Noie: Tougher football road test awaits Notre Dame at Michigan State

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Instead of pounding a perennial Atlantic Coast Conference pushover, the next challenge comes against a team that won a Big Ten championship and a spot in the national semifinals in 2015.

Instead of starting in the middle of the afternoon, kickoff is nearly five hours later, when everything about stadiums seems to change after sunset.

Instead of pockets of blue and gold among the empty aluminum bleachers there will be a lot of green and white.

Instead of a two-hour flight home in a 757 that arrives before midnight, they’ll board buses for a three-hour trek through the early-morning hours of Sunday that will deliver them back to campus closer to sunrise.

Everything about the next football game changes this week for Notre Dame. But the end game remains the same — go and get a road win.

Again.

Bouncing Boston College was the first road hurdle cleared. The next one will be tougher. Go to Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, Mich., Saturday night (kickoff just after 8 p.m. on FOX) and do what few Notre Dame teams have done of late — win a second straight road game in a second straight week.

Road games on consecutive weekends are rare for Notre Dame. Since 2009, it’s happened only four times. From 2000 to 2008, it happened nine times. Notre Dame last won true road games on consecutive weekends in 2015 in completing a Pennsylvania sweep of sorts with wins at Temple and at Pittsburgh.

The Irish have done it twice in the eight-year tenure of coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame also did it in 2011 when it won at Pittsburgh and at Purdue.

Notre Dame (2-1) is 19-15-1 all-time at Spartan Stadium, including 1-1 under Kelly. But the place is as foreign as Chinese currency to everyone on the roster. The last time Notre Dame won at Michigan State was in 2012.

Everett Golson was the quarterback. Wide receiver John Goodman caught a touchdown pass. Linebacker Manti Te’o made a team-high 12 tackles, then learned afterward that, ah, never mind …

Notre Dame has been around the college football block long enough to know what’s coming. On the road. At night. Against a quality Power Five opponent.

See Doak Campbell Stadium against Florida State 2014. Or rainy Death Valley and Clemson in 2015. Or Memorial Stadium and a sea of Texas burnt orange in 2016. This one will look and feel pretty much the same — at night, sellout crowd, hostile atmosphere. High energy. Heavy emotions.

“We’ve played in places like there,” said fifth-year offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. “It’s not like we haven’t played in loud stadiums or haven’t been to loud stadiums before. It just provides a lot more of a different type of feel and different type of emotion that is injected into the game just from the crowd.

“You never have a lack of energy, that’s for sure.”

A different type of energy than the previous week awaits. It’s going to be loud. Sometimes crazy. There will be times when the offensive linemen won’t hear the snap count. They’ve worked all summer on the scenario they’ll swim in Saturday. Other times the defense will have to communicate via hand signals. But that’s the name of the college game.

“You’ve just got to go play football,” McGlinchey said.

Emotion and energy aside, this one likely will hinge on execution. Convert on third-and-long in the other team’s territory. Get a big turnover. Pop a big play on special teams. Something that will get a big crowd to go quiet and, maybe like the Boston College fans last week, start heading for the post-game tailgate while the game’s in progress.

That’s a possibility if Notre Dame can carry its effort from the previous week, then add to it. Like getting after it from the jump, and staying after it. That didn’t happen last week. Should this week. It better.

“We just need to play from start to finish,” said senior over back Drue Tranquill. “We showed flashes of brilliance and we showed flashes when we’re up 35-13 and we let their offense march right down the field and score. That’s not acceptable as a defense.

“So just playing with a laser focus through the entirety of the game is definitely an area we’ve been focusing on this week.”

No room for error

What’s most critical on the road? Perfection often is a pipe dream, so it’s about staying steady. Like the Irish did the previous week against Boston College. The final score (49-20) may not have shown it, but there was a time when the Irish were tested. And they answered.

Like late in the first half when quarterback Brandon Wimbush threw an interception with Notre Dame up four. The defense needed to make a big stop before the break. They did after holding the Eagles to two yards on two plays.

Momentum sidled up to the Boston College sideline after Wimbush fumbled it away to start the third quarter. The Eagles kicked a field goal to get within 14-13, but only after getting nine yards on five plays.

Determination was needed from the defense. They delivered.

“We went out, had great energy,” said outside linebacker Greer Martini, who finished with 10 tackles against Boston College. “It was a little bit of a slow start, but eventually, once we got things going, we were fine.

“I think we were pretty professional and we did a good job with it being our first away game.”

There were times the first time out away from home when the Irish fell into a rut. Wimbush struggled for extended stretches, the defense didn’t deliver, etc. Still, Kelly liked something that he saw from his team. The Irish played with the mindset the coaching staff has been hammering home since January — a mindset critical for playing away from home when trouble surfaces.

Just keep playing. It’s not always going to be easy. Not on the road. But that’s no reason not to stay steady. Stay consistent. Keep fighting. Together.

“I point to that, to our football team in particular, about showing some grit in that game,” Kelly said. “It was a great tuneup for Michigan State. Them winning by 29 points against a Power Five team on the road shows that they’re capable of winning football games even if it wasn’t perfect for a period of time.”

Notre Dame was perfect on the road in 2016 in all the wrong ways. It lost all three true road games — at Texas, at North Carolina State and at Southern California by an average of 9.3 points. But coming close never counts.

The Irish have long insisted that this is a new team in a new year. Winning last week on the road was the first step in being able to put some needed distance between this year and last. Saturday would be another step. A big one.

The home loss to Georgia backed this program into a tough spot. Its stated goal this season — every season — is to play for a national championship. There’s no additional room for error. Gotta be about perfect the rest of the way if the Irish want to get to the payoff — the four-team playoff.

“We just need to keep it tuned up,” Kelly said, “dialed up for four quarters.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) and Drue Tranquill (23) walk off the field with smiles after winning their first road game of the season against Boston College. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)