Five Things We Learned: Notre Dame vs. Tulsa

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For those looking to bury Brian Kelly after nine games at Notre Dame, they were given the opportunity late in the fourth quarter. After calling a timeout with 42 seconds left, Kelly decided against putting the game on the leg of his field goal kicker David Ruffer, and instead bet on the arm of freshman quarterback Tommy Rees, who dropped back from the Tulsa 19 yard line and targeted wide receiver Michael Floyd, running down the sideline in one-on-one coverage.

Floyd had a step on the undersized defensive back, but Rees’ back foot throw kited into a strong wind, helping 5-foot-9 cornerback John Flanders come down with an unlikely interception, sealing Tulsa’s 28-27 victory on a somber Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium.

“We knew we had a one-on-one match up with Mike Floyd, and certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there,” Kelly said after the game. “We took a timeout there to talk about it. But I think we all saw what happened.”

What happened was a heart-wrenching interception that put an ugly ending onto an otherwise great performance by Rees, who became the first Notre Dame freshman to throw four touchdown passes in a game. It also dropped Notre Dame to 4-5 on the season, putting the Irish in the difficult position of needing a win against either Utah or USC to have a chance to play in the postseason.

Let’s take a look at five things we learned during Notre Dame’s 28-27 loss to Tulsa.

1. The new goal for Notre Dame? Win two out of the next three.

Even before the tragic events of this week, Brian Kelly acknowledged that today’s game was one of the most important of his career. Needing two wins to clinch a bowl birth in the final four games, anybody could point to games against Tulsa and Army as must-have wins for the Irish.

But with the Irish losing today, they’ll now need to beat either Utah or USC, as well as an upstart Army team that’s 5-3 for the first time in over a decade.

“The most important thing still is for us to get to six wins,” Kelly said emphatically. “We’ve got to win two out of three now. That’s the number one goal, to win two out of three games minimally to get to six wins.”

The Irish will have a much needed weekend off before playing Utah, undefeated and ranked No. 8 team in the country. The Utes battle an upstart Air Force squad today and No. 4 TCU next Saturday, so they’ll be coming off two physical opponents before facing the Irish.

After that the Irish face another triple-option attack when Army joins Notre Dame for the first ever football game in the new Yankee Stadium, before finishing the season against rival USC, who likely will view the Irish as part one of their two-game postseason, against rivals Notre Dame and UCLA.

It’s an uphill road for the Irish, especially in light of their injury problems, but far from impossible.

2. Bob Diaco’s defense did their job.

After a wobbly first two series, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco slowed down a Tulsa attack that had great speed and a quarterback proficient at running the zone read.

Tulsa averaged just under 7.5 yards per play on their first two offensive possessions, but the Irish defense stood strong after that, holding Tulsa to only 272 total yards on 56 plays, below five yards a touch — impressive work considering Tulsa averaged 491 yards a game and 6.3 yards a play entering the game.

Diaco’s mixed a nice blend of pressure and zone coverage, sacking Tulsa quarterback G.J. Kinne five times, but ultimately the unit came up empty on Tulsa final offensive drive, when the Irish gave up a crucial 3rd and 26 in deep zone coverage.

Diaco and his defense took a lot of heat this week, but playing without starting nose tackle Ian Williams and insider linebacker Carlo Calabrese, the unit deserves a ton of credit for putting together a gritty performance, giving up only 13 of the 28 points the Golden Hurricanes scored.

3. Special Teams and the big play killed the Irish.

On a day where Notre Dame came up with a big fake punt that extended a drive and led to a Notre Dame touchdown, the Irish special teams killed them, with Tulsa’s two points on a critical returned extra-point attempt the swing in their one-point victory. David Ruffer’s only two misses on the season have come on blocked extra points, and the Irish offensive line gave up the block right off the center, with linebacker Curnelius Arnick scooping it up and returning it to for a touchdown.

Electric return man Damaris Johnson also returned a punt for a touchdown, bringing Tulsa back from a nine-point deficit, thanks to a low punt from Ben Turk, the lack of hang-time all that Johnson needed to weave his way through the Irish gunners.

And finally, the Irish were victimized by the big play, courtesy of linebacker Shawn Jackson, who caught a deflected Tommy Rees screen pass and closed the half with a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown, putting Tulsa back in the football game when it looked like the Irish were capable of marching down the field and extending the lead into double-digits. Some terrible luck for the Irish on a high-percentage play call that looked like a big gainer for Notre Dame, only to have the ball pin-ball its way into the arms of a Tulsa defender and pull the Hurricane within two points.

4. Tragedy for Dayne Crist turns into opportunity for Tommy Rees.

After starting the game slowly, Dayne Crist stepped up from Tulsa’s pressure rush and darted for the Notre Dame sideline, picking up the first down and then tight-roping along the sideline for a 29-yard gain. But Crist was hit high and hard, came down awkwardly on his left knee, and possibly ended his season with what’s been reported as a ruptured patellar tendon.

“It seems every medical report I get, it ends with, Done for the season,” Kelly said after the game. “The first report I got was a bruised knee, and then it was some with his patellar tendon. It’s a severe injury, I can tell you that, just seeing Dayne briefly.”

Heartbreaking news for Crist, who worked his way back quickly from a torn ACL suffered one year to the day last season in mop-up time against Washington State.

With Crist gone, Kelly turned to true freshman Tommy Rees, who was the lone bright spot in the Irish loss to Navy last week. And Rees responded right out of the gate, going 15 of his first 18 with three touchdown passes.

When asked to assess Rees’ play, Kelly was emphatic.

“Awesome. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more happy for the kid,” Kelly said. “True freshman goes out there, hasn’t played. He just competes.”

Still, Rees’ recording setting day with be remembered for his final throw, the back-breaking interception that sealed the game for Tulsa. Kelly walked through his thought process, putting the game in the hands of his freshman quarterback with the Irish in field goal range.

“Why not try to get Michael Floyd one-on-one against a 5-9 corner? We called a timeout and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do. Second down, take a shot here. If we don’t like it, let’s throw the thing away.’ Tommy wanted to do all those things. Tommy is a gamer. He knows the deal. He’s the quarterback.”

Pressed on his thought process, Kelly defending the decision to try and throw for the win instead of relying on kicker David Ruffer to make a field goal in a tricky wind.

“This is how we play. We’re going to play aggressive,” Kelly said. “We’re going to play smart… I would make the call again and I would hope that the process of learning would have a different outcome.”

Rees finished the afternoon 33 for 54 with four touchdowns and three interceptions, cementing his role as the starting quarterback against Utah after the off-week and putting the 2011 quarterback position into murky water, something nobody thought would happen entering the season.

5. Football isn’t always fair.

There’s no way to put today’s loss in true context after what the Notre Dame community suffered through this week. While the loss of Declan Sullivan puts the football game in perspective, walking off the field after losing a game like this rings about as hollow as it possibly can for an Irish team that had so much on their plates this week.

“As a football coach, there’s been more difficult weeks relative to the game itself,” Kelly said. “But in terms of the tragedy that occurred, there’s never been a more difficult time in my life.”

On the football field, life won’t get any easier for the Irish. Brian Kelly revealed that the Irish will likely be without leading running back Armando Allen for the rest of the season.

“It’s not a good situation. He may have played his last down here at Notre Dame because of the injury,” Kelly said about Allen’s injured hip. “He wanted to dress and run through the tunnel in case it was his last time playing at Notre Dame.”

The loss of Allen just adds to the nightmare scenario for Kelly’s offense, and is a terrible way for the team’s most consistent offensive player to end his career. Allen walked onto campus tantalizing Irish fans with breakaway speed, but an ankle injury suffered during his senior year of high school seemed to limit Allen’s ability to break the explosive plays many thought he’d bring to South Bend.

Instead, Allen turned into a renaissance man, an all-around performer that ran for the tough yards between tackles as well as possessing receiving skills while excelling in the return game. When asked to transition to the spread running attack, Allen responded with an 514 yards rushing, just shy of five-yards a carry, and great all-around play. Though his career was marred with various injury setbacks during his junior and senior seasons, Allen will go down as one of the top total-yardage player in Notre Dame history.

Questions for the week: If without St. Brown, who will Notre Dame turn to?

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Equanimeous St. Brown may not have matched his breakout sophomore season of a year ago, but his junior year has been nothing to scoff at. Despite being held without a catch in Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday, primarily due to injury, the junior receiver stands second in all Irish receiving categories.

If St. Brown is not cleared from the concussion protocol by the end of the week, he will be missed at Stanford (8 p.m. ET; ABC).

How will Notre Dame adjust without its most consistent receiver?

St. Brown has 26 catches for 357 yards and three touchdowns this season. Sophomore Chase Claypool exceeds the first two figures and sophomore Kevin Stepherson caught his third and fourth touchdowns against the Midshipmen. Those two are the obvious candidates to replace St. Brown’s production.

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson led all Irish receivers with five catches for 103 yards and two touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

That applies to Stepherson more than Claypool, despite the greater physical disparity from St. Brown. Simply enough, Stepherson’s continued increase in prevalence in the Irish passing game would likely surpass a healthy St. Brown this weekend.

The other possibility is junior Miles Boykin. In St. Brown’s absence this past weekend, Boykin caught two passes for 33 yards. His physicality and skillset most mirrors St. Brown’s, and plugging him into any three-receiver sets would allow Stepherson and Claypool to stick to the roles they regularly rehearse.

Will Notre Dame slow Stanford star running back Bryce Love? Rather, will the Irish need to?

Continued ankle and lower leg injuries have hampered Love for much of the season now. They kept him on the sidelines when the Cardinal barely slipped past Oregon State a few weeks ago, and they limited his fourth quarter this past weekend during Stanford’s 17-14 victory against Cal. The junior finished with 101 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries. Backup Cameron Scarlett added 61 yards on 14 carries.

Injuries have been about the only thing capable of consistently stopping Stanford running back Bryce Love this season. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

In the fourth quarter, Love took four carries for 11 total yards. For a running threat rarely stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, it was startling to see him take one of those carries to the line and no further while another gained just one yard.

Thus, there seems to be some logic to Stanford keeping Love sidelined once more. If Washington beats Washington State on Saturday — played concurrently on FOX with the game at hand — then the Cardinal heads to the Pac-12 title game. As much as Stanford undoubtedly wants to beat Notre Dame, there are many more rewards available for winning the conference, such as a nice New Year’s holiday spent in Phoenix, Ariz., instead of a Christmas week spent at home preparing for the Foster Farms Bowl in Santa Clara, Calif.

Will there be any movement within the College Football Playoff poll?

When it comes to tonight’s poll, not much, if any, of note. Few games registered on the national radar last week, and none resulted in top-10 upsets.

One development affects it looking forward, though. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier underwent finger surgery Sunday and will not lead the Mountaineers against Oklahoma as a result (3:45 p.m. ET; ESPN). If West Virginia ever stood a chance at the upset — and greatly helping any Irish dreams of still reaching the Playoff — it was likely going to need an otherworldly performance from Grier.

With a win this weekend, the Sooners would all but assure themselves priority over Notre Dame, even if Oklahoma loses to TCU in the Big 12 championship.

Will Miami finish the regular season undefeated?
Similarly, a win this weekend should lock the Hurricanes ahead of the Irish no matter next week’s results. Miami heads to Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET on Friday; ABC), but that should not be seen as the sure thing instinct might imply it is. A mere 54 weeks ago, a middling Panthers team upset the No. 3 team in the country, stopping Clemson’s pursuit of a perfect slate.

Can Georgia survive Georgia Tech’s option?
Again, a Bulldogs win (12 p.m. ET, ABC) should secure them a nice spot in any chaos-filled future pecking order. However, that will not be an easy task. Paul Johnson will be sure of that.

Can North Carolina State hit the over?
This may not be as consequential, but before the season, this space predicted the Wolfpack would exceed 7.5 wins this regular season, and a win over North Carolina (3:30 p.m. ET; ESPNU) is needed for that cause.

