Noie: Good often not good enough for No. 5 Notre Dame

Staff reports
ND Insider

It was more than a road win over a ranked team in a somewhat hostile environment that kept fifth-ranked Notre Dame perfect halfway through its 12-game regular-season college football schedule.

It was a statement of the standard that these Irish hold themselves to, a standard that hasn’t always been seen around a program that’s gone too long without earning the game’s ultimate prize. A standard that tells everyone from every unit — offense, defense, special teams, maybe even the coaching staff — that even when everything looks good and seems good, good isn’t good enough.

This group is chasing greatness. Chasing perfection. Chasing a performance bar that’s been raised from previous seasons. Nine, 10, 11 wins and a good bowl game? Not good enough.

Case in point occurred on a steamy Saturday in Blacksburg, Va., when then-No. 24 Virginia Tech couldn’t wait to get Notre Dame into the emotional pressure-cooker of Lane Stadium. It was going to be loud (it really wasn’t). It was going to be hectic (it really wasn’t). It was going to be something that too often in the past had rattled previous Irish outfits (it really didn’t). Last year. The previous year. Too many others to count that kept them from perfecting the game plan. From playing to their potential. From winning a road game when the road game was winnable.

As the Irish trudged down the concrete hallway and into their locker room at the south end of Lane Stadium halfway through Saturday’s game, nobody was very happy. The Irish had just offered an OK effort in the first half. They let several key opportunities to put even more points on the board get away. Missed pass completions. Turnovers. Stalled drives. That they let the Hokies drive 75 yards in eight plays in less than a minute for a late score really bothered them. Inside linebacker Drue Tranquill, a team captain, termed the effort “lazy.”

Even special teams got in on the act when a bad long snap led to a 16-yard rushing loss by punter Tyler Newsome, which had a hand in the (-2) rushing total at half.

Notre Dame led 17-16, but few would have known it by the long looks seeping out of the visitor’s locker room. The Irish had a lead but in their eyes, after that effort, they felt they were on the wrong end of the scoreboard.

“That,” said wide receiver Miles Boykin, “wasn’t Notre Dame football in the first half.”

“We came in at halftime, looked one another in the eyes and knew that we’ve got to do better,” said safety Alohi Gilman. “We hold each other accountable. Come the second half, we knew we had to turn it up and that’s what we did.”

Turn it up and along the way, answer adversity when adversity knocked. It occasionally rapped on the front door over the season’s first five weeks. But nothing sustained. Heck, the Irish have trailed for all of 2:13 — that in the first quarter of the fourth game at Wake Forest — all season.

Adversity threatened to set up shop for an extended stay on the Irish sideline in Saturday’s second half. The fifth-ranked team in the country needed to respond. Could it? Would it? The final score — 45-23 — answered any of those concerns.

“What we learned, I think, more than anything else is that we can overcome adversity,” said coach Brian Kelly. “We lost some key players, went on the road without some key players and our guys stepped up and played extremely well.”

The mood in the Irish locker room at intermission was more of, we’ve got this. Panic under the pressure of being on the road and not playing their best? Not these guys. At least, not yet.

“Everyone was kind of locked in with what we needed to do,” said wide receiver Chris Finke. “There’s no panic in the locker room. There was a sense of calm that we would go out in the second half and take control.

“It was kind of business as usual.”

When adversity arrives and the Irish are left with a feeling that they haven’t played their best, the collective mindset inside the room isn’t, ‘Hey, let’s go out and be better.’ Of course they want to play better. It’s more of let’s eliminate mistakes. Lock in. Play the way they know how to play. Play to their high standard. Play with confidence. Play with purpose. Everyone do their job and be relentless, which will wear teams down and eventually, it’s going to turn the Irish way.

That’s what happened in Blacksburg.

Dexter Williams set an immediate tone with a 97-yard touchdown run on the second play of the third quarter. The defense shrugged off the first-half targeting penalty/ejection of defensive end Julian Okwara and gave the Hokies little offensive light. Their only score over the final two quarters arrived with less than six minutes remaining and the starters having long since left for the sideline. A one-point game with a whole lot of potential drama building bounced into a 22-point runaway win, a final score that few saw coming two quarters in.

Except maybe the Irish. Stay with the plan, play the way they know, and a score like that surely will surface.

“We definitely weren’t happy at half,” said defensive lineman Khalid Kareem. “But we have to keep fighting, keep pushing. We’re built for this.”

Built during the week

Why Notre Dame responded the way it did Saturday could be seen back on campus during a mid-week practice inside Loftus Center. Steady rains forced the Irish indoors Wednesday for one of the few times this season. It also was one of the shorter practices of the season in terms of overall periods — four shorter than average. Yet one of the more spirited.

For the players, it felt like an August practice outside. It was hot and humid and even a little heated inside. It wasn’t the type of mid-week practice that Tranquill was used to seeing as the middle of October neared.

But he liked it. Loved it.

Tranquill said guys were flying around on both sides of the ball. Making tackles. Making plays. It was one of the tougher mid-week workouts that Tranquill could remember. It was about giving all-out effort at a time of the year when the effort tank often lags.

“Guys are finishing, doing the things that are going to lend itself to winning on Saturdays,” he said. “In years past, you see as you get later into the season, guys get worn out and guys are trying to maintain and get themselves to Saturday.”

Not this week. Tranquill saw guys who were playing as if their practice reps dictated how much they’d play Saturday. They got after it. Coasting wasn’t an option. Not from Boykin, who still had remnants of the Loftus Center FieldTurf smeared across one of his legs. Not from Tranquill, who already has a cast on a broken left hand and had a hint of blood seeping through a wrapped right wrist.

Even in October, with six wins down and a bye week coming, the Irish are pushing. Raising the bar. Exceeding their standard.

“I’ve seen a lot more of an attack mindset from this group,” Tranquill said. “It’s been good.”

Good for a group that still believes it can be great. As much as the Irish have done through the season’s first six weeks — one of 11 FBS schools still undefeated, two wins over Top 15 teams — they believe they can do more. Show more. Kelly would like to see them put together four full quarters, something this group still hasn’t done. When that happens, watch out.

“We still haven’t put it all together yet,” Boykin said. “We’re working in the right direction, but it’s going to be a very scary team when we can put everything together.”

Adversity may knock again Saturday as Notre Dame hosts unranked Pittsburgh. It might knock again early next month at Northwestern, or at home against Florida State or out in the Bronx at Yankee Stadium against Syracuse. Certainly it might make the trip to California over Thanksgiving weekend and the regular-season finale against USC, where a whole lot might be riding on that one.

But the Irish are ready to answer. Ready to respond. Doing so in Blacksburg allowed them to learn a little something about themselves. Make that a big something.

“We,” Kareem said, “can be the best team in the country.”

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) celebrates a touchdown against Virginia Tech last week in Blacksburg, Va.
Notre Dame’s Alizé Mack (86) tries to push off Virginia Tech’s Tyree Rodgers (18) during last week’s game in Blacksburg, Va.