Noie: High-stakes pressure nothing new for Notre Dame

Staff reports
ND Insider

ARLINGTON, Texas

Everything they do down this way — from the sprawling freeway system, to the skyscrapers rising across the city skyline to the December thunderstorms that cause massive flight delays — they do it big.

Really big.

So when Thursday arrived and it was time for the usual dog-and-pony show that is media day in advance of Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal showdown between No. 2 Clemson (13-0) and No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) in the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic, no hotel ballroom anywhere around would do.

If you’re playing any football game that matters down here, you’re at AT&T Stadium. For the game. For practice. For media day. For everything.

Like, everything.

Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery knew this playoff stuff had hit another level when he entered the stadium earlier this week and saw a dedicated weight room reserved just for the players on both teams. Want to knock out a few reps on the bench before practice? Squats afterward? Curls. They’ve got a room for you.

“That’s when I knew that this thing’s different here,” said Tillery. “This is the best postseason experience out there.”

So it was no surprise that Thursday’s 45-minute media sessions for each of the teams — which included the head coaches, assistants, starters on offense and defense and just about anybody else anyone wanted to talk to — was held on the floor of the $1.3 billion stadium known as “Jerry World” after Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

By the way, a field-level Touchdown Suite that holds 20 can be yours for Saturday’s game for the low, low price on StubHub of $16,100. But that does include VIP parking.

For players on both sides, Thursday was another visit to the massive stadium that sits about 20 miles straight west of downtown Dallas. Both teams have spent the week leading into Saturday’s game practicing there. And looking around there. On Wednesday, Notre Dame piped in a whole lot of big crowd noise to simulate what it might feel like on gameday. On Thursday, it held its last workout — 90 minutes — of game week.

When Irish left tackle Liam Eichenberg first saw the massive stadium that looks from the outside like a UFO, he realized that, ‘Yeah, this is kind of a big deal.’

OK, really big.

“Looking, up and seeing where we are, it’s like, ‘Holy Crap, this is happening,’” said Eichenberg, seldom one to hold back on sharing his true feelings about anything. “At the end of the day, the field’s still 100 yards long. It’s the same game. This is a different, bigger stage. But it’s just another game.”

Not really. Not even close. It’s a game like no other that history-rich Notre Dame has played during the five-year history of the current College Football Playoff format. It’s the ultimate win-or-go-home contest. Win, and the Irish start preparation toward playing in their first national championship since 2012, and aim to win their first title since 1988. Lose, and it’s back to home to think about what might have been for the rest of winter break before the spring semester commences in mid-January.

Notre Dame basically has been in win-or-else mode since late summer and through fall. Now winter. High stakes? Yes. Big deal? Yes. But not necessarily for this Notre Dame team. In some ways, the Irish have been here and done that. And that. And that. Even though they’ve not done THAT since 1988.

“It’s obviously a big game, but we’ve been in the playoffs since we’ve played Michigan,” reasoned wide receiver Miles Boykin. “Not being in a conference, every one of our games is important to us. It’s important to remember where we are, but at the same time, treat this game like we’ve treated every game this season in terms of our preparation.”

For Notre Dame, that means work the process. Don’t worry about what might happen Saturday. Worry about becoming the best player you can be on the practice field Thursday, the last time the Irish cut it loose before downshifting into game-prep mode. Don’t worry about the numbers quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson offense might put up, the ways the Tiger defense can wreck the Irish game plan, or the one guy (Dexter Lawrence) who’s not expected to give Notre Dame offensive linemen nightmares after testing positive for a banned substance.

Lawrence is not expected to play, not something the Irish are concerned with. Worry about what they control. That’s all.

“Our process hasn’t changed,” said linebacker Te’von Coney. “If you focus on what you need to do to get better, everything else will take care of itself.

“Saturday comes, everything will take care of itself.”

One more day

Notre Dame is new to this playoff hoopla, but it was hard to tell Thursday that the Irish were the new kids on the big-boy playoff block.

“How we all doing?” wondered a relaxed Brian Kelly as the head coach settled in for a 45-minute Q and A that touched on a variety of topics — the impending/likely transfer of former starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, how married life agrees with linebacker Drue Tranquill and what a win Saturday would do to erase any lingering hangover of 2012 (sigh, yeah, again that storyline).

Two tables down from Kelly, starting quarterback Ian Book had run through his interviews so succinctly that for a few minutes, he sat alone with nothing to do but squint into the sunlight streaming in through one of the stadium’s windows. Like most opposing defenses this season, it didn’t particularly bother Book. Does anything?

While individual interview tables were set aside for most starters, the tight end troika of Alize Mack, Cole Kmet and Nic Weishar shared one spot. They made that table look really small. The current starting left guard (freshman Aaron Banks) sat with the former starting left guard (injured senior Alex Bars) and flipped full water bottles to kill time between quotes.

Roommates and fellow finance majors Wimbush and wide receiver Chris Finke also shared a table.

Wimbush was a popular interview; Finke, a little less.

Elevated to podium status near Kelly — having a first team All-American season will do that — cornerback Julian Love often stared in awe at the staggering size of the overhead videoboard, which just might be too big. Love just couldn’t stop looking at the screen. Every few seconds, he stole a glance, like, that’s really big. As big as some of the houses back in Westchester, Ill.

At the far end of one end zone, Tranquill sat with a stocking cap over his head sipping some sort of recovery drink out of an oversized water bottle. Just another day for the married guy, the heartbeat guy. At the other end of the end zone when the day ended, the Irish offensive linemen huddled around their heartbeat guy, center Sam Mustipher.

Toward the end of Notre Dame’s media session, several Irish defensive players busted out a game of Knockout, which has become a season staple. Coney often reigns as king.

The Irish may be rookies to this entire playoff semifinal stuff, but they’ve carried themselves like veterans. When it’s been time to be loose, they’ve been loose. When it’s been time to get serious, they’ve been serious. And when it’s been time to get after it in practice, they’ve gotten after it.

When the Irish media session ended — complete with the blare of a train horn that told everyone that it’s time to get out — the Irish practically sprinted to the locker room to change into their practice gear. Still seated were punter Tyler Newsome and kicker Justin Yoon.

Those special teams guys, they’re different.

As will be Saturday, something Notre Dame looks at with anticipation. There’s something about the tone of this team that’s ready to lock in, lock down and keep this moving in the winning direction. You can sense it.

“Everyone’s locked in,” said Book. “It’s time to go. We’re so close.”

Notre Dame players found their way onto the giant videoboard Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Notre Dame’s Jonathan Jones interviews Alohi Gilman during the Cotton Bowl media day Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.