Notre Dame knows its way around handling adversity

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Forget all that “Culture Beats Scheme” mumbo-jumbo that looks so good on a T-shirt.

This is “backs against the wall” time for the members of Team 127.

Friday’s Fiesta Bowl matchup between No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) and seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1) just got that much more intriguing. Or daunting, for the Irish, that is.

The Notre Dame football team’s bad defensive secondary got a lot worse in the desert Tuesday, when corner Devin Butler was sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot and safety Max Redfield let his teammates down by violating a team rule and being sent home.

Of course, a situation like this could play into Irish coach Brian Kelly’s wheelhouse — if, in fact, he’s able to scrounge up enough able bodies to keep the defense from bleeding to death.

It’s obvious that Kelly is passionate about winning this game. This isn’t the Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers. This one’s for real.

• Maybe it’s the fact that Notre Dame hasn’t won a bowl that mattered in more than two decades.

• Maybe it’s a little about the ego that comes with an opportunity to go head-to-head with Urban Meyer, the Ohio State coach who has been to the summit on the FBS level a three times already — and all Kelly can do is listen to stories about what it looks like from there.

• Maybe it’s a desire to put his program in the proper position for Team 128 to take the next step.

Whatever the case, this could be the slap in the face that the Irish need. They have two options: Curl up in the corner and raise the white flag of surrender, or, like they have all season, come out swinging.

Without adversity, this would have been a boring season. With Nick Watkins, the Irish are down to their “next, next man in” at corner. KeiVarae Russell’s season-ending leg injury suffered Nov. 21 against Boston College opened the door for Butler. Matthias Farley, who will fill in for Redfield, has plenty of experience. What will be limited will be the different packages the Irish like to use so often.

Can’t help but think back to 1988 in a situation like this. That’s when Tony Brooks and Ricky Watters, two impact players on coach Lou Holtz’s offense, were late to one too many meetings in the days leading up to a showdown at Southern Cal. Holtz had had his fill. No matter what the cost, he packed the two up and shipped them home.

The Irish, destined for a national championship, overcame that adversity with a 27-10 victory.

That Notre Dame team was loaded with talent. It didn’t have to deal with losing 17 players from its August two-deep and have 38 different position players start.

Still, this is “circle the wagons; hunker down in the bunker.”

Some coaches, like Kelly, thrive in this environment. He’s going to pull out all the clichés between now and Friday. Respect. Pride. Family. Tradition. Somewhere, he hopes to strike a nerve and catch the attention of his players.

Given his druthers, Kelly likely would rather have a fully stocked stable of athletes hell-bent on taking down last year’s national champion. Stack up the talent pound-for-pound, and the Irish would have compared favorably.

Consider the complications that have continually altered the trajectory of the season, and the resilient nature of this team can never be questioned.

At least these Irish have had practice finding their way through these shocking moments.

This one’s different, though.

Right now, the Buckeyes may have more NFL-caliber talent than the Tennessee Titans. Ohio State spent a chunk of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and is a field goal away from having a chance to repeat its title.

A difficult challenge has transcended into a monumental one. Ohio State doesn’t have a pass-happy offense, but a defensive secondary can play a role in run support. Redfield, with his 64 tackles (third on the team), would have helped in that role. He had 10 stops against Stanford, when the Irish limited Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey to 94 yards on 29 carries.

Ezekiel Elliott runs harder than McCaffrey. Lose sight of Elliott, and he could rush for 300 yards, redefining the term “game-wrecker.”

It’s long past “logo on the T-shirt” time. Team 127 has one last thing to prove.

But it ain’t gonna be easy.

Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler (12) walks using a protective boot during practice on Tuesday, at Scottsdale Community College in Scottsdale, Ariz. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)