Notre Dame football is one of the most recognizable and storied brands in North American sports. But it has been a while since the brand of football played by the Fighting Irish lived up to the brand name of Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian, Touchdown Jesus, Rudy, and Rocket Ismail.
Always influential off the field, Notre Dame has been part of the college football hoi polloi on the field, going 32-31 the previous five seasons. The Roman Empire of college football was reduced to spinning its well-heeled wheels and spouting its history — 11 national championship (but none since the 1988 season), seven Heisman Trophy winners (but none since 1987), and one melodious fight song, while ceding the national title chase to the Alabamas, LSUs, and Oregons.
No more. Welcome back to the big time, Sons of South Bend.
Notre Dame is relevant again on the contemporary college football landscape for some reason other than its golden helmets, gilded past, and lucrative television contract. The fourth-ranked Fighting Irish, led by Chelsea-bred coach Brian Kelly, arrived at Alumni Stadium Saturday night as honest-to-goodness national championship chasers. They left sporting a 10-0 record for the first time since 1993, after a 21-6 victory over Boston College.
It was the Eagles who were forced to live in the past on this night, clutching memories of David Gordon (1993) and green jersey outrage (2002) upsets of past undefeated Irish teams.
The only thing upset at Alumni Stadium was the stomach of Boston College coach Frank Spaziani after watching the Irish rack up 393 total yards and convert its first 10 third-down chances.
Despite its supercilious superiority complex, Notre Dame being this good is good for college football.
Notre Dame football inspires a lot of emotions, but apathy and indifference are not among them. The Irish are revered and reviled in equal measure. They’re a touchstone of tension, providing elation and pride in their legions of alumni, both subway and actual, and perdition and scorn to those who despise their holier-than-thou patina. The Golden Domers still barely deign to acknowledge Boston College as a true rival.
Quarterback Everett Golson and running backs Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, and George Atkinson III don’t conjure up comparisons with Harry Stuhldreher, Jim Crowley, Don Miller, and Elmer Layden, otherwise known as the famed Four Horsemen. They don’t even evoke the Tony Rice-led Irish team that won the school’s last national title in 1988, averaging nearly 33 points per game.
But they were plenty for Boston College to handle on an autumn evening. The only thing stopping Notre Dame was, well, Notre Dame, which had a pair of fumbles and a few stumbles.
That could be a problem for Notre Dame. Given a national television audience and a chance to issue the last rites to a moribund BC team after they built a 21-3 lead early in the third quarter, Notre Dame stopped scoring points, both style and otherwise.
That’s a sin in the numbers-crunching Bowl Championship Series standings, but if you expected Kelly to repent for not running it up against the Eagles, you were wrong.
“You see how hard it is to win in college football. We can’t worry about those things,” said Kelly. “We have to focus on what we can do, and that’s win it on the field. If people don’t like us winning, I don’t what else to tell you.”
The luck of the Irish had been in effect to get Notre Dame to this point. Kelly’s squad survived near-death overtime experiences at Notre Dame Stadium against Stanford and last week against Pittsburgh, either of which could have knocked the Irish out of title contention. Instead, they just added to Notre Dame’s lore and allure in a 125th season that is becoming redolent of destiny.
No luck was needed against a BC program mired in a season so demoralizing it should come with a Bobby Valentine bicycle helmet.
The St. John’s Prep-educated Kelly has a reputation as an offensive guru, but it has been the Notre Dame defense that has woken up the echoes of past glory and shook down the thunder, along with opponents, this season.
These guys put the ‘D’ in ND. Led by ball-seeking missile middle linebacker Manti Te’o, who notched his sixth interception of the season, a school record for a linebacker, and dominant defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish entered Saturday night with a defense that operated in denial more than Karl Rove.
Through nine games, Notre Dame ranked second in the country in scoring defense (11.67 points per game), trailing only Alabama. Notre Dame has allowed eight offensive touchdowns all year and an FBS-best two rushing scores.
It’s quite possible Kelly’s team is the antithesis of what Notre Dame has been. Perpetually overrated in recruiting rankings, preseason polls, and relevancy, the Irish might be underrated this season. They dropped to No. 4 last week in the all-important BCS standings, which are about as easy to explain as calculating LIBOR interest rates.
Even Notre Dame’s 13th undefeated and untied season wouldn’t be enough on its own merits to ensure the school plays for a national title. The Irish need assistance. They got some Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
No. 1-ranked Alabama’s 29-24 loss to Texas A&M had Irish eyes fixated on a national championship smiling once again.
Even if it wins out against Wake Forest and Southern Cal the next two weeks, Notre Dame still could find its nose pressed against the BCS glass. If Oregon or Kansas State finish unblemished, both would likely go to South Florida for the BCS national championship game on Jan. 7 over the Irish.
Still, after a series of false starts, false résumés, and broken promises under coaches Bob Davie, George O’Leary, Tyrone Willingham, and former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis (whatever happened to the decided schematic advantage he promised?), Notre Dame is back at the top of the college football foodchain.
Love it or hate it, Notre Dame’s renaissance rolls on.