Football

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Anatomy of a Victory

Oct. 6, 2016

By John Heisler

 

Irish football coach Brian Kelly often reminds his players after successes how hard it is to win in college football. When Notre Dame traveled to the New Jersey Meadowlands to face Syracuse Oct. 1, the author was embedded with the Irish squad all day Saturday—from early morning meetings in the team hotel, to the pregame, halftime and postgame locker room scenes, to the bench area during the game. This is an inside look at the communication, emotion and passion involved in Notre Dame’s 50-33 triumph.

The coffee slowly percolated in the ballroom of the Marriott Glenpointe in Teaneck, New Jersey.

By 7:30 a.m. several Notre Dame football staffers sat down for continental breakfast and a look at the New York Post in which yet another Donald Trump headline screamed from the front page.

It was overcast and 60 degrees outside—and kickoff loomed barely four hours away.

A few Irish players wandered into the Notre Dame team area, as student managers tested a speaker so music could be played during the pregame meal.

By 8:20 a.m. even more players in their warmup gear filtered into the side hallway where the position meeting rooms sat side by side.

Secondary coach Todd Lyght’s room contained a white board with a list of priorities. 

  1. relentless effort
  2. attack the ball
  3. sound and aggressive vs. the run
  4. defend the pass/top down
  5. tackle/pursuit
  6. passion & fun

 

 

New defensive coordinator Greg Hudson sat at a table by himself in the meal room inspecting his play card. A few moments later the defense massed in one room, with linebacker coach Mike Elston at another white board, explaining some X’s and O’s to Te’von Coney, James Onwualu and Nyles Morgan as they viewed from the front row.

Hudson addressed the full defense:

“Get everybody out of your office. We’ve got to have great sideline control today. And we’re ready to go.

“Follow your ‘musts’—all six of those things. Believe in ‘em. Today you get a little bit of a test against Syracuse. For three days, what have you been getting? Answers! You take a test on campus on Saturday after your coaches have been giving you the answers for three days, how are you going to do? Pretty darn well. You’re prepared—so let’s go take the test.

“When we get to that stadium, open a can of whoop-ass. Open that can. Let’s go . . .”


 

As the defense broke up into smaller position meetings, Hudson—in a camel-colored sport coat--remained in the rear of the linebacker room, as Elston went through a litany of heavy-duty technical lingo to review the game plan:

“How do we feel this morning? This has been a fun week. We’ve got a simple, aggressive, fun game plan. We’re going to have fun out there. Get your cleats in the grass and go. Play with heart. That’s what this is about today. Display it in your play.

“It’s been a challenge this week. Don’t do anything different than what you did the last five days. We’ll make adjustments today. So let’s do it.”

At 8:55 the players headed to their buffet pregame meal, with Malik Zaire leading the group in prayer as the players clasped hands around each table.

Just before their 15-minute bus ride to MetLife Stadium, the Irish spent their final five minutes at the hotel viewing their “mental edge” video, with highlights from the first few Notre Dame games set to attention-grabbing music.

“We know why we’re here,” Kelly said before the video began. “We’re gonna play fast, we’re gonna listen and we have to execute. This is not anything else but the game that you know, the thing you’ve done since you were a little kid. This is football—you gotta play the game that you know how to play.

“This isn’t rocket science. Go enjoy it—have fun. But you’ve gotta execute the techniques and the game plan we put together. Everybody’s got to do that, do their job. Let’s have all that come together this afternoon. We’re the first game up—let’s make a statement. Enjoy the moment you have—you don’t get many of these, so enjoy it.

“We’re going to sing that fight song together in the locker room. Think of who that guy is gonna be that’s gonna lead us. Maybe it’s all of us. Maybe it’s somebody in this room. You guys are gonna pick who’s gonna lead us.”

##########

 

By a few minutes after 10 a.m., the Irish players took the field in gold shorts and white Under Armour shirts and cleats.

 

The façade at MetLife Stadium bore the names of New York Giant and Jet greats from yesteryear on the ring of honor—Mark Gastineau, Emerson Boozer, Joe Klecko, Frank Gifford, Dick Lynch, Alex Webster.

The list of recent attractions at MetLife included Paul McCartney, Coldplay and Bruce Springsteen—with Beyonce set for the following Friday.

The Irish and Orange were set to see if they could put on a show to match.

At 11:03 a.m. Kelly taped an interview with ESPN sideline reporter Allison Williams.

