Notre Dame has a chance to do something special in a season that has been anything but

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Notre Dame left guard Jarrett Patterson woke Sunday and realized this is the final full month of his college football career.

SOUTH BEND — Reality rose up, fired out and drove Notre Dame left guard Jarrett Patterson back like so many of the pancake blocks he’d delivered to overmatched defensive linemen during his collegiate career. 

Waking Sunday morning, Patterson felt good, and for good reason. The previous day, Notre Dame beat a ranked team (then-No. 16 Syracuse) for a second time this season. It moved to two games over .500 (5-3) for the first time under rookie head coach Marcus Freeman. The offensive line had manhandled the other guys for most of four quarters. Notre Dame ran the ball as it pleased. Patterson and his buddies had a good day. A dominant day. 

That feeling didn’t last 24 hours. On Sunday, Patterson thought not of what awaited at the end of the week — a prime-time showdown with No. 5 and undefeated (8-0) Clemson at Notre Dame Stadium — but what was quickly closing, then only two days away. 

Chat transcript:What's the formula for Notre Dame to upset Clemson?

Tuesday was the first day of November, the month that marks the beginning of the end in a college football season. It's the sport’s final full month. It's also the final full month of Patterson’s collegiate career. All that he’s put into that program, all the hours in the weight room, the sweat, the film study, the games, the winning and the losing and the joy and the heartache over five years condenses into 30 days. 

Thirty days will seem like three. A college football season always moves that way. 

“It felt like yesterday we were all in training camp together grinding,” Patterson said. “Now we have four weeks of the regular season left and that’s it.” 

Notre Dame has four weeks to max out 2022. Four weeks for Patterson to max out a final season that’s gone nowhere near according to script. Notre Dame won’t win its first national championship since 1988. It won’t play in the College Football Playoff semifinal for a third time in five years. It won’t play in a New Year’s Six game. 

'Mitch-A-Palooza':How Mitch Evans carved his post-injury role in Notre Dame's offense

What it can do Saturday is something not many believe it will — win a big game against a top-five opponent, which would only slightly make up for this season’s myriad misses. Winning Saturday is all that matters. Doesn’t matter if you’re not playing as many snaps as you would like, or the grind of another season has got you down. Or the aches and pains are a little more numerous and bothersome. 

Go win a big game. Win this game. Whatever that takes. 

“If it gets too tough, do it for the senior in your (position) room; do it for the coaches,” Patterson said. “At the end of the day, you only get so many of these opportunities. This is the one of the last opportunities I get.” 

It’s a second opportunity for Notre Dame to possibly beat a top-five team this season. Nine weeks ago, on a steamy late-summer night in Columbus, Ohio, Notre Dame had a chance to shock the college football world against then-No.2 Ohio State. The Irish played well for three quarters, but not well enough over four to win. 

It was the ultimate moral victory — close, but not close enough, yet good enough to carry some optimism/confidence into the Central Ohio night. Seven games later, Freeman certainly is older and maybe a bit wiser as the first-time head coach. But are the Irish really better now than they were that night? 

“We know we’re a good football team,” said senior vyper defensive end Isaiah Foskey. 

Time to stop treading water

But are they? That’s hard to say, and even harder to see. Notre Dame lost its starting quarterback the following week. It lost home games (Marshall, Stanford) it had zero business losing. It has looked more like a team trying to get out of neutral than one with a certain path of where it’s headed. 

Still, the Irish insist they’re better now than they were then. 

“We’ve got games under our belt now,” said linebacker Marist Liufau. “A lot more experience, a lot to learn from with the film of the other games. Improvements since the first game are going to be huge for us.” 

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau believes the Irish are a better team since it faced the first top-five opponent on the schedule in Ohio State.

As is Saturday’s challenge of beating a top-five team. That hasn’t happened much lately, save for the last time these teams met in Notre Dame Stadium. It was 2020. It was in the middle of a pandemic. The stands were barely occupied (11,011 in a stadium that seats close to 78,000), while all-everything Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence took a DNP after testing positive for COVID-19. 

Notre Dame won in overtime and students rushed the field afterward. It was the first time since 1993 that Notre Dame beat a No. 1 team. 

It all feels like it should have an asterisk next to it. On page 123 of the Notre Dame football guide, that asterisk isn’t there. Only the final score — Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40. The Irish won that game, but it doesn’t feel like a remember-where-you-were/shake-down-the-thunder/wake-up-the echoes type of victory. 

“It was (different) but a win is a win,” Foskey said. “It’s pretty hard to win in college football.” 

Notes:Marcus Freeman believes Notre Dame can play with Clemson

Harder for the Irish to win against really good teams. Elite teams. Since that night, Notre Dame has lost five straight to Top 10-teams. It has lost seven of eight since the end of 2018. Eliminate that weird COVID-year win over Clemson, and the last time Notre Dame beat a top-five team at home in front of a capacity crowd was Sept. 5, 1998 against No. 5 Michigan. 

With Bob Davie as head coach. 

It’s been more than a minute, which is why few give Notre Dame a chance Saturday. Clemson’s just too good, just too talented, just too driven on getting back to the CFP for Notre Dame to do much about it. Freeman has worked this week to remind his football team that this isn’t David vs. Goliath. Notre Dame has long been a college football Goliath. That’s something for the Irish to remember. 

“I want our guys saying, ‘You’re Notre Dame, you know, this is what we do. We play in big games like this,'" Freeman said. "We’ve got a dang good football team.” 

This one’s not so much a football game as it is a confidence one. Can Notre Dame compete? Can it win? It has to believe it can. Everything else — like the execution — will take care of everything else. 

“It starts with yourself,” Liufau said. “Anytime you walk on the field, whether you’re thinking of your team or yourself, you have to have the most confidence in who you are as a player, when you can do and now, you’re the best player on that field.” 

We have yet to see these Irish at their collective best. The end is coming, so might as well start showing it. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.

Notre Dame (5-3) vs. No. 5 Clemson (8-0) 

  • When: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EST 
  • Where: Notre Dame Stadium (77,622), South Bend, Ind. 
  • TV/Radio: NBC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Clemson is a 4-point favorite  
  • Series: Clemson leads 4-2 
  • Last meeting: Clemson won 34-10 in 2020 in the ACC Championship game at Charlotte, N.C.