Noie: Confidence of No. 16 Notre Dame has a familiar feel

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Lingering like the winter blast that barreled through town this week with snow and wind chill and overall ugliness, one question may finally be nearing an answer.

Coach Brian Kelly asked it of his Notre Dame football team following its darkest hour — last month’s 45-14 loss at Michigan. He wondered aloud to his captains, to his players, to his team, exactly what the season’s final five weeks would hold for a program that allowed so much to slip away.

What’s your why?

Yes, Notre Dame saw any hope of returning to the College Football playoff a second straight season evaporate. Yes, the Irish are counting on a miracle to earn a New Year’s Six bowl invitation. Yes, a whole lot was lost on that rainy, windy, miserable night. Two days later, Kelly spun it forward as the final full month of the regular season neared.

“There’s so much more at stake here,” Kelly said. “I want to win football games.”

Win enough of them and Notre Dame crosses the regular-season finish line with double-digit victories a third consecutive year, something that hasn’t happened in South Bend since 1991-93. That would be a nice consolation prize for a season still simmering in a what-might-have-been stew. Now though, a big step toward answering that lingering query comes Saturday, when No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) can exhibit all those traits against No. 21 Navy (7-1) that it didn’t bother to bring to Michigan.

The Irish get a second chance to make the impression it should have made last month. It has a chance to beat a really good ranked team (sorry, Virginia).

Leading into the Michigan matchup, Kelly talked and walked confidently. He felt good about his team and their chances and the game plan heading north. His guys were experienced. His guys had an edge to them. His guys weren’t going to get rattled. There was a toughness, a togetherness.

His guys were good.

Then they weren’t.

Now three weeks removed, nobody really has the answer as to why and how it all went wrong last month. It just ... happened. Best to move forward and focus on what the Irish can control. Like a home bounce-back game against Virginia Tech (whew!), a road test against Duke (yawn!) and the annual game against Navy, a combination of an IRS audit (no, thanks) and invasive surgery (nothing minor about that).

As was the case prior to the Michigan game, Kelly likes where his team’s at. Likes the accountability. Likes the leadership. Likes its direction.

“There’s a high level of mental toughness,” he said.

Uh, oh. We’ve seen this picture before, and it didn’t end well.

The Irish may need everything they have, and then some more. This isn’t going to be an easy game. It never is against Navy. It’s a test, both mentally and physically, often with a short window to prepare. Like the Midshipmen, it just comes at you. Ready or not, let’s go.

Listening to several Irish talk this week, they actually relished the chance to solve the Rubik’s Cube that is Navy and its option offense. Of having the chance to figure out where quarterback Malcom Perry will go with the ball next. Of taking their chances against a vastly-improved defense. Of stretching its home win streak (that 273-game run of sellouts being snapped aside) to 17 consecutive games.

“It’s going to be good,” said defensive end Ade Ogundeji.

“It’s going to be fun,” added linebacker Drew White.

“They have the best traits out of everybody we play,” said left tackle Liam Eichenberg.

Notre Dame’s will need to be better. Its traits. Its talent. Its team. To show up in a game where it needs to show out. Playing Navy seldom hinges on pure talent. If it did, Notre Dame would win every time. These games so often swing on execution and on discipline, on experience and on want-to, something the Midshipmen own in excess. First quarter, fourth quarter, none of it matters. They’re going to keep moving the ball and the chains. Keep chewing up a few more minutes off the game clock. Time often seems to stand still for Irish home games. Four quarters often take four hours. That won’t be the case Saturday. This will be a lightning-round like game. The clock’s going to move. So is Navy.

That’s when panic across the opposing sideline seems to set in. Gotta go out and make a play. Gotta get the ball back and play offense. Traits get tossed aside. That’s when Navy has you. Playing Navy in football is like facing defending national champion Virginia in college basketball. It’s not fun.

Notre Dame should be too good, too experienced, too focused to fall for it all. That’s the same stuff said before Michigan. We know what happened then. Might it happen again? With this team, you still don’t know. When it comes to a repeat defeat, the trust meter’s stuck somewhere between not so sure and not a chance.

The Irish have taken positive steps to wipe clean what happened — or in their case, what didn’t happen — against Michigan. Survive Virginia Tech. Dominate Duke. A win Saturday against Navy and the Saturday after that against Boston College and the Saturday after that against Stanford still won’t wipe out wondering what might have been for this team and this season.

Still, here’s a big chance to make the statement Notre Dame didn’t make last month. The stands won’t be full; the expectations won’t be great. The spotlight has shifted elsewhere. For many, it’s just another game, one that some don’t want to watch in person.

Navy announced its Northern Indiana arrival late Thursday when the game’s F-18 Hornet flyover jets buzzed through the Granger/Mishawaka area. They were loud. They left an impression.

Notre Dame has to make sure the Midshipmen don’t play the same Saturday. There will be cold. There will be empty seats. Still, it’s a perfect time for the Irish to answer that lingering question with a statement.

THIS is our why.

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Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and his Irish have some climbing to do in the CFP rankings to work their way back into the New Year’s Six bowl mix.
Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal (22) high fives Alohi Gilman (11) during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, NC.