Last November after watching Mike Brey’s crew take care of the DePaul Blue Demons, Kayo and I (along with a couple other NDN denizens) repaired up Michigan Avenue to Kroll’s to watch what we hoped would be a similar dismantling of the Miami Hurricanes by a highly-ranked Irish football squad. We all know how that turned out, but it was something that happened pre-game which stuck with me.
I was surfing Rock’s House while waiting for our drinks to arrive, and there was some discussion how the team’s bus had been met with a raucous crowd. The noise from inside the stadium certainly seemed to match that kind of mood. And as Brian Kelly and the team stood waiting to take the field, I turned to Kayo and said, “Something doesn’t look right.”
I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was there. Something in the eyes. Something that said, “we’re not ready for this”.
And then the team went out and played like it. To his credit, Kelly took responsibility for the lack of readiness. But that didn’t make the aftermath, both short- and long-term, any easier to take, particularly when you’re in a watering hole chock full of B1G douchenozzles.
The 2017 season was the ballyhooed “Brian Kelly 2.0” reboot. 4-8 from the year before reportedly had resulted in a soup-to-nuts soul searching by the head coach and review of everything he and the program were doing. Reports varied on the impetus for some of the resulting changes, but 2017 saw new coordinators on each side of the ball, a new approach to strength & conditioning, nutrition, you name it. The goal: create a “winning culture” around the program that has been missing under the last few head coaches.
The early season results seemed to bear out the optimism. From the second half against Boston College to the first half against Wake Forest, we got to watch some pretty good football. The run game was solid and the passing game complimented it. Mike Elko’s revamped defense performed light years of magnitude better than Brian Van Gorder’s had the prior year. And anyone who doesn’t enjoy a curb-stomping of USC just doesn’t understand Notre Dame.
But against the Hurricanes, it all came unraveled, and it was Notre Dame’s turn to be curb-stomped. The 41-8 dismantling cast a pall on the season which didn’t truly dissipate until the comeback win against LSU in the Citrus Bowl. Same-old same-old, we thought, and whatever cheers there were for BK 2.0 turned to jeers pretty quickly.
Well, here we are again. The Fighting Irish are undefeated, playing well on both sides of the ball, and put a definitive beat-down on a top-1o Stanford team last week. And this Saturday, they will play in probably the most hostile atmosphere they’ll face this season — Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech fans, for reasons which continue to escape me, absolutely loathe Notre Dame with more than what you’d consider a typical loathe. Hokies AD Whit Babcock affirmed the interest on the VaTech side, saying this ticket has been the hottest commodity for them in many years, so no doubt the VaTech faithful will be ready and waiting for Notre Dame.
The question becomes: Will they?
My answer: I think so.
The culture sought in the reboot seems to be taking root. There’s been little sign of mental fragility so far in 2018, and if you can look through the miasma of the Miami debacle, we saw it last season as well. ND lost to Georgia, but they gave the Bulldogs one of their toughest games of the year. ND took it to Southern Cal and NC State from the get-go. The momentum they lost was recaptured in Orlando against LSU in a comeback win. They were ready for Michigan and Stanford this season, and didn’t fold up when adversity showed itself.
Their one “Vader” test is the truly hostile atmosphere. ND was prepared in those games, but most were at home, and all in front of an at-worst-neutral-if-not-friendly crowd. Saturday will be very much none of those things. For Notre Dame to take the next step towards consistency, they must show they can confront and overcome that disadvantage.
Last season, the Miami game was lost before Notre Dame took the field. I think their eyes will be a lot different this time around. I like the senior leadership. I like Brian Kelly’s calmer, more focused demeanor. And the thing about manic crowds is they can be silenced by a two-touchdown deficit.
Final score: Irish 35, Hokies 16.