Noie: When the big dog isn't happy, No. 12 Notre Dame better be better

Tom Noie
ND Insider

What should have been a pretty chill Sunday was anything but at the off-campus house that Notre Dame nose tackle Kurt Hinish shares with three football teammates. 

It was the opening weekend of the NFL regular season, which meant football was on one channel or another for close to 10 straight hours. It also was the day after the Irish opened 2-0 for the fourth straight season. 

There was a lot to like. A lot to embrace. A lot to look forward to for the graduate student/team captain Hinish. Instead, he sat on the couch in front of the TV and stewed. The self-proclaimed “big dog” was all kinds of ornery. Watch out. He had some serious bite. 

Teammate and housemate Drew White knew it the minute he bounded down the stairs and saw Hinish, who just had that look about him. It said, leave me the $#%@ alone. 

A young Notre Dame team with inexperienced players means veterans like nose guard and captain Kurt Hinish has to lead more leading into Saturday's home game against Purude.

“He was like, ‘What’s your deal?’” Hinish said earlier this week of White. “I was like, ‘Dude, I’m just embarrassed.’” 

Embarrassed at the lack of intensity that Notre Dame offered the previous afternoon in barely getting past Toledo. Now, the Rockets may be a good football team, but the standard around this program during Hinish’s previous four years, when the Irish went a combined 43-8 with two trips to the College Football Playoff semifinals, was one that demanded that it should never, ever have to scratch and claw and hope and pray to beat a Mid-American Conference team. At home. 

Over the previous four years, there were strong team leaders, be it safety Alohi Gilman or quarterback Ian Book or offensive tackle Liam Eichenberg, who made sure the Irish held themselves to a certain higher standard. Every practice. Every week. Every game, when they would drop the foot on the gas pedal and then step on it and on the collective necks of the other team. 

They’d then do it all again the following week. Hinish watched those guys work and learned how to lead. Some guys, you could really get into. Others, you had to coddle. When it was his time – this time – for him to be a captain, he’d make sure to lead the way those guys led. 

Except Hinish feels he hasn’t led in a similar manner. That had bothered him. A lot. It culminated in Saturday’s great escape against a MAC team. At home. For the then-No. 8 team in the Associated Press poll. 

That's why Hinish had his Hinish up. 

He sensed in the days leading up to the Toledo game that the Irish hadn’t practiced with that same intensity, that same focus, that same no-chance mentality that told everyone that the guys on the other sideline weren’t going to do anything well on game day. 

Hinish felt like he could’ve said or done more than he did to curb it. But he didn’t. That’s why the big dog was not happy. 

“I was disgusted with myself on Saturday night after the game, just because I let that go on,” Hinish said. “We weren’t correcting guys and we weren’t nipping stuff in the (butt) when we should have.” 

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Notre Dame nose guard Kurt Hinish has noticed the intensity level hasn't been where it needs to be for the No. 12 Irish.

Back in the groove of a season 

That the intensity level was lower than normal last week wasn’t anywhere acceptable, but understandable. Notre Dame operated on a short schedule in playing its second game in seven days after opening Labor Day Sunday night at Florida State, a game it needed overtime to avoid an 0-1 open. But that lack of intensity and energy that lingered last week? Hinish admitted it had festered even before the opener. 

Even before the first game, it seemed the Irish had exhaled. 

The standard – for the veterans like Hinish, for the young guys still figuring it out – hasn't been anywhere near where it needs to be for the Irish. 

“A lot of it falls on myself and the older guys around us (but) a lot of the young guys, they take for granted that we are a damn good football team,” Hinish said. “We all we knew we were going to win but like, they take for granted our success in the past and we feel like the other team’s just going to lay down for us just because we’re Notre Dame. 

“That’s not the case.” 

Quarterback Jack Coan has learned that only two weeks into his first and only season at Notre Dame. The Irish are 2-0, but the mood around the periphery of the program is like they’re 1-1. Or 0-2. They even dropped four spots in the polls – after a win.

There’s a lot to like through the first two weeks, but there’s also a ton to address and clean up. That’s life at Notre Dame. 

“What I’ve learned is that Notre Dame gets everyone’s best shot, no matter who it is,” Coan said. “Every team gets up to play Notre Dame and wants to beat them. We have to come in, bring our ‘A” game every time.” 

Hinish wanted to make sure No. 12 Notre Dame did that for Saturday’s home game against Purdue (2-0). After stewing most of Sunday, to the point where he didn’t even want to go to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex for meetings or treatment or anything else football, Hinish and the team’s six other captains gathered Monday to address the intensity issue. 

Hinish had a lot on his chest, and had to unload it to move past it. 

His message? This stops here. This stops now.

“I made it very clear to the other guys that I was not happy with how things are going,” he said. “They all agree with me because they’re older guys and they all know how things should go.” 

Message from the big dog received. When Hinish walked off the practice field Tuesday, it felt like it did in 2020 and 2019 and 2018. The intensity/energy level and focus that hadn’t been there the first two weeks was back. He was happy.

“I wish that’s the way it could be every day,” Hinish said. “That’s the way it’s been the past five years I’ve been here.” 

Maybe it has to do with finally getting into a “normal” rhythm of a season. For the first time since this all started, there is no Sunday night game. There is no short work week. This week was the first time the Irish worked from start to finish in their routine. 

That the energy surfaced and stayed around longer was no accident. 

“It’s been higher than normal,” Coan said. “That’s something that’s been a point of emphasis this week. Definitely saw it.” 

Definitely needed to see it. For Hinish. For the captains. For the veterans. For the young guys to understand exactly what the Irish standard means, and what they need to do to match it. Exceed it. Every practice. Every game. Every week. Work Saturday the way the Irish worked this week, and this Sunday may not see Hinish so salty as last Sunday. 

“This week, we talked about, it’s not like a redemption week,” Hinish said. “That’s behind us and we learned from the past. We’re going to be a great team moving forward.” 

The bark of the big dog has made sure of it. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI