Vorel: Notre Dame has prime-time opportunity to shift national perception

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Drue Tranquill doesn’t need to be reminded.

Nor does he need to forget.

On Wednesday, midway through the Notre Dame captains’ weekly press conference, Tranquill — a 6-foot-2, 231-pound senior rover — was asked about the Michigan State offense’s affinity for the jet sweep.

“Believe me, I know,” Tranquill said matter-of-factly, cutting off the question. “I missed that tackle.”

The tackle in question came — or, more accurately, didn’t come — almost exactly a year ago, in the final minute of the first half of Michigan State’s 36-28 road win over Notre Dame. Facing a first-and-goal from his 10-yard-line, Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor took a shotgun snap and delivered a shovel pass to speedy wide receiver R.J. Shelton, who was running horizontally behind the line.

Shelton darted between blocks — past Irish defensive end Jay Hayes, past linebacker Te’von Coney, past safety Devin Studstill — before leaping over Tranquill’s lunging arms and high-stepping into the end zone.

With 23 seconds remaining in the first half, Shelton and tight end Jamal Lyles danced, surrounded by celebrating teammates.

Tranquill — who finished with six tackles in the first of three consecutive home losses — lay on his stomach a few feet away.

“It was one of my worst games in my career,” Tranquill said on Wednesday, “so I have a bigger chip and mentality going into this game. I was very disappointed with the way I played against them last year and disappointed at the way we played against them as a team.

“But we can't control that. We can control what happens this Saturday, though. We can control our preparation heading in. So our focus isn't so much on the outcome of last year's game as it is controlling what we can control heading into this game.”

For Tranquill, this game is about redemption, reformation, reputation.

He isn’t the only one.

“Yeah, we have a point to prove,” senior linebacker Greer Martini said. “Obviously we didn't like the outcome from last year, but it's just all about taking each day at a time and getting prepared for this game, giving them our best performance on Saturday night.”

When Martini mentions the “outcome,” he need not focus solely on the loss to Michigan State. Notre Dame went 4-8 last season, a year after winning 10 games and reaching the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish entered the 2016 season with a No. 10 national ranking.

They exited it without their defensive coordinator and a host of assistant coaches.

But if misery really loves company, they’re thankful for Michigan State. After surviving the Irish in South Bend, Mark Dantonio’s team dropped seven straight. The Spartans lost five home games by an average of 13 points. They also lost on the road at Indiana, Maryland and Illinois.

After losing five games the previous three seasons, Michigan State lost nine in 2016.

No two programs plummeted simultaneously off higher cliffs.

No two programs are more desperate to trudge back towards the summit.

And sure, on a micro level, this game is about more than that. It’s about Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s accuracy in the passing game and the improving Irish defense. It’s about burgeoning Michigan State dual threat quarterback Brian Lewerke and his trio of Spartan running backs. It’s about Notre Dame’s quest to win a true road night game, something the program hasn’t accomplished since dropping Temple 24-20 on Halloween night in 2015.

Add it all up, and there’s a fairly concrete conclusion:

If Notre Dame is back — really, truly back, however you define that — the Irish need to win this game. They need to bully an opposing defense featuring two former walk-ons as starting defensive ends. They need to outlast a Spartan squad playing nine true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen.

They need to make a national statement — or, a la Martini, prove a point.

A road win over Boston College won’t do that, nor will a thorough trouncing of Temple.

They need to prove that last season was little more than a misstep on the steady climb to the summit.

If they don’t, then the Spartans will be happy to do it at their expense.

And, sure, a road win over another recovering program, by itself, won't instantly rehabilitate Notre Dame's national reputation. But it's a necessary step.

Tranquill, Martini and Co. don’t need to forget the past.

Not if that memory — that chip — will help them avenge it.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) lines up on defense during the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game Saturday, September 9, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN