It's what's up front that counts for Notre Dame football

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Amidst the wreckage of perhaps the most bitter of coach Brian Kelly’s 15 losses at Notre Dame, Christian Lombard saw promise.

And it wasn’t just the hope that stars Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert would defer their NFL dreams for a year, which they did, or the magic incubating freshman quarterback Everett Golson showed on the scout team in practice.

It was that in the 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl loss on the third-to-last day of 2011, to the very bitter end, when Florida State pushed in the trenches, Notre Dame pushed back — and pushed harder.

“We kind of gave that game away,” said Lombard, now a senior right offensive tackle, and one of eight current Irish players who saw at least cameos in the Orlando bowl game. “It gave guys confidence that, ‘Hey, we just played Florida State, and we almost beat them.’ And it just gave us that confidence we could hang with anyone.

“We’ve always come to work. And I think that’s the biggest thing, knowing that we don’t have it made. We’re not Reggie White or one of those guys, so just that attitude that we’ve got to come to work every day has helped us. We’re making progress each year.”

What were seen as two rising programs three Decembers ago, clash again Saturday night on a bigger, much-less-neutral and decidedly louder stage — FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium, 250 miles to the northwest.

“This is why they come to Notre Dame, is to play these kinds of games, that have relevance,” Kelly said of the matchup between his fifth-ranked Irish (6-0) and No. 2 Florida State (6-0), with the survivor gaining an inside track to a berth in college football’s first four-team playoff at the FBS level.

The Irish have some numbers on their side in a matchup that odds-makers set at doubl-digits and decidedly for Florida State.

Saturday marks the 90th anniversary of the storied 13-7 victory over Army that inspired the label, “The Four Horsemen” for ND’s four backfield standouts. And the last 15 times the Irish have started a season with six straight wins, they’ve gone on to win their seventh game.

The defending national champs, per usual, counter with a stunning array of skill-position talent, led by the school’s all-time leader in receptions, senior wide receiver Rashad Greene, and the school’s unofficial leader in causing gray hairs for both head coaches — opposing and supporting, redshirt sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston.

FSU coach Jimbo Fisher fiercely defended the reigning Heisman Trophy winner’s innocence in both an upcoming student code of conduct hearing and allegations that he may have signed autographs for money, an NCAA no-no and a circumstance that prompted Georgia to suspend its star running back, Todd Gurley, under similar circumstances.

While the college football world got Winston fatigue this week from the constant stream of off-the-field headlines, Kelly doesn’t want that to happen to his defense on the field on Saturday night.

With a victory over the Irish, Winston would become the first FBS quarterback in the 2000s to win his first 20 starts. He comes into the game with the Irish as the nation’s active leader in career passing efficiency, but his surrounding cast on offense has been more disjointed than supporting.

“If we can do a good job against the run, especially on first down, then we can dictate some things,” Kelly said. “If they’re dictating to you, it’s going to be a long day and you’re going to have to score a ton of points. That’s kind of the deal.”

Which brings the likely dominant thread – likely shrouded by the glitz of the game’s two starting quarterbacks – full circle to 2011 and back to the lines on both sides of the ball.

The lines have been Florida State’s weakness on a team that statistically, beyond Winston, hardly resembles the one that dominated in 2013 and has outscored opponents by 31.3 points per game during its nation’s long 22-game win streak.

Injuries on the defensive front and strangely ineffective chemistry to this point on the offensive line teeming with pro talent are ND’s openings to exploit if the Irish are going to be the fifth opposing team in the 31st home game Fisher has coached to walk out of Doak Campbell as winners.

The last team to do so also included Irish cornerback Cody Riggs on its roster, but an injury kept the Florida transfer on the sideline in a 37-26 Gator uprising late in 2012.

Notre Dame’s offensive line has had its own issues, reshuffling four spots earlier this month and trying to microwave the cohesiveness that often takes weeks to build. Smooth communication has been the biggest challenge.

And it takes an exponential turn Saturday night, because virtually all of that communication on the field will be non-verbal.

“Understanding the defense, together, is going to be big,” Lombard said. “We have to all see (the fronts, blitzes, alignments) the same way.”

It’s really ND’s first taste of it this season, given the only other games played away from Notre Dame Stadium (Indianapolis and East Rutherford, N.J.) so far in 2014 were more pro-ND than neutral.

It’s the latest on the calendar that the Irish have gone into a season without playing on an opponent’s home field since 1951 and the latest by sequence of games since 1905.

“This group does not strike me as one where they’re going to go down to Florida State and be affected by the crowd,” Kelly said of possible culture shock. “Our problems have been self‑inflicted. So I’m more concerned about our self‑inflicted wounds than I am what may happen because of the environment.”

The purportedly self-induced trauma included a 43-point gashing from North Carolina last Saturday, played up by Kelly as more of a speed bump than a step backward.

The most glaring of those self-inflicted wounds have been nine turnovers by Irish quarterback Everett Golson, whose play around those miscues has been brilliant enough to help the Irish photobomb themselves in the national playoff picture and keep Golson on the cusp of the Heisman race.

“He’s the leader on offense,” Kelly said. “He’s the guy. We’re sinking or swimming with what Everett does on offense. If he throws three or four interceptions and turns the ball over, they’re going to be singing that War Chant song, and it’s not going to be fun.

“But I don’t expect that to happen. I watched him this week. I watched how attentive he was about his progressions and what he’s working on and his footwork in the pocket, and I expect him to play very, very well.”

The belief pervades the Irish roster as well, especially the small part of it that was a part of the 2011 game.

“We went from that game to playing for a national championship the next season,” Lombard said.

“We knew that we were (just a few pieces away). It was a matter of just getting our scheme in there and keep working at it, keep staying on the consistent drive, and it’s going to happen for us.”

Steve Elmer, left, and Matt Hegarty, right, are two cogs on a Notre Dame offensive line that will play a big role in Saturday’s showdown at Florida State. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)