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Notre Dame Football

Culture, Leadership Set Irish Tone

November 21, 2019

The possibility of a return to the College Football Playoffs was gone, obliterated beneath a driving rain inside Michigan Stadium.

In the dwindling space of a college football independent, no conference championship remained as a dangling carrot.

Notre Dame was at something of a crossroads in the wee hours of October 27, the aftermath of their dispatching at Michigan still fresh.

Yet everything was different; no 2016 redux was going to emerge from this defeat to engender more nightmares in Irish coach Brian Kelly.

Everything was going to be fine; better than fine, really, judging by the Fighting Irish’s spirited response in the weeks since that setback.

This is not 2016. Not at all. One loss does not begat additional losses --- seven by a combined 32 points in the case of that ill-fated squad.

The freshmen from that painful ’16 squad that lost eight games are many of the seniors preparing for Saturday’s ‘Senior Day’ home finale against Boston College. Kick is 2:30 p.m. inside Notre Dame Stadium (NBC TV), as the Irish continue their march toward what could be the program’s third-straight season of 10 or more wins --- a feat not accomplished since Lou Holtz’s 1991-92-93 squads.

“We’re not the same team; this is not the same program,” said senior offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, a walking testament to the group’s resolve after returning from multiple surgeries to be a key contributor on this team. “The energy is totally different around here. We practice so hard, and that’s the main difference. Coach Kelly has done a great job; our coaching staff is fantastic. And not to say 2016 wasn’t, but this is just a totally different team.

“The energy around the building every single day is totally different. That season was hell, and it’s not going to happen around here ever again.”

Still, the Michigan loss very nearly metastasized into an additional defeat a week later, when an up-and-down Virginia Tech team --- good enough to respond to the Notre Dame game with a beatdown of then-No. 19 Wake Forest, 36-17; mortal enough to need a double-digit rally against FCS resident Furman in the season’s opening month --- had the Irish on the precipice of defeat.

The Hokies had used a 98-yard fumble return for a touchdown and an opportunistic offense for a 20-14 lead that lingered until less than 45 seconds remained in the game.

Notre Dame’s initial late-game drive from its own 1-yard line had resulted in no points, dead at the Hokies’ 4-yard line. The Irish’s defining march? It took 18 plays, 87 yards and a heroic Chase Claypool reception on fourth-and-long to facilitate Ian Book’s game-winning touchdown jaunt.

“We had nothing going well for us that whole game, so I think for us to drive down the field with the confidence that we had, showed a lot about the leadership and confidence that our team kind of has in each and every one of us,” Claypool said. “I think we’ve really grown as an offense and that showed on that drive.”

If the 30 wins for Notre Dame since that eight-loss campaign illustrate a macro view of the program’s overall growth on and off the field, the pair of dominant victories on the heels of the Virginia Tech comeback are microcosm for an Irish program healthier and sturdier now than it was at that time three years in the past.

Notre Dame blasted Duke on the road, 38-3, a week after its great escape against the Hokies; it torpedoed then-No. 23 Navy, 52-20, last Saturday.

“Well, the culture was already built,” Kelly said. “It was a matter of gaining some confidence within, certainly with the quarterback. It was both drives, and him feeling as though no matter what slings and arrows are out there, that he can do this job as the quarterback at Notre Dame regardless.

“As a football team, I think they learned an incredible lesson that the Michigan game taught them, and they just needed to get through the Virginia Tech game. But I saw it coming in their preparation leading into Virginia Tech. We just carried a lot of that with us into the Tech game, so once we got out of it and were on the other side of it, it was, ‘Let's just go play and play fast and free.’ And they have.”

They have done so despite critical injuries --- Tommy Kraemer, Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Robert Hainsey among them --- and only the possibility of an at-large bid into a New Year’s Six bowl as their motivation.

Plus, well, the culture this group of leaders has established.

“I think we have fantastic captains; they lead this team, they keep the energy high during practice,” said third-year linebacker Drew White, who leads the team with 65 tackles. “And we’re just hard workers. I could talk from the defensive standpoint because I’m close to them the most, but even as an overall team, we’re brothers.

“We said after the tough loss to Michigan, we’re fighting for the guys in the room. We’re fighting for our brothers next to us. You don’t want to let any of your brothers down. So that’s really kind of how we’ve stayed up, momentum and energy and we come out to practice every day bringing the juice.”

It’s becoming the foundational bedrock for the future.

“It just shows that the leadership is very strong,” said sophomore linebacker Paul Moala, who punctuated the Navy victory with a fumble return for a touchdown. “It shows that we’re a family; it’s not just a team here. We’re brothers and we make sure that we look out for each other and we’re always picking each other up when we’re down.

“Just to be able to come back better and stronger is just a testament to how great this team is as a group of brothers.”

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