Having spilled so much sweat that his soaked T-shirt looked as if he got caught in a downpour, Notre Dame defensive tackle Howard Cross III made the slow walk away from another afternoon of work.
The path was a familiar one for Cross from the LaBar Practice Fields, back through the Irish Athletic Center and then out the big garage door and across the street to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, where a shower and dinner awaited. It was a route that Cross walked the previous Tuesday, and the Tuesday before that. And that.
The Trek on this night was different. Not because he had to take a detour and meet with the media — a sure sign that his early season’s been a success — but because on this Tuesday, everything seemed a bit more normal.
It was all about football.
The first three weeks of the college season carried a suffocating scrutiny about everything Notre Dame. That’s nothing new around here, but it was to this group this season. The run-up to the opener at Ohio State, a game that featured two top-10 teams, lasted eight months. Did you know Ohio State is where first-year Notre Dame Coach Marcus Freeman went to school? Where did they play? Where did his college coaching career begin as a graduate assistant? Really.
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Week Two, the Spotlight again was white hot on Freeman for his first game as head Coach in Notre Dame Stadium, which became his first loss as head Coach at Notre Dame Stadium. Then last week, the meh home game against California became bigger than expected for then-winless Notre Dame. The Irish really needed a win, and got it while wearing green jerseys. Against Cal. In September.
Now, there’s now. Sandwiched between those three games and a Shamrock Series game against Brigham Young in Las Vegas — nice! — before the season’s first home night game next month comes a run-of-the-mill road game Saturday at North Carolina. That’s Rolling North Carolina (3-0), which hosts a sellout crowd at Kenan Stadium, but there’s nothing really that special about this one. Even the kick time — middle of the afternoon — underlines that this one’s just another game.
Well whoa. No night kick. Not a lot of national attention. Just a Saturday afternoon of college football in a place and against a program known more for college basketball. Just the way these Irish (1-2) kind of need it.
“Going on the road, we’re in the swing of it now,” said Cross, Surprisingly the team’s leading tackler (21, one fewer than he tallied in 2021) three games in. “No more, ‘Oh, I wonder how the first game is going to go (or) oh, am I going to be able to do this?’
“All the niceties and everything are out of the way. Now we can play football.”
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Talk football. Think football. Practice football without the collective weight of the college football world on their shoulders, which is how the first three weeks felt. Asked about the difference in this week as opposed to the first three, Freeman’s response required zero words.
The smile on his face as he stood at the podium Monday during his weekly press conference said it all.
Everything about Notre Dame football is about embracing the abnormal. The expectations. The attention. The criticism. The everything. This week, everything seemed abnormally normal. It was a welcome arrival for Freeman. The first game he coached was his first Bowl loss (Oklahoma State). First regular season game was his first road loss. First home game, first home loss. Then his first win.
Now we’re into all of the seconds (road game).
“I think I’ve knocked out all the firsts, right?” said Freeman, still looking for his first road win in his first visit to Chapel Hill. “We’ve knocked out all those. Yeah, let’s talk about an opponent. Let’s talk about preparing for a game and what it takes to be successful.”
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Have success — something Notre Dame didn’t have in its first time on the road over in Ohio. That night was a tough ask in an opener for any team. Notre Dame seemed in over its collective head, but didn’t play like it. Back out on the road three weeks later, how are these Irish better equipped/prepared to do what they didn’t do in Columbus and finish a full four quarters?
The easy answer is identity, right? Three weeks in, teams usually know who they are. These Irish are still learning on both sides of the ball. Blame injury (offense) and inconsistency (defense) for that delayed development.
First time out, the Irish O-line was too much of a question mark. How was it all going to come together? Would it? It didn’t against Ohio State, but the following two weeks — and the first win — saw the group become a more cohesive unit. Like, this all might work.
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Same for the other side of the ball. Notre Dame didn’t know/believe what it had long its defensive interior against Ohio State. It was much of the same the following week against Marshall. Finally, some success against Cal and, not surprisingly, some answers.
“I’m pretty sure after the game, people that should be confident are confident (and) are going to be confident going into this game” Cross said. “That’s what this season is all about — getting confidence and being better every single game you play.”
That confidence, that improvement, starts in practice. The Irish seemingly found something that worked in the run-up to the California game. It started with a Sunday practice — Freeman’s preference more than player punishment — and continued through the week that included a new theme of Bloody Tuesday.
Notre Dame aimed to follow that blueprint this week. Hard practice Tuesday. Harder Wednesday, taper a bit Thursday, be ready Saturday.
“We’ve just found a formula,” said Vyper defensive end/captain Isaiah Foskey. “We’re trying to stick with it.”
Foskey was talking about Notre Dame as a whole, but also, his position group. That effort the defensive line delivered against a Cal offense that really wasn’t that good can come in Handy Saturday against a North Carolina offense that is.
Why then? Why again now? Foskey believes all it took was one. One guy to make one play to make it all make sense.
“One player making a play early, and then Rolling off and feeding off Everybody’s energy,” said Foskey, who found a way to deliver a key fourth-down sack late. “We feel like going against Cal, and now going against UNC, no one can stop us.
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The break-even mark beckons. For this Notre Dame team, given its start, that would be big. So is this game. Who are we kidding? They all are. That’s Notre Dame football, right?
“It’s just football; it’s not like there’s some special game,” said punter Jon Sot, arguably the team’s most valuable player to date. “We need to do a really good job of just going out there and treating every single game like it’s the (national) championship.”
That’s more like it.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.
Notre Dame (1-2) vs. North Carolina (3-0)
- When: Saturday at 3:30 pm EST
- Where: Kenan Memorial Stadium (51,000), Chapel Hill, NC
- TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM)
- Line: Notre Dame favored by half a point
- Series: Notre Dame leads series 20-2
- Last meeting: ND 44, North Carolina 34, Oct. 30, 2021 in South Bend