Noie: Business-like Notre Dame caps storybook regular season

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LOS ANGELES — Screenwriters who work a few congested streets up from where third-ranked Notre Dame capped a magical college football regular season Saturday would have a hard time buying this script.

Stuff like this just doesn’t happen. Not to one of the game’s storied programs that had to come off the mat from a 4-8 finish two seasons earlier, when everything about the program had to change. Had to get better. From the head coach to the players to the overall commitment. To everything.

It all did, but it took time. Another year and a three tough losses later. Throw in a quarterback change that nobody on the outside saw coming. Only then was Notre Dame ready to rip through an undefeated regular season that culminated in a 24-17 victory Saturday night over USC at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Since Notre Dame’s last visit here, a 45-27 thrashing by USC in 2016 — that left Brian Kelly having to issue a late-night press release to say that no, contrary to reports, he was not trying to escape the heat for another job — the Irish are a staggering 22-3. That includes consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time in a quarter century.

Also acing what many considered a suicide November schedule. Answering any and all challenges. Sticking to their process. Avoiding all noise. Staying poised.

That poise was under pressure Saturday. For once, the Irish let the magnitude of the moment affect them. They didn’t play tight, but they weren’t exactly loose.

“We had everything to lose,” said center and captain Sam Mustipher. “We just came out and grinded it out.”

When that grind was over, and the players left the field and trudged up the long and winding tunnel to their locker rooms, and the fans had all scattered into the cool Southern California night, the Olympic flame that sits sentry above the famed building still burned brightly.

Then, like that, it was extinguished. No matter. The flame of Notre Dame football will continue to burn for the next week. The next month. Through finals. Through Christmas. Maybe, through the New Year.

Not much is known about how it’s all going to unfold, or against what team or in what city (Miami Gardens, Fla., or Arlington, Texas) but this much is — for the first time in school history, Notre Dame (12-0) has a reserved seat at the College Football Playoff table when the sport’s ultimate Final Four is announced a week from Sunday.

Who’s in? Who’s out? Who cares? Notre Dame will be selected. The Irish will watch the selection show, then finalize plans to play on Dec. 29 in one of the national semifinals. Let Alabama figure its way through. Let Clemson carve its path. Let a fourth team —Oklahoma, Ohio State, Michigan, oops, never mind, — come from nowhere.

None of that matters. Not after the final five weeks of the regular season that saw Notre Dame win on both coasts. From the West (San Diego, Los Angeles) to the East (New York) and points between (Evanston, Ill., and South Bend) the Irish delivered. It sometimes wasn’t easy, and wasn’t Saturday. But when it was time to suck it up and stay together, this team did. For 12 weeks. At home and on the road. At night, and during the day. Sundays too. They did it all.

“It feels amazing,” quarterback Ian Book said of finishing undefeated. “It’s really hard to describe how it feels, honestly. Our hard work has paid off.

“It’s a night I’ll definitely never forget.”

Winning every game, answering every challenge, should have been cause for celebration. The Irish had every right to turn the Coliseum floor into their own personal playground. Run around and go crazy. Let it all loose.

But just as it seemed like the party was just getting started, it stopped. It was like the Irish expected to do what they did. Then they went out and did it, but not without having to first settle down. To play the way they knew they could play. It took a half to settle in. Once they did, USC (5-7) didn’t have a chance.

“When that mindset changes, we’re the best” said cornerback Julian Love. “We knew we were the better team.”

Even when it was over, the Irish still were so serious about it. About their win. About themselves. But there was one guy who couldn’t stick to that script. What Saturday, what this regular season meant, could best be summed up by watching linebacker Drue Tranquill.

The captain hugged anyone he could find as the clock hit zero at 8:31 p.m. Pacific time. He hugged this teammate. He pulled close that coach. He raised his gold helmet high with his right hand, then pumped his left fist toward his father seated the Irish section of fans near the corner of the east end zone.

Then up the tunnel he went, jumping up and down and yelling nothing in particular to no one. When he emerged some 10 minutes later from the locker room, Tranquill stood against one of the concrete walls and just…..smiled.

“It means the world,” he said. “This is what I came back for.”

He made it. They made it. Undefeated. One win away from playing for a national championship. Two wins away from winning something this program hasn’t won in 30 years. Back among the game’s elite.

An ending waits to be written, and it will be in the coming weeks. Maybe down south, Or deep in the heart Texas. Or even back in here in the Golden State, up north at Levi’s Stadium. It’s been a storybook season for a coach and a program that really needed it, believed it could happen. Then it did.

The tale of this team still is being scripted. Another chapter awaits. Can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.