Lastly, remember folks, you won’t nod off late Thursday afternoon because turkey has an excess of tryptophan. Chicken actually has more per ounce. Rather, you simply ate too much of the fowl.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame on the precipice of a rare three-year stretch

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Thanks to its win Saturday over Navy, Notre Dame will have two chances to reach double digit victories this season. As Irish coach Brian Kelly pointed out after the 24-17 victory, reaching that mark for the second time in three years is not a common occurrence at Notre Dame. The last time the Irish achieved such success was at the peak of Lou Holtz’s career, never falling below 10 wins from 1988 to 1993.

“There’s a lot to play for, for these guys,” Kelly said. “[The seniors] have done an incredible job of leading us back to where we should be.”

If — and that two-letter word still looms large over this possibility — Notre Dame reaches 10 wins this season, it will actually be only the third time in program history to meet that mark twice in three seasons. Even though the Irish have played at least 11 games every season since 1969, only Holtz’s stretch and the 1973-74 seasons under Ara Parseghian qualify. (One exception: Notre Dame declined a bowl game in 1971 after finishing 8-2.)

While the 4-8 debacle in 2016 mitigates some of the luster of this distinction, realizing how infrequent such consistency is also underscores some of the outlier nature of last season.

Other coaches make inexplicable mistakes, too.

When the Midshipmen needed to gain five yards on their final drive, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo resorted to a halfback pass. To that point, his offense had converted four of five fourth-down attempts, falling barely a yard short on a fourth-and-five try on its first drive, stopped by Irish senior linebacker Greer Martini, naturally.

Since then, three consecutive conversions, including a 21-yard pass from quarterback Zach Abey. Yet, Niumatalolo opted for the trick play. It would have worked, too if Notre Dame senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti had not set the edge, recognized the play and quickly closed on running back Darryl Bonner, forcing the flutter of a pass attempt.

“If we would have gotten the ball off, he was open,” Niumatalolo said. “We didn’t block. We missed the block on the edge. If we get the block on the edge, we had a shot.”

Missed block or not, a triple-option team should not revert to a halfback pass when in a do-or-die situation. Ride with the horse that brought you. Win or lose with your fastball. Insert a third cliché here.

They are clichés for a reason.

Keven Stepherson points to the name on the back of the jersey.

Watching a replay of sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson’s first touchdown Saturday, a 30-yarder to tie the game at 17, one cannot help but notice he exuberantly points to the nameplate above his number.

In this instance, that was not a selfish or self-promotional gesture. The “Rockne Heritage” uniforms all had ROCKNE across the back.

“He’s had many chances to fold under the scrutiny that he’s been under,” Kelly said of Stepherson. “But he’s persevered and Notre Dame’s been great for him.”

Now, about traveling to Stanford …

The last time Notre Dame won at Palo Alto was a full decade ago, prevailing 21-14 in 2007.

With a loss to the Irish but perhaps a bowl win, the Cardinal should finish the season in the top 25. The last time Notre Dame went on the road and beat such a team was five full years ago, topping Oklahoma.

That can be a somewhat misleading fact, though. Those opportunities are not very common, partly because the Irish play only five true road games a season and partly because the opponent needs to be good enough to stay in the rankings despite a loss, an inherently detrimental result when it comes to rankings. Since Norman, Notre Dame has played only seven such games, including this year’s loss at Miami. (That does not include winning at Michigan State this year, as it is no sure thing the Spartans will finish the season ranked, whereas such can be readily presumed with the Hurricanes.)

Whether he returns for his senior season or not, Josh Adams has made his mark on Notre Dame’s record books. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Josh Adams now has more than 3,000 career rushing yards.

The numbers can speak for themselves. With 106 yards on 18 carries this weekend, the junior running back now has 3,105 career yards, good for No. 5 all-time at Notre Dame. Darius Walker (2004-06) sits 144 yards ahead of him.

