40 Thanksgivings and missings for Notre Dame fans

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If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s that “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” applies to more than matters of love. Missing something is simply another form of expressing gratitude for ever having had it. Notre Dame fans may hate USC, but they miss the Trojans this year. Ending the regular season at Wake Forest just doesn’t bring the same je ne sais quoi, all due respect to Sam Hartman and the Demon Deacons. Irish fans now have to face the reality that they are thankful for USC, even if it cost Notre Dame possible national championship chances in 1970, 1974 and 1980.

My annual thanksgivings thus includes many items I am thankful for largely because I now miss them. It feels clunky to call them thanks-missings, but that describes the sentiment.

Some of these are more personal than usual because 2020 calls for it, the final two of these 40 are the most sincere, and without further ado …

— Worrying about a forced, superficial sellout streak was an unrecognized luxury. In hindsight, Notre Dame undoubtedly wishes it had stretched its streak of 273 sellouts past last year’s Navy game. Just two more weeks and the streak could have reached an uncontroversial, humble ending.

— Freshman running back Chris Tyree being allowed to make a mistake in the opener (a blown blitz pickup in the red zone) stands out in contrast to the treatment of Kyren Williams last season, when a dropped pass cut short his freshman year. Williams is diplomatic now — “I knew I was getting red-shirted, so I didn’t think it was anything to do with my ability or anything to do with the coaches not believing in me.” — but one can be forgiven for wondering what he might have produced last year given his explosion this season.

At least this time around, Tyree has been given the chance to take 59 carries for 334 yards despite his flawed debut.

— Rewatching the opening 27-13 win against Duke, just about everyone missed football games devoid of election ads.

— Notre Dame has handled COVID protocols in its press box with great and appreciated care, but removing the pregame platter of donuts robs the beat writers one of life’s simple pleasures: apple fritters. A rule in this life: Never bypass a quality apple fritter.

— Shutouts are always fun. The Irish notching their second in two seasons after going the first nine years of Brian Kelly’s tenure with just two shutouts should underscore a frequent mantra, “Don’t take Clark Lea for granted.” If Notre Dame is lucky enough for the third-year defensive coordinator to return for a fourth season, it will be a direct result of the pandemic reducing this offseason’s coaching carousel.

— Lea has instilled a “one of 11” mantra in his defense, a phrase offered by fifth-year end Daelin Hayes early in the season and senior tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa just this week when discussing how he handles facing double-teams, moments where Tagovailoa-Amosa’s responsibility is to absorb the blocks rather than try to shed them.

“There’s definitely a sense inside of me that that’s just the sacrifice you have to make,” he said, also noting he sees double-teams only a handful of times on Saturdays, compared to about half the snaps in practice. “We’re playing one of 11. I have to do my job, trust that my brothers have my back and they’re doing their own jobs. There’s really no frustration there to a point where I get that selfish feeling that I want to do more. Everyone wants to do more. Everybody wants to make a play. But when it comes to playing the game of football, you’re not going to make every play.”

— Well, you’re not going to make every play unless you are senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Lea has developed quite a talent, a player who has gone from recruiting afterthought/staged stunt to a certain first-round draft pick.

— Be grateful for Kyle Hamilton, Irish fans, despite his dropped pick-six at Boston College.
— And be grateful for one more year of the sophomore safety before he is a certain first-round draft pick.
— Take that previous sentence, apply it to freshman tight end Michael Mayer in two years, and for the sake of keeping expectations in check, let’s make it “early-round draft pick.”

— When Notre Dame returned from its outbreak-forced pause, head coach Brian Kelly gave the game ball to trainer Rob Hunt and team doctor Matt Leiszler for navigating the Irish through a period that saw nearly 40 positive coronavirus tests. Kelly should also have recognized contact tracers and COVID test takers. They made this football season, and so much else, possible in whatever fraught regard it has existed.

— Let’s all look forward to a day when we do not spend Monday-Friday worrying if Saturday is still on schedule. For that matter, after last weekend in Tallahassee, we have to worry about that just about until Saturday’s kickoff.

Liam Eichenberg’s swollen-shut left eye already feels like two seasons ago, but the fifth-year left tackle played through that fright just two months ago. While unable to see a significant portion of the field, he still had the wherewithal to stage direct Williams’ game-sealing run.

“When I was cutting back, the cutback to get the first down, I actually heard Liam scream, ‘Cut back,’” Williams said. “I feel like that’s a big play to talk about as a lineman.”

— To shed some light behind the curtain, the Florida State game provided yours truly a career-first. I could write the lede to the post-game column before kickoff. Quoting those first three paragraphs here would get tedious, but do know, getting 200 words into a post-game column after a primetime game a full 48 hours before kickoff is about as relaxed as football season can get.

