Noie: Notre Dame prepared to embrace road moment
Road reference points will be at a minimum this weekend when No. 6 Notre Dame heads 580 miles east for its next challenge.
That would be against No. 24 Virginia Tech. The Irish have never been to Blacksburg, Va. They’ve never played in 66,233-seat Lane Stadium. They haven’t experienced the atmosphere there at night, which offers a unique set of circumstances. Nights in Lane Stadium are different. More intense. Hyped. Intimidating. The crowd gets all day to lather up and will be in full throttle by the time everything kicks at 20 minutes past eight. It’s enough to spook even the most seasoned opponent.
Saturday’s expected to be a new experience for Notre Dame (5-0), but not really.
The Irish know what’s coming. They know it’s going to be loud. They know it’s going to be crazy. They know they have to do a better job of handling everything than they did almost a year ago.
Same scenario — a Saturday night road game against a ranked Atlantic Coast Conference opponent. Only this one was a month later and 886 miles south in South Florida. Hard Rock Stadium rocked. Then-No. 7 Miami (Fla.) rolled out a rough welcome for No. 3 Notre Dame. Previous road games that season to Boston College (win), Michigan State (win) and North Carolina (win) were supposed to prepare Notre Dame for what it would face that November at Hard Rock. Those early victories gave the Irish confidence. Even cockiness. Like, they’ve got this. They were good.
Then they weren’t. Back on their heels from seemingly the opening kickoff — maybe from the time the team buses were bombarded by bottles in the parking lot — the Irish tumbled into a 34-0 hole before drifting to a 41-8 loss. It was a three hour and 17 minute butt-kicking. On national television. For all to see.
Afterward, Irish coach Brian Kelly took responsibility for the meltdown. He didn’t prepare his team properly. He didn’t have them ready. This one was on him. Kelly and his coaching staff haven’t mentioned that night in Miami Gardens much, but the players remember.
“We’ve had a bad taste in our mouth since Miami,” said quarterback Ian Book, who will make his third consecutive start Saturday. “It was a hostile environment and we weren’t prepared. We want to go in there and act like it’s another away game and get the ‘W’ and come home.”
This one’s not just another road game. It likely will be the most challenging game remaining away from Notre Dame Stadium. Who knows what USC might look like and play like over Thanksgiving in Los Angeles? The Coliseum might be more pro-Irish. Navy in San Diego? Sure. At Northwestern? Not exactly a hostile home.
Saturday is it for the Irish. Embrace the environment, play the way they didn’t play against Miami (Fla.) and a plethora of post-season possibilities emerge.
“It’s going to be an incredible opportunity for us,” said senior center Sam Mustipher. “Hopefully, we can deal with the noise.”
Deal with it in a way it couldn’t last season. For myriad reasons.
Just not right
Everything seemed fine and focused in the moments before, during and even after kickoff to former Irish offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey. But as the game got deeper, and the crowd got even more into it, the former team captain looked over the sideline and saw something he rarely did from his guys. Doubt. Disappointment.
It left him shaken.
“During the game, something definitely felt off,” said McGlinchey, now a rookie offensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers. “Guys weren’t responding the same way as they normally would. Guys were a little different.”
Different in that what already had been a long year got even longer after the long flight to South Florida. The Irish were battling injuries and inconsistencies on both sides of the ball. Having to go so far so late in the season to play a peaking Miami team was a bad beat.
“Guys were beat up and tired and then going into a place like that, the way Miami had been playing, it was just a tough mix of everything,” McGlinchey said. “Guys were caught off-guard by some of the things going on down there.”
Junior Liam Eichenberg, who replaced McGlinchey at left tackle this season, was a reserve on that trip. He didn’t have to worry about silent snap counts or blitz pickups or blocking or anything else, yet he still had a hard time thinking clearly simply standing on the sideline.
“It was absurdly loud,” he said. “It was something I’d never been around. It kind of shocked us a little bit.”
Following the lopsided loss, Kelly vowed to forget what happened, but the Irish vowed never to forget why it happened. Kelly didn’t talk about it in the following weeks and months. Never used it as a reference point or motivational tool. Miami was in the past. Gone. Done. Over.
All the focus during winter conditioning, during spring practice, during preseason was what was ahead on the schedule. One game in particular. One road trip. One night.
This early-October one in Blacksburg.
“We’ve been training for this game since Miami,” Eichenberg said.
“We,” Kelly said, ‘’won’t be caught off-guard going into Lane Stadium.”
Metallica beat Garth Brooks to the musical punch this week.
Brooks will host the first-ever concert at Notre Dame Stadium on Oct. 20, but those in and around the LaBar Practice Complex got a heavy dose of some heavy metal this week. Blared from speakers on the practice fields, and mixed in with raucous and relentless crowd noise, Metallica was a staple of Irish workouts. The group’s “Enter Sandman” has been an entry anthem for Virginia Tech since 2000.
The Hokies make the extended walk from their training facility locker room over to Lane Stadium and down a dank and dark tunnel just before kickoff. Once there and ready to run out, the song bounces around the place and gets fans worked into a frenzy. It’s hard not to get chills when you hear it.
“They,” Kelly said, “really get that place rocking.”
The Irish have heard the song all week. Over and over and over. They know it’s coming. They’re ready to hear it again, even if some might be a little tired of it.
“I love it,” said Mustipher, a Metallica fan. “It’s a good song.”
A song used this week during what Kelly first implemented during spring — several periods of chaos peppered into the practice plan. When assorted noises — screams, bombs, helicopters — turned up to annoying levels make it hard for the Irish to communicate and react and think. Periods designed to test the Irish resolve and focus. Periods that had Saturday night in Blacksburg in mind.
“We’ve practiced chaos throughout the year,” Mustipher said. “It’s back to basics. Trust the process.”
Trust one another. Trust the preparation. The Irish have spent eight months working toward this night. Their night. This one has to be all about discipline and domination. Notre Dame’s the sixth ranked team in the country for a reason. Time to go play like it. No false starts. No penalties. No missed assignments. No being rattled by a crowd that looks to shake them from the minute they step off the bus. Good teams — College Football Playoff worthy teams — embrace everything about the road atmosphere and still deliver four solid quarters of good football.
“It’s going to be loud; it’s going to be fun,” Book said. “It’s going to be a great college football night.”
The Irish know what a win Saturday means. They know everything will open up in front of them. They also know what’s behind them. That night in Miami? Saturday offers a chance at redemption. Not just for them, but guys like McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson and Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan. Guys no longer on the roster who can’t be better the second time around.
“It’s getting back out there kind of for the guys here last year who couldn’t do it,” Eichenberg said. “We want to be better and show no matter the situation, no matter what circumstances, we get out there and dominate.”
Hoping to catch some of the game from Northern California before going into meetings, McGlinchey expects just that. Those empty stares that night in South Florida? Not likely.
“They’re more of a complete team,” he said. “Everybody’s waiting for them to show it after what happened last year in Miami. It’s going to be a big bounce back and turning point.
“They’re going to deliver.”