Column: Time for Notre Dame to start making new memories
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.
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 Associated Press 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 College Football Playoff berth, the Irish were routed at Miami 41-8.
— After earning their first playoff appearance a year ago with an undefeated regular season, they were carved up 30-3 by eventual national champion Clemson in the Cotton Bowl semifinal game.
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 two-touchdown 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. Everyone in this building is one family. We know our potential. We’re confident.”
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.