FOOTBALL

Noie: No. 16 Notre Dame doesn't want to let this end - it's too much fun

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Picture-postcard sunset spotted nine floors above the Notre Dame Stadium football field aside, everything about Saturday underscored that the end of another long college football season is near.

The days are getting shorter; the nights are getting longer. It’s cold out there. Bundle up in a jacket cold after everything started in shorts and T-shirts. Everything for players hurts. Their bodies. Their minds. Their collective being.

Look close enough and you can see the finish line. It’s closing. Quickly.

But the way No. 16 Notre Dame is operating, nobody wants this to end anytime soon, certainly not after Saturday’s 52-20 throttling of No. 21 Navy. There have been rough patches and hard lessons learned along the way with the near-miss at Georgia and the no-show at Michigan. Then the ensuing noise and the questions and the doubts about the present and the future of everything and everybody.

Just when it seemed all was lost, the Irish found something.

They found themselves. Their purpose. Their collective commitment to one another. Coming off the thorough victory at Duke, Notre Dame (8-2) wanted to do more Saturday at home. Do it on offense. Do it on defense. Just do it together.

They did it. All of it. Football this time of year requires a focus, and when that falls into the right place at the right time, it sure can be fun.

It was fun.

“Today was a complete day for everybody,” said Irish defensive end Khalid Kareem. “It was solid.”

At a time when many didn’t expect it, Notre Dame delivered its most complete effort. It was scary the way the Irish played on offense. Dominated for stretches on defense. The way they balled. It wasn’t supposed to be this easy, not against these guys, not this year. The offense? Struggle with some three-and-outs and the Midshipmen would take the ball and maybe not ever give it back. They never had a chance.

Somebody forget to tell Ian Book about that before the opening drive. Touchdown. Or the second drive. Touchdown. Or the third. Touchdown. Or the fourth. Touchdown. You get how this picture goes.

Somebody forget to tell the defense. As quickly as the Irish piled up points — five touchdowns and a field goal in a half — the defense did what they do. They got to the quarterback. They got to the fullback. They got the ball on the ground. They played angry. They played disciplined. They bullied the Midshipmen into a vise from the start, and just kept squeezing.

Seldom lost for words, Kareem actually was when asked about the goal coming into this contest.

“What’s the term?” Kareem wondered aloud before finding the right words. “Get them out of rhythm. We had a lot of stuff for them.”

Too much stuff for the Midshipmen to handle. Notre Dame gave them nothing to feel good about. Nothing.

A show of hands for how many saw this one coming Saturday? Seriously? Nobody could have. There was so much uncertainty (apathy?) surrounding this one, that even the school’s consecutive sellout streak ended. Weather was too cold. Tickets too expensive. Opponent maybe even too good to go sit outside and watch it all unfold. No, thanks.

Those who stayed away missed a show. A dominant one. Notre Dame jumped Navy from the jump. Book was so good in completing 14-of-20 for 284 yards and five scores (and even going deep) that his work day ended not even halfway through the third quarter.

Finally, a Phil Jurkovec sighting!

Afterward, coach Brian Kelly said its days like Saturday that make it all worthwhile. An exciting day. A day that the Irish enjoyed playing the game. A day when everything they did on the practice field translated to the playing field.

“A fun day,” Kelly said. “A fun day for everyone associated with Notre Dame. It was our day today.”

Even the parking attendants were in a good mood before this one. That had to be a sign.

Quietly, this is becoming Notre Dame’s month. Own November. Might not be its year — again — but that’s the way it goes. Each passing week since Michigan has seen a collapsed confidence build back up. As good as they were the previous week, they’ve been better the next. Then the next. They’ve been one. They’ve won.

Offense loves defense; defense loves offense. Special teams also is a part of it. It’s not three separate units operating on three agendas. It’s a group operating as one. They’re sharing the success, and the love.

“You can’t really put it into words,” said wide receiver Chase Claypool, awarded the game ball after a monster effort of seven catches for 117 yards and four touchdowns. “It kind of shows how much of a family we are.”

A family that has figured it out. Notre Dame’s rolling right now. The finish line’s in view, but nobody on the Irish sideline wants any of it to end. It will, at least at home, next week against Boston College before this season finale in Northern California against Stanford. After that, who knows? Maybe a New Year’s Six bowl game. Maybe one of those other bowl games. Who wants to play this team right now?

It’s already the back half of November. Two full weeks of practice, two more games, and that’s it for 2019. Don’t tell these guys. They’ve having too much fun doing what they’re doing.

Why now? Why are they playing so fast? Why are they playing so free? Why are they playing so together after losing four key guys, including two captains, to season-ending injuries?

Why?

“They’ve found out how to be present,” Kelly said. “They found out how to avoid listening to all the expectations and the noise and just play football.

“They’re going to be tough to beat down the stretch.”

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Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. (6) dives for end zone during the Notre Dame-Navy NCAA Football game Saturday, Nov. 16, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool (83) catches a touchdown pass against Navy Saturday, one of his four on the day, in Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Braden Lenzy (25) catches a deep pass for a touchdown against Navy Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.