Adams has 1,337 yards this season, exactly 100 fewer than the all-time Irish mark set by Vagas Ferguson in 1979.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Defensive counter to Navy’s option helps Irish put Miami in past

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Getting a team to heed the details necessary to counteract Navy’s triple-option attack is challenging enough. Getting Notre Dame to do it on the heels of its letdown at Miami a week ago made it even more difficult.

“The bigger shift this week was mentally get [the team] away from the Miami game to the Navy game,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “That was a bigger challenge this week [than preparing for the option], quite frankly.”

Finding that focus allowed Notre Dame to handle the Midshipmen 24-17 on Saturday, despite hardly possessing the ball, including only 6:24 of meaningful time in the second half. It may have been a victory by only seven points, but it was a return to the level of execution the Irish displayed all season long before heading to south Florida.

“If there’s one game we’d like to have back, and I take the responsibility for the preparation of our team, for Miami,” Kelly said. “Wake Forest proved to be a pretty good opponent. We were up 41-16 in that game and maybe lost a little bit of concentration.

“Other than the Miami game, which was our one hiccup this year, I’m pretty pleased with our football team.”

To slow the triple-option, Kelly and defensive coordinator Mike Elko relied on a variety of looks from their defensive front, forcing Navy to make the adjustments the Midshipmen usually impose upon their opponents. In doing so, Notre Dame narrowed Navy’s offense from the triple-option to largely leaning on a quarterback sweep. Junior Zach Abey finished with 87 yards on 29 carries, not the efficiency the Midshipmen need for success.

“Our plan was really good about changing things up with our fronts and who had pitch, who had QB, and that made it difficult for them,” Kelly said. “… It really just became how the fullback was loading on our cornerback.”

That cornerback was often sophomore Troy Pride, usually a reserve. In order to better utilize sophomore cornerback Julian Love’s physicality, Kelly moved Love to safety and inserted Pride into the starting lineup. Along with a crucial fourth-quarter interception halting a Navy drive deep in Irish territory, Pride made six tackles.

“Troy Pride had to play physical for us,” Kelly said. “Here’s a guy who was a wide cornerback [back-] pedaling most of his time here. Now he had to go mix it up. He played real well, real physical.”

Though he finished with 14 tackles, Love will remain at cornerback this season, but Kelly acknowledged he very well could be Notre Dame’s best safety.

“If we could clone him, I’d like to do that. … Could he be our best safety? Yes. He’s definitely our best corner. The problem is we can only play him at one of those two positions.”

On receiver injuries
Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is in the concussion protocol after landing on his head/neck in the first quarter. Sophomore Chase Claypool could have returned to the game Saturday despite a banged up shoulder, but the Irish had found a rotation Kelly felt comfortable with at that point, leaning on sophomore Kevin Stepherson and junior Miles Boykin.

Claypool finished with two catches for 28 yards. Stepherson had five receptions for two scores and 103 yards. Boykin added 33 yards from two snags.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame will do what it takes to develop its passing game

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame knows it needs a worthwhile passing game. The debacle at Miami made it clear some semblance of an aerial threat must be feared by the opposing defense. Thus, the Irish set to working on that deficiency in a 24-17 victory over Navy on Saturday.

At halftime, those efforts struck a pessimist as dismal. A cynic found them necessary, and an optimist might have even considered them as having taken a step in the right direction.

Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush reached halftime 4-of-10 for 72 yards. On one hand, he had completed only 40 percent of his passes. By no metric is that good enough. That was the pessimist’s supporting fact.

The cynic looked back a week, remembering when the Hurricanes focused entirely on the Irish rushing game and Wimbush still completed only 10 of 21 passes. The cynic then reaches for a thesaurus and finds synonyms for necessary. Required. Imperative. Vital.

The optimist realized 10 pass attempts gaining 72 yards is an average of 7.2 yards per attempt. That would outdo all but two of Wimbush’s games this season, his 8.65 yards per attempt at Michigan State and his 9.33 yards per attempt against Wake Forest just two weeks ago. Settling anywhere north of seven would be a great step forward for this passing attack.

