Noie: Pushing back helps push Notre Dame among nation's elite

Staff reports
ND Insider

Huffing and puffing and pushing past exhaustion during another offseason workout, Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher knew better than to focus on the finish line.

In offseasons past, that likely would suffice. Seeing the end and knowing that everything was just about over would do it for him. For his teammates. Just get across the line, then get to the ice baths and pound the recovery drinks before doing it all again the next day.

But one challenge run in the winter or spring or summer doesn’t cut it for Matt Balis, the director of football performance. There would be more. The question was, how much more.

So when Mustipher was chugging through that series of 300s — running the length of a football field and back, then down again — he knew that he and his teammates were far from done. Balis was waiting and ready to shout the two words that have helped steady the mindset of this Irish program when times get tough. A program that, maybe not coincidentally, is closing in on consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time in a quarter century.

As the Irish finished their sprints, Balis’ voice boomed.

“Sudden change!”

What that next entailed differs. Sometimes, it’s another round of 300s or another strength and conditioning exercise. On this day, with players’ lungs burning and legs howling, Balis demanded that everyone then run one mile. In previous offseasons, Mustipher’s body and his mind would balk. He’d have nothing left.

But the more that the Irish have worked under Balis, the more they’ve pushed themselves further than once thought possible, the more they know that they always have to have something left in the workout tank.

“Nobody wants to run a mile, especially weighing 300 pounds,” said the 6-foot-3, 306-pound Mustipher. “But you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to attack it.”

Attack it like the Irish would attack obstacles during the regular season. When everything mattered a whole lot more. Balis knew that the Irish would face adversity along this 12-game journey, one that returns them home for their final game in Notre Dame Stadium against a troubled but talent-laden Florida State team.

The Irish haven’t been without their faults. They’ve been challenged— a lot — working their way up to the No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press and College Football Playoff polls. Tested at Virginia Tech. Tested at home against Pittsburgh. Tested early against Navy. Tested again last week in cold and rainy and windy Evanston, Ill., against Northwestern.

Likely tested Saturday when starting quarterback Ian Book, the nation’s leader in completion percentage at 74.5 percent, sits with an injury.

Just another test for the Irish to pass. Just like the 300/mile runs.

Other tests this season have varied. Sometimes it’s the offense getting tested, like it was at Virginia Tech when it was backed up near its own goal line early in the second half. Ninety-seven yards later on one Dexter Williams run, they were in the other end zone.

Sometimes it’s the defense getting tested. Like having to make a stop late in the fourth quarter against Pittsburgh. Sometimes, it’s special teams. Like last week when Tyler Newsome had his punt blocked and all the momentum seemed headed the way of the home team.

It’s enough for fans of the Irish program to throw a fit, to become a bundle of nerves wondering if everything that Notre Dame has worked toward for the last eight, nine, 10 months is about to fall apart. Here it comes, even the most seasoned Irish fan seems to say, the eventual collapse.

Not with this group. Not yet. This is a different group of cats playing with an entirely different mindset. Coach Brian Kelly has seen it in Blacksburg, at home, in Evanston. Irish fans should see it as well.

“It seems like when this team is pushed, they really play well,” Kelly said. “When we play with a sense of urgency, this is a really good football team.”

One key question

The one lingering concern about how Notre Dame has worked through three quarters of its regular season without a loss is this — How has this team been able to shrug off even the slightest hint of adversity and keep pushing instead of being pushed around?

Not even the Irish know. Or claim to know.

“I couldn’t tell you that,” said wide receiver Miles Boykin. “This team is different than any other team I’ve been on in my four years here. We’re just extremely resilient.”

Boykin knows that well. Coming off a bye week, Boykin was ready and rested to go and put on a pass-catching show against Navy. At 6-4, 228, he was way bigger than any Navy defensive back. Any Navy defensive lineman. He’d make all the catches. He’d make all the plays. Get him the ball.

Book did just that on Notre Dame’s first offensive series. Boykin snared an in route offering and looked to run through the middle of the field. Then he fumbled.

Navy ball at the Notre Dame 36. The Irish defense allowed nine yards in four plays. Boykin got back on the field and got a chance to make a few more plays. He caught three more passes for 48 yards and two scores. He did that with a fresh focus and a clear mind. That fumble from earlier? Like it never happened.

“Nobody ever hangs their heads,” Boykin said. “We really have that next-play mentality. We’re pretty sturdy, pretty stable. We know we’re a good team. We know that when we play our best, we’re tough to beat.”

Now 10 weeks in, the Irish are still striving for what they work toward every week — perfection, or as close as they can get to it in all three phases of offense, defense and special teams. Notre Dame’s been close a few times — winning easily at Wake Forest, stomping on Stanford — but close still isn’t good enough. Not for this group.

As much as Irish fans fret about this team’s flaws, be it the offensive line, the nickel coverage, the sometimes-sputtering run game, the Irish see the same. They know they have to be better in areas.

Can Notre Dame play a complete game? This week? Next week in New York? The following week in Los Angeles? Ever?

“Gosh, I don’t know,” said wide receiver Chris Finke. “It’s just the nature of football, looking at every game, there’s so much you can improve on and so much you wish you can have back.

“Maybe we haven’t played a complete game (but) I think we’ve put together some good ones.”

As good as the Irish have been, that sense of urgency Kelly mentioned earlier this week was a topic of conversation around the locker room. Why can’t the Irish have that sense of urgency from the start? Why does it take being backed up at their own goal line or a late defensive stand or having something to go wrong on special teams to raise the urgency antenna?

“When we have to turn it on, we have the capability to do that,” Finke said. “But at the same time, why can’t we do that all the time? Why do we have to wait for a situation that calls for it?

“That’s been the challenge this week.”

That’s what keeps this group going, keeps them pushing forward. The chase for perfection, the understanding that as hard as it is now, being late in the season and the goals of this team so close, the offseason was so much more demanding and difficult.

Notre Dame didn’t give in then; it certainly isn’t going to ease up now. Finishing strong now is like running that extra mile.

“You have to do it,” Finke said. “You can’t tap out and if you do, you’d be letting the whole team down. You’ve got your brothers to the left and right and behind you and in front of you counting on you.”

Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher believes responding to adversity on the field this season is easy compared to what they had to do during the offseason.
Notre Dame’s Chris Finke (10) tries to get past Northwestern’s Paddy Fisher (42) during the Notre Dame-Northwestern NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018 at Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois.