Homecoming for Notre Dame safety Houston Griffith can't distract from his important role
Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, a previous version of this story excluded Notre Dame’s 45-3 victory over Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as an Irish game played in an NFL stadium in the previous five seasons. Notre Dame is 2-5 in true NFL stadiums since the start of the 2016 season. The Tribune regrets the error.
SOUTH BEND — The last time Houston Griffith played in Chicago’s Soldier Field, he left victorious.
The senior safety at Notre Dame was then a sophomore at Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School in 2015. The football team started its season with a 21-14 win over southside rival Marist.
“I remember that game,” Griffith said. “The whole lower bottom bowl was full. For a high school game, that's pretty impressive.”
Griffith revisited Soldier Field earlier this year to film a promotional video for the uniforms No. 12 Notre Dame will wear in Saturday’s Shamrock Series matchup with No. 18 Wisconsin (12 p.m. EDT on FOX). The game this weekend will be a true homecoming for Griffith.
“It means a lot,” Griffith said. “I really can't wait to be out there. We played at Northwestern my freshman year, but I don't really count that as Chicago. I'm really playing at home. I live about 10 minutes away from the stadium. It's going to be exciting.”
Griffith’s father, Howard, works as a college football analyst for the Big Ten Network in Chicago and was given the morning off in order to enjoy his son’s chance to play against a Big Ten opponent in their hometown.
“He's always had my mom tape the games or he records the games,” Houston Griffith said. “The past few weekends, he's been able to watch the games in the office with the rest of the crew. But this week he'll actually be at the game, so it should be pretty cool.”
As of Tuesday night, Griffith had gathered 11 tickets for friends and family to attend Saturday’s game. He expects that number to near 25 by the end of the week.
“I've been having to ask teammates to transfer tickets,” Griffith said. “But it's also a Shamrock Series game, and we haven't had one in a couple years, so it’s a tough ticket. But the guys have been generous and helpful in helping me get those tickets.”
Griffith has fielded questions from teammates about playing in Soldier Field. In addition to playing on the natural grass surface in high school, Griffith said he’s attended four Chicago Bears games throughout his life.
“At the end of the day, we're playing football,” Griffith said. “If it's on turf or grass, we're going to be playing in an NFL Stadium. At the end of the day, it’s still a 100-yard field. We have to go out there, play aggressive and play our technique.”
The Irish haven’t had much luck in NFL stadiums in the past five seasons. Last season, Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh in Heinz Field, home of the Steelers, lost the ACC Championship game to Clemson in Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, and the College Football Playoff semifinal to Alabama in Arlington’s AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys.
The Irish also lost to Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff Semifinal at AT&T Stadium. The 2017 season included a loss to Miami at Hard Rock Stadium, the home of the Miami Dolphins, in Miami Gardens, Fla.
In the 2016 season, Notre Dame beat Syracuse at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., where the New York Giants and New York Jets play their home games and lost to Navy at Everbank Field, home of the Jaguars in Jacksonville, Fla.
Notre Dame did play against USC twice at its home field in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in years the LA Rams were also using the stadium while waiting for the completion of SoFi Stadium. The Irish won at USC in 2018 (24-17) and lost in 2016 (45-27).
Excluding those games in Los Angeles, the Irish are 1-5 in their last six games played in true NFL stadiums.
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The chance to play in so many NFL stadiums has been noted in recruiting pitches for the Irish.
“Coming to Notre Dame, you’re going to get that kind of exposure playing in all these NFL venues,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “If you look at over a course of your four years here, you’re playing in a lot of different NFL venues that you don’t get anywhere else in the country. Our guys are excited about these opportunities.”
The venue shouldn’t overshadow the opponent Saturday. Beating Wisconsin (1-1) will be too much of a bear for Notre Dame (3-0) to get wrapped up in its surroundings.
How to watch Notre Dame vs. Wisconsin
Who: No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) vs. No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1)
Kickoff: Saturday at noon EDT
Where: Soldier Field; Chicago
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Wisconsin by 6
“They have a good couple of running backs,” Griffith said. “They have some good linemen. We just have to play to our game and continue to take the steps we took last week and keep moving forward this season.”
Last week’s 27-13 victory over Purdue could be a turning point for Notre Dame’s defense. The Irish allowed only 57 yards rushing and didn’t give up a play longer than 32 yards. Both areas were issues against Florida State and Toledo included single rushes of 89 and 67 yards.
But stopping Wisconsin’s running game will be a completely different beast. The Badgers rushed 113 times for 532 yards in its first two games against Penn State (180 yards) and Eastern Michigan (352). There will be plenty of opportunities for Badgers, particularly running backs Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo, to break loose for long runs.
Those situations could leave Griffith as the last line of defense for the Irish. He’s been working on improving his open-field tackling this season to gain confidence in such scenarios.
“We always have to make sure that we're closing space, know where your help is and we're playing with proper leverage, because we try not to let cutbacks happen,” Griffith said.
Griffith played the majority of snaps at strong safety against Purdue, but fellow senior DJ Brown returned in a rotational role. Brown didn’t play any defensive snaps in the Toledo game after struggling against Florida State. Brown missed a tackle on FSU running back Jashaun Corbin’s 89-yard touchdown run.
Against Purdue, Brown recorded a career-high seven tackles and intercepted a pass deflected by cornerback Cam Hart late in the fourth quarter.
“DJ is one of the biggest competitors on our team,” Griffith said. “When something goes wrong, he always corrects it in practice. He was out there making open-field tackles.
“It was exciting to see another one of our safeties step up and have an opportunity to play a lot of snaps on Saturday. It's a confidence booster for him. And then it's also a confidence booster in our safety room that we know we have other guys that can go out there and execute our defense at a high level.”
The job of the strong safety — whether it’s Griffith or Brown — was put simply by Kelly in the preseason. With free safety Kyle Hamilton roaming the field and making plays, the strong safety must be consistent in tackling. The total of 21 tackles for Brown (8) and Griffith (13) is one less than Hamilton’s 22.
While Hamilton makes highlight plays, including three interceptions, Griffith and Brown have been asked by defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to prevent highlights from happening. That will once again be critical against Wisconsin.
“We just have to make sure we stay in our gaps,” Griffith said, “make sure we're playing to what coach Freeman’s been preaching to us all week. Make sure we're doing our 1/11, make sure that we're running to the football and bringing contact on the running backs.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.