Noie: A 6-0 start sounds pretty sweet for No. 6 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Standing arm-in-arm they swayed, sticking around a rapidly emptying stadium to sing the school alma mater.

It didn’t matter that the No. 6 Notre Dame football team didn’t have their band to help musically pace them. They didn’t make this road trip. That was fine. The Irish showed Saturday night that they can still carry a tune.

Even if one or two guys are off key, and they were in certain game situations, these Irish can make some really good music. They showed as much in a game where they didn’t play their best, didn’t play their most complete.

Made some mistakes. Some mental errors. Turned it over. But in a hostile atmosphere with everyone watching in prime time, Notre Dame made a strong statement with a 45-23 victory over No. 24 Virginia Tech.

Even when the Irish aren’t at their best — and they weren’t for stretches Saturday — they’re still really good.

A year ago, coach Brian Kelly said afterward, as midnight had come and gone, it was a team that could tell you how to win a football game. This team, now 6-0 halfway through the regular season, now can tell you why they win.

They win, because they keep battling. Keep believing. Keep finding ways to win when some of the previous ones don’t work.

They showed it on Saturday. On a night when quarterback Ian Book wasn’t the Ian Book of the previous two weeks, when the defense gave up a larger share of chunk plays for myriad reasons, even when special teams struggled, Notre Dame made this one look easy.

A 22-point win in Lane Stadium? Take it and run with it. The Irish will. Did.

Six wins down, six to go, a slate that wasn’t lost on fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill as he stood outside the locker room in his game pants and a T-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a bulky, bothersome cast on his broken left hand.

“It means everything to me,” Tranquill said after the Irish reached the halfway point undefeated. “Part of the reason I came back here was to win a national championship. To be in a position to go and win a seventh game and take another step toward that goal means a lot.”

Everything, because even when it looked like this might be the night for the Irish to take a step backward, they wound up taking two and three and four steps forward.

The Irish seemingly limped to the locker room, with a one-point lead at intermission. If you had peeked inside, you might have thought the Irish were down one. Guys weren’t happy with the effort they gave the first 30 minutes, but Kelly reminded them that it’s a long game. Plenty of time to get it in gear, get flowing, get going.

“I told them, 'We were a little uneven in the first half,' ” Kelly related. “We got outside our boundaries a little too much. Just do your job.”

Maybe easier said than done, as Notre Dame returned for the third quarter with (-3) rushing yards, then lost two more on its first play. That pushed the ball back to the Irish 3. But same as it was last week, it was Dexter Williams time.

Juice time.

Williams took a Book handoff, got a good block from left tackle Liam Eichenberg and outraced the Hokie defense down the near sideline all the way to the end zone. His 97-yard scamper was the second-longest run in school history and gave the Irish some breathing room. Some life.

Some juice.

“Not bad, not bad, not bad,” Williams said after running for 178 yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns. “I just knew my team needed a spark. They needed the Juice Man to come alive.”

Come alive he did. As good as he was the previous week against Stanford, he was better Saturday.

“I had to be there for my brothers,” Williams said. “I had to come out and run the ball even harder in the second half.”

Virginia Tech (3-2) rolled out all the bells and whistles pregame for this one. It set off fireworks, had the American flag dropped from the sky by a parachute team and, as is tradition, played Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” which was even introduced by the heavy metal band via videoboard message minutes before the song bounced around the place.

All the energy and excitement that the hype generated evaporated into the Virginia evening about 10 minutes after the opening kick. From then on, it was all about execution. That was going to determine whether the Irish returned to Indiana early Sunday morning still undefeated.

“No problem,” Kelly said of the atmosphere. “We overplayed that, and that worked out well for us.”

How would Notre Dame handle the atmosphere it faced Saturday? Comparisons were made all week to last year’s meltdown against Miami (Fla.). But this wasn’t Miami, the team that waxed the Irish, 41-8. It was hot and humid like it was that night in South Florida, but thus is a different team, a different time.

That time, the Irish weren’t ready. Weren’t prepared. They were Saturday.

“There’s just a different mindset of putting opponents away,” Tranquill said.

With each win, each challenge — Michigan, Stanford and now Virginia Tech answered — the postseason comes into view a little more clearly. But there’s still so much to do, and such a long way to go, to even contemplate a spot in the College Football Playoff.

Notre Dame’s been here before — and deeper. Last season to be exact. Let’s get to November, and the travel gauntlet that month brings, before thinking about late December and a possible trip to Arlington, Texas or south Florida.

But it’s there. In front of these Irish. It comes a little more into focus with each passing week, each passing win.

Book was big-time to start in the big-time atmosphere, but what else have we come to expect from him? He connected on his first eight passes, including 7-for-7 on the opening drive — a scoring drive — to get everything settled.

He was perfect in the pocket, made all the right reads and continued to play with a poise that not many saw coming.

Same goes for this team. Maybe this season. Less than 10 minutes after this one ended, the equipment trunks holding the team’s gold helmets had already been rolled up the ramp and loaded onto the semi waiting to haul the gear back to South Bend.

For the coaches and the players, there was a 40-minute bus trip back to Roanoke and the airport and the charter flight home. Players showered and changed and boarded the bus quickly.

They had places to go Sunday morning. The rest of this season.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) breaks away on a touchdown run during ND’s 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech, Saturday night at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va.