Noie: Difference makers wanted, needed for Notre Dame after Rose Bowl loss

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Whether the view was from the home office on an icy Northern Indiana evening or inside the Plexiglas-enclosed press box of AT&T Stadium in suburban Dallas, one conclusion from Friday’s CFP Semifinal at the Rose Bowl between No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Notre Dame remained pretty consistent.

It had so little to do with how the Crimson Tide rolled to a 14-0 lead or scored touchdowns on their first three possessions. It had even less to do with how Notre Dame refused to be pushed down a familiar postseason playoff path in front of a whole lot of interested national eyes waiting for that to happen.

It had everything to do with what Irish running back Kyren Williams said in the moments after he and his teammates played their final game of a memorable pandemic season, which ended with a 31-14 loss.

Williams mentioned how work toward next season would begin in earnest Saturday. Like, the day after this season ended. Well, maybe not 24 hours after the final game, but in the days and weeks that follow, the Irish will turn the page toward 2021 and beyond.

An Irish postseason gap that closed ever so slightly from 2018 remains apparent. The next step in that process for anyone associated with an Irish program that again won double-digit games for a fourth-straight season, which included a regular-season victory over the country’s No. 1 team, might include passing out a few of those extra-thick black Sharpies and a stack of blank sheets of 8 ½ x 11 paper, then scribbling two words on them. All of them.


Post them around campus. Throw them in the lockers at the Gug for some mid-winter motivation. Tack them at baggage claim of South Bend International Airport if and when prospects can again make campus visits. Splash them across social media. Get the word out and around to anyone with the size and speed and smarts who happen to play skill positions and are considering playing them at Notre Dame.

This program could use a few. Now. For spring practice that might start in the coming months. For next season, which opens (again, fingers crossed) Labor Day Sunday night at Florida State.

A feisty Brian Kelly (not a bad trait to borrow one of the coach’s pet phrases), again explained after Friday’s game that his program will keep banging on the CFP semifinal door. They don’t plan on staying quiet for any extended time or going away altogether. One day, they plan to knock through it, and extend their season an additional week instead of having to again answer how it all went wrong.

This one wasn’t about following a familiar postseason narrative about being overmatched and overwhelmed and out of their league. It was simple. it was about difference-makers. Playmakers. One team had too many of them; the other, too few. Those were the trees lost in the post-game forest for Kelly, who again picked at the scab that says Notre Dame can’t win big games.

“These questions keep coming up like we have to reinvent ourselves,” he said.

Not true. Is this program better than it was 2012? Better than 2018? Heck, better than it was 13 days earlier in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship? Yes all the way around. What it now needs is a few more guys that look and play and operate like the other guys. That’s where Kelly got it turned around when asked about the whys and the hows of Friday’s game.

It’s not about how the Irish had no answers for running back Najee Harris or wide receiver DeVonta Smith, or even tight end Jahleel Billingsley, who catches touchdown passes and plays on special teams with equal excellence. It wasn’t about how they never really bothered to challenge cornerback Patrick Surtain, a certain Top 10 pick in the spring draft. Notre Dame couldn’t do much with those guys, but as Kelly pointed out, nobody’s been able to do much with them. Any of them.

True, but that’s not the point.

it’s that Notre Dame needs a few more guys on its sideline like Harris and Smith and Billingsley and Surtain. Look at the wide receivers the Irish ran out there Friday. Or the corners. Any of those guys causing coordinators to lose sleep? Good players and maybe better guys, sure. But not difference makers. Not in games like this against guys like that.

The Irish had safety Kyle Hamilton and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and tight end Michael Mayer. Difference makers. Playmakers. Alabama’s got a host of Hamiltons and Owusu-Koramoahs and Mayers. That’s why Friday never felt like it was in doubt.

Notre Dame needs more like them, though running back Kyren Williams insisted they don’t. He believes there’s enough guys that look like Alabama’s guys. This year. Next year.

“I feel like with the offseason work, we’re going to get to that point,” Williams said. “This offense has the same exact firepower as the team we played.”

Nah, they just don’t. Smith should become the first wide receiver since Desmond Howard in 1991 to win the Heisman next week. Harris? A 10-year pro. Williams may get there one day. Too few in those skill positions on this team look like they can join him. They had plenty of dudes on the interior. They didn’t have enough dawgs on the outside.

There’s potential in guys like Jordan Johnson and Braden Lenzy and Xavier Watts. None advanced this season past the curiosity stage. Clarence Lewis has shown signs at corner, but he’s a freshman. Elite programs need and breed playmakers. If they don’t, they’re left on the outside looking in. Good enough to join the party, but not good enough to advance it another week. Instead, parting gifts. Thanks for playing.

“We’re just going to come in and keep working,” Mayer said. “It’s not going to stop here. We’re going to keep it going next year.”

Notre Dame’s close. But the Irish need closers. This team didn’t have enough of them. Enough guys who can turn a game with one play. A run. A catch. A hit. Something. Anything. Alabama can do it. Clemson can do it.

“Big plays have hurt us a lot this year and obviously hurt us tonight,” Hamilton said. “That’s something to grow on and something to be better at, but I think we’ll be there eventually.”

When does some day become their day?

Notre Dame players before the 2021 College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Freshman tight end Michael Mayer, top, was a big reason why Notre Dame’s offense could rely on formations utilizing two tight ends in 2020.