Things To Learn: All eyes on you this weekend, Notre Dame fans, and on the Irish running game

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This weekly preview is supposed to focus on No. 8 Notre Dame, on its offensive line fitting in yet another new piece, on the possibility of the scuffling defense finding its strengths.

But this week, the Irish are the secondary concern.

WELCOME BACK.

Fans in the stands, you were missed. Empty stadiums can be hauntingly beautiful … three hours after the chaos caused by your celebrations. Notre Dame Stadium was vast and deflating without 78,000 voices matching the rhythms of their twirling fingers just before kickoff.

Do you remember how to do that? It’s the more enthusiastic version of patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.

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Notre Dame is counting on a full-throated return, noT that it will necessarily need it against Toledo (2:30 ET; Peacock). Instead, it understandably wants to relish in the atmosphere that ties the absurdity of this sport into a disheveled, grandiose bow.

“We just need our fans to be as loud and as excited about being in that Stadium as we are,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “We expect that, so I’m not challenging anybody, but this is big for us. We haven’t experienced this kind of environment in quite a long time. It’s a big game. It’s the first opportunity to show our home crowd what we look like, and we just want them to be out there in full force.”

Kelly is not knocking Florida State’s fans when he says Notre Dame has not experienced this environment in a while, and he is not knocking the 11,000 Irish students, faculty and staff who made a decent amount of noise when No. 1 Clemson visited last November. But there is something different at home in front of a full crowd, obviously.

“It’s going to be nice to not have 80,000 people yelling in your ear on third-and-three,” sophomore tight end Michael Mayer said.

Fair, but that does not mean Toledo quarterback Carter Bradley cannot enjoy that. This is not Notre Dame fandom coming from this unbiased space. Rather, it is excitement to feel that energy around campus again. Fifth-year kicker Jonathan Doerer said he is specifically looking forward to the players’ walk into the Stadium, to see some friends, to see the fans.

They missed y’all.

“I’m expecting some rowdy fans,” Mayer said. “I’m expecting a packed Stadium for sure. I’m excited about it. I’m really excited about it.”

Last week’s games featured classic rock anthems and their accompanying football choreography reminding the college football universe what we love most about this sport is not on the field. It is the environment, the fans, the community and the rivalries between communities.

Notre Dame does not have a distinct in-game moment a la Wisconsin’s “Jump Around” or Virginia Tech’s “Enter Sandman” for NBC to prime as a viral moment—errrrr, apologies—for Peacock to prime as a viral moment, but one will inevitably come, anyway.

Maybe it will be an entire section of students cascading downward because of one misplaced left foot doing the Irish jig upon six-inch-wide wooden bleachers during the “Rakes of Mallow.” Perhaps it will be an unintentional middle finger aimed at a camera as a fan tries to contort his hand into a ‘K’ before the fourth quarter. Most likely, it will be the view of dozens of green Shirt-wearing students being raised aloft by their classmates after a Notre Dame touchdown.

And then again after another Notre Dame touchdown.

And then yet again.

The Irish offense got off to a hot start in Tallahassee on Sunday, only to stutter on the ensuing four drives. Dropped passes and missed conversions cost Notre Dame a truly insurmountable lead.

“We started fast,” Kelly said. “We have a mantra here about four quarters of football, and one of them is starting fast. As you know, we got off to a great start. Defensively, as well, I think six out of the first eight possessions, aside from the two big plays, we had them pinned down. We really needed to finish off the first quarter better than what we did, and that was really pivotal.”

Nonetheless, that opening drive flashed a look comparable to a modern offense, one that is necessary to truly compete with college football’s top-tier.

The Irish defense can falter if its offense can do more of that, and proving it can do it for a full game would go a long way to restoring confidence in Notre Dame, both inside and outside the locker room, not to mention the good it would do the student body’s upper-body strength.

A modern offense does not need to abandon the run, by any means, particularly not when two explosive backs like junior Kyren Williams and sophomore Chris Tyree are around. If the Irish are going to find a ground game after gaining only 65 yards against Florida State, this Saturday would be a good start, but if not, fine-tuning that passing game will be absolutely necessary.

That may include even more of Williams lined up as a receiver, but that proved plenty effective with his six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown last week. He was still primarily a running back, taking 18 carries for 42 yards.

Notre Dame clearly thought it could run the ball against the Seminoles, and when that fell short, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees had to find yards where he could, through chunk gains in the air. As long as Williams is getting three times as many carries as targets, he should still be considered a running back, but if that ground game falters and that ratio thus begins to narrow, well, then the exact meanings of the positions may need to be examined.

All facets of the offense will depend on sophomore left tackle Michael Carmody, replacing freshman Blake Fisher (knee injury) for at least eight weeks. Carmody held up well against Florida State in the second half, but at the time, little mind was paid to him because Fisher’s status was so uncertain. Now, plenty of attention will land on Carmody. A telltale sign of Rees’ faith in him, or lack thereof, will be how often Williams or sophomore tight end Michael Mayer is asked to help out with a block on the left side of the line.

If this seems to focus on the offense, that’s because it does, for two reasons:
1) Last week’s late moments from Notre Dame’s defense were so discombobulated, little can be drawn from them until seen again. If the Irish miss repeated tackles, blow run fits and take the wrong angles for entire stretches of another game, then the criticism of new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman will begin to approach its proper temperature. Those are not scheme mistakes, though. Those are just mistakes, plain and simple.

“We’re transitioning from a different mindset in the way that we need to play defense,” Kelly said. “You cannot let your guard down for a moment, or you’re going to give up a big play. We’ve got some work to do there.”

Some.

And 2) for the most part, it is the offense that forces Notre Dame’s students to do pushups, that prompts the fans to remember when to hold their breath and when to release with expediency, that turns 80,000 normally decent people into 80,000 carefree fools.

This time, though, they cannot be completely carefree. The proverbial end times have not entirely ended, after all. So a few reminders before returning to campus …

— Notre Dame Stadium is now entirely cashless. Bring your credit or debit card. Skip the ATM.
— Entry into Notre Dame Stadium is now entirely digital. Do not back up the line; download your ticket ahead of time. You should have gotten an email.
— Wear a mask when indoors. Imagine you were a student during a pandemic and you saw strangers invade your home with no regard for your rules or your safety. Give them that courtesy.

And then just sing the “Alma Mater” that much louder.

That will inevitably be the moment that NBC—errrrr, again, apologies—that Peacock focuses on to relish the return of fans to Notre Dame Stadium.


30 Years of ND on NBC: The Irish fell, but more importantly, football returned after 9/11

Amid all the joy of a mass reunion, Saturday will also mark a solemn occasion, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. If attending the game, it may be prudent to plan to enter Notre Dame Stadium early to watch a video, played at about 2:20 ET, of reflections from former University President Rev. Edward “Monk” Malloy. He and current University President John Jenkins will then present the national colors.

“It’s etched in everybody’s mind that saw it on that day and if you didn’t, our guys, it’s not ancient history to them even if they weren’t born,” Kelly said Thursday. “They have a family member or somebody that they knew that was part of it, and so it hits close to home to so many people.”