By the end of the game, the pessimist, cynic and optimist all had to see the same thing: When effective, Wimbush is a bona fide quarterback. Yes, at some point in the future, that initial distinction needs to no longer be part of the equation, but this still qualifies as progress. Yes, that initial distinction is a heftily-meaningful alteration to any phrase, but this establishing itself as fact still marks progress. Wimbush started poorly, but he kept his concentration and finished impressively.

“I thought he settled down into the game,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “What we’re looking for is a guy that will take what’s happened early and kind of reset a little bit, which he did, and refocus. He came back and made some really big plays for us.”

Wimbush completed five of eight second-half passes for 80 yards and two touchdowns, leaning heavily on sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson.

“I think I just started seeing things a little bit more clearly and adjusted to the tempo that Navy was playing at and went from there,” Wimbush said.

Notre Dame relies on its rushing game. There is no doubt the ground attack is the stirrer in this Irish coffee. (Consider that a wit’s attempt at saying, the straw that stirs the drink.) Wimbush throwing 18 times against Navy — not to count the couple other times he dropped back with intentions to pass but pulled the ball down — is not Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long reverting to Kelly’s form of the past, the form of the pass.

Instead, it is the Irish desperately trying to find Wimbush rhythm, if not confidence, in the passing game. As competitive as Navy kept Saturday, this was a week the inefficiency of the educational effort could be afforded.

Notre Dame can, in fact, win a one-possession game.

The last time the Irish did so was against Miami, Oct. 29, 2016. Prior to that, the most-recent close Notre Dame victory came at Boston College, Nov. 21, 2015. Including the victory over the Hurricanes, the Irish had gone 1-9 in the interim.

“For us, it was just a gritty victory,” senior linebacker and captain Greer Martini said. “… I think that’s the next stepping stone for us on to Stanford.”

The nature of Navy’s game plan keeps games close no matter a talent disparity. Finding its way to a tight victory bodes well for Notre Dame, no matter the opponent. In many respects, this remained a mental hurdle needing clearing.

Greer Martini will (not) miss playing against the option.

And he might be the only Irish defender in history to feel that way. In 48 career games to date, the senior captain and linebacker has made 184 tackles, including 15 on Saturday. In six career games against option-specific options, Martini has made 61 tackles. In some respects, Martini made his career excelling against the triple-option, an approach most defenders avoid like a plague.

“It’s just the idea that it’s a lot of run, run downhill, run around,” Martini said. “Just play with a lot of enthusiasm, run sideline-to-sideline.”

Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo has gotten fed up with Martini, apparently confirming with both Kelly and Martini that he had seen his last of the linebacker. Both assured him he had.

“[Niumatalolo has] tried to block him, he can’t block him,” Kelly said. “… [Martini] just has a really good nose for the football, good sense. What you saw today was the physicality and bending back on the fullback. He was physical, played with the top of his pads.

“It was a clinic in terms of the way he played the linebacker position today.”

Martini insists he will not miss seeing the option, but it cannot be denied the effect the opposing attack had on Martini’s career. As a freshman, he made 26 total tackles. Nine came against Navy.

Notre Dame will host the NHL Winter Classic in 2019.

Yet, the Irish will hope to not be in attendance.

NBC and the NHL announced during the game the 2019 Winter Classic will be held at Notre Dame Stadium on Jan. 1, 2019, between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Burins.

“We are very excited to welcome the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and NHL to Notre Dame Stadium for the 2019 Winter Classic,” Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said. “I believe it’s only fitting that two of the NHL’s legendary Original Six teams will take the ice for the first hockey game in one of America’s most iconic athletic facilities. Hosting two franchises with so many connections to Notre Dame also provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our hockey legacy.”

On New Year’s Day, a Tuesday next year, the Notre Dame football team will hope to be involved in a major bowl game. Given recent history, it will prefer the Cotton Bowl in Dallas rather than the Orange Bowl in Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Mike McGlinchey may be a behemoth of a man with shocking agility for his size, but in at least one respect, he is just like the rest of us.

Wouldn’t you struggle to keep your emotions in check taking the field to the “Rudy” soundtrack in your last home game after a five-year career at Notre Dame? Okay, insist you wouldn’t. What if your mom was waiting for you on the field?