Noie: Notre Dame dreamed the 12-0 dream, then lived it

Staff reports
ND Insider

Surrounded by cinder-block walls and the postgame chaos swirling around him, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick clearly saw clarity.

His biggest concern at that time — nearing midnight — and in that place — under the east stands of Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va., — was finding somewhere for his wife, Kimberly, to sit as they waited for the Irish traveling party to depart on a late-night trek up Interstate 81 toward the airport and another happy charter flight home.

It was the first weekend of October, and the No. 3 Notre Dame football team had answered another challenge on its run through an undefeated regular season. All throughout that week, Swarbrick had heard and read about how the Irish might respond to a hostile Virginia Tech crowd. To the home team’s chills-inducing entrance to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.” To playing at night. To facing a ranked opponent on the road. Last time that happened for Notre Dame, it fell apart quickly and quietly last November against Miami (Fla.). Would the Irish again be handed a loss in an atmosphere that they just weren’t ready to play in?

Whoa.

No.

Forget the heavy-metal music entrance. Overrated. Forget the crowd. Unimpressive. Forget playing at night. Forget facing a charged-up ranked opponent. Forget everything about anything upset-related. Notre Dame took early control, weathered a potential momentum swing and strolled out with a 45-23 victory to move to 6-0.

Six more games stretched over the regular season’s final seven weeks remained. But as the postgame procedure kicked into gear — player interviews along that wall, other players grabbing to-go dinner boxes before boarding the buses, equipment carts rolling nosily up the back stadium ramp — Swarbrick stood on the periphery of everything and allowed himself to look ahead. To November. To the season finale. To the potential to do something that many considered last season as undoable.

For the first time this season, Swarbrick allowed himself to entertain going 12-0. To think about the Irish earning a ticket to the College Football Playoff for the first time in the Final Four’s five years. To finally put behind last season’s shortcomings in South Florida.

This was a new year, a new team. Swarbrick sensed it all week, then was certain of it that night.

“We all had that in the back of our mind,” Swarbrick said Saturday night in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after Notre Dame completed its undefeated journey. “The way they handled (Virginia Tech), that’s when I thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a shot here.’”

Tunnel vision

They remained talking points nearly every Wednesday when select groups of Irish met the media, then again after games on Saturdays. Keep working the process. Develop traits. Play with grit. Take it one day and one game at a time. Blah, blah, blah.

In the team’s main meeting room — Isban Auditorium — at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex hangs the 2018 schedule. It’s outlined week-by-week with date and opponent. Even the bye week is included. Each time the Irish met, they could see the 12-game picture there on the left wall. When they met to prepare for the Sept. 1 opener against Michigan, they saw the date of the Stanford game (Sept. 29), the Navy game in San Diego (Oct. 27), the season finale back in California against rival USC (Nov. 24).

They knew. But they never let on that they knew. They never allowed themselves to get ahead of themselves. That’s why they never watched the weekly ranking shows. Why they insisted that they didn’t care that they were ranked from the first show to the present. Didn’t talk about going undefeated for the second time in seven regular seasons.

But they thought about it. A lot. Way more than they let on. Once the dream was realized, they fessed up.

Graduate senior Drue Tranquill admitted he first thought about 12-0 during training camp at the Culver Academies. He took one look at the defense and knew that teams from one to 12 would have a tough time sustaining anything for four quarters. There was too much speed and quickness and nastiness and talent.

That group had received a boost in January when linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery put their NFL dreams on hold for a year and returned for one more season. Tranquill remembered sitting in the players’ lounge at the Gug when he heard the news. He wanted to tape up, pad up and go hit somebody right there. A unit that he figured would be really good just became borderline great.

“I was like, ‘Let’s go. We have the pieces,’” Tranquill said. “A lot of teams have the pieces and they don’t make it happen. This team made it happen.”

Defensive back Julian Love needed all of one game to think 12-0 was real. When Notre Dame opened with the 24-17 victory over Michigan, that did it. Like, they’ve got this. All of this.

“We knew what type of power we had,” Love said.

A season-changing change

For all the early confidence from Love and Tranquill and the mid-year possibility pondered by Swarbrick, everything about this team, about this season, changed sometime during Week Four. Maybe when Brian Kelly was driving to the Gug. Or watching film. Or meeting with his staff. Or having lunch.

His one decision turned this season from suspect to special.

Notre Dame was 3-0 and ranked No. 8, but something was off. The defense too often was stuck on the field for longer stretches than expected, because the offense had trouble sustaining dives. Three-and-outs were too much the norm. If there was another gear that this program had, it wasn’t shown against Michigan or Ball State or Vanderbilt.

Everything was kind of average.

Only when Kelly decided to make a change at quarterback — Brandon Wimbush was out, Ian Book was in — did Notre Dame look elite. It started Sept. 22 at Wake Forest. With the cool-customer Book in the hottest of seats, the Irish rolled up 56 points and 566 yards. Fresh from not being on the field too long, the defense turned loose their depth and determination.

Listening to Kelly post-Wake, everything made sense. The offense wasn’t playing to its capability. Other areas — defense, special teams — were getting taxed to the point where something was going to break. Something had to be done. Something was. Out went Wimbush, in came Book and there went Notre Dame into another college football stratosphere that included the Alabamas and Clemsons.

Coming home from North Carolina, there was a different sense about where this season might go. Double-digit wins? Absolutely. Undefeated? Why not?

Love acknowledged it. “That’s when we knew like, ‘Wow, when we’re firing on all cylinders, we’re the best in the country.’”

Never was there a real concern (some fans who found themselves in the fetal position for some close games would insist otherwise) that Notre Dame was in trouble of losing. Pittsburgh (19-14) was too close for comfort and Northwestern (31-21) offered resistance, as did USC (a 24-17 Irish win after they trailed 10-0), but you never got the sense that Notre Dame wasn’t going to make a play when a play needed to be made. There remained the belief that when it was time to get going, the Irish would get going.

Seasons past were seasons past. This one’s different.

Even last week in Los Angeles, there was some celebration after getting to 12-0, but overall, the atmosphere was subdued. Notre Dame has a perfect regular season. Notre Dame is going to the College Football Playoff. The Irish cherish those moments, but they’re stops along this team’s journey.

“It’s amazing that we’re undefeated, but nowadays, there’s more,” Love said. “There’s more to come. There’s a lot of work to do.”

The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks with Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick following a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech Saturdaynight in Blacksburg, Va., Oct. 6. Swarbrick admits that it was that win that made him believe the Irish could go undefeated.
Notre Dame players celebrate following a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech Oct. 6. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN