Noie: Goodness? Greatness? Little of both will be more than enough for No. 9 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — This is what happens when up pops an unbelievably over-matched opponent on the schedule and motivation might be difficult to muster.

You manufacture it.

College football season’s first four weeks were easy for No. 9 Notre Dame. Opener at Louisville on Labor Day night? Who couldn’t get going for that one? Same for the following week in the home debut against New Mexico. And there hasn’t been a college football game played yet that has matched anywhere near the energy and emotion that flowed across Athens two weeks ago against No. 3 Georgia.

Even last week was easy for Notre Dame, needing to bounce back from its first loss and home against a ranked Virginia team that came to town a confident bunch. Watch out for that one, many cautioned. Ultimate trap game. Sure. Trap this, the Irish seemed to say in a 35-20 victory that really wasn’t that close.

Now being focused gets tricky with Bowling Green next up Saturday. Notre Dame is more than a six-touchdown favorite. It’s not a matter of if the Irish will move to 4-1 and win consecutive home game No. 14 dating back to 2017. It’s a matter of how lopsided the score will end up. Can the Irish score 60 points? Seventy? How many push-ups will be pumped out in the student section?

And the yards…

If Kent State can roll up 750, how many can Notre Dame get?

No offense to Bowling Green and first-year head coach Scott Loeffler, but the roster is filled with kids who’ve yet to make it at least once around the college football block. The Falcons have no business being in this game. They’re not ready for what the Irish offer and likely are in for a long afternoon, and a long bus ride home. But hey, here’s a nice little game check for the effort.

To keep Notre Dame on point, Brian Kelly decided to go deep into the head coaching closet of motivation this week. How do you prepare your team when your team is favored by 46 points? How do you keep them mentally locked in with a certain rival coming to town in seven days? How do you make sure you maximize the effort and the execution and get everything you can out of everybody who might play Saturday?

Dust off that Gipper speech? Not quite. Save it for a better day. Preach about chasing perfection. Why bother? Perfection always seems within reach but can never be grabbed. There’s always a penalty here, a turnover there that keeps perfection out of reach.

No, Kelly went a different route. He talked during the week of greatness. Of his team chasing it. Of his team achieving it. Greatness. Against a middling team from the Mid-American Conference. Guess that will have to do.

During Kelly’s first chance to lay the groundwork for Bowling Green, he mentioned not a single Falcon. Not the quarterback or the running back or the middle linebacker. He barely mentioned a certain defensive coordinator that not long ago was on his staff. Kelly talked only of his team, of chasing greatness. Against this opponent.

Then on the practice field, his message was simple — be great.

“This is a week for our football team really look at themselves and say, ‘You know, do I want to be great, or is this as good as it gets?’” Kelly said. “How good do you want to be? How good do we want to be?”

Chasing greatness — in the classroom, in the weight room, on the practice field — doesn’t always deliver greatness. See Okwara, Julian.

The senior captain decided earlier this year to chase greatness. Back in the offseason, he threw out a ridiculously high sack number he wanted to register this season. The number — 18.5 — even was scribbled on his bathroom mirror. It’s one no other Irish defensive end — or any defensive player for that matter — has ever hit in a single season.

For the first three weeks, Okwara played with the burden of that sack number on his back. He pressed at times. He disappeared at others. He registered zero sacks. Only last week, when he decided to cut it all loose — the sack total, the expectation, that chase to be great — did he finally look the part.

Okwara had three sacks, a fumble recovery and relentless pressures against Virginia. He looked downright dominant. Why? How?

He stopped chasing individual greatness and just played. The end result? Greatness.

How does this team grab greatness? Is it something they can say? Do?

“It’s all mental,” Okwara said. “We’ve got to work the rest of the season to be that. We can’t just stop. It can’t be a roller coaster.”

Greatness often doesn’t arrive when you seek it. It does when you want to be good. That should be the Irish goal Saturday — be good. Do that, and maybe greatness arrives in ways we don’t see coming.

By day’s — or early evening’s — end, Notre Dame will be 4-1. The Irish home win streak will be 14. But how will Notre Dame get there? Best case scenario is to have the No. 1s on offense and defense take care of business early. Build a confidence with Ian Book. With Chris Finke. With a running back not named Tony Jones Jr. With an offensive line that still seems to frustrate more than dominate.

Then build depth. Get a longer look at Phil Jurkovec at quarterback. At Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins Jr. at wide receiver. At defensive end Jamir Jones. At Paul Moala at rover and Houston Griffith in the secondary. Doing that will help Notre Dame be great when great is needed, when great matters. Maybe next week against USC. Maybe later this month at Michigan. Maybe even next year.

Good will be way good enough Saturday. Great can wait.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly looks to the scoreboard during the Notre Dame-Virginia NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.