Noie: Even if No. 16 Notre Dame wins out, does it really matter?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nice try, but no.

Looking to distance his team from last week’s meltdown at Michigan, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly pulled the focus on the future. Don’t stare so long in the rearview mirror. Look forward to the opportunities for his No. 16 Irish starting Saturday at home (with the 271-game sellout streak in jeopardy but likely somehow preserved) against Virginia Tech (5-2). Then next week at Duke. Then Navy and Boston College and at Stanford.

Look out there, not back there, Kelly counseled as Notre Dame (5-2) prepares to pick up all the pieces of a season left scattered across the waterlogged Michigan Stadium turf.

Five Saturdays remain, five Saturdays to do something that everyone can remember. Really.

“They win the month of November, the noise will change,” Kelly said earlier this week. “All will be happy.”

Hard sell, but not buying it. There may be a few atta-boys if the Irish peel off five straight, but that’s it. Finishing another season with double-digit wins would be something to celebrate, sure. It would mark the third consecutive season that Notre Dame won at least 10 games. That’s never happened under Kelly; that last happened (1991-93) under Lou Holtz (no, he’s not coming back to coach).

After the bounce-backs and all-ins and feel-goods of 2017 and 2018, 2019 held the promise of so much more. Coming clear of last season’s College Football Playoff appearance and this season’s near-miss against Georgia, doing more was within reach. Just max it all out for 12 weeks with no ease up.

Notre Dame then eased up. Going north, it was ranked inside the Top 10. It was coming off a bye week. It had no classwork to concern itself with. It felt good about itself, its game, its place. It had everything to play for last week. Instead of playing that way, the Irish went the other direction.

Maybe they didn’t practice as hard as they should have. Maybe they put it on cruise control over fall break. Maybe the game plan was all wrong. Maybe Kelly didn’t motivate the way a head coach should. Whatever the reason, as Kelly said afterward, Notre Dame got what it deserved. Beaten up on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Boat-raced. Embarrassed.

That one’s on everyone.

It was more than just a loss; it was the way the Irish lost. It bounced Notre Dame from its high-level floor spot in college football. Notre Dame hadn’t ascended to penthouse status afforded Alabama and Clemson and Ohio State, but its spot still was sweet. Nice view. Comfortable surroundings. It could dream the dream of competing with the game’s elite. Win out and at the least, a New Year’s Six bowl game was there.

That’s all gone, along with all that grit and those traits and supposed maturity that this team owned. Notre Dame’s been demoted, knocked down close to the ground floor to a windowless room. Street traffic now cuts through what was that quiet setting. Someone stole all of its hotel points.

All the equity Notre Dame accumulated since the last time something like this surfaced — Nov. 11, 2017 at Miami (Fla.) — has been erased. Just when it looked like Notre Dame had turned the corner from that one, it tripped off the curb and crumpled. A GIF to play across social media. The train running off the tracks; the kid with the backpack falling to the floor. Pick one. It fits this team.

Answers as to why what happened did in deed happen really never surfaced. Kelly couldn’t answer for it in the hours and days afterward. He even pleaded during his weekly news conference for more questions about Virginia Tech and no more about Michigan. The four players who met the media the next day offered even less.

They didn’t want to be asked about the Michigan loss (they were). They didn’t want to dissect the Michigan loss (they didn’t).

“We’re not concerned with the outside noise,” said junior tight end Cole Kmet.

“The only narrative I’m worried about is our team,” said senior safety Alohi Gilman.

“I don’t think you can use it as motivation,” said junior right tackle Robert Hainsey.

“Just get better, move on,” said senior defensive end Julian Okwara. “We’re on to Virginia Tech.”

If only Okwara could get to the quarterback as seamlessly as he sidesteps questions. But that’s another column for another time.

No matter what happens the rest of this season, it, and this team, will be defined by the Michigan disappearing act. When it had everything to play for, it played — collectively — like it really didn’t want it all that badly. Five wins to wrap this regular season isn’t going to help that.

However it ends, 2019 will be remembered for what might have been. Would Notre Dame have found a way to back into the playoff? Probably not, but sailing to 11-1 would have been a whole lot nicer than scrambling to 10-2.

Prior to last Saturday, it had been just shy of two calendar years since everything fell so completely apart for Notre Dame in South Florida. That was 22 games ago. Now they’re back at that beginning, facing another climb. That clock starts over. So fast forward 22 games after Michigan. Circle the Oct. 2, 2021 home game against Cincinnati or maybe the previous week, Sept. 25, 2021 against Wisconsin at Soldier Field.

Somewhere in there, in a game no one sees coming, what’s to say Notre Dame doesn’t do this again? Just like in 2017. Just like last Saturday. It’s seemingly remained part of this program’s DNA. Total collapse of competitiveness, of coaching, of confidence. For whatever reason, at whatever unforeseen time, the Irish go MIA. No one can say for sure why.

The biggest question this week — other than that quarterback issue — was, where does Notre Dame go from here? It’s only stated goal — win a national championship — again goes unfulfilled. Now what? Go win the final five games. Go 10-2. It would be nice. It would be respectable. It would be solid. It would be good.

Yet 10-2 good and whatever bowl invitation that might follow isn’t good enough for this program. It just isn’t.

Again.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly calls to the referees during the ND's 30-27 win over USC, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.