Associated Press college football editor Ralph Russo watched the teams warm up. He could have been on the road covering Clemson-Louisville or Stanford-Washington or Michigan-Wisconsin, but as Russo noted, “If Notre Dame’s in town, it’s a story.”

Former Notre Dame star and recently-retired Giant great Justin Tuck watched the pregame work from the sidelines, and he was greeted by lots of Irish players and coaches as they headed back to the locker room.

Elston offered some final comments to the defense:

“This is the ultimate belief game. It’s like playing Navy’s triple option. You gotta settle in. Make sure you’re fresh. No matter what happens, keep your composure, keep your belief in the plan. Everybody’s gonna get an opportunity today. Everybody’s playing. Ultimate effort, ultimate belief.”

Added Kelly to the defense, “All we’ve got is each other. We’ve got to believe in each other. This team (Syracuse) has put up 65 percent of its points in the first quarter. Because teams are adjusting to their speed. They’ve scored 14 points total in the fourth quarter.

“So let’s not let them score early. Let’s have the greater discipline and communicate. Be smart and tackle. You know how to play this game. The whole deal to get to today was to let you play. You told me last week with your effort, but no fun, was that you wanted to play. So go play. Send me the ultimate message today. We’ve put you in a very simple scheme – so go play the game. Have fun.”

Added associate head coach Mike Denbrock to the offense, “Let ‘em see what I see in practice every day. Let’s go get this.”

Hudson threw in some final thoughts: “It’s a foxhole mentality. Man that foxhole for your brothers. Let it fly. Turn it loose. Heart, passion--that’s all you need. We’re gonna be smarter today than we’ve ever been. We’re gonna play fast and keep our composure and be cool. If you’re playing for each other at Notre Dame, you can’t be beat. It’s gonna all come down to tackling, good old-fashioned blue-collar Notre Dame tackling. Let’s have some fun.”

 

Kelly’s last message? “I’m tired of hearing it. Let’s end on this. It’s been too long for all of us to not play the kind of football we’re capable of playing. Let’s play that way today. Enough said.”

##########

The Irish grabbed an early lead on a DeShone Kizer-to-Equanimeous St. Brown touchdown pass.

But after every change of possession, Kelly joined Hudson, Lyght and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to update the plan of attack. Kelly grabbed the white board and knelt on one knee to draw up X’s and O’s for the defense to see.

Nickel back Cole Luke grabbed Lyght’s headset to listen to tips from the coaches in the press box. Offered Lyght to rookie corner Devin Studstill, “Go get the ball out there!”

Midway through the first period Lyght instructed freshmen Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride to take the field at corner the next series—and Vaughn ended up marking Syracuse standout receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (and making six tackles) most of the rest of the afternoon.

Coney was credited with a quarterback hurry on an Eric Dungey incompletion on third and three, the Irish defense earned its first stop on a three-and-out sequence—and Hudson jumped a foot in the air and punched the sky.

“Fresh bodies,” yelled Kelly.

The Irish head coach headed back to the bench area, clapping in tribute to the defense after a second stop of the Syracuse offense.

The Orange cut the margin to 23-20 early in the second period, as Lyght offered to his defensive backs, “If we don’t catch it, nobody does.”

Kizer scored himself to make it 30-20, the Irish defense forced Syracuse to the sideline after three plays—and Kelly yelled, “Great job, great job!” The Notre Dame defense did it again on the next Orange offensive series, with Morgan making all three plays, and there were smiles all around in the bench area.

The Irish permitted a long Syracuse punt return that evolved into a two-play Orange scoring drive and the first half ended 33-27 in favor of Notre Dame.

##########

“Hey, we can stop these guys every time now,” Onwualu suggested to his defensive mates.

“How bad do you want it?” Morgan screamed at his teammates. “No breakdowns! I want to win! Let’s go, man!”

Captain Isaac Rochell had his own take: “We need to win. We need to tackle. We need to do our jobs.”

Kelly offered his thoughts to the Irish offense: “Relax and just play. . . . We have to play much more relaxed. We’re playing like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders, and it’s not. I just want you guys to go play. DeShone, we love you, man. Don’t try to do everything yourself. Just do your job. You all want to do it for the right reasons. Just relax and go play. Just do your job and let your ability take over in this second half.”

The decibel level is off the charts as every assistant coach feverishly dissected what happened so far and made adjustments for the final 30 minutes.

Hudson held up a helmet and yelled, “This is what it’s about.”

Kelly provided the last bit of instruction before the action resumed:

“Defense, we’re kicking off and we’ve got to get the stop.

