In what has become a weird, maddening pattern for Notre Dame football this year, the Irish went on the road against what many thought to be a superior opponent and played some of their best football of the year. Ohio State, North Carolina, to a lesser extent BYU, and now Syracuse — all pegged as tough road tests for the Irish, and all games in which Notre Dame came away feeling better about itself. The 3-1 record in these games is not only better than the season’s record overall, but the Irish have largely
It wasn’t a complicated formula to beat the Orange on Saturday, but it was refreshing to see the Irish execute it with such gusto. Ground and pound was the name of the day, with certified Baby Jerome Bettis Audric Estime bulldozing the undersized Syracuse defense for a truly ridiculous yards after contact number. If it weren’t for the HD broadcast, you could’ve sworn you were watching 1992 Notre Dame and not 2022 Notre Dame. But it wasn’t just the run game — special teams once again made their presence felt, gift-wrapping Estime a touchdown on the 2. The oft-reported, rarely-sighted defensive turnover made two appearances, each coming at critical times in the action to set Notre Dame off on the right foot and then stiff arm Syracuse just as they started to rally.
For the first time all season, really, Notre Dame managed to get pushed while it looked comfortably ahead and respond with poise and playmaking to ice the game. When Syracuse kicked a field goal and added a TD early in the fourth to pull within a score, things started to look dicey. But rather than hang on for dear life as they had in Vegas, the Irish took command of the game, forcing a turnover and blocking a punt for two scores. The Orange tacked on a meaningless touchdown after some… interesting officiating, but never threatened again.
So, another week, another check-in on goals for the season, with two big games against Clemson and USC looming with two “never count them out” games against Navy and Boston College sandwiched in between. Conventional wisdom says the Irish go 2-2, but I’m not ready to give up the ghost on 3-1 just yet. In a weird way, I almost wish this team was worse, so that I could completely write off the season as a loss and just hope for anything even moderately successful. But because they’ve shown flashes of looking like a genuinely good football team, I do things like believe they can beat USC in the Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend. This team has looked so close to being a threat every week, I can’t bring myself to write them off entirely.
Because the Irish have shown what they can be at their highest, it makes the bottom falling out all the more painful. As horrific as the Marshall and Stanford losses were, the Irish were a combined touchdown from winning both games. A “W” for each wouldn’t have excused the sloppy performances by any means, but think of how different the narrative around this team is at 7-1 rather than 5-3. Sports media being as full of cliches as it is, you can almost write the copy yourself — “they find a way to win;” “a tough, physical team that will grind you down;” “winning with grit.” Saturday would mark the third top ten matchup at Notre Dame Stadium in as many years. There are probably still questions about Marcus Freeman, but they’re quieter, and a lot easier to examine with two more wins under his belt. Plus, he’d be heading into November in a tight race with Lincoln Riley for most successful first year at a big name program.
I’ve said all year that I never thought this was a playoff team, but wouldn’t playing this next month with some stakes be just a tad more fun? It really, really sucks we don’t get to live in that alternate reality I outlined above, but that doesn’t mean these upcoming games aren’t meaningful. On the contrary, imagine if Notre Dame pulls an upset next weekend. There are still three rivalry trophies left to play for and an archrival left to knock out of playoff contention. Not to mention, there’s that whole bowl eligibility thing to take care of. That’s what Notre Dame’s playing for in November.
Halloween marks a bit of an unofficial shift in the college football season. As the days getting shorter and the air gets colder, the stakes only get higher. November is peak college football season, and not just because the leaves falling sparks the poetic spirit. Teams are now making championship pushes, or earning bowl eligibility, or just playing for pride. To borrow a phrase, “it just means more” in November. Take next Saturday for instance — besides Clemson’s return to South Bend after the instant classic 2020 game, there’s the first ever top-two matchup between Georgia and Tennessee, Alabama and LSU play in an almost SEC West title game, and TCU continues its run through the Big 12 gauntlet. And that’s just the first weekend of the month! It’s no coincidence the official College Football Playoff rankings start coming out this week as well — everyone knows this is the time for things to get serious.
It all leads up to Rivalry Weekend, known to the rest of the world as Thanksgiving, that precious time of year where college football is its most college football-est, when friends and neighbors come together to trash talk each others teams and engage in the most petty of spiteful feuds. This sport is built on rivalries and all the wonderful nonsense that comes with them. There are state and national bragging rights. There are trophies, from the sublime to the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous. But most of all, it’s a chance to revel in what this game’s all about — relatively harmless hatred.
The caveat to that fun, though, is you absolutely cannot do what Michigan State did in
hell Ann Arbor, Michigan Saturday night. Details are still fuzzy as of this writing, but we know there was a physical altercation post-game between the rivals, apparently initiated by several Spartan players. Emotions always run high in rivalry games, especially one as heated as the battle for Paul Bunyan, but you must keep it on the field. If football is to be an emotional purgative, it has to work to dispel these kind of incidents.
Elsewhere, Irish hockey completed the rough weekend for folks up in East Lansing by shutting out the Spartans on Friday and then playing to a tie Saturday night when absolutely no one in the state of Michigan was watching hockey. It’s been a promising start on the ice for Notre Dame, as they remain undefeated at home and have posted two shutouts in their last two victories. They’ve been shakier away from home, but will get a chance to get right on the road this weekend in Minnesota for the second series of Big Ten play. One thing I love about this time of year is that as football builds to a climax, hockey and basketball kick things off nicely to provide an appetizer for the winter schedule of indoor sports.
And, on that note — women’s basketball is *finally* back. Well, almost. Niele Ivey’s still-pretty-young team, last seen taking a number one seed to the wire in the Sweet Sixteen, starts things off Halloween night with an exhibition against Truman State, with expectations to be one of the best teams in the ACC this year. It won’t be easy, even as other conference powers Louisville and NC State lose key pieces — but if the Irish can recapture their not-that-long-ago dominance and tap into whatever gear they found in last year’s NCAA tournament game against Oklahoma more often, it could be a really fun season in Purcell. On the men’s side, Mike Brey’s squad will tip off an exhibition on Wednesday, and both basketball teams properly get things started the following week. Stay tuned for a deeper preview on each — and again, as I famously do not know anything about hockey, please forgive the lack of a similar hockey preview.
Lots to look forward to in November and beyond.
P.S. — Sorry to miss last week, I was traveling a bit for non-football reasons and didn’t get a chance to catch the game; plus didn’t have a lot of writing time anyway. Speaking of which, I’m going to stop promising when I’ll get new posts up. I’m working on a few I swear, but writing time can be hard to come by when not doing it full time. So I’ll promise new posts, but no guarantees that they’ll be timely.
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