Noie: No fans or fewer, big road game still beckons for No. 3 Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Ask a Notre Dame football player during the week of a road game and they’ll probably pull a page from the cliché playbook.

It’s just another game.

Nice, but no. Notre Dame football games away from Notre Dame Stadium are way more than that. They’re events. They’re happenings. They’re just different. Name another college football program that tries to get to as many locales near and far. Dublin? Check? East Coast? Check. West Coast? At least once a year. Atlantic Coast? A member for at least this year.

What other team does all that every season? Notre Dame also finds time to play in its home area of the Midwest. Still salty that the game against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field was wiped out, but we digress. Point is, when it comes to Notre Dame football, few programs move the road meter as much. It’s not like following the Beatles, but it’s probably pretty close. No, that doesn’t make Ian Book as popular as Paul. Or John.

Of the 15 road games since 2017, 10 unfolded in front of capacity crowds, including four of five last season. At Boston College in 2017? Alumni Stadium sold out. At Northwestern in 2018? Full house at that dump. At Georgia last September? Record attendance and still nothing like a Saturday night in Athens. And nothing like covering Notre Dame on the road. The Irish are a draw. Here. There. Everywhere.

Except Saturday, when No. 3 Notre Dame (4-0; 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) plays a road game like none other in an afternoon visit to Pittsburgh (3-3; 2-3). This is the Panthers’ fifth home game at Heinz Field, which sits on downtown’s North Shore. The first four were played with no fans in the yellow-seated stands. On Saturday, school officials will allow approximately 5,500 in to see the Irish. That’s hardly a coincidence.

Notre Dame on the road is must see. Even this outfit, which we’re still trying to figure out. Are the Irish really the nation’s No. 3 team? Do they have a passing game worthy of a No. 3 team? Answers might arrive Saturday by 7 p.m.

This is the next game on the schedule, but it’s also one that has had everyone around the program, from the head coach on down, in the planning stages for weeks. Heading into Notre Dame’s fourth straight home game last week against Louisville, which ended in a 12-7 snoozer, Brian Kelly admitted that he’d already been in meetings about the Pittsburgh game. Not about the game plan, about the travel plan.

This week is the first one during the pandemic. How do they travel? How do they eat? How do they function? All of that may matter as much as how coordinator Tommy Rees can jump-start the Irish passing game. Seriously.

Earlier this week, Kelly apologized for seeming a little frazzled during his weekly Zoom meeting with reporters. He apologized for not dressing (business casual) appropriately for the occasion. The reason? He was in meetings about road game logistics.

This one’s anything but routine.

Plan in place

Instead of a late Friday afternoon charter for the quick flight to southwest Pennsylvania, the Irish planned to do much of their pre-game prep at home. Meetings on campus. Dinner downtown at Century Center. Then an evening flight. Bus from the airport through the Fort Pitt Tunnel (into the only city with an entrance) and to the hotel. Check in. Snack. Bed. Limit any exposure to the outside world.

Same for Saturday. Breakfast means no buffet, but grab and go. The Irish will eat a pre-game meal at Heinz Field. They’ll play the game. They’ll have a post-game meal in the stadium concourse, then head for the airport.

It all will be different, but it’s all part of the new travel normal.

“Our support staff has been fabulous in really looking at everything in terms of how we can do this minimizing the risk,” Kelly said. “Many teams have been on the road and have come out of it quite well. We expect to do the same thing.”

Heinz Field will look and feel different than any road game in recent Irish memory. It might be the first time that Notre Dame plays a road game in front of fewer than 10,000 fans since a 1927 win at Drake (8,412).

Not that the players will notice the difference. Or at least, admit they notice.

“That really never mattered to me or my teammates,” said defensive lineman Kurt Hinish, a Pittsburgh native back among the Yinzers one final time. “The only time I do notice (fewer fans) is when I run out of the tunnel. We’re just happy we’re playing.”

Hinish is just happy to be playing this game in that stadium, the same one he played in as a high school kid right up the road at Central Catholic. Going to Dublin to start the year would’ve been nice. As would’ve been the game at Lambeau (still salty) but this one? This was one that had, had, had to stay on the schedule for Hinish. For selfish reasons.

“It means the world to me to go back home and play Pitt,” he said. “This game means everything to me.”

And, for this week, means everything to the Irish. What already has been a wacky season for so many reasons outside of football remains such for the Irish, who can’t shake this two-week rut. As in, just when it hits two weeks it seems, everything starts over. Everything’s different.

Happened to start the year with wins over Duke and South Florida. Then everything changed after a spike in coronavirus cases. Notre Dame took two weeks off from everything to recover. The next two weeks featured home games — and wins — over Florida State and Louisville. Now, the next two weeks feature road games against Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech.

Whatever the Irish season looks like coming clear of that will again look a lot different come the first week of November. For obvious reasons (if you don’t know, ask a friend).

“I think we can all attest that this whole year has been weird and different,” said wide receiver Avery Davis.

Weird and different and unlike anyone on the Irish has ever experienced. So, no, it’s not going to be like another game for Notre Dame. In any sense. Saturday will be the smallest crowd they play in front of to date all season. Likely the smallest in nearly a century. But the game’s still a big deal.

The Irish know. They’ll feel it, even with so many gold seats staring back at them.

“The competition is definitely enough to bring it out,” Davis said. “Once the whistle blows, all we’re worried about is competing.”

This road game won’t be a happening. But it will happen. For these Irish, for this season, that’s enough.

Heinz Field won’t be empty, but it also won’t be anywhere near capacity for Saturday’s game between No. 3 Notre Dame and host Pittsburgh.