Time ar­rives for Ir­ish to make new mem­o­ries

The Morning Call - - SPORTS - By Paul New­berry

The echoes have been slum­ber­ing at Notre Dame for more than two decades.

The Fight­ing Ir­ish re­ally need to make some new mem­o­ries.

Well, here’s their chance.

Again.

No. 7 Notre Dame can prove it’s no longer liv­ing in the past with a vic­tory Satur­day night at third-ranked Ge­or­gia, a game that could have ram­i­fi­ca­tions all the way to the Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off.

“Ob­vi­ously when you have a top 10 match-up like we have, it’s just a great op­por­tu­nity,” Notre Dame quar­ter­back Ian Book said. “You can tell from the en­ergy of the team and the coaches, it’s great. It’s not re­ally get­ting anx­ious about any­thing. It’s about be­ing grate­ful we have this op­por­tu­nity to go down there and play a great foot­ball team.”

Of course, the Fight­ing Ir­ish have been through this be­fore.

Over and over again, they’ve faced a mo­men­tous game with a shot at prov­ing their rel­e­vance to col­lege foot­ball be­yond an iconic place in the his­tory books, a chance to talk about some­thing other than Rockne and Parseghian, Rudy and the Four Horse­men, the Gip­per and Touch­down Je­sus.

More times than Ir­ish fans care to count, Notre Dame landed flat on its face.

More times than not, it was down­right ugly.

“I don’t think we fo­cus on what other peo­ple think,” se­nior de­fen­sive end Adetokunbo Ogun­deji in­sisted. “We’re Notre Dame. Ev­ery­one knows about us. We’re just fo­cused on what we have to do.”

Well, what they have to do is win a big game.

Since the de­par­ture of Lou Holtz, who guided Notre Dame to its last na­tional cham­pi­onship way back in 1988, the Ir­ish are just 36-51 against ranked op­po­nents and a pu­trid 8-28 when fac­ing top 10 teams.

Tak­ing this era of big-game fu­til­ity to an even deeper level, Notre Dame has beaten ex­actly two teams over the last 22 sea­sons — Stan­ford in 2012, Michi­gan in 2002 — that went on to fin­ish in The AP top 10.

Most telling of all is the way the Ir­ish have lost:

With a na­tional ti­tle on the line at the end of the 2012 sea­son, top-ranked and un­beaten Notre Dame was blown out by Alabama 42-14.

Fac­ing Ohio State in the 2016 Fi­esta Bowl, the re­sult was a 44-28 drub­bing.

Ranked third late in the 2017 sea­son and eye­ing a pos­si­ble CFP berth, the Ir­ish were routed at Mi­ami 41-8.

The av­er­age mar­gin in those 28 set­backs to top 10 op­po­nents is a whop­ping 35-15. Four­teen times, Notre Dame has lost by at least 20 points. Nine times, the mar­gin was at least 30 points.

No won­der Ge­or­gia is a hefty twotouch­down fa­vorite be­tween the hedges.

As strange as it may sound for a pro­gram of this stature — and, yes, the Fight­ing Ir­ish still have a ton of ca­chet — this team des­per­ately needs a sig­na­ture win. Coach Brian Kelly brushed off any talk about the larger ram­i­fi­ca­tions. That’s prob­a­bly for the best.

No need to worry a group of play­ers who weren’t even born the last time Notre Dame won a truly mean­ing­ful con­test.

“It is not even part of what we do for prepa­ra­tion,” Kelly said. “To me, it’s about our play­ers, it’s about our coaches giv­ing them a great game plan, it’s about my job to make sure we put to­gether the best pos­si­ble prepa­ra­tion for our team.

“The rest of that stuff,” he added, “I re­ally couldn’t care less about.”

There has long been a per­cep­tion that Notre Dame is stuck in the past, re­ly­ing on lum­ber­ing play­ers and old-fash­ioned of­fen­sive schemes that no longer work in a fast-paced game built around speed and quick­ness and spread for­ma­tions.

But Ge­or­gia coach Kirby Smart scoffs at those who cling to stereo­types.

“You lost me there,” he said. “They re­cruit the same play­ers we do. When we go knock­ing on doors, we’re all go­ing af­ter the same guys. So, they have a re­ally good foot­ball team.”

In­deed, let’s stop mak­ing ex­cuses for the Fight­ing Ir­ish.

Maybe their class­room stan­dards are tougher than many schools. Maybe it would help to be in a con­fer­ence in­stead of go­ing it alone. None of that should be a sig­nif­i­cant hin­drance to a pro­gram that has a na­tion­wide fol­low­ing, can play any team it wants, reaps the fi­nan­cial wind­fall of its own net­work tele­vi­sion con­tract and rev­els in a grander legacy than any other school.

“I don’t think any­one is too wor­ried about what any­one is say­ing out­side this build­ing,” Book said. “We’re sup­posed to lose by dou­ble dig­its? It’s kind of a chip on our shoul­der. We’re go­ing to use that as mo­ti­va­tion. I think it’s great. The pres­sure isn’t on us. We’re go­ing to go down there and do what we have to do. We be­lieve in our­selves.”

Ac­tu­ally, the pres­sure is on.

Like ev­ery­one else, Notre Dame is part of a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world.

For­get the echoes.

It’s time to live in the present.

AP free­lance writer John Fin­eran in South Bend, In­di­ana con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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