“You give everything you have to Notre Dame. Go reward yourself. You don’t have to do anything else but reward yourself. Don’t worry about anybody else. Don’t worry what anybody else says. Go do this for yourself—you deserve it. You work too hard. Go get it, don’t wait for it. Reward yourself with a victory. Play fast and with composure and get a win.”

 

Said captain and offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey to Denbrock, “We’re gonna put it on their (butt).”

##########

The Irish defense controlled the entire third period and most of the fourth –and Notre Dame scored on its first two possessions of the third quarter to take a 20-point lead. Kelly’s crew did it by holding Syracuse to 165 yards of total offense after the break on 42 plays (only 98 passing yards).

After Kevin Stepherson’s 54-yard TD catch from Kizer, Denbrock went the length of the offensive bench, slapping palms and smiling.

After Dexter Williams evaded most of the Orange defense and reversed field for a 59-yard score, it became apparent the Irish had a few too many athletes for Syracuse to keep up.

By early in the final period it was mostly over after a Justin Yoon field goal made it 50-27. Notre Dame’s final possession featured eight consecutive running plays--and even Syracuse ran it four straight times as the clock ran out.

Onwualu and student assistant Doug Randolph hugged Hudson, as did Lyght, Coney and Jay Hayes.

The Irish were in enough of a celebratory mood that they headed to an area behind their bench to stand arm in arm and sing the alma mater a cappella.

The locker room became a massive celebration scene that accounted for some relief and even more satisfaction that the plan had come together well enough for a win.

Kelly and his assistants typically gather as a group in the coaches’ dressing room before the head coach addresses the squad:

“First of all, I’ll repeat what I said at halftime to the offense and I’ll repeat it to the defense again. You guys do everything we ask you to do. I couldn’t be more proud of a group because whatever we ask you to do you do. From this point forward there should be no pressure on you in terms of all these expectations that come with playing at Notre Dame. We’re all at Notre Dame for the same reasons—to be challenged every day whether it’s in the classroom or challenged to competitive greatness. That’s why we came here. We should all hold ourselves to high standards, but we shouldn’t play the way that gets in the way of us being the best we can be. Play this game with heart and passion and not with indecision and hesitancy. Go just play, because we respect you.

“These were less than ideal circumstances, less than ideal. You bought in in very short order and you came out and won a football game on the road. I couldn’t be more proud of everybody in here—including the coaches and what they had to go through to get you ready.

“So, moving forward, don’t have anything that holds you back from being the best you can be. You’re at Notre Dame—let’s continue to have fun like this winning football games.

“We can get better from here, we can only get better.

“A spread offense that throws it every down ran the ball to end the game. That’s a big change, defense. So, congratulations.

“That’s the players. You guys made that transformation when you said, ‘I’m gonna let it go. I’m gonna play.’ And we can continue to build on that –we can only continue to get better.

“Offensively, I thought, the second half was how we need to play and continue to play, free and loose with talented players doing their job and not trying to do too much.

“We’ve got something to build on. Nice work.

“Now, I told you, you guys are gonna pick who leads us in the fight song. But this game ball is going in the defensive team room, okay? Because we’re gonna build off of this. This is the first brick.”

With that, the players—by acclamation—shouted for Hudson to stand on the stool and lead the singing of the Victory March.

Said Kelly with a grin, “Coach Hudson is going to sing the fight song, as he knows it.”

They prayed first and then sang a loud and fast-paced version of the Victory March: “Rally sons of Notre Dame . . .”

##########

McGlinchey went locker to locker at the defensive side of the room congratulating his teammates: “Way to get a win.”

Former lineman Romeo Okwara, now a rookie with the Giants, posed for photos with a large group of defenders.

After some interviews and a quick snack of chicken, meat loaf, macaroni and green beans, the Irish headed on their bus caravan to the Newark airport to reboard their Delta charter.

The mood was light on the flight home, with loud shouts and reactions as the players and coaches watched the dramatic ends of the North Carolina-Florida State and Tennessee-Georgia games one after the other.

By 7:30 p.m. the plane had landed back in South Bend.

For a few hours the Irish took a collective deep breath Saturday night.

By Sunday it would be on to the next assignment—another noon road game against a North Carolina State team averaging 40 points and 505 total yards (297 passing) per game.

Another chance for growth.

Another chance for preparation and improvement.

Another chance for some fun.

And another chance for victory.

 

Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been part of the Notre Dame athletics communications team since 1978.

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