Noie: Opportunity again knocks, but can No. 7 Notre Dame finally answer?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ATHENS, Ga. — Offering an answer inside a climate-controlled auditorium wasn’t supposed to be that aggravating.

It was five days prior to the latest end-of-the-college-football-world-as-we-know-it seismic showdown (oh, the humanity!) between No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) and No. 3 Georgia (3-0), set for a Saturday night kickoff (8 p.m., CBS) in front of an expected record crowd at Sanford Stadium. Irish coach Brian Kelly was at the podium back in South Bend, dressed in a power suit and tie, running through what his team needs to do what many believe can’t be done — win in an electrically-charged cauldron that is a Southeastern Conference stadium.

Maybe Kelly was talking about his run defense, or about Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. Or the weather. Whatever the topic, and it didn’t matter, whatever the answer, and it didn’t matter, Kelly attempted to complete his thoughts all while being buzzed by a fly.

Kelly swatted at it once. Twice. A third time. Raised his hand. Then again. Rubbed his hair in case it had landed there. Looked distracted. Spoke in static sentences.

Kelly eventually gave up trying to look like he wasn’t affected.

“I’m going to get this,” he said of the fly, which produced a few laughs.

Kelly smirked more than smiled. Big game week and he’s got to deal with that? Then? There?

Kelly acknowledged the fly, but said nothing of the proverbial elephant in the room. The one that sat unseen in the corner Monday afternoon. It was there again Tuesday when a select few (four) Irish players met the media. It likely lurked about the LaBar Practice Complex during the week as the Irish prepared for the chaos of Sanford Stadium with music — Guns N’ Roses was part of the Tuesday playlist — cranked way up. It climbed aboard one of the three charter planes scheduled to carry the Notre Dame traveling party into eastern Georgia on Friday afternoon.

You know the elephant. You know the narrative. It first surfaced during the national championship beatdown by Alabama in 2013. It was recycled again last December when Notre Dame proved unfit to stay with Clemson. It’s always there waiting to be spoken, waiting to be written. Waiting to be shouted. It’s here this weekend.

Notre Dame can’t win a big-time game against a big-time opponent.

They said it again this week and said it often. Guys like Paul (SEC apologist) Finebaum, who believes Georgia not only beats “barely relevant” Notre Dame but “punches their lights out.” They talked of how this game doesn’t deserve a prime-time slot. Of how the Irish don’t belong on the same field, let alone the same area code, as UGA. That’s why Notre Dame’s a two-touchdown underdog. A Top 10 team not expected to stay within 10 points.

No respect. But respect is earned. Haven’t the Irish earned it?

Everybody forgets that Notre Dame is 23-3 since the teams met two seasons ago in South Bend. Everybody forgets that Notre Dame has since put together consecutive 10-win seasons for the first time since Lou Holtz. Everybody forgets that Notre Dame went undefeated last season.

The overwhelmed narrative fits, so run with it. Everybody. Except inside the Guglielmino Center this week. Did the Irish hear the same statements? Did they listen to the talking heads proclaim they have no chance Saturday?

If they did, they didn’t admit it. Wide receiver Chris Finke claims he doesn’t read newspapers (what college kid does?). He doesn’t watch SportsCenter (what college kid doesn’t?). He didn’t listen to anything that had Notre Dame and Georgia in the same sound bite.

Finke insisted he wasn’t alone. The Irish hear nothing and said even less.

“It’s the attitude of this team,” Finke said. “Just go out there and make plays.”

“I don’t think anyone’s too worried about what anyone’s saying outside this building,” said fellow captain Ian Book. “We believe in ourselves.”

Belief can carry this team only so far. It’s going to be about execution. It’s going to be about limiting mistakes, eliminating turnovers and causing a few. It’s going to be about how the Irish prepared on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday. It’s not about the atmosphere or playing at night, or those hedges, or that bulldog with his air-conditioned doghouse on the sideline.

It’s about blocking and tackling. Do all that, then the Irish will believe. That they can win. That they belong. That they are elite.

For Notre Dame to play well enough to win Saturday, there’s no secret on whose shoulders everything falls. It’s not Kelly’s. It’s not offensive coordinator Chip Long’s. It’s not defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s. It’s not the Irish defense, though stopping the run better and having Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem play somewhere close to their preseason hype would help.

Nope, this one’s on the quarterback. For the Irish to do anything, really everything, Book has to be special. Make all the throws. Make all the plays. Make zero mistakes. Get the Irish offense going at one end of the field and into the end zone on the other.

Asked earlier this week about the elite teams and what separates them from everyone else, Kelly unintentionally — or maybe intentionally — threw some shade his quarterback’s way. It was a not-so-subtle message to his guy. The one who played OK at Louisville before he tossed a career-high five touchdowns last week against New Mexico.

The difference between elite teams and other teams? Easy, Kelly said. The quarterback. Clemson has Trevor Lawrence. Georgia has Fromm.

“The great quarterbacks are the reason why they start to separate,” Kelly said.

Time for Book to separate. To be great.

Last time these teams met was Book’s first college game. He ran a draw for two yards. He was raw. He was unsure. He was jittery. Can’t be any of the three Saturday. Gotta be confident. Gotta be good. Gotta be the guy.

Gotta swat that fly. Even make the elephant disappear. For good.

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Notre Dame will need Ian Book to be at his best — and maybe beyond — to have a chance at a win Saturday at No. 3 Georgia.