Noie: Rose Bowl gives Notre Dame a chance to nuke the big-game narrative

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Confidence and quiet — in that order — swept through a spacious auxiliary locker room that doubled as the post-game interview area deep inside AT&T Stadium that December night in 2018.

Notre Dame had just lost in a College Football Playoff semifinal that never got on track for the Irish, who were overwhelmed 30-3 to eventual national champion Clemson. Afterward, as several players talked in hushed tones, they were more determined than disappointed. They promised not only to get back to that point, but past that point.

They’re back.

In the same College Football Playoff semifinals, in the same massive stadium in the sprawling Metroplex of Dallas-Fort Worth, in the same late afternoon time slot. This time, fourth-ranked Notre Dame (10-1) faces No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in a relocated CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl (Friday, 4 p.m., ESPN).

Over the past five months, several chapters were added to the encyclopedia that is Notre Dame football history. Ian Book became the program’s winningest quarterback at 30-3. For the first time in program history, the Irish won at least 10 games a fourth consecutive season. They even played for the first time as a non-independent, then finished 9-0 for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Notre Dame became one of only five teams to earn a return invitation to the College Football Playoff’s Final Four. There’s a lot to like and a lot more to remember, but stamped at the bottom of the last page of the latest Irish chapter is the standard disclaimer that follows this program no matter how many games are won or accolades are earned.

“Notre Dame can’t win big games.”

That narrative’s been hanging around the dorms, around the stadium, around the football facility and across the street at the still relatively new indoor practice facility for forever. It resurfaces every time Notre Dame bull-rushes its way back among the elite, then gets pantsed in another big bowl game or high-profile regular season game.

It’s a tired narrative. It’s lazy. Even unfair for a program that’s won a school record 41 games over the past four-year span, including a tidy 33-4 run since 2018.

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly had the forlorn look of a head coach who knew the big-game question was coming during a media Zoom session. Like, just get it over with and ask it. Four questions in, it surfaced. Again.

Do the Irish feel they have something to prove in this College Football Playoff semifinal? Something they couldn’t prove or show in the 2012 BCS national championship game or the CFP semifinal in 2018 against Clemson or the ACC championship game or …

Kelly won’t apologize — and shouldn’t — for his program becoming one of the most consistently successful in college football. Can’t win a big game? How many programs not named Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State or Oklahoma have played in as many? Not a lot.

Notre Dame’s not Alabama or Clemson or Ohio State, but who is?

“We’re knocking on the door every year playing really good teams and great opponents,” Kelly said. “We are there every single year and we’re grinding it out just like everybody else. Only one team gets to celebrate at the end of the year.

“I don’t know why this narrative continues to pop up when we’re always in the games.”

It pops up because it writes itself. Don’t want to drill down on how everything has evolved since 2012? How the head coach has changed? Don’t care to give the program props for basically tearing it all down and starting over after going 4-8 in 2016? Flip open the laptop and crank out the big-game blowout angle.

It gets old hearing it. It gets exhausting having to listen to Kelly and his players answer it.

“I’m pretty sure Alabama got blown out by Clemson (44-16 in the 2019 national championship game),” said left tackle Liam Eichenberg. “I’m pretty sure other teams have been blown out in the playoffs as well. This is a different year. This is a different team.”

This team, this season

The yearly goal at Notre Dame — before the one-year ACC fling — is simple. Graduate and play for a national championship. That’s it. That also sets the Irish up when it’s been 32 years and counting since they last reached that goal.

But the big-game stuff? The bowl stuff? That’s for outsiders.

“Within the program, we all know who we are and know what we can do,” said sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton. “We all know what kind of game we can play if we’re on the same page.”

That page is the present. New Year’s Day 2021 in Arlington, Texas. Nobody carries 2012 or 2015 or even last time out against Clemson in the ACC championship game as a motivating moment. It’s about being in this game and delivering. Not making up for missed opportunities.

For these guys, the narrative is just noise.

“Sure, we hear it,” said middle linebacker Drew White. “But it’s really just about the guys in the locker room and about the brotherhood. We’re playing for each other. We’re not playing for the credit to the media or whoever’s thinking we don’t deserve a spot.”

Notre Dame deserved its CFP spot, maybe more than third-ranked Ohio State which pieced together a six-game schedule. The Irish persevered through the most trying regular season, maybe ever. They battled 10 opponents. They battled COVID-19. They battled human nature of wanting to break from their bubble and be college kids. But they stayed true to themselves. To one another. To the cause. To getting to where they now stand.

They beat seemingly unbeatable Clemson in overtime. That big-game narrative vaporized into the chill of an Indiana night in November. It stayed there for all of 42 days until the teams met in Charlotte the Saturday before Christmas. By that Sunday, the narrative had returned.

Same old Irish.

Are they? This program looks and acts and feels nothing like it did in 2012 or 2015 or even 2018. The head coach is different. Before he had the feel of someone angling for his next move. Not anymore. The culture’s different. The players are different. They had to be better. In everything. They are.

“If you’re not getting better every year in everything in life,” Kelly said, “you’re getting left behind.”

No Irish chose to stay behind Wednesday when the team charter departed South Bend International Airport. No Irish will be left aboard the caravan of buses Friday when they enter AT&T Stadium’s inner access tunnel and stop outside the locker room. They don’t fear this game. It’s their chance to write their own story, to nuke the narrative.

Friday’s about only opportunity, not exorcising big-game demons. Notre Dame doesn’t like the narrative, but there’s only one way it’s going away.

“It starts with believing,” Book said. “We believe we can win. We want to finish it the right way.”

And write the next chapter, without that fine print.

Notre Dame players sit at their lockers after the 2018 loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl. The Irish return to AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas on Friday to face No. 1 Alabama in the Rose Bowl.

Back in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the second time in three years, fourth-ranked Notre Dame (10-1) gets another chance to win on the big stage against No. 1 Alabama (11-0). Here's a look back at a few of the times the Irish fell short in "big games" since 2012.


No. 1 Alabama 42, No. 2 Notre Dame 14 (BCS National Championship Game)


No. 13 Stanford 38, No. 6 Notre Dame 36 (regular season)

No. 8 Ohio State 44, No. 8 Notre Dame 28 (Fiesta Bowl)


No. 15 Georgia 20, No. 24 Notre Dame 19 (regular season)


No. 3 Clemson 30, No. 2 Notre Dame 3 (CFP Semifinal, Cotton Bowl)


No. 3 Georgia 23, No. 7 Notre Dame 17 (regular season)

No. 19 Michigan 45, No. 8 Notre Dame 14 (regular season)


No. 3 Clemson 34, No. 2 Notre Dame 10 (ACC championship game)