— The only other comparable moment came last season against Bowling Green, when both the headline and the lede of the game wrap were written well before kickoff. “No. 9 Notre Dame breezes through Bowling Green defense as if it has seen it before” — “Notre Dame finally knows how it feels to go up against a Brian VanGorder defense.”

— In VanGorder’s defense, when Javon McKinley dropped a crossing route for a touchdown and thus kept the Irish below their expected team points total, he started a run for the Bowling Green defense in which it has held opponents below their respective team totals in six of the last 11 games. That marks quite the reversal for VanGorder, having given up more than that figure in 20 of the preceding 32 games.

Related: Ohio is expected to score at least 39 points this weekend.

— Channeling some long-useless Hemingway reading to not only work “bull rushes” into the headline of Notre Dame’s trouncing of South Florida but to also slip “mauling,” “flailing matador” and “Veronica maneuver” into the second paragraph, that was a needed release of creativity.
— The same could be said for working not-so-subtle current-events parallels into the Clemson wrap. “Extra time, review and crowds make for a very 2020 upset

— There would have been no creative juices on hand if not for a negative coronavirus test received that Saturday morning, the second in two days, both expedited after a vague exposure concern. Again, contact tracers and COVID test takers, kudos.

— Those creative juices would have needed to change tunes if not for the crucial contributions from embattled Irish veterans Avery Davis and Shaun Crawford. Though neither should be considered a template for other players, Davis with more position changes than can be counted and Crawford in his sixth season, veterans biding their time until a momentary opportunity is a foundational piece of a strong program.

Could Crawford return for a seventh year? He would not rule it out this week, though he also began his answer to the question with a few seconds of laughter.

— Rewatching the Clemson game, I was suddenly thankful for a broadcast devoid of political ads, ironically so.
— Seeing Kathryn Tappen on the sideline that evening reminded me how grateful I am for this season’s contributions from Caroline Pineda, at Tappen’s side at home games. It’s nice to have quality writing around here for once, isn’t it?

— Notre Dame is replacing two offensive line starters this weekend. It is shocking how little consternation there is over that, relatively speaking. That is a testament to the depth of talent the Irish have stockpiled there.

— It is certainly a coincidence that the Irish played in an Orlando bowl game in 2011, 2017 and 2019. Absolutely only a coincidence.

— That kind of tidbit would have surfaced to the top of a few articles in an offseason spent researching the nooks and crannies of college football. I missed studying the graduate transfers at Virginia Tech, the coaching style of Boston College’s new hire and the temperature of Derek Mason’s seat at Vanderbilt.
— Such research from all of college football media leads to a few unusual programs getting hype before the season, which in turn generates a broader excitement for kickoff. North Carolina, Indiana and BYU all missed out in this uncertain offseason.

— And such research and hype culminates, at least for me, in a 30-hour jaunt to Las Vegas, complete with 12 miles hiking up-and-down the Strip shopping, but not for clothes. Oh, the days of travel and crowded rooms and drinks.

— That trip ideally yielded a few moments of closing line value during the season.
— Closing line value has become the mantra shouted from the Moon Crew Discord mountaintops, to little success this season. But still, be thankful for closing line value. Just this coming weekend, it could mean fast-acting Notre Dame fans are pleased with a 35-31 Irish victory while the procrastinators lament the lack of one more score.

To that Discord and to any other place you have found community in these isolating times, thank you.
To those at PointsBet who have spurred some of this conversation at NBC, thank you.

— Those conversations used to be held only in bars on Friday nights before a road game when a stranger would start a conversation about the little black notebook next to my laptop.
— On the other side of my laptop would be a plate of bare chicken wing bones. Alright, I clearly miss Athens, Ga. In my defense, the wings were delicious, and that proverbial Claire was a great distraction for a couple of hours while Matt Fink looked like the next great USC quarterback, throwing for three touchdowns against Utah. It might be a poor reflection of how my mind works that I immediately tie that woman to a backup USC quarterback, huh?

— Anyway, I miss and am grateful for poorly-lit corners of dive bars.
— Open up again soon, MacKenzie’s.
— I also miss airport bars, where this column was always written late Wednesday night via cell phone hotspot. I have shared Sam Hinkie with far fewer strangers in 2020.

— I miss eating Thanksgiving dinner at a Los Angeles diner with a $22 prime rib and cheesecake special, followed by slipping a flask of aged rum into a movie theater as the first time all season I truly detach for three hours.

— But I am grateful for furloughs ending.
— And for those who read this far, those who don’t, those who offered needed kind words upon April’s shuttering, and those who expressed joy at September’s return.

Here’s to all’y’all.