020 is nothing short of remarkable.
Closing the Book
Wisconsin redshirt freshman Graham Mertz has all the makings of a future star at quarterback, and Notre Dame’s next defensive coordinator is going to have to deal with him next September at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
But after his 2020 debut against Illinois in October, there were Irish fans who felt Mertz would make a better starting QB this year than grad senior Ian Book and were critical of the ND coaching staff for not landing him in the 2019 recruiting cycle.
Even more of a stretch, Mertz was being touted as a Heisman Trophy contender (Google it). Two lessons: One game does not a Heisman contender make. And Illinois, as of late, has never been a litmus test for potential greatness.
Mertz went 20-of-21 against the Illini for 248 yards and five TDs for a passing-efficiency rating of 273.0. In his defense, Mertz had to sit out three weeks after contracting COVID-19, per stringent Big Ten rules.
Mertz finished the season as the nation’s 84th-best passer, 55 spots behind Book, with a season rating of 123.0. Take out the Illinois game, and he had a rating of 102.7.
Book heads into the playoff with a rating of 148.1.