Noie: Notre Dame's past, present and future collide in another home win

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — This one escalated quickly.

Doing what they do — playing for one another, protecting their home field, operating with a mindset to dominate, all while stepping back to the program’s glorious past — Notre Dame made this one look a whole lot easy Saturday against Boston College.

Did the Irish even break a sweat? On a crisp afternoon, it was tough to tell.

Notre Dame wore throwback uniforms from 1988 for this one. The mesh navy blue jerseys. The funky numerals. The low white socks against black shoes. It felt a little like 1988, except without the long-since gone stadium seating capacity of 59,075. Heck, you half expected the current Irish head coach to fire up a pipe afterward like the former Irish head coach would, or wear a baseball hat and a windbreaker to his post-game presser instead of that sharp suit.

The Irish did something Saturday that no Irish team has done since those ’88 and 1989 years — cap consecutive undefeated seasons at home following a 40-7 victory over Boston College. That’s some serious select company.

Yeah, there hasn’t been a national championship for this program since 1988 — 11,283 days and counting after Saturday — and there won’t be one again this year, maybe not next year. Got it. But let’s ease off that if only for a minute and realize that when any Notre Dame team has a chance to share something with that ’88 team, it means something.

This means something, something that might only be measured whenever the Irish finally scale that national championship mountaintop. Whatever year that happens, if it happens, that year will be celebrated. But these teams — last year, this year, maybe next year — also will need to be remembered. They’ll have had a hand in it.

Drama always seems to ride shotgun with this program in some way, shape or football form — As the Irish Turn — but it sure didn’t Saturday. The angst level never spiked. This one wasn’t that close. This one kind of meandered along. Some drives, some punts, some missed opportunities. It was hard to get into and, for those watching at home, maybe even harder to stay awake. Take an afternoon nap, go rake leaves, squeeze in a run. Whatever the case, you could have circled back to this and likely not missed much.

There wasn’t the lightning-strike of scores of the previous week against Navy. Not a lot of big plays, not a lot of big moments. Just Notre Dame grinding out yards and first downs and points. Sometimes on field goals; sometimes on touchdowns. Notre Dame also closed down the Boston College run game, negated any idea of a play and just got rolling.

That’s the way that 1988 team played. Tough. Together.

There was no Tony Rice at quarterback, no Chris Zorich anchoring the defensive line, certainly no running back that resembled anything close to hometown hero Anthony Johnson. No Stonebreaker or Stams or Pritchett. Instead, a big diet of Asmar Bilal (with a team-high eight tackles and the game ball), Drew White (seven) and safety Alohi Gilman (seven, but it felt like triple for someone all over the place).

Different time. Different team. Same results. Play a game at Notre Dame Stadium; win a game at Notre Dame Stadium. Everyone goes home happy. Cold and a couple hundred dollars lighter after a trip to the bookstore, but happy.

We forget that this is an Irish program that’s won 30 games since seemingly bottoming out at 4-8 in 2016. Think about that. A show of hands for those who’d take that run coming clear of 2016? How about, well, everybody? Seriously. Something had to change after 2016. A whole lot did. The head coach and his philosophy. The care and commitment level of the players.

Three years later, Notre Dame (9-2) knocks on the door of a 10th win for a third straight season. For the first time in 26 years.

“Those are things that have not been done for decades,” said coach Brian Kelly. “Pretty special class.”

On a special day. Not necessarily for the play on the field. It wasn’t pretty. There were penalties and three-and-outs and missed opportunity. This was more workmanlike. Even afterward, talk centered more on finishing this journey out in Northern California. There’s something about this Irish team as it prepares to head for the West Coast and Saturday’s regular season finale against Stanford. There’s an air that wasn’t there earlier in the season, even as late as last month.

Being all business in road games — and subsequent losses — against ranked teams Georgia and Michigan didn’t work. This group had to get back to having fun, playing ball like they did when they were kids. Back home in the backyards, until long after sunset. When they didn’t wonder or worry. They just played.

That’s happened. Three weeks ago against Virginia Tech, though not until that late drive. Two weeks ago at Duke. The previous week against Navy. Now against Boston College. Check, check, check, check. Style points don’t much matter. The final score, and the chance to do it again does.

“We’re feeling dangerous,” said quarterback Ian Book. “This team’s really confident. We’re rolling right now.”

Long after this one ended and the fans scattered for someplace warm, the Irish seniors and families lingered on the FieldTurf of the stadium one final time. There were scholarship players. There were walk-ons. They posed for pictures. They laughed. Some likely cried. Eventually, the stadium lights shut off, leaving the pockets of players and their families scattered over the 100 yards basically in the dark.

The line of yellow-hatted ushers stretched one sideline to the other started walking from the south end zone. They walked to the 15-yard line. Then the 20, then 30. Moving at a deliberate pace, they squeezed the family and friends and players north. Up into the tunnel and out into the night. Didn’t much matter. Everyone knew where to go, knew what to do.

They just knew.

Just like these Irish.

Don't miss any of our Notre Dame football coverage. Sign up for our ND football newsletter for twice-weekly updates on the Irish sent straight to your email inbox.

Notre Dame’s Chris Finke (10) and Braden Lenzy (25) celebrate after Finke’s touchdown against Boston College Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium.