Noie: Just one of those (good) days for No. 7 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

An awesome afternoon beckoned out the back door.

Saturday was one of those days we’ll soon dream of in the coming months — light breeze, zero clouds, relatively warm temperatures and so much sun. A perfect afternoon to do anything but stay stuck inside watching a football game that had long gone off the competitive rails.

It was a good time to give the grass a quick cut. Or throw some meat on the grill. Maybe get the fire pit going. Run to the store or go for a run. Anything except stay cooped up watching some out of the way cable channel. But alas, duty calls. So suck it up and tough it out.

The first half of Saturday’s game between No. 7 Notre Dame (2-0) and overmatched South Florida (1-1) was about all anyone needed to see. After that, it was a struggle to stay focused, to keep charting Irish “chunk” plays — and there were a bunch of them. A chore to see what Irish running back found the end zone — and there were a bunch of them. Halftime rolled around and you jumped at the chance to do some chores — the dishwasher needed emptying — just to get up and get moving. Do something to keep from drifting into the couch dozing off.

It eventually ended Irish 52, Bulls 0. It felt like 152. Notre Dame was just too good, too talented and too focused. The coronaivirus pandemic meant that the Irish didn’t play a spring game, though the second half sure seemed like one. A lot of guys got in. A lot of back and forth possessions with little results. A handful of fans scattered throughout the stadium seating bowl. It looked and felt like April.

An attitude the Irish played with from the jump was underscored by a halftime comment by their head coach.

USA Network cameras caught Brian Kelly offering his guys final words of instruction before the second half. Kelly talked of wanting to see his offense, which had been really good from the start, to be just as good in the second half. To score every time they had the ball, just as they did to begin with touchdowns on their first four drives.

"That's how we 've go to start every game," said quarterback Ian Book.

Defensively, Kelly preached that he didn’t want USF to sniff the end zone. The Bulls had been shut out in the first two quarters. Kelly wanted them shut out in the last two quarters.

“This thing is too damn hard,” Kelly told his team of the game they play. “I’m tired of being a nice guy.”

Cynical Irish fan somewhere wonders why Kelly decided after 11 seasons in South Bend now to stop.

After all, you know what they say about nice guys. They finish last. They don’t get the girl in the end. They don’t have three running backs who each run for touchdowns. They don’t have a third-year starting quarterback in Book who collects three scores with his four carries. They don’t have an offensive line that plays like someone swiped their lunch money the previous week.

Nice guys certainly doesn’t have the luxury of leaning on a talent like sophomore tight end Tommy Tremble, who did a little of everything. Line up in a four tight-end set? Check. Catch some passes? Yep. Work as a blocking fullback where he blew up some unsuspecting USF defenders to help get backs like Kyren Williams in more open space? Follow Tremble and the yards will follow.

Hard to pinpoint what received more air time from the TV crew — the play of No. 24 or the sun-splashed scenery across the Notre Dame campus.

"Every time I'm on the field," Tremble said, "I just want to be dominant."

That he was.

Saturday wasn’t about Notre Dame finding redemption for the 2011 rain game/USF upset. It wasn’t about sticking it good to USF offensive coordinator Charlie Weis Jr. for his father’s failures as the Notre Dame head coach. It wasn't about statements. It was about Notre Dame doing what Notre Dame should do as the seventh-ranked team. It was about starting fast (the Irish did). It was about not letting up (the Irish barely did). It was about not being the nice guys that Notre Dame athletes (not just football players) are often said to be. Not that that’s a bad trait.

This was about getting down and keeping down an inferior football on a superior day.

It didn’t matter that eight Irish who were on the team’s two-deep depth chart earlier in the week were deemed "unavailable" because of injury or other (re: COVID-19) reasons. Notre Dame does not identify players who have either tested positive for the virus or are in contact tracing protocol. News of the eight being out dropped about 90 minutes before kickoff.

Only safety sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was considered questionable during the week because of injury (ankle). Not having the other seven, including backup quarterback Brendon Clark, turned the depth chart upside down. Kelly said it's just the way way of the college football world. Didn't matter if he learned about someone being unavailable at 2 a.m. earlier in the week or another at 12:50 p.m. on game day.

"You just kind of roll with it," Kelly said. "We're a strong group mentally."

That mental strength, combined with physical strength allowed the Irish to set a modern-day record with their 20th consecutive home win. They're doing a lot of stuff previous Irish teams never did. That means something.

"We're just glad we're able to make history like that," Tremble said.

Bottle Saturday, and more history awaits down the road.

It was good to see Kelly’s next-man-up mantra pay off. He often preaches it, which usually leads to eye rolls from the cynical media. Yeah, what’s next, we say, take one game at a time? Then along comes a guy like sophomore Jack Kiser from a one (yellow) light flashing town (Royal Center, Ind., population 839) and we see that, yeah, the Irish finally put into practice what the head coach preaches.

Next. Man. Up.

Kiser started fall camp fourth on the depth chart at Buck linebacker. He started Monday and maybe Tuesday and even Wednesday as No. 3. He was on scout team as late as Wednesday. But when Saturday arrived and Marist Liufau and Shayne Simon were deemed “unavailable,” Kiser stepped in and showed out. With a team-high eight tackles, Kiser earned the game ball. Big deal? It was. He brought it with him to his post-game Zoom session.

"You just don't think things like that will happen to you," he said. "You always have to be ready. When I found out, the mentality was, all right, let’s go.”

That Kiser did. So did the Irish.

A television displays teammates celebrating a touchdown by Jafar Armstrong during the Notre Dame-South Florida college football game broadcast on NBC. As part of Notre Dame’s COVID-19 safety protocols, photojournalists were not allowed inside Notre Dame Stadium for Saturday’s game against USF.