Noie: Time for No. 8 Notre Dame to get its road show rolling

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was a good time to get out of town.

Fall break and the weather that often accompanies it both blanketed the Notre Dame campus this week. Parking lots typically packed with cars sat with seas of open spaces. The Guglielmino Center — the nerve center of Notre Dame football — was locked up tight and tidy on what would have otherwise been an active mid-week afternoon. The bike racks out front, often overflowing with inventory, were all but bare. It was quiet. It was cold with a wind chill in the low-40s.

Eventually, the No. 8 Irish would follow their classmates off campus — pack a bag, gather the guys and just go. Head out on a road trip.

After four relatively stress-free weeks at home — three games inside Notre Dame Stadium and last week’s idle Saturday — the Irish (5-1) jump back into the road pressure-cooker to start the back half of their schedule. Next up, Saturday at No. 20 Michigan (5-2), at night (kickoff 7:30-ish p.m.), on national television (ABC) and in front of a large and lathered up house (capacity 107,601).

Playing at home and the perks that come with it is nice, but the elite teams embrace the road. Gotta do it. Several Irish admitted earlier this week that they’re overdue to tackle another road challenge.

Notre Dame’s already been here — not HERE in Washtenaw County, but in this type of football environment. That trip to Georgia, six weeks in the rearview mirror, feels more like six months.

Still, no Irish will forget that Saturday night at Sanford Stadium. It’s an experience that has to pay off on this road Saturday. Big crowd? Seen it. Execute under the bright lights? Done it. High stakes? Embraced ‘em. Michigan Stadium won’t offer Notre Dame anything it hasn’t seen. Thank the southern hospitality of Athens for that.

“Georgia’s atmosphere was crazy,” said senior defensive end Ade Ogundeji.

“I imagine it’s going to be similar,” said Irish quarterback Ian Book, sporting signs earlier this week of a return to his 1970s-style, training-camp-only mustache.

Similar, maybe, but difficult to imagine Michigan’s crowd — though larger — comes anywhere close to the three-hour sanity shaker as Georgia’s. It didn’t happen for the Irish in Athens. It has to happen for them in Ann Arbor. Play a schedule like the one Notre Dame does, and every game’s a big game. A statement game. But this is this team’s chance to make a big one. On the road. At night.

This is Notre Dame’s fourth night game already this season. No reason not to play with the poise and passion and purpose of a Top 10 team. No reason not to shut out the distractions and focus. And no reason for the Irish to do what they couldn’t do last month in Georgia — finish.

Why? Notre Dame’s the better team. The more complete team. The better-coached team. Today. Not yesterday. Not tomorrow. Now.

Remember all those rumblings about Brian Kelly and his fit at Notre Dame earlier in his tenure? Even as recently as three years ago when the Irish limped to a 4-8 finish, many wondered if he was the right guy for this job. Some still do. Now that soul search centers on Jim Harbaugh. When’s the guy going to win a big game? When’s he going to beat a ranked team? When’s he going to repay all the faith — and the bags of cash — Michigan has moved his way? Is he just too, for lack of a better term, weird to win?

That this game is being played at this time of year is odd. When you think of Notre Dame and Michigan, you often think of the first week of the season. A powerhouse opener. Sometimes, the second week. Or the third. With so much history between the teams, it’s bizarre that this one falls where it does during fall. Doesn’t seem right. Seems like it strips what Michigan and Notre Dame used to be — especially in Ann Arbor.

Remember Raghib Ismail rocketing down the sideline with his second touchdown return (why’d you kick to him again, Bo?) in 1989. Or Desmond Howard laying out to snag an Elvis Grbac fourth-down pass in the back of the end zone in 1991. The Irish carrying an embattled Lou Holtz (Under the Tarnished Dome) off the field in 1993. All great games. Great moments. All early-season games. Saturday’s game — where rain throughout seems absolute — feels lost in the shuffle, just another game administrators wedged into their teams’ schedules.

Saturday marks the first time since 1943 that the teams have played something other than a September game.

Despite declarations that this is another rivalry game for Notre Dame coming on the heels of its victory last time out against rival USC, no Irish have a reference point when it comes to playing Michigan in Michigan Stadium. Michigan natives Khalid Kareem and Ogundeji have been to the corner of Main Street and Stadium Boulevard, both as fans during their days in middle school, then later for Kareem as a coveted college recruit.

They know what awaits.

“It’s a lot of people; it’s kind of wild,” said Kareem, a Detroit native. “I feel it’s a little personal for me. It will be good to go in there and try and get a ‘Dub.’”

That’s a win.

Book has listened to quarterback coach Tom Rees tell his tale of playing at Michigan Stadium. He did back in 2013. It was at night. It was loud. Rees threw 51 passes. He completed 29 for 314 yards and two touchdowns. He also tossed two interceptions in a 41-30 loss. That’s not all he recalled.

Rees remembers the post-game meal the Irish received before boarding their buses for the three-hour ride back to campus. It was KFC. It was cold KFC. It left Rees a bit bitter still six years later.

No matter the meal, no matter the hour, no matter the method, nothing would be better for the Irish than win No. 6 early Sunday morning. That would make this overdue road trip something else.

A success.

Notre Dame arrives for the Notre Dame-Georgia NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, inside Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.