Noie: What way will college football winds of change blow Saturday for No. 12 Notre Dame?

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame linebacker/captain Drew White likes how hard the Irish have played three weeks in, which gives them a good chance Saturday against No. 18 Wisconsin.

CHICAGO – Everything about the past week back on campus seemed so status quo for the No.12 Notre Dame football team. 

On Monday at noon, head coach Brian Kelly met the media in the Notre Dame Stadium interview room. Outside, students walked to classes and a couple walked their dog, stopping to peer inside the iron gates and down the famed tunnel. Monday felt like Monday. 

On Tuesday, the Irish returned to the practice field for a couple hours of early-week work before several met the media in the second-floor lounge of the Irish Athletic Center. Right tackle Josh Lugg talked of the issues on the offensive lineSafety Houston Griffith, a Chicago native, talked of going home to play a football game. Running back Chris Tyree talked of the offense and captain/linebacker Drew White talked of the defense. Tuesday was Tuesday. 

Wednesday and Thursday likely unfolded much in the same manner – a day of class, an afternoon of practice, an evening meal. The Irish traveling party climbed aboard charter buses Friday night for the quick road trip west along the Indiana Toll Road in advance of Saturday’s game (noon South Bend time, FOX) against No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in a Shamrock Series matchup. 

It was fitting that a season changed Wednesday when summer stepped aside for fall. That’s because this Irish football season also has changed. 

Everything we knew or thought we knew or hoped to know about Notre Dame is different. That overtime escape against Florida State? Throw it out. The near-miss at home against Toledo? Forget it. Last week’s good but still not good enough yet win against Purdue? Might as well as not even happened. 

► Four:Key players to Saturday's game

► Four, part two:Keys to Saturday's game

We’re a quarter of the way through the 12-game regular season, but everything about it, about this team, will be defined over the next six weeks. There are gauntlets and then there’s what Notre Dame faces with this run. It starts with No. 18 Wisconsin, then home for No. 8 Cincinnati, a trip to once-ranked Virginia Tech (Enter, Sandman), and then home again for games against USC and No. 21 North Carolina. Five challenging contests over the next six weeks — with an off week to rest and recover before USC thrown in — and we’ll know when it ends where this is headed. 

A special season? A special team? Or just another good team that again stumbles short of its “graduating champions” mantra? 

“This,” said Kelly earlier in the week,” is a pretty big grind for us.” 

The head coach acknowledged it. The players, not so much. They continue to talk that talk of taking it one practice at a time, one rep at a time, one game at a time. They insist their focus remains only on Wisconsin, but Isban Auditorium inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex says otherwise. 

There on the left side of the front wall sits Notre Dame’s schedule. The entire schedule. From the opener at Florida State to the finale at Stanford, all 12 games are visible. You can’t miss it. 

They know where they’ve been. They know what’s coming. What’s now. 

They know where this season has to go – back to the College Football Playoff for the third time in four years – at the least. 

Punter Jay Bramblett may be a busy guy Saturday when No. 12 Notre Dame meets No. 18 Wisconsin at Soldier Field.

Grind of a game awaits Irish 

Can the Irish get there? How do they get there? That remains the unknown, and that’s OK. We’ll know a whole lot more about what this team is, what this season is, ‘round about 3:30 South Bend time (and SBT deadline time) this afternoon. 

What have the Irish learned about themselves three games in that offers the confidence they can stand and deliver not only Saturday but over the following four (with the bye week)? 

“We play hard,” White said. “We’re starting to play aggressive and physical and I think it’s really going to be an incline from here and what we’re capable of.” 

► Chat:Hamilton for Heisman?

This game has been deemed such a big one that it will host two nationally-televised pre-game circuses/shows. The pre-game godfather — ESPN's GameDay —sets up shop on the museum campus north of Soldier Field. The younger brother, Fox Sports, will be on the east side of the stadium near Lake Michigan. On the south side, tailgaters are sure to arrive shortly after sunrise to stake out their beer-and-brat spots. 

Will all the hype be worth it? 

Everything about this matchup screams old-fashion football that should be played in the cold and the rain and the painted dirt that is/was Soldier Field. Back when players sported single-bar facemasks and the hawk whipped off the lake. Maybe some fog rolled in. A defensive struggle that only coordinators and purists prefer. 

Scoreless at the end of the first quarter. A few points at the end of the half. Something along the lines of a final of 9-6 or 10-7 or 14-13. Something that would make those who like a lot of yards and chunk plays and a lot of points hide their eyes. This one has all the makings of a game where everyone will know everything about the punters from both teams by the time it ends. A game that only someone named Brian Polian prefers. 

A lot of drives that go nowhere. A lot of change of possessions. Somewhere along the way, that script has to be scrapped for the Irish to move to 4-0 for the third time in the last four years. 

“We’re going to have to make some big plays,” Kelly said. 

That means quarterback Jack Coan, who, in case you’ve been asleep at the wheel for the last few months, used to be the quarterback for the Badgers. No kidding. That also means Tyree and fellow running back Kyren Williams delivering. That means Kevin Austin and Michael Mayer catching and running and scoring. 

A win Saturday would be a big win, a milestone win, for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.

Somebody Irish has to deliver a “Wow!” play now. 

That goes for the defense as well. That means you Kyle Hamilton. You too JD Bertrand. And you also, somebody up front. Time to play fast and free. 

We’ve waited a year for this one, which should’ve taken place last season 205 miles to the north in Lambeau Field. Now that would’ve been a game. But we’ll have to wait on that one, and maybe have to wait on that knock-down defensive drag-out of a game. 

For as much as this one screams DEE-FENCE, no one would mind if it’s the two offenses going up and down the field for a lot of yards, a lot of those chunk plays, a lot of points. A lot of intrigue and interest that can make the 11 a.m. local time kick tolerable. 

A win Saturday would be big for Kelly. No coach at Notre Dame will have won more. Big deal. Big day. It would be even bigger all the way around if the Notre Dame season remains on track. 

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