Noie: One more win for one another for No. 14 Notre Dame
ORLANDO, Fla. — Handed blue baseball hats when everything ended on a steamy Saturday afternoon in central Florida, members of the Notre Dame football team took that time to make a few fashion statements.
Some players wore the hats with lids facing front. Others turned them backward. A few slanted them to the left, a few more to the right. A couple simply carried them in their hands. There were handshakes and hugs and high-fives from every direction. A celebration unfolded only after Notre Dame made an entirely different statement over the three previous hours.
These Irish really did like playing together. These Irish really did play for each other. It wasn’t just lip service on those sometimes painfully awkward Tuesday media sessions during the regular season.
The adversity that arrived following that October no-show at Michigan never did crack this group. It did the opposite. It was the ultimate pressure release. From that rainy night on, the Irish just played.
Played through the season’s final five weeks, where No. 14 Notre Dame ripped off wins from North Carolina to northern California. Played through home games at Notre Dame Stadium, where the Irish now rarely lose. Then played Saturday, when Notre Dame proved that it was serious about its business at the 30th-annual Camping World Bowl against Iowa State.
Win No. 11 for Notre Dame was secured by a 33-9 spread in a contest that got out of hand in a hurry. Much of that was the Irish doing, and the Cyclones’ undoing.
Iowa State (7-6) traveled well but didn’t pack nearly enough punch to deal with everything it was dealt. The guys from Ames were in the wrong place at the wrong time against the right Irish team. One team brought a lot of fans. The other brought its focus.
Notre Dame’s flight to Florida on Monday was a bit bumpy on approach. The rest of the week, including game day, was smooth sailing.
So much for the Irish possibly being lethargic and uninterested. They didn’t play that way. Not on offense, with quarterbacks coach Tom Rees dialed in as the interim offensive coordinator for the Irish to roll up 455 yards. Not on defense, which held a record-setting Iowa State team to three lousy field goals. Even special teams got in on the act.
Find a more complete win this season — Bowling Green and New Mexico don’t count. This was Notre Dame at its collective best one final time in 2019.
The list of guys when enjoyed big games ran deep. From most valuable player Chase Claypool, who went over 1,000 receiving yards for the season, to defensive end Khalid Kareem, who twice left with injuries only to return. From kicker Jonathan Doerer (four more automatic field goals, including a 51-yarder) to rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
That dude offered a glimpse of what 2020 might be with a game-high nine tackles, including three sacks. That guy was all over the place. Ask Cyclone quarterback Brock Purdy, who limped to the locker room late in the game after being terrorized too often by No. 6 in white.
Every season ends, usually in ways that teams don’t want them to (2018, Notre Dame). But if this season has to end (and it does), it was only fitting that this Irish team did that on this day.
No ease up
With music bouncing around the locker room, Irish coach Brian Kelly walked through the door to the postgame interview area and settled into his seat.
Still stoked from the win, from the week, from the season, Kelly was running hot. Keyed up. Energized. He had a look like: How do you like this team now?
So much for everyone (he seemed to say it without saying it that he knew who they were) insisting that Notre Dame wasn’t focused enough or wasn’t invested enough to play the game the way they had just played it.
Notre Dame played with a passion and a poise that had been there since the great escape over Virginia Tech on Nov. 2. Kelly saw it the following week in the November chill at Duke. The stands were half empty at halftime. That made it feel even colder. Notre Dame didn’t care. It kept playing with a purpose. In that game and the three that followed.
Then again Saturday.
“All they cared about was playing the game,” Kelly said. “It’s just so satisfying that this team has been rewarded with 11 wins, because they have thought only about their teammates and how they can get better every day.”
And last week. About that, Coach?
“You just read this team wrong.”
While we’re at it, read this program, the one that became the first Irish outfit to win at least 10 games over three consecutive seasons since 1991-93, wrong. One that in many other years might have had played for something more. Like a championship.
These are different days. Kelly knows it. He’ll take the Camping World trophy and make sure it’s on full display back at the Gug. Maybe not alongside the Heismans and national championships, but hey, that was then, right?
This is now.
Kelly’s said it before and he’ll likely say it again — it’s dangerous and even wrong to judge a team, judge a program, based solely on the number next to its name every week, or what big-time bowl they play in. Notre Dame’s about more. So much more. Everyone from the top — university president John L. Jenkins, worked the field afterward like a politician, posing for pictures and shaking hands and smiling — on down celebrated Saturday like it mattered.
Kelly felt so good that he flung his trademark visor toward the crowd as he reached the tunnel. It bounced off the canopy and fell into the hands of a media member.
“All we can control is how we prepare, how we play,” Kelly said. “We love where we are as an independent. We just keep playing.”
Less than an hour after the 2019 Notre Dame football team stopped playing, maintenance workers at long-past-its-prime Camping World Stadium started changeover preparations for Wednesday’s Citrus Bowl between Alabama and Michigan. Notre Dame already was old news.
The Irish will turn their own page soon enough.
That was a nice little spring to the 2019 finish. But that race is over. Another awaits.