Noie: With bye week complete, Notre Dame looks to finish the mission
Focused on family and friends and wanting to unplug from it all at home in South Florida, Notre Dame senior middle linebacker Te’von Coney often ignored anything that awaited his return trip to South Bend.
Especially this time of year, when the days grow shorter, the nights longer, and it gets cold to the point of possible snow in Northern Indiana. Coney embraced any trip home to be warm and with loved ones who knew him best, who wanted him around for longer periods than possible.
Coney often found it tough to leave when it was time to leave, to go back to Notre Dame and the grind of athletics and academics.
Then last weekend happened, a bye week for third-ranked Notre Dame. The Irish sailed through the season’s first seven weeks undefeated, answering any and all challenges at home and on the road. It was a good run, but a break was needed for guys like Coney to heal mind and body, so home he went.
Barely two days back in Pompano Beach, Fla., Coney started thinking more about what he’d left back on campus. His teammates. His role as the team’s top tackler (56 stops). His senior season. The rest of the 2018 schedule, one that sends Notre Dame on the road four of the last five weeks starting Saturday with a neutral-site game in San Diego against Navy (2-5). The more Coney thought about what’s already happened and what’s still to come, the more he wanted to get back to it all.
Forget the sun and any family fun, he wanted to get back to Indiana. Coney even contemplated calling the airlines and getting an earlier flight, something he’d rarely done when home. Family time was important, but man, did Coney miss the competition.
“I got those two and a half days in and I was like, ‘I’m ready to go play football again,’” he said. “We’re on this journey and we want to complete the mission.”
Several hundred miles north of Florida, on the campus of Indiana University, senior center Sam Mustipher had the same thoughts as Coney. Thoughts about completing the mission. Thoughts about finishing even stronger than the Irish had showed the first seven weeks. Mustipher was in Bloomington last weekend to watch his younger brother, PJ, a freshman defensive tackle at Penn State, take on Indiana. Like Coney, Mustipher cherished some family time. But once he saw his brother warming up, once he heard the pads popping and saw the fans in the stands and heard the band, family no longer was his sole focus.
“It was like, ‘Man, we should be playing football today,’” Mustipher said. “You get that time off and you kind of have a little cabin fever, a little itch to get back on the field and compete.”
Football players are creatures of habit playing a game that revolves around routine and rhythm and repetition. A whole lot of reps. Run this route again and again. Set up in that formation again and again. Prior to their bye week, the Irish had been in that routine since school started in late August. Mondays meant this. Tuesdays meant that. Same with Wednesdays and Thursdays and Fridays. All led into one day — Saturday — when they could turn it all loose. At home. On the road.
But what happens when the bye week arrives? When there is no routine? No game waiting at week’s end? Just open space and hours to fill without football? It’s hard, and that first day back at practice is even harder. The field’s still 100 yards long. There’s still 11 guys on each side of the ball, but those first couple periods Monday were odd.
Wide receiver Miles Boykin felt it. After four days at home in south-suburban Chicago, where all he did was sleep and play “Call of Duty,” Boykin felt like he’d just started playing the position last week. His footwork was off. So was his route running. It felt like he was trying to catch passes with boxing gloves. It was weird.
For him. For everybody.
“Monday was pretty rusty for us,” Boykin said. “You’re like, ‘Damn …’ You wouldn’t think four days would get you out of shape like that (but) it definitely takes its toll.”
Mustipher said getting that routine and that rhythm back down again is a test, which underscores the challenge of pushing through an entire schedule undefeated. Once teams fall so deeply into the routine and then step out of it, it’s tough to get back on track. But good teams — championship teams — do it seamlessly.
“It’s very difficult,” Mustipher said. “That’s why there’s only one championship team at the end of the season. It’s hard to stick to the process day-in and day-out with the grind that you have.”
Hard? Sure, but the Irish made it happen their second day back. As rusty as Monday was, Tuesday was pretty polished. The Irish practiced like the nation’s No. 3 team. They were crisp in their cuts. Excellent in their assignments. Near-perfect in working what the players refer to as their process — being attentive to detail, having a laser focus, bringing attitude and effort and showing grit. It was there Tuesday and Wednesday. Now it has to be there Saturday.
“We knocked the rust off early and then it was go time,” Mustipher said. “We got back into the swing of things really fast.”
“It,” Boykin said, “just felt right.”
Notre Dame may have been idle last weekend, but that doesn’t mean the Irish completely unplugged from the college football world. Get this far into the season without a loss and the players know what awaits at the finish line if they continue to win. They know what teams in the top five are doing. Like when then-No. 3 Ohio State played unranked Purdue and promptly got pounded by 29 points. The Irish knew. They saw. They heard. Well, not all of them.
Coney was watching the latest chapter of Michal Myers vs. Laurie Strode unfold in a Florida movie theater. His review of “Halloween?”
“They said it was going to be scary, but it wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be,” he said.
Still, Brian Kelly didn’t use the Ohio State loss as a teaching moment when the Irish returned to campus on Sunday. They’re smart guys.
“They know where we are,” Kelly said.
They’re at a spot all too familiar to previous Notre Dame teams. Like the one in 2015 that seemed to have a shot to get to the College Football Playoff before losing the season finale at Stanford on a field goal with 30 seconds remaining. Like the one in 2017 that climbed to a No. 3 ranking only to lose two of its last three.
They’ve seen too much in the past and done too much in the present to get sucked into all the talk about Notre Dame being back or having an easy road to 12-0 or wondering if they might play in Arlington, Texas or Miami Gardens, Fla., in the first round of the national semifinals.
With the hype building and more eyes watching and wondering — Is Notre Dame really back? — linebacker Drue Tranquill was asked about the Irish mindset. He was as straight-forward as one of his textbook tackles.
“Gotta beat Navy,” he deadpanned.
Then, nothing. Silence.
That really is it. As cliché as it is, it’s that simple. There’s no conference championship game waiting in December. No additional way to wipe clean the sting of a late-season loss. Just win now, move on, then win again next week, then move on, then see where everything stands when game No. 12 ends.
“We know what’s at stake,” Boykin said. “These (regular-season games) are our playoffs. Every game to us is the playoffs. We’ve been in the playoffs since Michigan (Sept. 1).”