Noie: Notre Dame handles the heavy lifting in moving to 9-0

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

EVANSTON, Ill. — In a town that sits in the shadows of a big city known for its broad shoulders, an undefeated college football team showed a sturdy set late Saturday.

Go ahead and lean on ‘em, No. 3 Notre Dame can carry an extra weight. Especially on the road. Down south. West Coast. Midwest. Night or day. Doesn’t matter.

Getting to 9-0 on the first weekend of the final full month of college football’s regular season wasn’t going to be easy. But the Irish made it look it, leaving cold and rainy and windy Ryan Field all business with a 31-21 victory.

Notre Dame looked on cruise control in crafting a 17-point lead early in the fourth quarter. Allowing two scores in barely four minutes made this interesting. Just when everything seemed stacked against the visitors from Indiana, nothing seemed to matter. Not to this group. Not to this team. Not in this season.

A three-point game, 24-21, with just over seven minutes remaining was as close as Northwestern would get. Notre Dame made sure of it. On both sides of the ball.

Dangle a three-point lead in front of this defense and watch out. They’re going to bring it. Those two scoring drives gained 106 yards on 15 plays. The Wildcats' final three drives? Eight plays for a total of three yards.

“Our defense is like waking a sleeping beast, really,” said cornerback Julian Love. “When we were up by only three, everybody is pacing up and down the sideline, yelling, screaming, motivating saying let’s go to really finish the game off.”

Then the offense did. Big moments require big drives at big times and the Irish delivered. Ian Book did what Ian Book does in directing the decisive 89-yard drive. When Book correctly read a third-and-4 call from the Northwestern 23 that offered him the left edge, he kept it and ran with it and kept on running with it. Right to the end zone. Right to 9-0.

“It was awesome,” Book said of the run. “There’s no better feeling.”

Actually, there might be a couple. The first can come a month from Sunday when the College Football Playoff pairings are announced. But there are more steps to take before that becomes reality. This week back on campus, then out in New York, and then Los Angeles. Nine down. Three to go. The Irish know the steps that remain. Embrace them.

“We know we’ve got a lot more to do,” said middle linebacker Te’von Coney. “It’s going to take a lot. We have to get back to work Monday.”

Two quarters accomplished little in this one. It was tied at seven at intermission. The Irish couldn’t find a flow. Couldn’t get in a rhythm. No problem. They still had the second half to find it. They were confident they’d find it. They found it.

“I didn’t sense a tightness with the group,” said coach Brian Kelly. “They played fast and free in the second half. They cleaned it up in the second half and played really good football.”

Played like the nation’s No. 3 team. Played like nothing bothers them when everything should.

Notre Dame left the field winners almost in spite of its effort on special teams. Make that a lack thereof. Almost everything that could go wrong for those units Saturday did — a missed field goal, a blocked punt, a kickoff that rolled out of bounds, another when somebody was in illegal formation.

Ooof.

Can’t let a season headed toward special get derailed by special teams. Not now. Not this year.

Yet those blunders couldn’t rattle the resolve of this team. Notre Dame just keeps playing. Notre Dame just keeps winning.

At about half past 10 local time, mere minutes after Kelly wrapped his post-game presser in a shoe-box size (no lie) of a room jammed with bodies and questions and answers and less than zero air, sirens blared as the Irish traveling party exited Ryan Field and started a crawl down Central Street.

Bus after bus comprised the Indiana-bound caravan. Off it went, police lights flashing, sirens blaring, eventually back to Lake Shore Drive, to the Indiana Toll Road, to home.

November’s here. A month with some bad history. But this is a different Notre Dame team ready to embrace this month and all that it entails. Ready to keep rolling along.

Police escort or not, Notre Dame knows where it wants to go, and how to get there.

GAME 9: Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book runs for the clinching touchdown against Northwestern.