Noie: College Football Playoff semifinal finally here, and so is Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas — Anywhere the Notre Dame football caravan ventured across this urban sprawl this week, a police escort was present.

From the motorcycles with their lights flashing and racing ahead to clear traffic to the collection of five buses painted navy blue and gold with the Notre Dame name across the side, it was easy to see this team coming.

This after a season where nobody saw them coming. Not this team. Not to reach this point. Yet here they are.

Third-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) faces No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in a College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic in AT&T Stadium (4 p.m. EST, ESPN). It precedes the Orange Bowl semifinal between No. 1 Alabama (13-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1). Winners meet Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Three of the Final Four were no surprise. Alabama’s Alabama. Clemson’s Clemson, Oklahoma has a video-game offense orchestrated by the Heisman Trophy winner. Notre Dame? Two seasons removed from a 4-8 dumpster fire of a season? When it comes to those guys from up north, the attitude seems to still be, what are THEY doing here? Who let THEM in?

Doesn’t matter. They’re here. They’re in. Might as well make themselves comfortable, like the way they’ve done in going 22-3 since 2016. When Notre Dame hit win No. 10 this season, it marked the first time in a quarter-century that the school had won at least 10 games in consecutive seasons. No luck of the Irish there.

A win Saturday gives Notre Dame 13 in a season for the first time in school history.

Notre Dame hasn’t played a game of this magnitude since 2012, when it was in way over its national championship skis to Alabama. The Irish are tired of hearing how Saturday can be redemption. It’s not about then. It’s about now.

It’s about the focus of captain Drue Tranquill. It’s about the fury of fellow linebacker Te’von Coney. It’s about the flames that flicker within center Sam Mustipher. The precision passing of quarterback Ian Book. The free-wheeling charisma of running back Dexter Williams. It’s about the schemes dialed up by first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea and the prolific playbook of second-year offensive coordinator Chip Long.

For an entire calendar year, it’s also been about focus. Work the process day by day, week by week, month by month. Game by game. In the classroom. The weight room. The locker room. The practice field. On football stadium surfaces from California to Carolina.

Didn’t matter if they’re on the 50-yard line of Oliver Field at Culver Academy during August preseason camp, or in the AT&T Stadium end zone on Thursday. These Irish have approached every day the same way. Collectively confident and committed.

Don’t expect that to suddenly shift Saturday.

Notre Dame has treated this week in the Metroplex differently than they have any previous bowl game, be it last year in Orlando, three years ago in Arizona or four years ago in Tennessee. Win or lose, once those games ended, so did the season. Those bowl games allowed coaches and players to experiment. Tinker with the talent. Have fun.

Here, it’s been all business. Don’t expect any new faces, or old ones in new places.

“This,” said wide receiver Miles Boykin, “is different.”

Different also extended to the team curfew. Had this been just another bowl game, the Irish would have followed a 2 a.m. curfew with exceptions made. This week, it’s been 11:30 p.m., and no exceptions. None needed since Notre Dame stayed close to its resort hotel up in Grapevine.

Bowls past saw players scatter during down time, spend that with family and friends. This week, they’ve pretty much gone from their rooms to the meeting rooms and back. Family and friends can wait.

“This is a big deal,” said quarterback Ian Book. “Every team wants to win the national championship and you’re two games away from that. We know how close we are.”

One night after another busy day, left tackle Liam Eichenberg was headed for the elevator and to his room for some sleep. Passing a conference room that doubled as the O-line meeting room, Eichenberg spotted Mustipher watching film. He pulled up a chair and studied too.

“We need to go out there and play to our standard,” Eichenberg said. “This is what we’ve worked for.”

The final bit of public business for both head coaches was Friday morning’s joint press conference.

There were more clicks from camera shutters than quality quotes. Both coaches already had their game faces going.

It’s been a hectic week, but it’s been a semi-normal semifinal week. Thanks to the way the calendar/schedule fell, it feels like just another regular-season work week for both teams. The Irish schedule stayed relatively the same, almost as if Saturday’s opponent was just the next one on the Saturday schedule that hangs back in Isban Auditorium.

As Kelly sat for the joint presser, the Cotton Bowl trophy was to his left. Maybe he hoists it and hauls it home. Maybe he meanders up the steps of the team charter Sunday empty-handed.

It’s time to find out.

The Fighting Irish mascot, made out of tires, was on the AT&T Stadium turf during the Cotton Bowl media day Thursday in Arlington, Texas.
It’s been a magical season of post-game celebrations for Notre Dame’s football team since the September 1 victory over Michigan in South Bend.