Knocking at the 2020 door, Notre Dame does not remember 2012

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 29 CFP Semifinal at the Cotton Bowl Classic - Clemson v Notre Dame
Getty Images
10 Comments

You remember the chair you were sitting in, the drink in your hand and who else was where in the room. Liam Eichenberg does not remember watching the 2012 national championship at all.

The now fifth-year, first-team All-American left tackle would have been a freshman in high school when Alabama ran Notre Dame off the field in Miami in January of 2013, but it takes counting the years on this end to figure that out because Eichenberg does not remember and clearly is not going to spend time worrying about it.

“I do not remember watching that game,” he said Monday. “If I’m being honest with you, I couldn’t tell you how old I was. I just know that it was a tough game, I guess you could say.

“But it’s a different year, different teams.”

At least it is to those inside the locker room. To the skeptics far from the field, these are the same old Irish readying for yet another New Year’s Day blowout at the hands of a far superior opponent, and while that blowout may come to be, it does not mean these are the same old Irish.

These Irish have been here just once before, and they came away from the 2018 Playoff semifinal loss believing rather than doubting, despite the 30-3 loss.

“The biggest takeaway was that we can win these games,” fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer said. “Just hard work and everything we do together is what puts us in these situations. We’re all really excited for this opportunity and ready to take it to them.”

Notre Dame is not oblivious. On some level, the locker room knows the perception, recognizes the assumption of a public debacle on Friday (4 ET; ESPN) in the Rose née Thorn Bowl in AT&T Stadium. One of the very few holdover pieces from that 2012 shellacking knows better than most, because he gets asked a few times a week all fall, whether the upcoming opponent is Syracuse or Clemson, and then twice on National Signing Day.

“We know the challenges in front of us, but we welcome those challenges,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said unprompted Thursday. “That’s why we go to work each and every day, to put ourselves in this position.”

Notre Dame has rattled off four consecutive 10-win seasons, even though one of them included only 10 played-as-scheduled games. It is one of five teams to reach multiple Playoffs and one of only six to beat Clemson or Alabama in the last six seasons, not including the duo splitting four games.

The instinct to think back to 2012, to the 2015 Fiesta Bowl, to the 2018 Playoff semifinal, to two weeks ago in the ACC title game is itself a testament to the Irish putting themselves in this position.

And to capitalize on the opportunity, first the opportunity must be earned.

“We’re going to keep knocking at the door,” Kelly said. “We don’t listen to the narratives about what Notre Dame can and can’t do. We’re just excited that we’re going to keep banging at this door and we’re going to get through.

“We’re going to keep putting ourselves in this position.”

If that is a position to get walloped, so be it. Compared to the alternative of facing a  disengaged Florida in an Orange Bowl decapitating, this position offers significantly more upside, and unlike the last time the Irish faced one of these big two, they know the flip side of that upside is a side dish at Mom’s dinner table.

All things being equal, that mac & cheese could just as easily be waiting in two weeks; Notre Dame’s second semester does not commence until February.

“Clemson beat us, they were the better football team that day,” Kelly said. “There’s no doubt about it, but the mindset was different.

“Coming into this game, playing in the Playoffs, your mindset shifts and changes to one where you know you have to play your very best. If you don’t, you go home.

“That wasn’t the case the second time we played (Clemson). Unfortunately, it crept into the way we played. No excuses, Clemson was the better team that day, but having said that, I can sense the way we’ve prepared, this team will play with a similar mindset that they did, and they’ll need to, in the first game that we played against Clemson.”

That first game against Clemson confirmed Kraemer’s memory of the 2018 humbling; the Irish can win these games. If it plays perfectly, if it leans on its offensive line, if it catches a break or two.

The offensive line, in particular, remains the Notre Dame strength. Eichenberg may not remember that 2012 stumble, but he has studied the last few iterations of Irish lines. With all due deference to his predecessors, one of whom (Chris Watt) now serves as an offensive graduate assistant, Eichenberg thinks Notre Dame has only improved its trademark.

“The offensive line has come a long way since then,” he said. “Nothing against those guys, they had a lot of great players. … What we’ve built over the past couple of years will help us during this game specifically.”

As will the shrugging off of what is so roundly seen as a fait accompli. Fifth-year defensive end Daelin Hayes has been dismissing narratives of proverbial monkeys on Irish backs for a month now — “It’s not real,” Hayes said before the ACC championship. “All these speculations about this, that, none of that is real.” — and considering he is one of the locker room’s most respected voices, it is safe to presume his logic pervades the Notre Dame roster.

“Sure, we hear it, we’re aware of the noise, we call it,” senior linebacker Drew White said Tuesday. “But it’s really just about the guys in the locker room and about the brotherhood. We’re playing for each other. We’re not playing for credit to the media or whoever’s thinking we don’t deserve a spot. We’re playing for each other.

“We want to get to the National Championship. We want to win the National Championship for our teammates. So that’s really what’s propelling us is that right there.”

The Irish do not remember facing Alabama in 2012.

They remember losing to Clemson in 2018 and firmly believing they belonged on the same field as the eventual national champions, something they proved this November only to lose focus in December.

These Irish look forward two weeks more than you look back eight years.

Editor’s Note: Consider this the first-ever “Thursday at 3 (CT).”