Vorel: Notre Dame arrives in Miami with higher stakes, expectations

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Success is an expectation at Notre Dame.

But how do the Irish define it?

A year ago, success was measured in wins — no matter the context, no matter the circumstances, no matter the fourth quarter follies or squandered leads along the way.

Take this weekend’s opponent, for example. A year ago, Notre Dame took a commanding 20-0 lead over Miami in South Bend, only to watch the 4-3 Hurricanes answer with 27 consecutive points. The Irish rallied, thanks to a 41-yard Josh Adams touchdown run and a 23-yard Justin Yoon field goal, to secure just its second home win of the season.

It was an uneven performance, peppered with Irish mistakes. Sophomore wide receiver C.J. Sanders fumbled a punt at his own 4-yard-line that was returned for a go-ahead touchdown. With the game tied in the final minutes, tight end Durham Smythe coughed up the football at the Miami 1-yard-line, a gaffe that quarterback DeShone Kizer negated with a timely recovery.

It was indisputably ugly.

But, to an Irish team that had lost four of its last five games, it didn’t matter. It was a dim, flickering candle amidst an immense, crushing darkness. It was a puddle of muddy water in an otherwise arid desert.

It wasn’t artistic, or decisive, or convincing.

But it was a win.

“We won tonight. That's all that matters,” a relieved Kizer said on Oct. 29, 2016. “I don't know how they came back. I don't care how they came back. I don't care what it took for them to come back, or the lull we were having on offense.

“I don't care how pretty it looks. I don't care how many yards I threw. I don't care how many trick plays we run. I just want to make sure we win games.”

Now, a year later, the definition has changed. In a 48-37 victory over Wake Forest (5-4) last Saturday, No. 3 Notre Dame finished with 710 total yards, 10 shy of a 48-year-old school record. The Irish led by 21 points at halftime and 25 in the fourth quarter.

Notre Dame (8-1) secured its seventh consecutive win, with five of those victims being teams with winning records.

Why, then, did Notre Dame’s players sound dissatisfied?

“Coach (Brian Kelly) talks about a mindset of dominating our opponents and not just winning games, and I think that's what we've built for the past eight months,” said junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, who accounted for 390 total yards and three touchdowns.

“Obviously with the score we had today we didn't dominate our opponent, and we will go back and evaluate the film and next week when we head down to Miami it will be the same outcome with a ‘W’ but done in a more convincing way.”

These days, any old win isn’t enough. The expectation is to dominate all facets of the game — to pummel each opponent, no matter the name or national ranking. The expectation is to win every game by 20 or more points, something Notre Dame did on six consecutive Saturdays. The expectation is to hold each opponent to 20 points or less, something Mike Elko’s defense did in its first eight games, a longer streak than any team in the country.

Notre Dame didn’t accomplish either in an 11-point victory over Wake Forest last weekend.

Yes, it was a win.

But …

“It didn’t really feel like a win,” said sophomore wide receiver Chase Claypool, who caught nine passes for 180 yards and a touchdown. “Obviously, we’re happy we got the win, but we expect so much more of ourselves offensively and defensively.”

A year ago, Notre Dame was a nervous pole vaulter, staring anxiously at the bar it needed to clear.

Now? Forget the bar. Irish eyes are fixed five feet above it.

The expectation has changed … at Notre Dame, and at Miami.

Speaking of that 30-27 Irish victory last October, Mark Richt’s hungry Hurricanes haven’t lost since. That makes 13 consecutive victories, including an impressive 8-0 start this season.

On Saturday, College GameDay will be there. The world — and, more specifically, fans of Georgia, Alabama, Wisconsin and Oklahoma — will be watching. Playoff dreams will be embraced, or abandoned.

Last year, it was Notre Dame vs. Miami.

This year, it’s No. 3 Notre Dame vs. No. 7 Miami.

This is what this rivalry should feel like. This is what it should mean to college football.

And, yes, Notre Dame will take a win.

But domination is the new definition.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush (7) celebrates after the University of Southern California at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA